Little town on the prair.., p.9
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       Little Town on the Prairie, p.9
 

         Part #7 of Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  Everyone else looked at Miss Wilder to see what she would do. Miss Wilder cleared her throat nervously. Laura kept on looking at Nellie, till Nellie looked away. She looked at Minnie Johnson, and said, nodding toward Minnie’s seat, “That place will do.”

  “Will you change, Minnie?” Miss Wilder asked. But she had promised that Minnie might sit there.

  Slowly Minnie answered, “Yes, ma’am.” Slowly she picked up her books and went forward to the vacant seat. Mary Power did not move, and Nellie stood waiting in the aisle; she would not go around the seat to the place that Minnie had left.

  “Now, Mary,” Miss Wilder said, “if you will move over and make room for our new girl, we will all be settled.”

  Mary stood up. “I’ll go with Minnie,” she said shortly. “I’d rather.”

  Nellie sat down smiling. She had the best seat in the room, and the whole desk for her own use.

  Laura was meanly glad to hear her tell Miss Wilder, for the record book, that her father was living on a claim north of town. So Nellie herself was a country girl now! Then suddenly Laura realized that Pa was moving to town for the winter; she and Carrie would be town girls.

  Miss Wilder rapped the desk with her ruler, and said, “Attention, boys and girls!” Then she made a little speech, smiling all the time.

  She said, “Now we are all ready to begin the school term, and we’re all going to do our best to make it a success, aren’t we? You know you are all here to learn as much as you possibly can, and I am here to help you. You must not look upon me as a taskmistress, but as a friend. We are all going to be the very best of friends, I’m sure.”

  The small boys were squirming, and Laura wanted to. She could not look at Miss Wilder’s smiling any more.

  She only wished that Miss Wilder would stop talking. But Miss Wilder went on in her smiling voice: “None of us will ever be unkind or selfish, will we? I am sure that not one of you will ever be unruly, so there need be no thought of punishments here in our happy school. We shall all be friends together and love and help each other.”

  Then at last she said, “You may take your books.” There were no recitations that morning, for Miss Wilder was sorting the pupils into their classes. Laura and Ida, Mary Power and Minnie, and Nellie Oleson, were the only big girls. They were the most advanced class, and the whole class until the big boys would come to school.

  At recess they stayed in a group, getting acquainted. Ida was as warm and friendly as she looked. “I’m only an adopted child,” she said. “Mother Brown took me out of a Home, but she must have liked me to do that, don’t you think so?”

  “Of course she liked you, she couldn’t have helped it,” Laura said. She could imagine what a pretty baby Ida must have been, with her black curls and big, laughing brown eyes.

  But Nellie wanted all attention for herself.

  “I really don’t know whether we’ll like it out here,” Nellie said. “We are from the East. We are not used to such a rough country and rough people.”

  “You come from western Minnesota, from the same place we did,” said Laura.

  “Oh, that?” Nellie brushed away Minnesota with her hand. “We were there only a little while. We come from the East, from New York State.”

  “We all come from the East,” Mary Power told her shortly. “Come on, let’s all go outdoors in the sunshine.”

  “My goodness, no!” said Nellie. “Why, this wind will tan your skin!”

  They were all tanned but Nellie, and she went on airily, “I may have to live out in this rough country for a little while, but I shan’t let it spoil my complexion. In the East, a lady always keeps her skin white and her hands smooth.” Nellie’s hands were white and slender.

  There was no time to go outdoors, anyway. Recess was over. Miss Wilder went to the door and rang the bell.

  At home that night, Carrie chattered about the day at school until Pa said she was as talkative as a bluejay. “Let Laura get a word in edgewise. Why are you so quiet, Laura? Anything go wrong?”

  Then Laura told about Nellie Oleson and all she had said and done. She finished, “Miss Wilder shouldn’t have let her take the seat away from Mary Power and Minnie.”

  “Nor should you ever criticize a teacher, Laura,” Ma gently reminded her.

