Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 23)

ƯLittle Town on the Prairie

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 23
Schooltime Begins Again

Afterward it seemed to Laura that she did nothing but study that whole summer long. Of course this was not true. She brought water from the well in the mornings, she milked and moved the picket pins and taught the new calf to drink. She worked in the garden and in the house, and in haying time she trod down the great loads of hay that Pa drove away to town. But the long, hot, sticky hours with schoolbooks and slate seemed to overshadow all else. She didn’t go to town even for Fourth of July. Carrie went with Pa and Ma but Laura stayed at home to take care of Grace and study the Constitution.

Letters came often from Mary, and every week a long letter went to her in return. Even Grace was able to write little letters, as Ma taught her, and these were always sent to Mary with the others.

The hens were laying now. Ma saved the best eggs for setting, and twenty-four chicks hatched. The smallest pullet eggs Ma used in cooking, and for one Sunday dinner, with the first green peas and new potatoes, they ate fried chickens. The other cockerels Ma let grow up. They would be larger to eat, later on.

The gophers came again, and Kitty grew fat in the cornfield. She caught more gophers than she could eat, and at all hours of the day she could be heard mrreowling proudly as she brought a fresh-killed one to lay at Ma’s feet or Laura’s or Carrie’s or Grace’s. She wanted to share her good food, and her puzzled look showed plainly that she could not understand why the whole family did not eat gophers.

The blackbirds came again. Though they were not so many this year, and Kitty caught some of them, still they did damage enough. Again the mellow fall weather came, and Laura and Carrie walked to school.

There were more people in town now, and in all the country around. The school was so crowded that all the seats were filled, and in some of the front seats three of the smaller pupils sat.

There was a new teacher, Mr. Owen, a son of the Mr. Owen whose bay horses had almost won the Fourth of July race. Laura liked and respected him very much. He was not very old, but he was serious and industrious and enterprising.

From the first day, he ruled with a firm hand. Every pupil was obedient and respectful, every lesson was thoroughly learned. On the third day of school, Mr. Owen whipped Willie Oleson.

For some time, Laura did not quite know what she thought about that whipping. Willie was bright enough, but he had never learned his lessons. When he was called upon to recite, he let his mouth fall open and all the sense went out of his eyes. He looked less than half-witted, he hardly looked human. It made anyone turn sick to see him.

He had begun doing this, to tease Miss Wilder. He seemed unable to collect his scattered mind enough to understand anything she said to him. At recess he would do this again, to amuse the other boys. When Mr. Clewett taught, he thought that Willie was a halfwit, and required nothing of him. The habit had grown on Willie, until now at any time he could be seen mooning about with his mouth dropped open and his eyes empty. Laura really thought that Willie’s mind completely left him at these times.

The first time that Willie goggled at Mr. Owen was when his name was asked for the school record. Mr. Owen was startled, and Nellie spoke up. “He’s my brother, Willie Oleson, and he can’t answer questions, they confuse him.”

Several times that day and the next, Laura saw Mr. Owen glance sharply at Willie. Willie was always drooling and staring blankly. When he was called upon to recite, Laura could not bear to see his idiot face. On the third day, Mr. Owen quietly said, “Come with me, Willie.”

He had a pointer in his hand. With the other hand firmly on Willie’s shoulder, he took Willie into the entry and shut the door. He did not say anything. From their seat nearest the door, Ida and Laura heard the swish and thud of the pointer. Everyone heard Willie’s howls.

Mr. Owen came quietly in with Willie. “Stop blubbering,” he said. “Go to your seat and study. I expect you to know and recite your lessons.”

Willie stopped blubbering and went to his seat. After that, one look from Mr. Owen cleared some of the idiot look from Willie’s face. He seemed to be trying to think, and to act like other boys. Laura often wondered whether he could pull his mind together after he had let it go to pieces so, but at least Willie was trying. He was afraid not to try.

