These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 1)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Laura Leaves Home
Sunday afternoon was clear, and the snow-covered prairie sparkled in the sunshine. A little wind blew gently from the south, but it was so cold that the sled runners squeaked as they slid on the hard-packed snow. The horses’ hoofs made a dull sound, clop, clop, clop. Pa did not say anything.
Sitting beside him on the board laid across the bobsled, Laura did not say anything, either. There was nothing to say. She was on her way to teach school.
Only yesterday she was a schoolgirl; now she was a schoolteacher. This had happened so suddenly. Laura could hardly stop expecting that tomorrow she would be going to school with little sister Carrie, and sitting in her seat with Ida Brown. But tomorrow she would be teaching school.
She did not really know how to do it. She never had taught school, and she was not sixteen years old yet. Even for fifteen, she was small; and now she felt very small.
The slightly rolling, snowy land lay empty all around. The high, thin sky was empty overhead. Laura did not look back, but she knew that the town was miles behind her now; it was only a small dark blot on the empty prairie’s whiteness. In the warm sitting room there, Ma and Carrie and Grace were far away.
Brewster settlement was still miles ahead. It was twelve miles from town. Laura did not know what it was like. She did not know anyone there. She had seen Mr. Brewster only once, when he came to hire her to teach the school. He was thin and brown, like any homesteader; he did not have much to say for himself.
Pa sat looking ahead into the distance while he held the reins in his mittened hands and now and then chirruped to the horses. But he knew how Laura felt. At last he turned his face toward her and spoke, as if he were answering her dread of tomorrow.
“Well, Laura! You are a schoolteacher now! We knew you would be, didn’t we? Though we didn’t expect it so soon.”
“Do you think I can, Pa?” Laura answered. “Suppose… just suppose… the children won’t mind me when they see how little I am.”
“Of course you can,” Pa assured her. “You’ve never failed yet at anything you tried to do, have you?”
“Well, no,” Laura admitted. “But I… I never tried to teach school.”
“You’ve tackled every job that ever came your way,” Pa said. “You never shirked, and you always stuck to it till you did what you set out to do. Success gets to be a habit, like anything else a fellow keeps on doing.”
Again there was a silence except for the squeaking of the sled runners and the clop-clop-clop of the horses’ feet on the hard snow. Laura felt a little better. It was true; she always had kept on trying; she had always had to. Well, now she had to teach school.
“Remember that time on Plum Creek, Half-Pint?” Pa said. “Your Ma and I went to town, and a blizzard came up? And you got the whole woodpile into the house.”
Laura laughed out loud, and Pa’s laugh rang like great bells in the cold stillness. How little and scared and funny she had been, that day so long ago!
“That’s the way to tackle things!” Pa said. “Have confidence in yourself, and you can lick anything. You have confidence in yourself, that’s the only way to make other folks have confidence in you.” He paused, and then said, “One thing you must guard against.”
“What, Pa?” Laura asked.
“You are so quick, Flutterbudget. You are apt to act or speak first, and think afterward. Now you must do your thinking first and speak afterward. If you will remember to do that, you will not have any trouble.”
“I will, Pa,” Laura said earnestly.
It was really too cold to talk. Snug enough under the heavy blankets and quilts, they went on silently toward the south. The cold wind blew against their faces. A faint trace of sled runners stretched onward before them. There was nothing else to see but the endless, low white land and the huge pale sky, and the horses’ blue shadows blotting the sparkle from the snow.
The wind kept Laura’s thick black woolen veil rippling before her eyes. Her breath was frozen in a patch of frost in the veil, that kept slapping cold and damp against her mouth and nose.
At last she saw a house ahead. Very small at first, it grew larger as they came nearer to it. Half a mile away there was another, smaller one, and far beyond it, another. Then still another appeared. Four houses; that was all. They were far apart and small on the white prairie.
Pa pulled up the horses. Mr. Brewster’s house looked like two claim shanties put together to make a peaked roof. Its tar-paper roof was bare, and melted snow had run into big icicles that hung from the eaves in blobby columns larger around than Laura’s arms. They looked like huge, jagged teeth. Some bit into the snow, and some were broken off. The broken chunks of ice lay frozen into the dirty snow around the door, where dishwater had been thrown. There was no curtain at the window, but smoke blew from the stovepipe that was anchored to the roof with wires.
Mr. Brewster opened the door. A child was squalling in the house, and he spoke loudly to be heard. “Come in, Ingalls! Come in and warm yourself.”
“Thank you,” Pa replied. “But it’s a long twelve miles home and I better be going.”
Laura slid out from under the blankets quickly, not to let the cold in. Pa handed her Ma’s satchel, that held her change of underclothes, her other dress, and her schoolbooks.
“Good-by, Pa,” she said.
“Good-by, Laura.” His blue eyes smiled encouragement to her. But twelve miles was too far to drive often; she would not see him again for two months.
She went quickly into the house. Coming from the bright sunshine, she could not see anything for a moment. Mr. Brewster said, “This is Mrs. Brewster; and Lib, here’s the teacher.”
A sullen-looking woman stood by the stove, stirring something in a frying pan. A little boy was hanging on to her skirts and crying. His face was dirty and his nose needed a handkerchief.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Brewster,” Laura said as cheerfully as she possibly could.
“Just go in the other room and take off your wraps,” Mrs. Brewster said. “Hang them behind the curtain where the sofa is.” She turned her back on Laura and went on stirring the gravy in the pan.
Laura did not know what to think. She could not have done anything to offend Mrs. Brewster. She went into the other room.
The partition stood under the peak of the roof, and divided the house into two equal parts. On either side of the partition, the rafters and the tar-paper roof sloped down to low walls. The board walls were well battened down every crack. They were not finished inside; the bare studding stood against them. This was like Pa’s house on the claim, but it was smaller and had no ceiling overhead.
