Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 24)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The School Exhibition
The room was warm and the lamp burned clear and bright, but Laura’s chilly fingers could hardly button her blue cashmere basque and it seemed to her that the looking glass was dim. She was dressing to go to the School Exhibition.
She had dreaded it for so long that now it did not seem real, but it was. Somehow she had to get through it.
Carrie was frightened, too. Her eyes were very large in her thin face, and she whispered to herself, “‘Chisel in hand stood the sculptor boy,’” while Laura tied on her hair ribbon. Ma had made a new dress of bright plaid woolen for Carrie to wear when she spoke her piece.
“Ma, please hear me say my piece again,” she begged.
“There isn’t time, Carrie,” Ma replied. “We’re almost late as it is. I’m sure you know it perfectly well. I’ll hear you say it on the way. Are you ready, Laura?”
“Yes, Ma,” Laura said faintly.
Ma blew out the lamp. Outdoors a cold wind was blowing and snow blew white along the ground. Laura’s skirts whipped in the wind, her hoops crawled up maddeningly, and she feared that the curl was coming out of her bangs.
Desperately she tried to remember all that she must say, but she could not get beyond, “America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Columbus, a native of Genoa in Italy—” Carrie was breathlessly chanting, “‘Waiting the hour when at God’s command—’”
Pa said, “Hullo, they’ve got the church lighted up.”
Both the schoolhouse and the church were lighted. A thick, dark line of people with splotches of yellow lanternlight was moving toward the church.
“What’s up?” Pa asked, and Mr. Bradley answered, “So many have come, they can’t all get into the schoolhouse. Owen’s moving us into the church.” Mrs. Bradley said, “I hear you’re going to give us a real treat tonight, Laura.”
Laura hardly knew what she answered. She was thinking, “Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa in Italy—America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Christopher Columbus, a—” She had to get past Columbus.
In the entry the crowd was so jammed that she feared her wire hoops were pressed out of shape. There was no more room for wraps on the hooks there. The aisles were packed with people trying to find seats. Mr. Owen was heard repeating, “These front seats are reserved for the scholars. Pupils please come forward to these seats.”
Ma said she would take care of the wraps. She helped Carrie out of her coat and hood while Laura took off her coat and hat and nervously felt her bangs.
“Now, Carrie, you have only to do as well as you have been doing,” Ma said as she straightened Carrie’s full plaid skirt. “You know your piece perfectly.”
“Yes, Ma,” Carrie whispered. Laura could not speak. Dumbly she guided Carrie up the aisle. On the way Carrie pressed back against her and looked up pleadingly. “Do I look all right?” she whispered.
Laura looked at Carrie’s round, scared eyes. One whisp of fair hair straggled above them. Laura smoothed it back. Then Carrie’s hair was perfectly sleek from the middle parting to the two stiff braids hanging down her back.
“There, now you look just right!” Laura said. “Your new plaid dress is beautiful.” Her voice did not seem to be hers, it was so serene.
Carrie’s face lighted up, and she went wriggling past Mr. Owen to her classmates in the front seat.
Mr. Owen said to Laura, “The pictures of the Presidents are being put up on the wall here, just as they were in the schoolhouse. My pointer is on the pulpit. When you come to George Washington, take up the pointer, and point to each President as you begin to speak about him. That will help you remember the proper order.”
“Yes, sir,” Laura said, but now she knew that Mr. Owen was worrying, too. She, of all persons, must not fail, because hers was the principal part in the Exhibition.
“Did he tell you about the pointer?” Ida whispered, as Laura sat down beside her. Ida looked like a dim copy of her usual happy self. Laura nodded, and they watched Cap and Ben, who were tacking up the pictures of the Presidents on the board wall, between the studding. The pulpit had been moved back against the wall to leave the platform clear. They could see the long school pointer lying on it.
“I know you can do your part, but I’m scared,” Ida quavered.
“You won’t be when the time comes,” Laura encouraged her. “Why, we are always good in history. It’s easier than the mental arithmetic we’ve got to do.”
“I’m glad you have the beginning part, anyway,” Ida said. “I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t.”
Laura had been glad to have that part because it was more interesting. Now there was only a jumble in her head. She kept trying to remember all that history, though she knew it was too late now. But she must remember it. She dared not fail.
“Please come to order,” Mr. Owen said. The School Exhibition began.
Nellie Oleson, Mary Power and Minnie, Laura and Ida and Cap and Ben and Arthur filed up onto the platform. Arthur was wearing new shoes, and one of them squeaked. In a row, they all faced the church full of watching eyes. It was all a blur to Laura. Rapidly Mr. Owen began to ask questions.
Laura was not frightened. It did not seem real that she was standing in the dazzle of light, wearing her blue cashmere and reciting geography. It would be shameful to fail to answer, or to make a mistake, before all those people and Pa and Ma, but she was not frightened. It was all like a dream of being half-asleep, and all the time she was thinking, “America was discovered by Christopher Columbus—” She did not make one mistake in geography.