  Laura felt her cheeks grow hot. She knew what a great opportunity it was, to go to school. Miss Wilder was there to help her learn, she should be grateful, she should never impertinently criticize. She should only try to be perfect in her lessons and in deportment. Yet she could not help thinking, “Just the same, she shouldn’t have! It was not fair.”

  “So the Olesons came from New York State, did they?” Pa was amused. “That’s not so much to brag about.”

  Laura remembered then that Pa had lived in New York State when he was a boy.

  He went on, “I don’t know how it happened, but Oleson lost everything he had in Minnesota. He hasn’t a thing in the world now but his homestead claim, and they tell me his folks back East are helping him out, or he couldn’t hang on to that till he makes a crop. Maybe Nellie feels she’s got to brag a little, to hold her own. I wouldn’t let it worry me, Laura.”

  “But she had such pretty clothes,” Laura protested. “And she can’t do a bit of work, she keeps her face and her hands so white.”

  “You could wear your sunbonnet, you know,” said Ma. “As for her pretty dresses, likely they come out of a barrel, and maybe she’s like the girl in the song, who was so fine ‘with a double ruffle around her neck and nary a shoe to wear.’”

  Laura supposed she should be sorry for Nellie, but she wasn’t. She wished that Nellie Oleson had stayed in Plum Creek.

  Pa got up from the supper table and drew his chair near the open door. He said, “Bring me the fiddle, Laura. I want to try a song I heard a fellow singing the other day. He whistled the chorus. I believe the fiddle will beat his whistling.”

  Softly Laura and Carrie washed the dishes, not to miss a note of the music. Pa sang, low and longingly, with the sweet clear voice of the fiddle.

  “Then meet me—Oh, meet me,

  When you hear

  The first whip-poor-will call—”

  “Whip-poor-will,” the fiddle called, and fluting, throbbing like the throat of the bird, “Whip-poor-will,” the fiddle answered. Near and pleading, “Whip-poor-will,” then far and soft but coming nearer, “Whip-poor-will,” till all the gathering twilight was filled with the wooing of the birds.

  Laura’s thoughts untangled from their ugly snarls and became smooth and peaceful. She thought, “I will be good. It doesn’t matter how hateful Nellie Oleson is, I will be good.”

  Chapter 12

  Snug for Winter

  All through the pleasant fall weather Laura and Carrie were busy girls. In the mornings they helped do the chores and get breakfast. Then they filled their dinner pail, dressed for school and hurried away on the mile walk to town. After school they hurried home, for there was work to do until darkness came.

  Saturday was a whole day of busy working, in a hurry to be ready to move to town.

  Laura and Carrie picked up potatoes while Pa dug them. They cut the tops from turnips and helped Pa pile them in the wagon. They pulled and topped the carrots, too, and the beets and onions. They gathered the tomatoes and the ground-cherries.

  The ground-cherries grew on low leafy bushes. Thick on the stems under the large leaves hung the six-cornered bells, pale grey and thinner than paper, and inside each bell was a plump, golden, juicy round fruit.

  The husk-tomatoes were covered with a smooth, dull-brown husk. When this was opened there lay the round, bright-purple tomato, larger than a ground-cherry but much smaller than the red tomatoes that openly flaunted their bright colors.

  All day long while the girls were in school, Ma made preserves of the red tomatoes, of the purple husk-tomatoes, and of the golden ground-cherries. She made pickles of the green tomatoes that would not have time to ripen before it froze. The house was full o
f the sirupy scent of preserves and the spicy odor of pickles.

  “We will take our provisions with us when we move to town this time,” said Pa with satisfaction. “And we must go soon. I don’t want another October blizzard to catch us in this thin-walled little house.”

  “This winter isn’t going to be as hard as last winter,” Laura said. “The weather doesn’t feel the same.”

  “No,” Pa agreed. “It isn’t likely this winter will be as hard, nor come as soon, but this time I intend to be ready for it when it does come.”

