These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 4)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 4
Sleigh Bells

Clarence dashed outdoors, and back again, shouting. “It’s someone for you, Teacher!”

Laura was helping Ruby into her coat. “Tell him I will be there in a minute.”

“Come on, Charles! You ought to see his horses!” Clarence slammed the door so that the shanty shook. Laura quickly put on her coat and tied her hood and muffler. She shut the stove’s drafts, thrust her hands into her mittens and took her books and dinner pail. She made sure the door was fastened behind her. All the time she was so excited that she could hardly breathe. Pa had not come, but she was going home, after all!

Almanzo Wilder was sitting in a cutter so low and small that it was hardly more than a heap of furs on the snow behind Prince and Lady. He was muffled in a buffalo coat and a fur cap with flaps that was as snug as a hood.

He did not step out into the storm. Instead, he lifted the fur robes and gave Laura his hand to help her step into the cutter. Then he tucked the robes around her. They were furry, warm buffalo skins, lined with flannel.

“You want to stop at Brewster’s?” he asked.

“I must, to leave the dinner pail and get my satchel,” Laura said.

In the Brewster house Johnny was screaming angrily, and when Laura came out of the house she saw Almanzo looking at it with disgust. But it was all behind her now; she was going home. Almanzo tucked the robes snugly around her, the sleigh bells began merrily ringing, and swiftly behind the brown horses she was going home.

She said through her thick black woolen veil, “It’s nice of you to come for me. I was hoping Pa would come.”

Almanzo hesitated. “We…ell. He was figuring he would, but I told him it’s a drive that would be pretty hard on his team.”

“They’ll have to bring me back,” Laura said doubtfully. “I must be at school Monday morning.”

“Maybe Prince and Lady could make the drive again,” Almanzo said.

Laura was embarrassed; she had not meant to hint. She had not even thought of his bringing her back. Again, she had spoken before she thought. How right Pa’s advice had been; she should always, always, think before she spoke. She thought: “After this, I shall always think before I speak,” and she said, without thinking how rude it would sound, “Oh, you needn’t bother. Pa will bring me back.”

“It would be no bother,” Almanzo said. “I told you I’d take you for a sleigh ride when I got my cutter made. This is the cutter. How do you like it?”

“I think it’s fun to ride in; it’s so little,” Laura answered.

“I made it smaller than the boughten ones. It’s only five feet long, and twenty-six inches wide at the bottom. Makes it snugger to ride in, and lighter for the horses to pull,” Almanzo explained. “They hardly know they’re pulling anything.”

“It’s like flying!” Laura said. She had never imagined such wonderful speed.

The low clouds raced backward overhead, the blown snow smoked backward on either side, and swiftly onward went the glossy brown horses, streaming music from their strings of bells. There was not a jolt nor a jar; the little cutter skimmed the snow as smoothly as a bird in air.

Almost too soon, though not soon enough, they were flashing past the windows of Main Street, and here was Pa’s front door again, opening, and Pa standing in it. Laura was out of the cutter and up the steps before she thought, then, “Oh, thank you, Mr. Wilder; good night!” she called back all in a breath, and she was at home.

Ma’s smile lighted her whole face. Carrie came running to unwind Laura’s muffler and veil, while Grace clapped her hands and shouted, “Laura’s come home!” Then Pa came in and said, “Let’s look at you. Well, well, the same little Flutterbudget!”

There was so much to say and to tell. The big sitting room had never looked so beautiful. The walls were dark brown now; every year the pine boards grew darker. The table was covered with the red-checked cloth, and the braided rag rugs were gay on the floor. The rocking chairs stood by the white-curtained windows; Mary’s boughten chair, and the willow chair that Pa had made for Ma so long ago in the Indian territory. The patchwork cushions were in them, and there was Ma’s workbasket and her knitting with the needles thrust into the ball of yarn. Kitty lazily stretched and yawned, and came to curve purring against Laura’s ankles. There on Pa’s desk was the blue-bead basket that Mary had made.

The talking went on at the supper table; Laura was more hungry for talk than food. She told about each one of her pupils at school, and Ma told of Mary’s latest letter; Mary was doing so well in the college for the blind, in Iowa. Carrie told all the news of the school in town, Grace told of the words she had learned to read, and of Kitty’s last fight with a dog.

After supper, when Laura and Carrie had done the dishes, Pa said as Laura had been hoping he would, “If you’ll bring me the fiddle, Laura, we’ll have a little music.”

