Little Town On The Priarie (Chapter 18)
Little Town On The Priarie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Christmas was near, yet there was still no snow. There had not been a single blizzard. In the mornings the frozen ground was furry white with hoarfrost, but it vanished when the sun rose. Only the underneath of the sidewalk and the shadows of the stores were frosty when Laura and Carrie hurried to school. The wind nipped their noses and chilled their mittened hands and they did not try to talk through their mufflers.
The wind had a desolate sound. The sun was small and the sky was empty of birds. On the endless dull prairie the grasses lay worn-out and dead. The schoolhouse looked old and gray and tired.
It seemed that the winter would never begin and never end. Nothing would ever happen but going to school and going home, lessons at school and lessons at home. Tomorrow would be the same as today, and in all her life, Laura felt, there would never be anything but studying and teaching school. Even Christmas would not be a real Christmas without Mary.
The book of poems, Laura supposed, was still hidden in Ma’s bureau drawer. Every time Laura passed the bureau at the head of the stairs in Ma’s room, she thought of that book and the poem she had not finished reading. “Courage!” he said, and pointed to the land, “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” She had thought the same thought so often that it was stale, and even looking forward to the book for Christmas was no longer exciting.
Friday night came again. Laura and Carrie washed the dishes as usual. As usual, they brought their books to the lamplit table. Pa was in his chair, reading the paper. Ma was gently rocking and her knitting needles were clicking as they always did. As usual, Laura opened her history book.
Suddenly she could not bear it all. She thrust back her chair, slammed her book shut and thumped it down on the table. Pa and Ma started, and looked at her in surprise.
“I don’t care!” she cried out. “I don’t want to study! I don’t want to learn! I don’t want to teach school, ever!”
Ma looked as stern as it was possible for her to look. “Laura,” she said, “I know you would not swear, but losing your temper and slamming things is as bad as saying the words. Let us have no more wooden swearing.”
Laura did not answer.
“What is the matter, Laura?” Pa asked. “Why don’t you want to learn, and to teach school?”
“Oh, I don’t know!” Laura said in despair. “I am so tired of everything. I want—I want something to happen. I want to go West. I guess I want to just play, and I know I am too old,” she almost sobbed, a thing she never did.
“Why, Laura!” Ma exclaimed.
“Never mind,” Pa said soothingly. “You have been studying too hard, that is all.”
“Yes, put away your books for this evening,” said Ma. “In the last bundle of Youth’s Companions, there are still some stories that we have not read. You may read one to us, Laura, wouldn’t you like that?”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura answered hopelessly. Even reading a story was not what she wanted. She did not know what she wanted, but she knew she could not have it, whatever it was. She got the Youth’s Companions and pulled her chair to the table again. “You choose the story you want, Carrie,” she said.
Patiently she read aloud, while Carrie and Grace listened wide-eyed and Ma’s rocker swayed and her knitting needles clicked. Pa had gone across the street, to spend an evening talking with the men around the stove in Fuller’s hardware store.
Suddenly the door opened and Pa burst in, saying, “Put on your bonnets, Caroline and girls! There’s a meeting at the schoolhouse!”
“Whatever in the world—” Ma said.
“Everybody’s going!” said Pa. “We are starting a literary society.”
Ma laid aside her knitting. “Laura and Carrie, get your wraps on while I bundle up Grace.”
Quickly they were ready to follow Pa’s lighted lantern. When Ma blew out the lamp, Pa picked it up. “Better take it along, we’ll want lights in the schoolhouse,” he explained.
Other lanterns were coming along Main Street, and bobbing into the darkness of Second Street ahead. Pa called for Mr. Clewett, who was there and had brought the schoolhouse key. The desks looked weird in flickering lantern light. Others had brought lamps, too. Mr. Clewett lighted a large one on his desk, and Gerald Fuller drove a nail into the wall and hung up a lamp with a tin reflector. He had closed his store for the meeting. All the storekeepers were closing their stores and coming. Almost everyone in town was coming. Pa’s lamp helped the lanterns to make the schoolhouse quite light.
The seats were filled and men were standing thick behind them, when Mr. Clewett called the room to order. He said that the purpose of this meeting was to organize a literary society.
“The first thing in order,” he said, “will be a roll call of members. I will then hear nominations for temporary chairman. The temporary chairman will take charge, and we will then proceed to nominate and ballot for permanent officers.”
Everyone was a little taken aback, and felt less jolly, but it was an interesting question, who could be elected President. Then Pa stood up by his seat, and said, “Mr. Clewett and townfolks, what we’ve come here for is some fun to liven us up. It does not seem necessary to organize anything.
“From what I’ve seen,” Pa went on, “the trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for. I take it we’re pretty well agreed right now on what we want. If we start organizing and electing, the chances are we won’t be as well agreed on who’s to be elected to fill office. So I suggest, let’s just go straight ahead and do what we want to do, without any officers. We’ve got the schoolteacher, Mr. Clewett, to act as leader. Let him give out a program, every meeting, for the next meeting. Anybody that gets a good idea can speak up for it, and anybody that’s called on will pitch in and do his share in the programs the best he can, to give everybody a good time.”
“That’s the ticket, Ingalls!” Mr. Clancy sang out, and as Pa sat down, a good many began to clap, Mr. Clewett said, “All in favor, say ‘Aye!’” A loud chorus of “Ayes” voted that it should be so.
Then for a minute, no one knew what to do next. Mr. Clewett said, “We haven’t any program for this meeting.”
Some man answered, “Shucks, we aren’t going home yet!” The barber suggested singing, and someone said, “You got some pupils that can speak pieces? How about it, Clewett?” Then a voice said, “How about a spelling match?” Several chimed in to that, “That’s the notion!” “That’s the idea! Let’s have a spelling match!”
