Little town on the prair.., p.14
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       Little Town on the Prairie, p.14

         Part #7 of Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  “Why, Laura!” Ma exclaimed.

  “Never mind,” Pa said soothingly. “You have been studying too hard, that is all.”

  “Yes, put away your books for this evening,” said Ma. “In the last bundle of Youth’s Companions, there are still some stories that we have not read. You may read one to us, Laura, wouldn’t you like that?”

  “Yes, Ma,” Laura answered hopelessly. Even reading a story was not what she wanted. She did not know what she wanted, but she knew she could not have it, whatever it was. She got the Youth’s Companions and pulled her chair to the table again. “You choose the story you want, Carrie,” she said.

  Patiently she read aloud, while Carrie and Grace listened wide-eyed and Ma’s rocker swayed and her knitting needles clicked. Pa had gone across the street, to spend an evening talking with the men around the stove in Fuller’s hardware store.

  Suddenly the door opened and Pa burst in, saying, “Put on your bonnets, Caroline and girls! There’s a meeting at the schoolhouse!”

  “Whatever in the world—” Ma said.

  “Everybody’s going!” said Pa. “We are starting a literary society.”

  Ma laid aside her knitting. “Laura and Carrie, get your wraps on while I bundle up Grace.”

  Quickly they were ready to follow Pa’s lighted lantern. When Ma blew out the lamp, Pa picked it up. “Better take it along, we’ll want lights in the schoolhouse,” he explained.

  Other lanterns were coming along Main Street, and bobbing into the darkness of Second Street ahead. Pa called for Mr. Clewett, who was there and had brought the schoolhouse key. The desks looked weird in flickering lantern light. Others had brought lamps, too. Mr. Clewett lighted a large one on his desk, and Gerald Fuller drove a nail into the wall and hung up a lamp with a tin reflector. He had closed his store for the meeting. All the storekeepers were closing their stores and coming. Almost everyone in town was coming. Pa’s lamp helped the lanterns to make the schoolhouse quite light.

  The seats were filled and men were standing thick behind them, when Mr. Clewett called the room to order. He said that the purpose of this meeting was to organize a literary society.

  “The first thing in order,” he said, “will be a roll call of members. I will then hear nominations for temporary chairman. The temporary chairman will take charge, and we will then proceed to nominate and ballot for permanent officers.”

  Everyone was a little taken aback, and felt less jolly, but it was an interesting question, who could be elected President. Then Pa stood up by his seat, and said, “Mr. Clewett and townfolks, what we’ve come here for is some fun to liven us up. It does not seem necessary to organize anything.

  “From what I’ve seen,” Pa went on, “the trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for. I take it we’re pretty well agreed right now on what we want. If we start organizing and electing, the chances are we won’t be as well agreed on who’s to be elected to fill office. So I suggest, let’s just go straight ahead and do what we want to do, without any officers. We’ve got the schoolteacher, Mr. Clewett, to act as leader. Let him give out a program, every meeting, for the next meeting. Anybody that gets a good idea can speak up for it, and anybody that’s called on will pitch in and do his share in the programs the best he can, to give everybody a good time.”

  “That’s the ticket, Ingalls!” Mr. Clancy sang out, and as Pa sat down, a good many began to clap, Mr. Clewett said, “All in favor, say ‘Aye!’” A loud chorus of “Ayes” voted that it should be so.

  Then for a minute, no one knew what to do next. Mr. Clewett said, “We haven’t any program for this meeting.”

  Some man answered, “Shucks, we aren’t going home yet!” The barber suggested singing, and someone said, “You got some pupils that can speak pieces? How about it, Clewett?” Then a voice said, “How about a spelling match?” Several chimed in to that, “That’s the notion!” “That’s the idea! Let’s have a spelling match!”

  Mr. Clewett appointed Pa and Gerald Fuller as leaders. There was a good deal of joking as they took their places in the front corners of the room and began to call out names.

  Laura sat anxiously waiting. The grown-ups were chosen first, of course. One by one they went up, and as the two lines grew longer, Laura grew more afraid that Gerald Fuller might call her before Pa did. She did not want to spell against Pa. At last there was the most anxious pause. It was Pa’s turn to choose, and though he made a joke that set everyone laughing, Laura could see that he was hesitating. He decided, and called, “Laura Ingalls.”

