These Happy Golden Years (Chapter 5)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
A Stiff Upper Lip
All that week, everything went wrong; everything. Nothing gave Laura the least encouragement. The weather was sullen. Dull clouds lay low and flat above the gray-white prairie, and the wind blew monotonously. The cold was damp and clammy. The stoves smoked.
Mrs. Brewster let the housework go. She did not sweep out the snow that Mr. Brewster tracked in; it melted and made puddles with the ashes around the stove. She did not make their bed nor even spread it up. Twice a day she cooked potatoes and salt pork and put them on the table. The rest of the time she sat brooding. She did not even comb her hair, and it seemed to Laura that Johnny squalled with temper that whole week.
Once Laura tried to play with him, but he only struck at her and Mrs. Brewster said angrily, “Leave him alone!”
After supper he went to sleep on his father’s knee, and Mr. Brewster just sat. The air seemed to smolder with Mrs. Brewster’s silence, and he sat, Laura thought, like a bump on a log. She had heard that said, but she had not realized what it meant. A bump on a log does not fight anyone, but it cannot be budged.
The silence was so loud that Laura could hardly study. When she went to bed, Mrs. Brewster quarreled at Mr. Brewster. She wanted to go back east.
Laura could hardly have studied well, anyway; she was so worried about her school. In spite of all she could do, everything went from bad to worse.
It began on Monday, when Tommy did not know one word of his spelling lesson. Ruby would not let him have the speller, he said.
“Why, Ruby!” Laura said in surprise. Then sweet little Ruby turned into a very spitfire. Laura was so startled that before she could stop them, Ruby and Tommy were quarreling.
Sternly Laura stopped that. She went to Tommy’s seat and gave him the speller. “Now learn that lesson,” said she. “You may stay in at recess and recite it to me.”
Next day, Ruby did not know her lesson. She stood before Laura with her hands behind her, innocent as a kitten, and said, “I could not learn it, Teacher. You gave Tommy the speller.”
Laura remembered to count ten. Then she said, “So I did. Well, you and Tommy may sit together to learn your spelling.”
They were not studying the same lessons in the book, but they could hold it open in two places. Leaning to one side, Tommy could study his lesson while Ruby, leaning to the other side, could study hers. In that way, Laura and Mary used to learn their different lessons in Ma’s speller.
But Tommy and Ruby did not. They sat silently struggling, each to open the book wider at his place. Again and again Laura said sharply, “Tommy! Ruby!” But neither of them learned their spelling well.
Martha could not work her arithmetic problems. Charles sat idly staring at the window, where nothing was to be seen but the gray weather. When Laura told him to keep his eyes on his lessons, he stared daydreaming at a page. Laura knew he was not seeing it.
She was too little. When Martha and Charles and Clarence stood before her to recite, they were too much for her. Though she did her best, she could not interest them in learning even geography and history.
On Monday, Clarence knew part of his history lesson, but when Laura asked him when the first settlement was made in Virginia, he answered carelessly, “Oh, I didn’t study that part.”
“Why didn’t you?” Laura asked.
“The lesson was too long,” Clarence replied, with a look from narrow, laughing eyes that said, “What are you going to do about that?”
Laura was furiously angry, but as her eyes met his she knew that he expected her to be angry. What could she do? She could not punish him; he was too big. She must not show any anger.
So she kept quiet, while she turned the pages of the history consideringly. Her heart was faint, but she must not let him know that. Finally she said, “It is too bad that you did not learn this. It will make your next lesson so much longer, for we must not keep Charles and Martha back.”
She went on hearing Charles and Martha recite the lesson. Then she gave them all another lesson of the usual length.
The next day Clarence did not know his history at all. “It’s no use trying to learn such long lessons,” he said.
“If you do not want to learn, Clarence, you are the loser,” Laura told him. She kept on asking him questions in his turn, hoping that he would grow ashamed of answering, “I don’t know.” But he did not.
Every day she felt more miserably that she was failing. She could not teach school. Her first school would be a failure; she would not be able to get another certificate. She would earn no more money. Mary would have to leave college, and that would be Laura’s fault. She could hardly learn her own lessons, though she studied them not only at night, but at noon and recess. When she went back to town, she would be behind her class.
All the trouble came from Clarence. He could make Ruby and Tommy behave, if he would; he was their older brother. He could learn his lessons; he was much smarter than Martha and Charles. How she wished that she were big enough to give Clarence the whipping he deserved.
Slowly the week dragged by, the longest and most miserable week that Laura had ever known.
On Thursday, when Laura said, “Third arithmetic class, rise,” Clarence stood up quickly and Charles began to move languidly, but Martha half rose and yelled, “Ow!” and sat down as if she were jerked.
Clarence had driven his knife through her braid and pinned it to his desk. He had done it so quietly that Martha knew nothing of it until she tried to stand up.
“Clarence!” Laura said. He did not stop laughing. Tommy was laughing, Ruby was giggling, even Charles was grinning. Martha sat red-faced, with tears in her eyes.
Laura was in despair. They were all against her; she could not discipline them. Oh, how could they be so mean! For an instant she remembered Miss Wilder, who had failed to teach the school in town. “This is the way she felt,” Laura thought.
Then suddenly she was very angry. She yanked the knife up, and clicked it shut in her fist. She did not feel small as she faced Clarence. “Shame on you!” she said, and he stopped laughing. They were all still.
Laura marched back to her table, and rapped on it. “Third class in arithmetic, rise! Come forward.” They did not know the lesson; they could not solve the problems, but at least they went through the motions of trying. Laura felt tall and terrible, and they obeyed her meekly. At last she said, “You may all repeat this lesson tomorrow. Class is dismissed.”
Her head ached as she went toward Mrs., Brewster’s hateful house. She could not be angry all the time, and discipline was no good if the pupils would not learn their lessons. Ruby and Tommy were far behind in spelling, Martha could not parse a simple compound sentence nor add fractions, and Clarence was learning no history. Laura tried to hope that she could do better tomorrow. Friday was quiet. Everyone was dull and listless. They were only waiting for the week to end, and so was she. The hands of the clock had never moved so slowly.
In the afternoon the clouds began to break and the light grew brighter. Just before four o’clock, pale sunshine streamed eastward across the snowy land. Then Laura heard sleigh bells faintly ringing.
“You may put away your books,” she said. That miserable week was ended, at last. Nothing more could happen now. “School is dismissed.”
The music of the bells came ringing louder and clearer. Laura’s coat was buttoned and her hood tied when Prince and Lady passed the window with the dancing bells. She snatched up her books and dinner pail, and then the worst thing of all happened.
Clarence opened the door, thrust his head in, and shouted, “Teacher’s beau’s here!”
Almanzo Wilder must have heard. He could not help hearing. Laura did not know how she could face him. What could she say? How could she tell him that she had given Clarence no reason to say such a thing?
He was waiting in the cold wind, and the horses were blanketed; she must go out. It seemed to her that he was smiling, but she could hardly look at him. He tucked her in and said, “All snug?”
“Yes, thank you,” she answered. The horses went swiftly, their strings of bells merrily ringing. It would be better to say nothing of Clarence, Laura decided; as Ma would say, “Least said, soonest mended.”