These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 7)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
A Knife in the Dark
The third week went by, and the fourth. Now there were only four weeks more. Though every morning Laura was anxious about the school day ahead, still it was not as bad as the Brewsters’ house, and every afternoon at four o’clock she drew a breath of relief; one more day had gone well.
There were no blizzards yet, but February was very cold. The wind was like knives. Every Friday and Sunday, Almanzo Wilder had made the long, cold drive, to take her home. Laura did not know how she could get through the week, without looking forward to Saturday at home. But she felt sorry for Almanzo, who was making those cold drives for nothing.
Much as she wanted to go home every week, she did not want to be under such an obligation to anyone. She was going with him only to get home, but he did not know that. Perhaps he was expecting her to go driving with him after she went home to stay. She did not want to feel obliged to go with him, neither could she be unfair, or deceitful. She felt that she must explain this to him, but she did not know how.
At home, Ma worried because she was thinner. “Are you sure you get enough to eat at Brewster’s?” Ma asked, and Laura answered, “Oh, yes, a great plenty! But it doesn’t taste like home cooking.”
Pa said, “You know, Laura, you don’t have to finish the term. If anything worries you too much, you can always come home.”
“Why, Pa!” Laura said, “I couldn’t quit. I wouldn’t get another certificate. Besides, it’s only three weeks more.”
“I’m afraid you’re studying too hard,” Ma said. “You don’t look like you get enough sleep.”
“I go to bed every night at eight o’clock,” Laura assured her.
“Well, as you say, it’s only three weeks more,” said Ma.
No one knew how she dreaded to go back to Mrs. Brewster’s. It would do no good to tell them. Being at home every Saturday raised her spirits and gave her courage for another week. Still, it was not fair to take so much from Almanzo Wilder.
He was driving her out to the Brewsters’ that Sunday afternoon. They hardly ever spoke during those long drives; it was too cold to talk. The jingling sleigh bells sounded frosty in the sparkling cold, and the light cutter sped so fast that the north wind following it was not very sharp on their backs. But he must face that wind all the way back to town.
The Brewsters’ shanty was not far ahead when Laura said to herself: “Stop shilly-shallying!” Then she spoke out. She said, “I am going with you only because I want to get home. When I am home to stay, I will not go with you any more. So now you know, and if you want to save yourself these long, cold drives, you can.”
The words sounded horrid to her as she said them. They were abrupt and rude and hateful. At the same time, a dreadful realization swept over her, of what it would mean if Almanzo did not come for her again. She would have to spend Saturdays and Sundays with Mrs. Brewster.
After a startled moment, Almanzo said slowly, “I see.”
There was no time to say more. They were at Mrs. Brewster’s door, and the horses must not stand and get chilled. Quickly Laura got out, saying, “Thank you.” He touched his hand to his fur cap and the cutter went swiftly away.
“It is only three weeks more,” Laura said to herself, but she could not keep her spirits from sinking.
All that week the weather grew colder. On Thursday morning Laura found that the quilt had frozen stiff around her nose while she slept. Her fingers were so numb that she could hardly dress. In the other room the stove lids were red hot, but the heat seemed unable to penetrate the cold around it.
Laura was holding her numbed hands above the stove when Mr. Brewster burst in, tore off his boots and began violently rubbing his feet. Mrs. Brewster went quickly to him.
“Oh, Lewis, what’s the matter?” she asked so anxiously that Laura was surprised.
“My feet,” Mr. Brewster said. “I ran all the way from the schoolhouse but there’s no feeling in them.”
“Let me help,” his wife said. She took his feet into her lap and helped him rub them. She was so concerned and so kind that she seemed like another woman. “Oh, Lewis, this dreadful country!” she said. “Oh, am I hurting you?”
“Go on,” Mr. Brewster grunted. “It shows the blood’s coming back into them.”
When they had saved his half-frozen feet, Mr. Brewster told Laura not to go to school that day. “You would freeze,” he said.
She protested, “But the children will come, and I must be there.”
“I don’t think they’ll come,” he said. “I built a fire, and if they do come, they can get warm and go home again. There will be no school today,” he said flatly.
That settled it, for a teacher must obey the head of the school board.
It was a long, wretched day. Mrs. Brewster sat huddled in a quilt, close to the stove, and sullenly brooding. Mr. Brewster’s feet were painful, and Johnny fretted with a feverish cold. Laura did the dishes, made her bed in the freezing cold, and studied her schoolbooks. When she tried to talk, there was something menacing in Mrs. Brewster’s silence.
