These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 3)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
As she went trudging through the snow, Laura made herself feel cheerful. Mrs. Brewster was hard to get acquainted with, Laura thought, but she could not always be cross. Perhaps this evening would not be unpleasant.
So Laura went in, snowy and glowing from the cold, and spoke cheerfully to Mrs. Brewster. But to all her efforts, Mrs. Brewster answered shortly or not at all. At supper, no one said a word. The stillness was so sullen and hateful that Laura could not speak.
After supper she helped with the work again, and sat again in the darkening room while Mrs. Brewster silently rocked. She felt sick from wanting to be at home.
As soon as Mrs. Brewster lighted the lamp, Laura brought her schoolbooks to the table. She set herself lessons and determined to learn them before bedtime. She wanted to keep up with her class in town, and she hoped she could study hard enough to forget where she was.
She sat small in her chair, for the silence seemed to press against her from all sides. Mrs. Brewster sat idle. Mr. Brewster held Johnny asleep on his lap, and stared into the fire through the stove’s open draft. The clock struck seven. It struck eight. It struck nine. Then Laura made an effort, and spoke.
“It is getting late, and I’ll say good night.”
Mrs. Brewster paid no attention. Mr. Brewster started, and said, “Good night.”
Before Laura could hurry into bed in the cold dark, Mrs. Brewster began to quarrel at him. Laura tried not to hear. She pulled the quilts over her head and pressed her ear tight against the pillow, but she could not help hearing. She knew then that Mrs. Brewster wanted her to hear.
For Mrs. Brewster said she’d not slave for a hoity-toity snip that had nothing to do but dress up and sit in a schoolhouse all day; she said that if Mr. Brewster did not put Laura out of the house, she’d go back east without him. She went on and on, and the sound of her voice made Laura feel sick; it was a sound that enjoyed hurting people.
Laura did not know what to do. She wanted to go home, but she must not even think of home or she might cry. She must think what to do. There was nowhere else to stay; the other two houses in the settlement were only claim shanties. At the Harrisons’, there were four in the one room, and at Mr. Brewster’s brother’s house there were five. They could not possibly make room for Laura.
She did not really make Mrs. Brewster any work, she thought. She made her bed and helped with the kitchen work. Mrs. Brewster was quarreling now about the flat country and the wind and the cold; she wanted to go back east. Suddenly Laura understood; “She isn’t mad at me, she’s only quarreling about me because she wants to quarrel. She’s a selfish, mean woman.”
Mr. Brewster did not say a word. Laura thought: “I’ve just got to bear it, too. There isn’t anywhere else I can stay.”
When she woke in the morning she thought: “I have only to get through one day at a time.”
It was hard to stay where she was not wanted. She took care to make no work for Mrs. Brewster, and to help her all she could. Politely she said, “Good morning,” and smiled, but she could not keep on smiling. She had not known before that it takes two to make a smile.
She dreaded the second school day, but it passed smoothly. Clarence idled instead of studying, and Laura dreaded that she must punish him again, but he knew his lessons. Perhaps she would have no trouble with him.
It was strange that she was so tired at four o’clock. The second day was over, and the first week would be half gone at noon tomorrow.
Suddenly Laura caught her breath, and stood stock-still on the snowy path. She had thought of Saturday and Sunday; two whole days in that house with Mrs. Brewster. She heard herself say aloud, “Oh, Pa. I can’t.”
It was whimpering; she was ashamed when she heard it. No one else had heard. All around her the prairie was empty, white and far and still. She would rather stay there in the clean cold than go into the mean house or go back tomorrow to the anxious school day. But the sun was setting, and tomorrow it would rise; everything must go on.
That night Laura dreamed again that she was lost in a blizzard. She knew the dream; she had dreamed it sometimes, ever since she really had been lost with Carrie in a blizzard. But this blizzard was worse than before; now the stinging snow and the wind’s hard blows tried to drive her and Carrie off the narrow sofa. Laura held on to Carrie with all her might for a long time, but suddenly Carrie was not there; the blizzard had got her. Laura’s heart stopped in horror. She could not go on, she had no more strength; she sank down, down, into the dark. Then Pa came driving from town on the bobsled; he called to Laura, “How about going home for Saturday, Half-Pint?” Ma and Mary and Carrie and Grace were so surprised! Mary said happily, “Oh, Laura!” Ma’s whole face lighted with her smiling. Carrie hurried to help Laura take off her wraps, and Grace jumped up and down, clapping her hands. “Charles, why didn’t you tell us!” Ma said, and Pa answered, “Why, Caroline, I said I’d do a little hauling. Laura’s little.” And Laura remembered how, at the dinner table, Pa had drunk his tea and pushed back his cup and said, “Guess I’ll do a little hauling this afternoon.” Ma said, “Oh, Charles!” Laura had not gone away from home at all; she was there.
Then she woke up. She was at the Brewsters’, and it was Wednesday morning. But the dream had been so real that she still almost believed it. Pa might come to take her home over Saturday. It was like him, to plan such a surprise.
There had been a snowstorm in the night. She had to break her path to the schoolhouse again. The early sunshine was faintly pink on miles of pure snow and every little shadow was thin blue. As Laura plunged and plowed through the soft drifts, she saw Clarence breaking a path for Tommy and Ruby behind him. They floundered to the school-shanty’s door at the same time.