  He hauled the oat straw and the corn fodder and stacked them near his haystacks in town. He hauled the potatoes and turnips, beets and carrots, and stored them in the cellar of his store building. Then busily all one Monday evening and far into the night, Laura and Carrie helped Ma pack clothes and dishes and books.

  It was then that Laura discovered a secret. She was on her knees, lifting winter underwear out of Ma’s bottom bureau drawer, and under the red flannels she felt something hard. She put in her hand and drew out a book.

  It was a perfectly new book, beautifully bound in green cloth with a gilded pattern pressed into it. The smooth, straight, gilt edges of the pages looked like solid gold. On the cover two curving scrolls of lovely, fancy letters made the words,

  Laura was so startled and so amazed by this rich and beautiful book, hidden there among the flannels, that she almost dropped it. It fell open on her hands. In the lamplight the fresh, untouched pages lay spread, each exciting with unread words printed upon it in clear, fine type. Straight, thin red lines enclosed each oblong of printing, like the treasure it was, and outside the red lines were the page’s pure margins.

  Near the bottom of the left-hand page was a short line in larger type: THE LOTOS-EATERS.

  “Courage!” was the first word under that, and breathlessly Laura read,

  “Courage!” he said, and pointed to the land,

  “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.”

  In the afternoon they came unto a land

  In which it seemed always afternoon.

  All round the coast the languid air did swoon,

  Breathing like one that hath a weary dream.

  Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;

  And, like a—

  Laura stopped, aghast. Suddenly she had realized what she was doing. Ma must have hidden this book. Laura had no right to read it. Quickly she shut her eyes, and then she shut the book. It was almost more than she could do, not to read just one word more, just to the end of that one line. But she knew that she must not yield one tiny bit of temptation.

  She put the book where it had been, between the red flannels. She put the flannels back into the drawer, shut the drawer, and opened the drawer above it. Then she did not know what to do.

  She should confess to Ma what she had done. But instantly she knew that Ma must be keeping the book hidden, for a surprise. She thought swiftly, and her heart was pounding hard, that Pa and Ma must have bought that book in Vinton, Iowa; they must be saving it for a Christmas present. A book so rich and fine, a book of poems, could only be a Christmas present. And Laura was the oldest girl at home now; it must be a Christmas present for her!

  If she confessed to Ma, she would spoil their Christmas pleasure, that they were looking forward to. Pa and Ma would be so disappointed.

  It seemed a long time since she had found that book, but really it had only been a moment. Ma came in hurriedly and said, “I’ll finish in here, Laura, you go to bed now, it’s past your bedtime.”

  “Yes, Ma,” Laura said. She knew that Ma had feared she would open that lower drawer and find the book. Never before had she kept a guilty secret from Ma, but now she did not say a word.

  After school next day, she and Carrie did not take the long walk to the claim. Instead they stopped at Pa’s store building at the corner of Second Street and Main. Pa and Ma had moved into town for the winter.

  The stove and the cupboard were set up in the kitchen. Upstairs the bedsteads stood under the slanting shingle roof, the straw ticks lay plumply on them under heaped quilts and pillows. Making the beds was all that Ma had left for Laura and Carrie to do. And Laura was sure that the Christmas book, Tennyson’s Poems, was hidden in Ma’s bureau drawer. She would never look to see, of course.

  Yet every time she saw the bureau she could not help thinking,

  Full-faced above the valley stood the moon;

  And, like a—

  Like what? She would have to wait until Christmas to learn the rest of that lovely poem. “Courage!” he said, and pointed to the land. “This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon.” In the afternoon they came unto a land in which it seemed always afternoon. But it did not seem to Laura that Christmas was soon.

  Downstairs Ma had already made the big storeroom neat and pleasant. The heater was polished, the curtains hung fresh at the window, the clean little rag rugs lay on the swept floor. The two rocking chairs were in the sunny corner. Mary’s was empty.

  Often Laura missed Mary so much that she ached. But it would do no good to speak of it. Mary was in college, where she had so wanted to be. A teacher had written Pa that she was well and making rapid progress; soon she would be able to write a letter.