The other room was very cold, of course. It had one window looking out at empty prairie covered with snow. Against the wall under the window was the sofa, a boughten sofa with a curved wooden back and one end curved up. A bed was made up, on the sofa. Brown calico curtains hung against the wall at each end of it, on a string that ran across above the window, so they could be pulled together and hide the sofa. Opposite it, a bed stood against the wall, and at the foot of the bed there was just space enough for a bureau and a trunk.
Laura hung her coat and muffler and veil and hood on nails behind the calico curtain, and set Ma’s satchel on the floor under them. She stood shivering in the cold, not wanting to go into the warm room where Mrs. Brewster was. But she had to, so she did.
Mr. Brewster sat by the stove, holding the little boy on his knee. Mrs. Brewster was scraping the gravy into a bowl. The table was set, with plates and knives carelessly askew on a smudged white cloth; the cloth was crooked on the table.
“May I help you, Mrs. Brewster?” Laura said bravely. Mrs. Brewster did not answer. She dumped potatoes angrily into a dish and thumped it on the table. The clock on the wall whirred, getting ready to strike, and Laura saw that the time was five minutes to four.
“Nowadays breakfast is so late, we eat only two meals a day,” Mr. Brewster explained.
“Whose fault is it, I’d like to know!” Mrs. Brewster blazed out. “As if I didn’t do enough, slaving from morning to night in this…”
Mr. Brewster raised his voice. “I only meant the days are so short…”
“Then say what you mean!” Mrs. Brewster slammed the high chair to the table, snatched the little boy and sat him in it, hard.
“Dinner’s ready,” Mr. Brewster said to Laura. She sat down in the vacant place. Mr. Brewster passed her the potatoes and salt pork and gravy. The food was good but Mrs. Brewster’s silence was so unpleasant that Laura could hardly swallow.
“Is the schoolhouse far from here?” she tried to ask cheerfully.
Mr. Brewster said, “Half a mile, cross-lots. It’s a claim shanty. The fellow that homesteaded that quarter section couldn’t stick it out; he gave up and went back east.”
Then he, too, was silent. The little boy fretted, trying to reach everything on the table. Suddenly he flung his tin plate of food on the floor. Mrs. Brewster slapped his hands, and he screamed. He went on screaming and kicking the table leg.
At last the meal was over. Mr. Brewster took the milk pail from its nail on the wall and went to the stable. Mrs. Brewster sat the little boy on the floor and gradually he stopped crying, while Laura helped to clear the table. Then she got an apron from Ma’s satchel, tied it over her brown princess dress, and took a towel, to dry the dishes while Mrs. Brewster washed them.
“What’s your little boy’s name, Mrs. Brewster?” she asked. She hoped that Mrs. Brewster would be more pleasant now.
“John,” said Mrs. Brewster.
“That’s such a nice name,” Laura said. “People can call him Johnny while he’s little, and then when he grows up, John is a good name for a man. Do you call him Johnny now?”
Mrs. Brewster did not answer. The silence grew more and more dreadful. Laura felt her face grow burning hot. She went on wiping the dishes blindly. When they were done, Mrs. Brewster threw out the dishwater and hung the pan on its nail. She sat in the rocking chair and rocked idly, while Johnny crawled under the stove and dragged the cat out by its tail. The cat scratched him and he bawled. Mrs. Brewster went on rocking.
Laura did not dare to interfere. Johnny screamed, Mrs. Brewster sullenly rocked, and Laura sat in the straight chair by the table and looked out at the prairie. The road went straight across the snow and far away, out of sight. Twelve miles away was home. Ma was getting supper now; Carrie was home from school; they were laughing and talking with Grace. Pa would come in, and swing Grace up in his arms as he used to lift Laura when she was little. They would all go on talking at the supper table. Later they would sit in the lamplight, cosily reading while Carrie studied; then Pa would play the fiddle.
The room grew dark, and darker. Laura could not see the road any more. At last Mr. Brewster came in with the milk. Then Mrs. Brewster lighted the lamp. She strained the milk and set the pan away, while Mr. Brewster sat down and opened a newspaper. Neither of them spoke. The unpleasant silence settled heavily down.
Laura did not know what to do; it was too early to go to bed. There was no other paper, and not a book in the room. Then she thought of her schoolbooks. Going into the cold, dark bedroom she groped in Ma’s satchel and found her history book by the sense of touch. Taking it into the kitchen she sat down by the table again and began to study.
“At least, nothing hinders my studying,” she thought grimly. She felt hurt and sore as if she had been beaten, but gradually she forgot where she was, by keeping her mind fixed on history. At last she heard the clock strike eight. Then she stood up and said good night politely. Mrs. Brewster did not answer, but Mr. Brewster said, “Good night.”
In the bedroom Laura shivered out of her dress and petticoats, and into her flannel nightgown. She got under the covers on the sofa and pulled the calico curtains around it. The pillow was of feathers, and there were sheets, and plenty of quilts, but the sofa was very narrow.
She heard Mrs. Brewster talking angrily and very fast. The quilts were over Laura’s head, so that only the tip of her nose was out in the cold, but she could not help hearing Mrs. Brewster’s quarreling. “…suits you, but I keep a boarder!” she heard, and “…this horrible country out here! Schoolteacher, indeed!…been a teacher myself, if I hadn’t married a…”
Laura thought: “She doesn’t want to board the teacher, that is all. She’d be as cross to anybody else.” She did her best not to hear any more, and to go to sleep. But all night, in her sleep, she was careful not to fall off the narrow sofa, and she was dreading tomorrow when she must begin to teach school.