Laura and Ida, Mary Power and Minnie, and Nellie Oleson had kept their old seats. They were all tanned brown from the summer sun, except Nellie, who was paler and more ladylike than ever. Her clothes were so beautiful, though her mother did make them from castoffs, that Laura grew dissatisfied with her brown school dress and her blue cashmere for best. She did not complain, of course, but she wanted to.

Hoops had finally come in, and Ma bought a set for Laura. She let down the hem of the brown dress, and made it over so cleverly that it could be worn over hoops perfectly well, and the full blue cashmere needed no changing. Still, Laura felt that all the other girls were better dressed.

Mary Power had a new school dress. Minnie Johnson had a new coat and new shoes. Ida’s clothes came out of a missionary barrel, but Ida was so sweet and merry that she looked perfectly dear in anything. When Laura dressed for school, it seemed to her that the more she fussed with her appearance the more dissatisfying it was.

“Your corset is too loose,” Ma tried to help her one morning. “Pull the strings tighter and your figure will be neater. And I can’t think that a lunatic fringe is the most becoming way to do your hair. It makes any girl’s ears appear larger to comb the hair up back of them and to have that mat of bangs above the forehead.”

Ma was anxiously helpful, but some sudden thought made her laugh softly to herself.

“What is it, Ma? Tell us!” Laura and Carrie begged.

“I was only thinking of the time your Aunt Eliza and I combed our hair up off our ears and went to school that way. The teacher called us up front and shamed us before the whole school, for being so unladylike and bold as to let our ears be seen.” Ma laughed softly again.

“Is that the reason you always wear those soft wings of hair down over your ears?” Laura cried.

Ma looked a little surprised. “Yes, I suppose it is,” she answered, still smiling.

On the way to school Laura said, “Carrie, do you know I’ve never once seen Ma’s ears?”

“They’re probably pretty ears, too,” said Carrie. “You look like her, and your ears are little and pretty.”

“Well,” Laura began; then she stopped and spun around and round, for the strong wind blowing against her always made the wires of her hoop skirt creep slowly upward under her skirts until they bunched around her knees. Then she must whirl around and around until the wires shook loose and spiraled down to the bottom of her skirts where they should be.

As she and Carrie hurried on she began again. “I think it was silly, the way they dressed when Ma was a girl, don’t you? Drat this wind!” she exclaimed as the hoops began creeping upward again.

Quietly Carrie stood by while Laura whirled. “I’m glad I’m not old enough to have to wear hoops,” she said. “They’d make me dizzy.”

“They are rather a nuisance,” Laura admitted. “But they are stylish, and when you’re my age you’ll want to be in style.”

Living in town was so exciting that fall that Pa said there was no need of Literaries. There was church every Sunday, prayer meeting every Wednesday night. The Ladies’ Aid planned two sociables, and there was talk of a Christmas tree. Laura hoped there would be one, for Grace had never seen a Christmas tree. In November, there was to be a week of revival meetings at the church, and Mr. Owen, with the school board’s approval, was planning a School Exhibition.

School would go on without interruption until the School Exhibition just before Christmas. So the big boys did not wait until winter, but came to school in November. More smaller pupils had to be crowded three in a seat to make room for them.

“This school needs a larger building,” Mr. Owen said to Laura and Ida one day at recess. “I am hoping that the town can afford to build one next summer. There really is a need for a graded school, even. I am counting a great deal upon the showing we make at the School Exhibition, to acquaint the people with the school and its needs.”

After that, he told Laura and Ida that their part in the Exhibition would be to recite the whole of American history, from memory.

“Oh, do you think we can do it, Laura?” Ida gasped when he had left them.

“Oh, yes!” Laura answered. “You know we like history.”

“I’m glad you’ve got the longer part, anyway,” said Ida. “I’ve only got to remember from John Quincy Adams to Rutherford B. Hayes, but you’ve got all that about the discoveries and the map and the battles, and the Western Reserve and the Constitution. My! I don’t know how you ever can!”

“It’s longer, but we’ve studied it more and reviewed it oftener,” said Laura. She was glad to have that part; she thought it more interesting.