He played the brave marching songs of Scotland and of the United States; he played the sweet old love songs and the gay dance tunes, and Laura was so happy that her throat ached.

When it was bedtime and she went upstairs with Carrie and Grace, she looked from the attic window at the lights of the town twinkling here and there, through the wind and the blowing snow. As she snuggled under the quilts she heard Pa and Ma coming up to their room at the head of the stairs. She heard Ma’s pleasant low voice and Pa’s deeper one answering it, and she was so glad to be at home for two nights and nearly two days that she could hardly go to sleep.

Even her sleep was deep and good, without fear of falling off a narrow sofa. Almost at once, it seemed her eyes opened; she heard the stove lid rattle downstairs, and knew that she was at home.

“Good morning!” Carrie said from her bed, and Grace bounced up and cried, “Good morning, Laura!” “Good morning.” Ma smiled when Laura entered the kitchen, and Pa came in with the milk and said, “Good morning, Flutterbudget!” Laura had never noticed before that saying, “Good morning,” made the morning good. Anyway, she was learning something from that Mrs. Brewster, she thought.

Breakfast was so pleasant. Then briskly, and still talking, Laura and Carrie did the dishes, and went upstairs to make the beds. While they were tucking in a sheet, Laura said, “Carrie, do you ever think how lucky we are to have a home like this?”

Carrie looked around her, surprised. There was nothing to be seen but the two beds, the three boxes under the eaves where they kept their things, and the underside of the shingles overhead. There was also the stovepipe that came up through the floor and went out through the roof.

“It is snug,” Carrie said, while they spread the first quilt and folded and tucked in its corners. “I guess I never did think, exactly.”

“You wait till you go away,” Laura said. “Then you’ll think.”

“Do you dreadfully hate to teach school?” Carrie asked her, low.

“Yes, I do,” Laura almost whispered. “But Pa and Ma mustn’t know.”

They plumped up the pillows and set them in their places, and went to Laura’s bed. “Maybe you won’t have to, long,” Carrie consoled her. They unbuttoned the straw tick and thrust their arms deep into it, stirring the straw. “Maybe you’ll get married. Ma did.”

“I don’t want to,” Laura said. She patted the tick smooth and buttoned it. “There. Now the bottom quilt. I’d rather stay home than anything.”

“Always?” Carrie asked.

“Yes, always,” Laura said, and she meant it with her heart. She spread the sheet. “But I can’t, not all the time. I have to go on teaching school.”

They tucked in the quilts and plumped up Laura’s pillow. The beds were done. Carrie said she would do all the sweeping. “I always do, now,” she said, “and if you’re going to Mary Power’s, the sooner you go the sooner you’ll be back.”

“I only have to find out if I’m keeping up with my class,” Laura said. Downstairs, she set the wash-boiler on the stove and filled it with pails of water from the well. Then while it was heating, she went to see Mary Power.

She had quite forgotten that she had ever disliked the town. It was bright and brisk this morning. Sunlight glinted on the icy ruts of snow in the street and sparkled on the frosty edges of the board sidewalk. In the two blocks there were only two vacant lots on the west side of the street now, and some of the stores were painted, white or gray. Harthorne’s grocery was painted red. Everywhere there was the stir and bustle of morning. The storekeepers in thick coats and caps were scraping trodden bits of snow from the sidewalk before their stores, and talking and joking as they worked. Doors slammed; hens cackled, and horses whinnied in the stables.

Mr. Fuller, and then Mr. Bradley, lifted their caps and said good morning to Laura as she passed. Mr. Bradley said, “I hear you’re teaching Brewster school, Miss Ingalls.”

Laura felt very grown-up. “Yes,” she said, “I am in town only over Saturday.”

“Well, I wish you all success,” said Mr. Bradley.

“Thank you, Mr. Bradley,” said Laura.

In Mr. Power’s tailor shop, Mary’s father sat cross-legged on his table, sewing busily. Mary was helping her mother with the morning’s work in the back room.

“Well, look who’s here!” Mrs. Power exclaimed. “How’s the schoolteacher?”

“Very well, thank you,” Laura replied.

“Do you like teaching school?” Mary wanted to know.

“I’m getting along all right, I guess,” Laura said. “But I’d rather be home. I’ll be glad when the two months are over.”

“So will all of us,” Mary told her. “My, we do miss you at school.”

Laura was pleased. “Do you?” she said. “I miss you, too.”