At last it was bedtime. Laura hoped desperately that tomorrow she could go to school; meantime, she could escape by going to sleep. The cold in the bedroom took her breath away and stiffened her hands so she could hardly undress. For a long time she lay too cold to sleep, but slowly she began to be warmer.
A scream woke her. Mrs. Brewster screamed, “You kicked me!”
“I did not,” Mr. Brewster said. “But I will, if you don’t go put up that butcher knife.”
Laura sat straight up. Moonlight was streaming over her bed from the window. Mrs. Brewster screamed again, a wild sound without words that made Laura’s scalp crinkle.
“Take that knife back to the kitchen,” Mr. Brewster said.
Laura peeped through the crack between the curtains. The moonlight shone through the calico, and thinned the darkness so that Laura saw Mrs. Brewster standing there. Her long white flannel nightgown trailed on the floor and her black hair fell loose over her shoulders. In her upraised hand she held the butcher knife. Laura had never been so terribly frightened.
“If I can’t go home one way, I can another,” said Mrs. Brewster.
“Go put that knife back,” said Mr. Brewster. He lay still, but tensed to spring.
“Will you or won’t you?” she demanded.
“You’ll catch your death of cold,” he said. “I won’t go over that again, this time of night. I’ve got you and Johnny to support, and nothing in the world but this claim. Go put up that knife and come to bed before you freeze.”
The knife stopped shaking, as Mrs. Brewster’s fist clenched on the handle.
“Go put it back in the kitchen,” Mr. Brewster ordered.
After a moment, Mrs. Brewster turned and went to the kitchen. Not until she came back and got into bed did Laura let the curtains fall together again. Softly she drew the bedcovers over her and lay staring at the curtain. She was terribly frightened. She dared not sleep. Suppose she woke to see Mrs. Brewster standing over her with that knife? Mrs. Brewster did not like her.
What could she do? The nearest house was a mile away; she would freeze if she tried to reach it in this cold. Wide awake, she stared at the curtains and listened. There was no sound but the wind. The moon went down, and she stared at the dark until the gray winter daylight came. When she heard Mr. Brewster build the fire and Mrs. Brewster beginning to cook breakfast, she got up and dressed.
Nothing was different; breakfast was the usual silent meal. Laura went to school as soon as she could get away. She felt safe there, for the day. It was Friday.
The wind was blowing fiercely. Fortunately it was not a blizzard wind, but it scoured hard particles of snow from the frozen drifts and drove them through every crack in the shanty’s north and west walls. From all sides the cold came in. The big coal heater seemed to make no impression on that cold.
Laura called the school to order. Though she was near the stove, her feet were numb and her fingers could not grip a pencil. She knew that it was colder in the seats.
“Better put your coats on again,” she said, “and all of you come to the fire. You may take turns sitting in the front seat or standing by the stove to get warm. Study as best you can.”
All day the snow was blown low across the prairie, and through the schoolroom’s walls. Ice froze thick on the water pail, and at noon they set their dinner pails on the stove to thaw the frozen food before they ate it. The wind was steadily growing colder.
It cheered Laura to see how well every pupil behaved. Not one took advantage of the disorder to be idle or unruly. No one whispered. They all stood by the stove, studying, and quietly turning about to warm their backs, and all their recitations were good. Charles and Clarence took turns, going out into the wind to get coal from the bin and keep up the fire.
Laura dreaded the day’s end. She was afraid to go back to the house. She was sleepy; she knew that she must sleep, and she feared to sleep in Mrs. Brewster’s house. All day tomorrow and Sunday she must be in that house with Mrs. Brewster, and much of the time Mr. Brewster would be at the stable.
She knew that she must not be afraid. Pa had always said that she must never be afraid. Very likely, nothing would happen. She was not exactly afraid of Mrs. Brewster, for she knew that she was quick, and strong as a little French horse. That is, when she was awake. But she had never wanted so much to go home.
It had been right to tell Almanzo Wilder the truth, but she wished that she had not done it so soon. Still, he would not have come so far in such bitter cold, anyway. Every moment the wind blew stronger, and colder.
At half past three they were all so cold that she thought of dismissing school early. The mile that Martha and Charles must walk, worried her. On the other hand, she should not cut short the pupils’ opportunity for learning, and this was not a blizzard.
Suddenly she heard sleigh bells. They were coming! In a moment they were at the door. Prince and Lady passed the window, and Clarence exclaimed, “That Wilder’s a bigger fool than I thought he was to come out in this weather!”
“You may all put away your books,” Laura said. It was much too cold for the horses to stand outdoors. “It is growing colder, and the sooner everyone reaches home, the better,” she said. “School is dismissed.”