The other girls were talking eagerly about the revival meetings. Everyone in town and from all the near-by country would go to them. Laura did not know why, for she had never been to a revival meeting, but when she said she should stay home and study, Nellie exclaimed in horror, “Why, people who don’t go to revival meetings are atheists!

The others did not say a word in Laura’s defense, and Ida’s brown eyes pleaded anxiously when she said, “You are coming, aren’t you, Laura?”

The revival meetings would last a whole week, and besides the daily lessons, there was the School Exhibition to prepare for. Monday night Laura hurried home from school to study till supper time; she thought about history while she washed the dishes, and then snatched a little time with her books while Pa and Ma were dressing.

“Hurry, Laura, or we’ll be late! It’s church time now,” said Ma.

Standing before the glass, Laura hurriedly set her darling brown velvet hat evenly on her bangs, and fluffed them out. Ma waited by the door with Carrie and Grace. Pa shut the stove’s draft and turned down the lamp wick.

“Are you all ready?” he asked; then he blew out the lamp. By his lantern light they all went out, and he locked the door. Not a window on Main Street was lighted. Behind Fuller’s Hardware the last lanterns were bobbing across the vacant lots toward the brightly lighted church, and wagons, buggies, and blanketed horses stood thick in the shadows around it.

The church was crowded, and hot from the dazzling lamps and the coal heater. Graybeards sat close around the pulpit, families were in the middle seats, and young men and boys filled the back seats. Laura saw everyone she knew and many strangers, as Pa led the way up the aisle, looking for a vacant place. He stopped next to the front seat, and Ma with Grace, then Carrie and Laura, edged past knees and sat down.

Reverend Brown rose from his chair behind the pulpit and gave out a hymn, Number 154. Mrs. Brown played the organ, and everyone stood up and sang.

“There were ninety and nine that safely lay
In the shelter of the fold,
But one was out on the hills away,
Far off from the gates of gold,
Away on the mountains wild and bare,
Away from the tender shepherd’s care.”

If a revival meeting could be nothing but singing, Laura would have loved it, though she felt that she should be studying, not wasting time in enjoyment. Her voice rose clear and true as Pa’s, as they sang,

“Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”

Then the long prayer began. Laura bent her head and closed her eyes while Reverend Brown’s harsh voice singsonged on and on. It was a great relief to stand up at last, and sing again. This was a hymn with a dancing swing and a throbbing beat.

“Sowing the seed by the daylight fair,
Sowing the seed by the noonday glare,
Sowing the seed by the fading light,
Sowing the seed in the solemn night,
Oh, what shall the harvest be-e-e,
Oh, what shall the harvest be?”

Reverend Brown’s preaching went on with the throbbing and swinging. His voice rose and fell, thundered and quivered. His bushy white eyebrows raised and lowered, his fist thumped the pulpit. “Repent ye, repent ye while yet there is time, time to be saved from damnation!” he roared.

Chills ran up Laura’s spine and over her scalp. She seemed to feel something rising from all those people, something dark and frightening that grew and grew under that thrashing voice. The words no longer made sense, they were not sentences, they were only dreadful words. For one horrible instant Laura imagined that Reverend Brown was the Devil. His eyes had fires in them.

“Come forward, come forward and be saved! Come to salvation! Repent, ye sinners! Stand up, stand up and sing! Oh, lost lambs! Flee from the wrath! Pull, pull for the shore!” His hands lifted them all to their feet, his loud voice sang:

“Pull for the shore, sailor!
Pull for the shore!”

“Come! Come!” his voice roared through the storm of singing, and someone, a young man, came stumbling up the aisle.

“Heed not the stormy winds,
Though loudly they roar.”

“Bless you, bless you, my sinning brother, down on your knees and God bless you; are there any more? Any more?” Reverend Brown was shouting, and his voice roared again into the song, “Pull for the Shore!”

