These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 23)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Next Sunday Barnum was as bad as he had ever been. He refused to stand, and Laura had to wait for a third stop before she could leap into the buggy. Then he reared and tried to run, pulling so hard that after a time Almanzo complained, “He is pulling this buggy by the bit and my arms.”
“Let me try,” Laura offered. “It will rest your arms.”
“All right, “Almanzo agreed. “For a minute, but you’ll have to hold hard.”
He let go of the lines when she had a firm grip on them, just behind his. Laura’s arms took the force of Barnum’s pull; his strength flowed up the lines with the thrill she had felt before. Oh, Barnum! she begged silently; please don’t pull so hard, I want so much to drive you.
Barnum sensed the change of drivers and stretched his neck a little farther, feeling the bit; then his trot became slower. He turned the corner by the livery barn, and dropped into a walk.
Barnum was walking. Almanzo was silent and Laura hardly breathed. A little by a tiny little she eased on the lines. Barnum went on walking. The wild horse, the runaway, who never before had been seen to walk when hitched to a buggy, walked the whole length of Main Street. He reached out twice, feeling the bit with his mouth and, finding it to his liking, arched his neck and walked proudly on.
Almanzo said, low, “Better tighten the lines a little so he won’t get the jump on you.”
“No,” Laura answered. “I am going to let him carry the bit easily. I think he likes it.”
All along the street, everyone stopped to stare. Laura did not like to be so conspicuous, but she knew that she must not be nervous now; she must be calm, and keep Barnum walking. “I wish they wouldn’t stare,” she almost whispered, looking straight ahead at Barnum’s placid ears.
In a low tone, too, Almanzo replied, “They have been expecting he would run away with us. Better not let him walk until he starts trotting himself. Tighten the lines and tell him to go. Then he will understand that he trots because you want him to.”
“You take him,” Laura offered. She felt a little dizzy, from the excitement.
Almanzo took the lines and at his command, Barnum trotted.
“Well, I’ll be darned! how did you do it?” he asked then. “I’ve been trying ever since I’ve had him, to get him to walk. What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Laura said. “He is really a gentle horse.”
All the rest of that afternoon, Barnum walked or trotted when told to do so, and Almanzo bragged, “He’ll be gentle as a lamb after this.”
He was mistaken. On Friday night Barnum again refused to stand, and when finally Laura landed in the buggy, Almanzo reminded her that they would leave singing school at recess. But, though Barnum had not been tied so long as before, he was in such a temper that Laura drove him around and around the church until they barely got away as singing school was over.
Laura loved singing school. It began with singing scales to limber up the voices. Then Mr. Clewett taught them a simple exercise, the first in the book. He gave them the pitch with his tuning fork again and again, until all their voices chimed with it. Then they sang.
“Gaily now our boat is sailing,
O’er the blue and sparkling wave.”
When they could sing this very well, they learned another. This was the song of the grass.
“All around the open door,
—Smiling on the rich and poor,
Here I come! Here I come!
Then they sang rounds.
“Three blind mice, see how they run,
they all ran after the farmer’s wife
she cut off their tails with a carving knife
three blind mice see how they run
they all ran after”
The basses chased the tenors that chased the altos that chased the sopranos around and around until they were all lost and exhausted from laughing. It was such fun! Laura could last longer than anyone because Pa had taught her and Carrie and Grace to sing “Three Blind Mice” long ago.
Barnum grew so gentle that Laura and Almanzo could stay till the evening’s end, and at recess he and the other young men took striped paper bags of candy from their coat pockets and passed them around to the girls. There were pink-and-white striped peppermint balls, and sticks of lemon candy and peppermint candy and horehound candy. And on the way home Laura sang.
Oh childhood’s joys are very great,
A-swingin’ on his mother’s gate,
A-eatin’ candy till his mouth
Is all stuck up from north to south,
But though I have to mind the rule
“That’s why I thought you’d like to go,” Almanzo said. “You’re always singing.”
Each singing school night the class sang farther and farther over in the book. On the last night they sang the anthem at the very end; page one hundred forty-four. “The Heavens Declare the Glory.”
Then singing school was ended. There would be no more such gay evenings.