  She hurried to take the next place in his line. Ma was already in it, above her. Gerald Fuller called then, “Foster!” Last of the grown-ups, Mr. Foster took the place opposite Laura. Perhaps Pa should have chosen him because he was grown-up, but Pa had wanted Laura. Surely, Laura thought, Mr. Foster could not be much of a speller. He was one of the homesteaders who drove oxen, and last winter he had stupidly jumped off Almanzo Wilder’s horse, Lady, and let her run away while he fired at the antelope herd, though he was not within range.

  Rapidly now all the school pupils were chosen, even the smallest. The two lines went from the teacher’s desk all around the walls to the door. Then Mr. Clewett opened the speller.

  First he gave out the primer words. “Foe, low, woe, roe, row, hero—” and he caught Mr. Barclay! Confused, Mr. Barclay spelled, “Hero; h-e, he, r-o-e, ro, hero,” and the roar of laughter surprised him. He joined in it as he went to a seat, the first one down.

  The words grew longer. More and more spellers went down. First Gerald Fuller’s side was shorter, then Pa’s, then Gerald Fuller’s again. Everyone grew warm from laughter and excitement. Laura was in her element. She loved to spell. Her toes on a crack in the floor and her hands behind her, she spelled every word that came to her. Down went four from the enemy’s side, and three from Pa’s, then the word came to Laura. She took a deep breath and glibly spelled, “Differentiation: d-i-f, dif; f-e-r, fer, differ; e-n-t, different; i, differend; a-t-i-o-n, ashun; differentiation!”

  Slowly almost all the seats filled with breathless, laughing folks who had been spelled down. Six remained in Gerald Fuller’s line, and only five in Pa’s— Pa and Ma and Florence Garland and Ben Woodworth and Laura.

  “Repetitious,” said Mr. Clewett. Down went one from the other side, leaving the lines even. Ma’s gentle voice spelled, “Repetitious: r-e, re; p-e-t, pet, repet; i, repeti; t-i-o-u-s, shius, repetitious.”

  “Mimosaceous,” said Mr. Clewett. Gerald Fuller spelled, “Mimosaceous; m-i-m, mim; o-s-a, mimosa; t-i—” He was watching Mr. Clewett. “No, s-i—,” he began again. “That’s got me beat,” he said, and sat down.

  “Mimosaceous,” said Florence Garland. “M-i-m, mim; o-s-a, mimosa; t-e—” And she had been a schoolteacher!

  The next one on Gerald Fuller’s side went down, then Ben shook his head and quit without trying. Laura stood straighter, waiting to spell the word. Now at the head of the other line, Mr. Foster began. “Mimosaceous: m-i, mi; m-o, mimo; s-a, sa, mimosa; c-e-o-u-s, sius, mimosaceous.”

  A great burst of applause rose up, and some man shouted, “Good for you, Foster!” Mr. Foster had taken off his thick jacket and he stood in his checked shirt, smiling sheepishly. But there was a glint in his eye. No one had guessed that he was a brilliant speller.

  Fast and hard the words came pelting then, the tricky words from the very back of the spelling book. On the other line, everyone went down but Mr. Foster. Ma went down. Only Pa and Laura were left, to down Mr. Foster.

  Not one of them missed a word. In breathless silence, Pa spelled, Mr. Foster spelled, Laura spelled, then Mr. Foster again. He was one against two. It seemed that they could not beat him.

  Then, “Xanthophyll,” said Mr. Clewett. It was Laura’s turn.

  “Xanthophyll,” she said. To her surprise, she was suddenly confused. Her eyes shut. She could almost see the word on the
speller’s last page, but she could not think. It seemed that she stood a long time in a dreadful silence full of watching eyes.

  “Xanthophyll,” she said again desperately, and she spelled quickly, “X-a-n, zan; t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h—” Wildly she thought, “Grecophil,” and in a rush she ended, “-i-l—?” Mr. Clewett shook his head.

  Trembling, Laura sat down. Now there was only Pa left.

  Mr. Foster cleared his throat. “Xanthophyll,” he said. “X-a-n, zan; t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h-y—” Laura could not breathe. No one breathed. “—l,” said Mr. Foster.