Little Ruby was covered from head to foot with snow, even her hood and her braids were snowy. Laura brushed her and told her to keep her wraps on until the room was warmer. Clarence put more coal on the fire while Laura shook her own wraps and swept the snow through the cracks between the floorboards. The sunshine streaming through the window made the shanty look warm, but it was colder than outdoors. But soon the good stove’s warmth made their breaths invisible; it was nine o’clock, and Laura said, “School will come to order.”
Martha and Charles came in panting, three minutes late. Laura did not want to mark them tardy; they had to break their path, the whole mile. A few steps in deep snow are easy, and fun, but breaking a path is work that grows harder with every step. For a moment Laura thought of excusing Martha and Charles, this one time. But that would not be honest. No excuse could change the fact; they were tardy.
“I am sorry I must mark you tardy,” she said. “But you may come to the stove and get warm before you take your seat.”
“We’re sorry, Miss Ingalls,” Martha said. “We didn’t know it would take so long.”
“Breaking a path is hard work, I know,” said Laura, and suddenly she and Martha were smiling to each other, a friendly smile that made Laura feel as if teaching school were easy. She said, “Second Reader class, rise. Pass to the front.” And Ruby, the Second Reader class, rose and came to stand before her.
The whole morning went smoothly. At noon, Ruby came to Laura’s desk and shyly offered her a cookie. After dinners were eaten from the dinner pails, Clarence asked her to come out and snowball, and Martha said, “Please do. Then we will have three on a side.”
Laura was so pleased to be asked, and so eager to be out in the sunshine and clean snow, that she went. It was great fun. She and Martha and Ruby fought against Charles, Clarence, and Tommy. The air was full of snowballs. Clarence and Laura were quickest of all, dodging and scooping and molding the snow with their mittened hands and throwing and dodging again. Laura was glowing warm, and laughing, when a great burst of snow exploded in her eyes and her open mouth and plastered her whole face.
“Oh gee, I didn’t mean to,” she heard Clarence saying.
“Yes, you did! It was a fair hit,” Laura answered, blindly rubbing her eyes.
“Here, let me; stand still,” he said. He took hold of her shoulder as if she were Ruby, and wiped her face with the end of her muffler.
“Thank you,” Laura said. But she knew that she must not play any more. She was too small and too young; she would not be able to keep her pupils in order if she played games with them.
That very afternoon Clarence pulled Martha’s hair. Her brown braid whisked across his desk as she turned her head, and he caught it and gave it a tug.
“Clarence,” Laura said, “Do not disturb Martha. Give your attention to your lessons.”
He gave her a friendly grin that said as plainly as words, “All right, if you say so; I don’t have to.”
To her horror, Laura almost smiled. Barely in time, she kept her look stern. Now she was sure that she would have trouble with Clarence.
Wednesday was gone. There were only Thursday and Friday. Laura tried not to expect that Pa would come for her, but she could not stop hoping. It would be so like Pa to come and save her from a miserable two days in Mrs. Brewster’s house. But of course he did not know how miserable it was. She must not expect him. But surely he might come, if the weather were good. If he came, there were only two more evenings to endure, and then—Friday night at home! Still she did not expect him; she must not, or she would be so disappointed if he did not come. They were missing her at home, she knew; if the weather were pleasant, surely he would come.
But Friday morning the sky was stormy and the wind was colder.
All day at school Laura listened to the wind, afraid that its sound would change to a blizzard’s howl and the shanty suddenly shake and the window go blank.
The wind blew colder through the cracks. Its sound rose, and from every drift the snow scudded across the prairie. Laura knew now that Pa would not come. Twenty-four miles in such weather was too much for the horses.
“How am I going to get through the time till Monday?” Laura thought.
Wretchedly she turned her eyes from the window and saw Charles sitting half-asleep. Suddenly he jumped wide awake. Clarence had jabbed his arm with a pin. Laura almost laughed, but Clarence caught her glance and his eyes laughed. She could not let this pass.
“Clarence,” she said. “Why aren’t you studying?
“I know all my lessons,” he replied.
She did not doubt it. Clarence learned quickly; he could keep up with Martha and Charles and have plenty of idle time.
“We will see how well you know your spelling,” she said. She tapped upon her table. “Third spelling class, rise. Come forward.”
The shanty trembled in the wind that every moment howled louder around it. Heat from the red-cheeked stove melted the snow that was blown through the cracks and made wet streaks on the floor. Clarence correctly spelled every word that Laura gave him, while she wondered whether she should dismiss school early. If she waited and the storm grew worse, Charles and Martha might never reach their home.
It seemed to her that the wind had a strangely silvery sound. She listened; they all listened. She did not know what to make of it. The sky was not changed; gray, low clouds were moving fast above the prairie covered with blowing snow. The strange sound grew clearer, almost like music. Suddenly the whole air filled with a chiming of little bells. Sleigh bells!
Everyone breathed again, and smiled. Two brown horses swiftly passed the window. Laura knew them; they were Prince and Lady, young Mr. Wilder’s horses! The sleigh bells rang louder, and stopped; then a few bells shook out small tinkles. The brown horses were standing close outside the south wall, in the shelter of the shanty.
Laura was so excited that she had to steady her voice. “The class may be seated.” She waited a moment; then, “You may all put away your books. It is a little early, but the storm is growing worse. School is dismissed.”