Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 21)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Madcap Days
After the party, Laura hardly cared about studying. The party had made such a jolly friendliness among the big girls and boys that now at recess and noon on stormy days they gathered around the stove, talking and joking.
The pleasant days between snowstorms were even livelier. Then they all played at snowballing each other outdoors. This was not ladylike, but it was such fun! They came in panting and laughing, stamping snow from their shoes and shaking it from coats and hoods in the entry, and they went to their seats warm and glowing and full of fresh air.
Laura was having such a good time that she almost forgot about improving her opportunity in school. She stayed at the head of all her classes, but her grades were no longer 100. She made mistakes in arithmetic, sometimes even in history. Once her arithmetic grade went down to 93. Still, she thought she could make up lost time by studying hard next summer, though she knew by heart the true words:
Lost, between sunrise and sunset,
One golden hour, set with sixty diamond minutes.
No reward is offered, for it is gone forever.
The little boys brought their Christmas-present sleds to school. Sometimes the big boys borrowed them, and took the girls sled-riding. The boys pulled the sleds, for there were no hills to slide down, and this winter no blizzards made big, hard snowdrifts.
Then Cap and Ben made a hand-bobsled, big enough for all four girls to crowd into. The four boys pulled it. At recess they raced at great speed, far out onto the prairie road and back. At noon they had time to go even farther.
At last Nellie Oleson could not bear standing alone at the window and watching this. She had always disdained to play outdoors in the cold that might roughen her delicate complexion and chap her hands, but one day at noon she declared that she would go for a sled ride.
The sled was not large enough for five, but the boys would not agree to let any one of the other girls stay behind. They coaxed all five girls into the sled. The girls’ feet stuck out from the sides, their skirts had to be gathered in till their woolen stockings showed above their high shoetops. Away they went, out on the snowy road.
They were windblown, disheveled, red-faced from cold and wind and laughter and excitement as the boys swung in a circle over the prairie and ran toward town, drawing the sled behind them. They whisked past the schoolhouse and Cap shouted, “Let’s go up and down Main Street!”
With laughter and shouts the other boys agreed, running even faster.
Nellie shrieked, “Stop this minute! Stop! Stop, I tell you!”
Ida called, “Oh boys, you mustn’t!” but she could not stop laughing. Laura was laughing, too, for they were such a funny sight, heels kicking helplessly, skirts blowing, fascinators and mufflers and hair whipping in the wind. Nellie’s screaming only added to the boys’ merriment as they ran the faster. Surely, Laura thought, they wouldn’t go onto Main Street. Surely they would turn back any minute.
“No! No! Arthur, no!” Minnie was screaming, and Mary Power was begging, “Don’t! Oh, please don’t!”
Laura saw the brown Morgan horses standing blanketed at the hitching posts. Almanzo Wilder, in a big fur coat, was untying them. He turned to see what caused the girls’ screaming, and at the same instant Laura knew that the boys meant to take them all past him, past all the eyes on Main Street. This was not funny at all.
The other girls were making such a commotion that Laura had to speak low, to be heard.
“Cap!” she said. “Please make them stop. Mary doesn’t want to go on Main Street.”
Cap began to turn at once. The other boys pulled against him, but Cap said, “Aw, come on,” and swung the sled.
They were on their way back to the schoolhouse and the bell was ringing. At the schoolhouse door they scrambled out of the sled good-naturedly, all but Nellie. Nellie was furious.
“You boys think you’re smart!” she raged. “You— you—you ignorant westerners!”
The boys looked at her, sober and silent. They could not say what they wanted to, because she was a girl. Then Cap glanced anxiously at Mary Power, and she smiled at him.
“Thank you, boys, for the ride,” Laura said.
“Yes, thank you all, it was such fun!” Ida chimed in.
“Thank you,” Mary Power said, smiling at Cap, and his flashing smile lighted up his whole face.
“We’ll go again at recess,” he promised, as they all trooped into the schoolhouse.
In March the snow was melting, and final examinations were near. Still Laura did not study as she should. All the talk now was about the last Literary of that winter. What it would be was a secret that everyone was trying to guess. Even Nellie’s family was coming to it, and Nellie was going to wear a new dress.
At home, instead of studying, Laura sponged and pressed her blue cashmere and freshened its lace frill. She so wanted a hat to wear instead of her hood that Ma bought for her half a yard of beautiful brown velvet.
“I know you’ll take the very best care of the hat,” Ma made excuse to herself, “and it will be perfectly good to wear for some winters to come.”
So on Saturdays Mary Power and Laura made their hats. Mary’s was of dark blue cloth, trimmed with a twist of black velvet and blue, all from her father’s scrap bag. Laura’s was of that lovely brown velvet, so soft to touch, and with a tawny-golden sheen to its silkiness. She wore it for the first time to the Literary.