“Nellie Oleson tried to get your seat,” Mary went on. “But Ida wouldn’t let her. Ida said she’s keeping that seat for you till you come back, and Mr. Owen said she can.

“Whatever did Nellie Oleson want my seat for?” Laura exclaimed. “Hers is just as good, or almost.”

“That’s Nellie for you,” said Mary. “She just wants anything that anybody else has, that’s all. Oh Laura, she’ll be fit to be tied when I tell her that Almanzo Wilder brought you home in his new cutter!”

They both laughed. Laura felt a little ashamed, but she could not help laughing. They remembered Nellie’s bragging that she was going to ride behind those brown horses. And she never had done it yet.

“I can hardly wait,” Mary said.

Mrs. Power said, “I don’t think that’s very nice, Mary.”

“I know it isn’t,” Mary admitted. “But if you knew how that Nellie Oleson’s always bragging and showing off, and picking on Laura. And now to think that Laura’s teaching school, and Almanzo Wilder’s beauing her home.”

“Oh, no! He isn’t!” Laura cried out. “It isn’t like that at all. He came for me as a favor to Pa.”

Mary laughed. “He must think a lot of your Pa!” she began to tease; then she looked at Laura and said, “I’m sorry. I won’t talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t mean that,” Laura said. Everything is simple when you are alone, or at home, but as soon as you meet other people you are in difficulties. “I just don’t want you to think Mr. Wilder’s my beau, because he isn’t.”

“All right,” Mary said.

“And I only ran in for a minute,” Laura explained. “I put wash-water on, and it must be hot now. Tell me where you are in your lessons, Mary.”

When Mary told her, Laura saw that she was keeping up with the class by her studying at night. Then she went home.

All that day was such a happy time. Laura did her washing and sprinkled and ironed the clean, fresh clothes. Then in the cosy sitting room she ripped her beautiful brown velvet hat, talking all the time with Ma and Carrie and Grace. She brushed and steamed the velvet and draped it again over the buckram frame, and tried it on. It looked like a new hat, even more becoming than before. There was just time enough to brush and sponge and press her brown dress, and then to help Ma get an early supper. Afterward, they all bathed one by one in the warm kitchen, and went to bed.

“If I could only live like this always, I’d never want anything more,” Laura thought as she went to sleep. “But maybe I appreciate it more because I have only tonight and tomorrow morning…”

The morning sunshine and the sky had their quiet, Sunday look, and the town was quiet with a Sunday stillness when Laura and Carrie and Grace and Ma sedately went out on Sunday morning. The morning work was done, the beans for Sunday dinner were baking slowly in the oven. Pa carefully closed the heating-stove’s drafts and came out and locked the door.

Laura and Carrie went ahead; Pa and Ma came behind them, holding Grace’s hands. All fresh and clean and dressed in Sunday best, they walked slowly in the cold Sunday morning, taking care not to slip on the icy paths. Carefully along the street and single file across lots behind Fuller’s store, everyone else was going toward the church, too.

As she went in, Laura looked eagerly over the partly filled seats, and there was Ida! Ida’s brown eyes danced when she saw Laura, and she slid along the seat to make room, and gave Laura’s arm a squeeze. “My, I’m glad to see you!” she whispered. “When did you come?”

“Friday after school. I’ve got to go back this afternoon,” Laura answered. There was a little time to talk before Sunday School.

“Do you like teaching?” Ida asked.

“No, I do not! But don’t tell anybody else. I’m getting along all right so far.”

“I won’t,” Ida promised. “I knew you would. But your place at school is awfully empty.”

“I’ll be back. It’s only seven weeks more,” Laura said.

“Laura,” Ida said. “You don’t care if Nellie Oleson sits with me while you’re gone, do you?”

“Why, Ida Brow…” Laura began. Then she saw that Ida was only teasing. “Of course not,” she said. “You ask her and see if she will.”

Because they were in church and could not laugh, they sat silently shaking and almost choking in their effort to keep their faces sober. Lawyer Barnes was rapping the pulpit to bring the Sunday School to order, and they could not talk any more. They must rise and join in the singing.

“Sweet Sabbath School! more dear to me
Than fairest palace dome,
My heart e’er turns with joy to thee,
My own dear Sabbath home.”

Singing together was even better than talking. Ida was such a dear, Laura thought, as they stood side by side holding the hymn book open before them.

“Here first my willful, wandering heart
The way of life was shown;
Here first I sought the better part
And gained a Sabbath home.”