  So no one spoke of the emptiness they all felt now. Quietly and cheerfully they went about getting supper and setting the table, and Ma did not know that she sighed when she said, “Well, we are all settled snug for the winter.”

  “Yes,” Pa said. “This time we are well fixed for it.”

  They were not the only ones who were ready. Everyone in the town had been preparing. The lumberyard was stocked with coal, the merchants had stuffed their stores full of goods. There was flour at the mill, and wheat in its bins.

  “We will have coal to burn and something to eat all winter, if the trains can’t get through,” Pa gloated. It was good to feel safe and prospering, with food enough and fuel enough so that they need not dread hunger or cold.

  Laura missed the pleasant long walks to school and back. She had delighted in them. But now there was no hurry in the mornings, since she had no chores to do. Pa did them all, now that he had no farm work. And the shorter walk was better for Carrie.

  Pa and Ma and Laura were worried about Carrie. She had never been strong, and she was not recovering from the hard winter as she should. They spared her all but the lightest housework, and Ma coaxed her appetite with the best there was to eat. Still she was thin and pale, small for her age and spindly. Her eyes were too large in her peaked little face. Often in the mornings, though the walk was only a mile and Laura carried her books, Carrie grew tired before they reached the schoolhouse. Sometimes her head ached so badly that she failed in her recitations. Living in town was easier. It would be much better for Carrie.

  Chapter 13

  School Days

  Laura was enjoying school. She knew all the pupils now, and she and Ida, Mary Power and Minnie, were becoming fast friends. At recess and noon they were always together.

  In the crisp, sunny weather the boys played ante-over and catch, and sometimes they just threw the ball against the schoolhouse and ran jostling and bumping together to catch it in the wild prairie grasses. Often they coaxed Laura, “Come, play with us, Laura. Aw, come on!”

  It was tomboyish to run and play, at her age. But she did so love to run and jump and catch the ball and throw it, that sometimes she did join in the games. The boys were only little boys. She liked them, and she never complained when the games grew rough now and then. One day she overheard Charley saying, “She isn’t a sissy, even if she is a girl.”

  Hearing that made her feel glad and cozy. When even little boys like a big girl, she knows that everyone likes her.

  The other girls knew that Laura was not really a tomboy, even when her face was hot from running and jumping, and the hairpins were coming loose in her hair. Ida sometimes played, too, and Mary Power and Minnie would look on, applauding. Only Nellie Oleson turned up he
r nose.

  Nellie would not even go walking, though they asked her politely. It was all “too rough, really,” she said.

  “She’s afraid of spoiling her New York State complexion,” Ida laughed.

  “I think she stays in the school house to make friends with Miss Wilder,” said Mary Power. “She talks to her all the time.”

  “Well, let her. We have a much better time without her,” Minnie said.

  “Miss Wilder used to live in New York State, too. Likely that is what they talk about,” Laura remarked.

  Mary Power gave her a laughing, sidelong glance and squeezed her arm. No one called Nellie “teacher’s pet,” but that was what they were thinking. Laura did not care. She was at the head of the class in all their studies, and she need not be a teacher’s pet to stay there.

  Every evening after supper she studied till bedtime. It was then that she missed Mary most painfully. They had always gone over their lessons together. But she knew that far away in Iowa, Mary was studying, too, and if she were to stay in college and enjoy all its wonderful opportunities of learning, Laura must get a teacher’s certificate.

  All this went through her head in a flash, while she went walking, arm in arm with Mary Power and Ida. “You know what I think?” Minnie asked.

  “No, what?” they all asked her.

  “I bet that’s what Nellie’s scheming about,” Minnie said, and she nodded at a team that was coming toward them along the wagon tracks ahead. It was the brown Morgan horses.

  All their slender legs were moving swiftly, their hoofs raising little explosions of dust. Their glossy shoulders glistened, their black manes and tails blew shining in the wind. Their ears pricked forward, and their glancing bright eyes saw everything gaily. Dancing little red tassels trimmed their bridles.

 
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