In the schoolhouse no preparation was to be seen, except that the teacher’s desk had been moved from the platform. People crowded three in a seat, and every inch of standing room was jammed. Even on the teacher’s desk, boys stood tightly crowded. Mr. Bradley and Lawyer
Barnes pressed back the mass of people, to keep the center aisle clear. No one knew why, and no one knew what was happening when a great shout went up from the people outside who were trying to get in.
Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing,
“Oh, talk about your Mulligan Guards!
These darkies can’t be beat!”
Backward, forward and backward and forward they marched, back and forth, back and forth.
“Oh TALK aBOUT your MULLigan GUARDS!
These DARKies CAN’t be BEAT!
We MARCH in TIME and CUT a SHINE!
Just WATCH these DARKies’ feet!”
The man in the middle was clog dancing. Back against the wall stood the four raggedy black-faced men. One played a jew’s-harp, one played a mouth organ, one kept the time with rattling bones, and one man clapped with hands and feet.
The cheering started; it couldn’t be stopped. Feet could not be kept still. The whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.
There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.
When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing. It did not seem possible that the whole evening had gone. The famous minstrel shows in New York surely could not be better than that minstrel show had been. Then a question ran through the whole jostling crowd, “Who were they?”
In their rag-tag clothing and with their blackened faces, it had been hard to know who they were. Laura was sure that the clog dancer was Gerald Fuller, for she had once seen him dance a jig on the sidewalk in front of his hardware store. And as she remembered the black hands that had held the long, flat, white bones between their fingers and kept them rattling out the tunes, she would have been certain that the darky was Pa, if the darky had had whiskers.
“Pa couldn’t have cut off his whiskers, could he?” she asked Ma, and in horror Ma answered, “Mercy, no!” Then she added, “I hope not.”
“Pa must have been one of the darkies,” Carrie said, “because he did not come with us.”
“Yes, I know he was practicing to be in the minstrel show,” said Ma, walking faster.
“Well, but none of the darkies had whiskers, Ma,” Carrie reminded her.
“My goodness,” Ma said. “Oh my goodness.” She had been so carried away that she had not thought of that. “He couldn’t have,” she said, and she asked Laura, “Do you suppose he would?”
“I don’t know,” Laura answered. She really thought that, for such an evening, Pa would have sacrificed even his whiskers, but she did not know what he had done.
They hurried home. Pa was not there. It seemed a much longer time than it was, before he came in, cheerfully asking, “Well, how was the minstrel show?”
His long brown whiskers were as they had always been.
“What did you do with your whiskers?” Laura cried.
Pa pretended to be surprised and puzzled, asking, “Why, what is wrong with my whiskers?”
“Charles, you’ll be the death of me,” Ma said, helplessly laughing. But looking closely, Laura saw the smallest white smudge in the laughing-wrinkles at the corner of his eye, and she found a very little black grease in his whiskers.
“I know! You blacked them and smoothed them down behind that high coat-collar!” she accused him, and he could not deny it. He had been the darky who rattled the bones.
Such an evening came once in a lifetime, Ma said, and they all sat up late, talking about it. There would be no more Literaries that winter, for spring was coming soon.
“We’ll move back to the claim as soon as school lets out,” Pa said. “How will all of you like that?”
“I must be looking over my garden seeds,” Ma said thoughtfully.
“I’ll be glad to go. Grace and I’ll pick violets again,” said Carrie. “Won’t you be glad, Grace?” But Grace was almost asleep in Ma’s lap in the rocking chair. She only opened one eye and murmured, “Vi’lets.”
“How about you, Laura?” Pa asked. “I’ve been thinking that by now you might want to stay in town.”
“I might,” Laura admitted. “I do like living in town better than I ever thought I would. But everyone will be moving out to hold down claims all summer, and we’ll come back to town next winter, won’t we?”
“Yes, I really think we will,” said Pa. “We might as well, as long as I can’t rent this building, and it is safer for you girls going to school. Though we might as well have stayed on the claim this winter. Well, that’s the way it goes. Get ready for a hard winter, and there’s not so much as one blizzard.”
He said it so comically that they all burst out laughing at the joke on them.
After that, there was moving to think about, and in the warming air scented with damp earth, Laura felt less than ever like studying. She knew she could pass the examinations, even if her grades were not as high as they should be.
When her conscience pricked her, she thought rebelliously that she wouldn’t see Ida and Mary Power and Minnie and the boys again, all summer long. She promised herself that she would study really hard, next summer.
In the examinations she did not make one perfect grade. Her history grade was only 99, and in arithmetic she earned only 92 plus. That was her record, and she could never change it now.
Then suddenly she knew that there must be no more self-indulgence. There were only ten months left, before she would be sixteen years old. Summer was before her, with blue skies and great blowing white clouds, the violets blooming in the buffalo wallow and the wild roses spangling the prairie grasses, but she must stay in the house and study. She must. If she did not, perhaps next spring she could not get a teacher’s certificate, and Mary might have to leave college.