There was applause when that was over. Then came grammar. This was harder because there was no blackboard. It is easy enough to parse every word in a long, complex-compound sentence full of adverbial phrases, when you see the sentence written on slate or blackboard. It is not so easy to keep the whole sentence in mind and not omit a word nor so much as a comma. Still, only Nellie and Arthur made mistakes.
Mental arithmetic was even harder. Laura disliked arithmetic. Her heart beat desperately when her turn came and she was sure she would fail. She stood amazed, hearing her voice going glibly through problems in short division. “Divide 347,264 by 16. Sixteen into 34 goes twice, put down 2 and carry 2; sixteen into 27 goes once, put down 1 and carry 11; sixteen into 112 goes seven times, put down 7 and carry naught; sixteen into 6 does not go, put down naught; sixteen into 64 goes 4 times, put down 4. Three hundred and forty-seven thousand, two hundred and sixty-four divided by sixteen equals— twenty-one thousand, seven hundred and four.”
She need not multiply back to make sure the answer was right. She knew it was right because Mr. Owen set another problem.
At last he said, “Class dismissed.”
Through a great noise of applause, they all turned and filed back to their seat. Now the younger pupils would speak their pieces. Then Laura’s turn would come.
While one after another the girls and boys were called to the platform and recited, Laura and Ida sat still and stiff with dread. All the history that Laura knew raced madly through her mind. “America was discovered… The Congress of Confederated Colonies in Philadelphia assembled… ‘There is only one word in this petition which I disapprove, and that is the word Congress…’ Mr. Benjamin Harrison rose and said, ‘There is but one word in this paper, Mr. President, which I approve, and that is the word Congress.’… ‘And George the Third… may profit by their example. If this be treason, gentlemen, make the most of it!’… Give me liberty or give me death… We hold these truths to be self-evident… Their feet left bloody tracks upon the snow…”
Suddenly Laura heard Mr. Owen say, “Carrie Ingalls.”
Carrie’s thin face was strained and pale as she made her way to the aisle. All the buttons up the back of her plaid dress were buttoned outside-in. Laura should have thought to button her up; but no, she had left poor little Carrie to do the best she could, alone.
Carrie stood very straight, her hands behind her back and her eyes fixed above the crowd. Her voice was clear and sweet as she recited:
“Chisel in hand stood a sculptor boy
With his marble block before him,
And his face lit up with a smile of joy
As an angel dream passed o’er him.
He carved that dream on the yielding stone
With many a sharp incision;
In Heaven’s own light the sculptor shone—
He had caught that angel vision.
“Sculptors of life are we as we stand,
With our lives uncarved before us,
Waiting the hour when at God’s command
Our life-dream passes o’er us.
Let us carve it then on the yielding stone
With many a sharp incision.
Its Heavenly beauty shall be our own—
Our lives, that angel vision.”
She had not once faltered, nor missed a single word. Laura was proud, and Carrie flushed rosily as she marched smiling down to her place amid a loud clapping of hands.
Then Mr. Owen said, “Now we will listen to a review of the history of our country from its discovery to the present time, given by Laura Ingalls and Ida Wright. You may begin, Laura.”
The time had come. Laura stood up. She did not know how she got to the platform. Somehow she was there, and her voice began. “America was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa in Italy, had long sought permission to make a voyage toward the west in order to discover a new route to India. At that time Spain was ruled by the united crowns of—”
Her voice was shaking a little. She steadied it and went carefully on. It did not seem real that she was standing there, in her blue cashmere held grandly out by the hoops, with Ma’s pearl pin fastening the lace cascade under her chin, and her bangs damp and hot across her forehead.
She told of the Spanish and the French explorers and their settlements, of Raleigh’s lost colony, of the English trading companies in Virginia and in Massachusetts, of the Dutch who bought Manhattan Island and settled the Hudson Valley.
At first she spoke into a blur, then she began to see faces. Pa’s stood out from all the others. His eyes met hers and they were shining as slowly he nodded his head.
Then she was really launched upon the great history of America. She told of the new vision of freedom and equality in the New World, she told of the old oppressions of Europe and of the war against tyranny and despotism, of the war for the independence of the thirteen new States, and of how the Constitution was written and these thirteen States united. Then, taking up the pointer, she pointed to George Washington.
There was not a sound except her voice as she told about his poor boyhood, his work as a surveyor, his defeat by the French at Fort Duquesne, and then of his long, disheartening years of war. She told of his unanimous election as the First President, the Father of his Country, and of the laws passed by the First Congress and the Second, and the opening of the Northwest Territory. Then, after John Adams, came Jefferson, who wrote the Declaration of Independence, established religious freedom and private property in Virginia, and founded the University of Virginia, and bought for the new country all the land between the Mississippi and California.