The first words of that hymn had made Laura want to laugh. She remembered the tall thin man and the pudgy little one, so solemnly singing it, and all the storekeepers popping from the torn screen doors. Now she felt that all the noise and excitement was not touching her.

She looked at Pa and Ma. They were quietly standing and quietly singing, while the dark, wild thing that she had felt was roaring all around them like a blizzard.

Another young man, and then an older woman, went forward and knelt. Then church was over, yet somehow not over. People were pressing forward to crowd around those three and wrestle for their souls. In a low voice Pa said to Ma, “Come, let’s go.”

He carried Grace down the aisle toward the door. Ma followed with Carrie, and behind her Laura followed close. In the back seats all the young men and boys stood watching the people passing by. Laura’s dread of strangers came over her and the open door ahead seemed a refuge from their eyes.

She did not notice a touch on her coat sleeve until she heard a voice saying, “May I see you home?”

It was Almanzo Wilder.

Laura was so surprised that she could not say a word. She could not even nod or shake her head. She could not think. His hand stayed on her arm and he walked beside her through the door. He protected her from being jostled in the crowded entry.

Pa had just lighted the lantern. He lowered the chimney and looked up, just as Ma turned back and asked, “Where’s Laura?” They both saw Laura with Almanzo Wilder beside her, and Ma stood petrified.

“Come on, Caroline,” said Pa. Ma followed him, and after one wide-eyed stare, Carrie did too.

The ground was white with snow and it was cold, but there was no wind, and stars shone brightly in the sky.

Laura could not think of a word to say. She wished that Mr. Wilder would say something. A faint scent of cigar smoke came from his thick cloth overcoat. It was pleasant, but not as homelike as the scent of Pa’s pipe. It was a more dashing scent, it made her think of Cap and this young man daring that dangerous trip to bring back the wheat. All this time she was trying to think of something to say.

To her complete surprise, she heard her own voice, “Anyway, there’s no blizzard.”

“No. This is a nice winter, not much like the Hard Winter,” said he.

Again there was silence, except for the crunch of their feet on the snow-covered path.

On Main Street, dark groups hurried homeward, with lanterns that cast big shadows. Pa’s lantern went straight across the street. Pa and Ma and Carrie and Grace went in and were at home.

Laura and Almanzo stood outside the closed door.

“Well, good night,” he said, as he made a backward step and raised his cap. “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

“Good night,” Laura answered, as she quickly opened the door. Pa was holding the lantern up while Ma lighted the lamp, and he was saying, “—trust him anywhere, and it’s only walking home from Church.”

“But she’s only fifteen!” said Ma.

Then the door was shut. Laura was inside the warm room. The lamp was lighted, and everything was right.

“Well, what did you think of the revival meeting?” Pa asked, and Laura answered, “It isn’t much like Reverend Alden’s quiet sermons. I like his better.”

“So do I,” said Pa. Then Ma said it was past bedtime.

Several times next day, Laura wondered what young Mr. Wilder had meant by saying that he would see her that night. She did not know why he had walked home with her. It was an odd thing for him to do, for he was a grown-up. He had been a homesteader for a few years, so he must be at least twenty-three years old, and he was Pa’s friend more than hers.

That night in church she did not mind the sermon at all. She only wished she need not be there, when so many people, all together, grew so excited. She was glad when Pa said again, “Let’s go.”

Almanzo Wilder stood in the line of young men near the door, and Laura was embarrassed. She saw now that several young men were taking young ladies home. She felt her cheeks flushing and she did not know where to look. Again he asked, “May I see you home?” and this time she answered politely, “Yes.”

She had thought what she would have said last night, so now she spoke about Minnesota. She had come from Plum Creek and he had come from Spring Valley, but before that he had lived in New York State, near Malone. Laura thought she kept the conversation going quite well, until they reached the door where she could say, “Good night.”

Every night that week he saw her home from the revival meeting. She still could not understand why. But the week soon ended, so that again she could spend the evenings in study, and she forgot to wonder about Almanzo in her dread of the School Exhibition.

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