Clear and sure, Laura’s voice held the note while Ida’s soft alto chimed, “Sabbath home.” Then their voices blended again,

“My heart e’er turns with joy to thee,
My own dear Sabbath home.”

Sunday School was the pleasant part of church. Though they could talk only to the teacher about the lesson, Ida and Laura could smile at each other and sing together. When Sunday School ended, there was only time to say, “Good-by. Good-by.” Then Ida must sit with Mrs. Brown in the front seat while Reverend Brown preached one of his long, stupid sermons.

Laura and Carrie went to sit with Pa and Ma and Grace. Laura made sure that she remembered the text, to repeat at home when Pa asked her; then she need not listen any more. She always missed Mary in church. Mary had always sat so properly beside her, watchful that Laura behaved. It was strange to think that they had been little girls, and now Mary was in college and Laura was a schoolteacher. She tried not to think of Mrs. Brewster’s, and of school. After all, Mary had gone to college and now Laura was earning forty dollars; with forty dollars, Mary could surely stay in college next year. Maybe everything comes out all right, if you keep on trying. Anyway, you have to keep on trying; nothing will come out right if you don’t. “If I can only manage Clarence for seven weeks more,” Laura thought.

Carrie pinched her arm. Everyone was standing up, to sing the Doxology. Church was over.

Dinner was so good. Ma’s baked beans were delicious, and the bread and butter and little cucumber pickles, and everyone was so comfortable, so cheerful and talking. Laura said, “Oh, I do like it here!”

“It’s too bad that Brewster’s isn’t a better place to stay,” said Pa.

“Why, Pa, I haven’t complained,” Laura said in surprise.

“I know you haven’t,” said Pa. “Well, keep a stiff upper lip; seven weeks will soon be gone, and you’ll be home again.”

How pleasant it was, after the dishes were done, when they were all settled in the front room for Sunday afternoon. Sunshine streamed through the clean windows into the warm room, where Ma sat gently rocking, and Carrie and Grace pored over the pictures in Pa’s big green book, The Wonders of the Animal World. Pa read items from the Pioneer Press to Ma, and at his desk Laura sat writing a letter to Mary. Carefully with Ma’s little pearl-handled pen that was shaped like a feather, she wrote of her school and her pupils. Of course she wrote of nothing unpleasant. The clock ticked, and now and then Kitty lazily stretched and purred a short purr.

When the letter was finished, Laura went upstairs and packed her clean clothes in Ma’s satchel. She brought it downstairs and into the front room. It must be time to go, but Pa sat reading his paper and took no notice.

Ma looked at the clock and said gently, “Charles, surely you must hitch up, or you’ll be late starting. It’s a long way to go and come, and dark comes early nowadays.”

Pa only turned a page of the paper and said, “Oh, there’s no hurry.”

Laura and Ma looked at each other in amazement. They looked at the clock, and again at Pa. He did not stir, but his brown beard had a smiling look. Laura sat down.

The clock ticked, and Pa silently read the paper. Twice Ma almost spoke, and changed her mind. At last, not looking up, Pa said, “Some folks worry about my team.”

“Why, Charles! There isn’t anything wrong with the horses?” Ma exclaimed.

“Well,” said Pa. “They’re not as young as they used to be, for a fact. They can still hold out pretty well, though, for twelve miles and back.”

“Charles,” Ma said helplessly.

Pa looked up at Laura and his eyes were twinkling. “Maybe I don’t have to drive ’em so far,” he said. Sleigh bells were coming down the street. Clearer and louder they came; then rang all at once and stopped by the door. Pa went to the door and opened it.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Ingalls,” Laura heard Almanzo Wilder say. “I stopped by to see if Laura would let me drive her out to her school.”

“Why, I’m sure she’d like a ride in that cutter,” Pa replied.

“It’s getting late, and too cold to tie ’em without blanketing,” Almanzo said. “I’ll drive down the street and stop on my way back.”

“I’ll tell her,” Pa answered, and shut the door while the bells jingled away. “How about it, Laura?”

“It is fun to ride in a cutter,” Laura said. Quickly she tied on her hood and got into her coat. The bells were coming; she had hardly time to say good-by before they stopped at the door.

“Don’t forget the satchel,” Ma said, and Laura turned back to snatch it up.

“Thank you, Ma. Good-by,” she said and went out to the cutter. Almanzo helped her in and tucked the robes around her. Prince and Lady started quickly; all the bells rang out their music, and she was on her way back to her school.

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