Next came Madison, the war of 1812, the invasion, the defeat, the burning of the Capitol and the White House in Washington, the brave sea-battles fought by American sailors on America’s few ships, and at last the victory that finally won independence.
Then came Monroe, who dared to tell all the older, stronger nations and their tyrants never again to invade the New World. Andrew Jackson went down from Tennessee and fought the Spanish and took Florida, then the honest United States paid Spain for it. In 1820 came hard times; all the banks failed, all business stopped, all the people were out of work and starving.
Then Laura moved the pointer to the picture of John Quincy Adams. She told of his election. She told of the Mexicans who had fought a war of independence, too, and won it, so that now they could trade where they pleased. So down from the Missouri went the Santa Fe traders, across across a thousand miles of desert, to trade with Mexico. Then the first wagon wheels rolled into Kansas.
Laura had finished. The rest was Ida’s part. She laid down the pointer and bowed in the stillness. A loud crash of applause almost made her jump out of her skin. The noise grew louder and louder until she felt as if she must push against it to reach her seat. It did not stop even when at last she reached her place beside Ida and weakly sat down. It went on until Mr. Owen stopped it.
Laura was trembling all over. She wanted to say an encouraging word to Ida, but she could not. She could only sit and rest, and be thankful that the ordeal was past.
Ida did very well. She did not make one mistake. Laura was glad to hear the loud applause for Ida, too.
After Mr. Owen had dismissed the audience, getting out of the church was slow work. Everyone stood between the seats and in the aisles, talking about the Exhibition. Laura could see that Mr. Owen was pleased.
“Well, little Half-Pint, you did a fine job,” Pa said when Laura and Carrie had pushed through the crowd to him and Ma. “You did, too, Carrie.”
“Yes,” said Ma. “I am very proud of you both.”
“I did remember every word,” Carrie agreed happily. “But, oh, I am glad it’s over,” she sighed.
“So—am—I,” said Laura, struggling into her coat.
Just then she felt a hand on the coat collar, helping her, and she heard a voice say, “Good evening, Mr. Ingalls.”
She looked up into the face of Almanzo Wilder.
He did not say anything and neither did she, until they were out of the church and following Pa’s lantern along the snowy path. The wind had died down. The air was very cold and still, and there was moonlight on the snow.
Then Almanzo said, “I guess I ought to have asked you if I may see you home.”
“Yes,” Laura said. “But anyway, you are.”
“It was such a tussle, getting out of that crowd,” he explained. He was silent a minute and then asked, “May I see you home?”
Laura could not help laughing, and he joined in.
“Yes,” Laura said. She wondered again why he was doing this, when he was so much older than she. Mr. Boast, or any friend of Pa’s, might see her safely home if Pa was not there to do it, but now Pa was there. She thought he had a pleasant laugh. He seemed to enjoy everything. Probably his brown horses were tied on Main Street, so he was going that way, anyway.
“Are your horses tied on Main Street?” she asked him.
“No,” he answered. “I left them on the south side of the church, out of the wind.” Then he said, “I am making a cutter.”
Something in the way he said it gave Laura a wild hope. She thought how wonderful it would be to go sleighriding behind those swift horses. Of course he could not mean to ask her, still she felt almost dizzy.
“If this snow holds, there ought to be some good sleighing,” he said. “It looks like we’re going to get another mild winter.”
“Yes, it does, doesn’t it?” Laura answered. She was sure now that he would not ask her to go sleighing.
“It takes some little time to build just right,” he said, “and then I’m going to paint it, two coats. It won’t be ready to take out till some time after Christmas. Do you like to go sleighing?”
Laura felt as if she were smothering.
“I don’t know,” she replied. “I never went.” Then boldly she burst out, “But I’m sure I would like to.”
“Well,” he said, “I’ll come around some time in January and maybe you’d like to go for a little spin and see how you like it. Some Saturday, say? Would that suit you?”
“Yes. Oh, yes!” Laura exclaimed. “Thank you.”
“All right, then I’ll be around, in a couple of weeks if this weather holds,” he said. They had come to the door, and he took off his cap and said good night.
Laura fairly danced into the house.
“Oh, Pa! Ma! what do you think! Mr. Wilder’s making a cutter, and he’s going to take me sleigh-riding!”
Pa and Ma glanced at each other, and it was a sober glance. Laura quickly said, “If I may go. May I? Please?”
“We will see when the time comes,” Ma answered. But Pa’s eyes were kind as he looked at Laura and she was sure that when the time came, she could go sleigh-riding. She thought what fun it must be, to go speeding swiftly and smoothly through the cold, sunny air, behind those horses. And she could not help thinking in delight, “Oh, won’t Nellie Oleson be mad!”