Barnum no longer reared and plunged. He started quickly, with a little jump, into a smooth trot. The air was chilled with the breath of coming winter. The stars were brilliant and hung low in the frosty air. Looking at them, Laura sang the anthem again.
“The heavens declare the glory of God and
The Firmament showeth His handiwork.
Day unto day uttereth speech, and
Night unto night showeth knowledge.
There is no speech nor language
Where their voice is not heard.”
There was no sound but the soft clip-clop of Barnum’s feet as he walked along the grassy prairie road.
“Sing the starlight song,” Almanzo asked, and Laura sang again, softly,
In the starlight, in the starlight,
At the daylight’s dewy close,
When the nightingale is singing
His last love song to the rose;
In the calm clear night of summer
When the breezes softly play,
From the glitter of our dwelling
We will softly steal away.
Where the silv’ry waters murmur
By the margin of the sea,
In the starlight, in the starlight,
We will wander gay and free.”
Again silence came and was unbroken while Barnum of his own accord turned north toward the house. Then Laura said, “I’ve sung for you, now I’ll give you a penny for your thoughts.”
“I was wondering…” Almanzo paused. Then he picked up Laura’s hand that shone white in the starlight, and his sun-browned hand closed gently over it. He had never done that before. “Your hand is so small,” he said. Another pause. Then quickly, “I was wondering if you would like an engagement ring.”
“That would depend on who offered it to me,” Laura told him.
“If I should?” Almanzo asked.
“Then it would depend on the ring,” Laura answered and drew her hand away.
It was later than usual when Almanzo came next Sunday.
“Sorry to be so late,” he said, when Laura was settled in the buggy and they were driving away.
“We can take a shorter drive,” Laura answered.
“But we want to go to Lake Henry. This is about our last chance for wild grapes, now they are frosted,” Almanzo told her.
It was a sunny afternoon, warm for the time of year. On either side of the narrow road between the twin lakes, ripened wild grapes were hanging from their vines in the trees. Almanzo drove slowly, and reaching from the buggy he and Laura picked the clusters of grapes. They ate of their tangy sweetness as they watched the water rippling in the sunshine and heard the little waves lapping on the shore.
As they drove home the sun went down in a flaming western sky. Twilight settled over the prairie, and the evening wind blew softly through the buggy.
Then driving with one hand, with the other Almanzo lifted Laura’s, and she felt something cool slip over her first finger while he reminded her, “You said it would depend on the ring. How do you like this one?”
Laura held her hand up to the first light of the new moon. The gold of the ring and its flat oval set shone in the faint moon radiance. Three small stones set in the golden oval glimmered.
“The set is a garnet, with a pearl on each side,” Almanzo told her.
“It is a beautiful ring,” Laura said. “I think… I would like to have it.”
“Then leave it on. It is yours and next summer I will build a little house in the grove on the tree claim. It will have to be a little house. Do you mind?”
“I have always lived in little houses. I like them,” Laura answered.
They had almost reached home. Lamplight shone from its windows and Pa was playing the fiddle. Laura knew the song, it was one that he often sang to Ma. His voice rose with its music and he sang,
“A beautiful castle I’ve built for thee
In dreamland far away,
And there, gentle darling, come dwell with me,
Where love alone has sway.
Oh, sweet will be our blisses,
Oh, rare will be our blisses!
We’ll tell our time by the lovers’ chime
That strikes the hour with kisses.”
Barnum was quiet while Laura and Almanzo stood beside the buggy when Pa’s song was finished. Then Laura held up her face in the faint moonlight. “You may kiss me good night,” she said, and after their first kiss she went into the house while Almanzo drove away.
Pa laid down his fiddle when Laura came in. He looked at her hand where the ring sparkled in the lamplight.
“I see it is settled,” he said. “Almanzo was talking to me yesterday and I guess it’s all right.”
“If only you are sure, Laura,” Ma said gently. “Sometimes I think it is the horses you care for, more than their master.”
“I couldn’t have one without the other,” Laura answered shakily.
Then Ma smiled at her, Pa cleared his throat gruffly and Laura knew they understood what she was too shy to say.