Mr. Clewett appointed Pa and Gerald Fuller as leaders. There was a good deal of joking as they took their places in the front corners of the room and began to call out names.
Laura sat anxiously waiting. The grown-ups were chosen first, of course. One by one they went up, and as the two lines grew longer, Laura grew more afraid that Gerald Fuller might call her before Pa did. She did not want to spell against Pa. At last there was the most anxious pause. It was Pa’s turn to choose, and though he made a joke that set everyone laughing, Laura could see that he was hesitating. He decided, and called, “Laura Ingalls.”
She hurried to take the next place in his line. Ma was already in it, above her. Gerald Fuller called then, “Foster!” Last of the grown-ups, Mr. Foster took the place opposite Laura. Perhaps Pa should have chosen him because he was grown-up, but Pa had wanted Laura. Surely, Laura thought, Mr. Foster could not be much of a speller. He was one of the homesteaders who drove oxen, and last winter he had stupidly jumped off Almanzo Wilder’s horse, Lady, and let her run away while he fired at the antelope herd, though he was not within range.
Rapidly now all the school pupils were chosen, even the smallest. The two lines went from the teacher’s desk all around the walls to the door. Then Mr. Clewett opened the speller.
First he gave out the primer words. “Foe, low, woe, roe, row, hero—” and he caught Mr. Barclay! Confused, Mr. Barclay spelled, “Hero; h-e he, r-o-e, ro, hero,” and the roar of laughter surprised him. He joined in it as he went to a seat, the first one down.
The words grew longer. More and more spellers went down. First Gerald Fuller’s side was shorter, then Pa’s, then Gerald Fuller’s again. Everyone grew warm from laughter and excitement. Laura was in her element. She loved to spell. Her toes on a crack in the floor and her hands behind her, she spelled every word that came to her. Down went four from the enemy’s side, and three from Pa’s, then the word came to Laura. She took a deep breath and glibly spelled, “Differentiation: d-i-f, dif; f-e-r, fer, differ; e-n-t, different; i, differend; a-t-i-o-n, ashun; differentiation!”
Slowly almost all the seats filled with breathless, laughing folks who had been spelled down. Six remained in Gerald Fuller’s line, and only five in Pa’s— Pa and Ma and Florence Garland and Ben Woodworth and Laura.
“Repetitious,” said Mr. Clewett. Down went one from the other side, leaving the lines even. Ma’s gentle voice spelled, “Repetitious: r-e, re; p-e-t, pet, repet; i, repeti; t-i-o-u-s, shius, repetitious.”
“Mimosaceous,” said Mr. Clewett. Gerald Fuller spelled, “Mimosaceous; m-i-m, mim; o-s-a, mimosa; t-i—” He was watching Mr. Clewett. “No, s-i—,” he began again. “That’s got me beat,” he said, and sat down.
“Mimosaceous,” said Florence Garland. “M-i-m, mim; o-s-a, mimosa; t-e—” And she had been a schoolteacher!
The next one on Gerald Fuller’s side went down, then Ben shook his head and quit without trying. Laura stood straighter, waiting to spell the word. Now at the head of the other line, Mr. Foster began. “Mimosaceous: m-i, mi; m-o, mimo; s-a, sa, mimosa; c-e-o-u-s, sius, mimosaceous.”
A great burst of applause rose up, and some man shouted, “Good for you, Foster!” Mr. Foster had taken off his thick jacket and he stood in his checked shirt, smiling sheepishly. But there was a glint in his eye. No one had guessed that he was a brilliant speller.
Fast and hard the words came pelting then, the tricky words from the very back of the spelling book. On the other line, everyone went down but Mr. Foster. Ma went down. Only Pa and Laura were left, to down Mr. Foster.
Not one of them missed a word. In breathless silence, Pa spelled, Mr. Foster spelled, Laura spelled, then Mr. Foster again. He was one against two. It seemed that they could not beat him.
Then, “Xanthophyll,” said Mr. Clewett. It was Laura’s turn.
“Xanthophyll,” she said. To her surprise, she was suddenly confused. Her eyes shut. She could almost see the word on the speller’s last page, but she could not think. It seemed that she stood a long time in a dreadful silence full of watching eyes.
“Xanthophyll,” she said again desperately, and she spelled quickly, “X-a-n, zan; t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h—” Wildly she thought, “Grecophil,” and in a rush she ended, “-i-l—?” Mr. Clewett shook his head.
Trembling, Laura sat down. Now there was only Pa left.
Mr. Foster cleared his throat. “Xanthophyll,” he said. “X-a-n, zan; t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h-y—” Laura could not breathe. No one breathed. “—l,” said Mr. Foster.
Mr. Clewett waited. Mr. Foster waited, too. It seemed that the waiting lasted forever. At last Mr. Foster said, “Well, then, I’m beat,” and he sat down. The crowd applauded him anyway, for what he had done. He had won respect that night.
“Xanthophyll,” said Pa. It seemed impossible now that anyone could spell that dreadful word, but Laura thought, Pa can, he must, he’s
“X-a-n, zan,” said Pa; “t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h-y—” he seemed slower, perhaps, than he was. “Double-l,” he said.
Mr. Clewett clapped the speller shut. There had never been such thundering applause as that applause for Pa. He had spelled down the whole town.
Then, still warm and all stirred up, everyone was getting into wraps.
“I don’t know when I’ve had such a good time!” Mrs. Bradley said to Ma.
“The best of it is, to think we’ll have another meeting next Friday,” said Mrs. Garland.
Still talking, the crowd was streaming out and lanterns went jogging toward Main Street.
“Well, do you feel some better, Laura?” Pa asked, and she answered, “Oh, yes! Oh, didn’t we have a good time!”