  Mr. Clewett waited. Mr. Foster waited, too. It seemed that the waiting lasted forever. At last Mr. Foster said, “Well, then, I’m beat,” and he sat down. The crowd applauded him anyway, for what he had done. He had won respect that night.

  “Xanthophyll,” said Pa. It seemed impossible now that anyone could spell that dreadful word, but Laura thought, Pa can, he must, he’s GOT to!

  “X-a-n, zan,” said Pa; “t-h-o, tho, zantho; p-h-y—” he seemed slower, perhaps, than he was. “Double-l,” he said.

  Mr. Clewett clapped the speller shut. There had never been such thundering applause as that applause for Pa. He had spelled down the whole town.

  Then, still warm and all stirred up, everyone was getting into wraps.

  “I don’t know when I’ve had such a good time!” Mrs. Bradley said to Ma.

  “The best of it is, to think we’ll have another meeting next Friday,” said Mrs. Garland.

  Still talking, the crowd was streaming out and lanterns went jogging toward Main Street.

  “Well, do you feel some better, Laura?” Pa asked, and she answered, “Oh, yes! Oh, didn’t we have a good time!”

  Chapter 19

  The Whirl of Gaiety

  Now there was always Friday evening to look forward to, and after the second Literary, there was such rivalry between the entertainers that there was news almost every day.

  The second Literary was entirely charades, and Pa carried off the honors of the whole evening. Nobody could guess his charade.

  He played it alone, in his everyday clothes. Walking up the central aisle, he carried two small potatoes before him on the blade of his ax. That was all.

  Then he stood twinkling, teasing the crowd, and giving hints. “It has to do with the Bible,” he said. “Why, every one of you knows it.” He said, “It’s something you often consult.” He even said, “It’s helpful in understanding Saint Paul.” He teased, “Don’t tell me you all give up!”

  Every last one of them had to give up, and Laura was almost bursting with pride and delight when at last Pa told them, “It’s Commentators on the Ac’s.”

  As this sunk in, up rose a roar of laughter and applause.

  On the way home, Laura heard Mr. Bradley say, “We’ll have to go some, to beat that stunt of Ingalls!” Gerald Fuller, in his English way, called, “I say, there’s talent enough for a musical program, what?”

  For the next Literary, there was music. Pa with his fiddle and Gerald Fuller with his accordion made such music that the schoolhouse and the crowd seemed to dissolve in an enchantment. Whenever they stopped, applause roared for more.

  It seemed impossible ever to have a more marvelous evening. But now the whole town was aroused, and families were driving in from the homestead claims to attend the Literaries. The men in town were on their mettle; they planned a superb musical evening. They practiced for it, and they borrowed Mrs. Bradley’s organ.

  On that Friday they wrapped the organ carefully in quilts and horse blankets, they loaded it into Mr. Foster’s ox wagon and took it carefully to the schoolhouse. It was a beautiful organ, all shining wood, with carpeted pedals and a top climbing up in tapering wooden pinnacles, tiny shelves, and diamond-shaped mirrors. Its music rack was a lace pattern in wood, with red cloth behind it that showed through the holes, and on either side was a round place on which to set a lamp.

  The teacher’s desk was moved away, and that organ set in its place. On the blackboard Mr. Clewett wrote out the program. There was organ music by itself, organ music with Pa’s fiddle, and organ music with the singing of quartets and duets and solos. Mrs. Bradley sang,

  “Backward, turn backward,

  Oh Time in thy flight.

  Make me a child again,

  Just for tonight.”

  Laura could hardly bear the sadness of it. Her throat swelled and ached. A tear glittered on Ma’s cheek before she could catch it with her handkerchief. All the women were wiping their eyes, and the men were clearing their throats and blowing their noses.

  Everyone said that surely nothing could be better than that musical program. But Pa said mysteriously, “You wait and see.”

  As if this were not enough, the church building was roofed at last, and now every Sunday there were two church services and Sunday school.

  It was a nice church, though so new that it still looked raw. As yet there was no bell in the belfry, nor any finish on the board walls. Outside, they were not yet weathered gray, and inside they were bare boards and studding. The pulpit and the long benches with boxed-in ends were raw lumber, too, but it was all fresh and clean-smelling.

  In the small entry built out from the door there was room enough to settle clothing blown awry by the wind, before going into the church, and Mrs. Bradley had lent her organ, so there was organ music with the singing.

  Laura even enjoyed Rev. Brown’s preaching. What he said did not make sense to her, but he looked like the picture of John Brown in her history book, come alive. His eyes glared, his white mustache and his whiskers bobbed, and his big hands waved and clawed and clenched into fists pounding the pulpit and shaking in air. Laura amused herself, too, by changing his sentences in her mind, to improve their grammar. She need not remember the sermon, for at home Pa required her and Carrie only to repeat the text correctly. Then, when the sermon was over, there was more singing.

  Best of all was Hymn Eighteen, when the organ notes rolled out and everybody vigorously sang:

  “We are going forth with our staff in hand

  Through a desert wild in a stranger land,

  But our faith is bright and our hope is strong,

  And the Good Old Way is our pilgrim song.”

  Then, all together letting out their voices in chorus louder than the swelling organ song,

  “’Tis the Good Old Way by our fathers trod,

  ‘Tis the Way of Life and it leadeth unto God,

  ‘Tis the only path to the realms of Day,

  We are going home in the GOOD OLD WAY!”

  With Sunday school and morning church, Sunday dinner and dishes, and going to church again in the evening, every Sunday fairly flew past. There was school again on Monday, and the rising excitement of waiting for the Friday Literary; Saturday was not long enough for talking it all over, then Sunday came again.

  As if all this were not more than enough, the Ladies’ Aid planned a great celebration of Thanksgiving, to help pay for the church. It was to be a New England Supper. Laura rushed home from school to help Ma peel and slice and stew down the biggest pumpkin that Pa had raised last summer. She carefully picked over and washed a whole quart of small white navy beans, too. Ma was going to make a mammoth pumpkin pie and the largest milkpan full of baked beans, to take to the New England Supper.

  There was no school on Thanksgiving Day. There was no Thanksgiving dinner, either. It was a queer, blank day, full of anxious watching of the pie and the beans and of waiting for the evening. In the afternoon they all took turns, bathing in the washtub in the kitchen, by daylight. It was so strange to bathe by daylight, and on Thursday.

  Then Laura carefully brushed her school dress, and brushed and combed and braided her hair and curled her bangs afresh. Ma dressed in her second-best, and Pa trimmed his whiskers and put on his Sunday clothes.

  At lamp-lighting time, when they were all hungry for supper, Ma wrapped the great pan of beans in brown wrapping paper and a shawl, to keep the beans
hot, while Laura bundled Grace into her wraps and hurried into her own coat and hood. Pa carried the beans, Ma bore in both hands the great pumpkin pie, baked in her large, square bread-baking tin. Laura and Carrie carried between them a basket full of Ma’s dishes, and Grace held on to Laura’s other hand.

  As soon as they passed the side of Fuller’s store they could see, across the vacant lots behind it, the church blazing with light. Wagons and teams and saddle ponies were already gathering around it, and people were going into its dimly lighted entry.

  All the bracket lamps on the inside walls of the church were lighted. Their glass bowls were full of kerosene and their light shone dazzling bright from the tin reflectors behind their clear glass chimneys. All the benches had been set back against the walls, and two long, white-covered tables stretched glittering down the middle of the room.

  “Oo, look!” Carrie cried out.

  Laura stood stock-still for an instant. Even Pa and Ma almost halted, though they were too grown-up to show surprise. A grown-up person must never let feelings be shown by voice or manner. So Laura only looked, and gently hushed Grace, though she was as excited and overwhelmed as Carrie was.

  In the very center of one table a pig was standing, roasted brown, and holding in its mouth a beautiful red apple.

  Above all the delicious scents that came from those tables rose the delicious smell of roast pork.

  In all their lives, Laura and Carrie had never seen so much food. Those tables were loaded. There were heaped dishes of mashed potatoes and of mashed turnips, and of mashed yellow squash, all dribbling melted butter down their sides from little hollows in their peaks. There were large bowls of dried corn, soaked soft again and cooked with cream. There were plates piled high with golden squares of corn bread and slices of white bread and of brown, nutty-tasting graham bread. There were cucumber pickles and beet pickles and green tomato pickles, and glass bowls on tall glass stems were full of red tomato preserves and wild-chokecherry jelly. On each table was a long, wide, deep pan of chicken pie, with steam rising through the slits in its flaky crust.

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