THE LONG BLIZZARD
A storm was dying down at supper-time one day, and Pa said: “Tomorrow I’m going to town. I need some tobacco for my pipe and I want to hear the news. Do you need anything, Caroline?”
“No, Charles,” said Ma. “Don’t go. These blizzards come up so fast.”
“There’ll be no danger tomorrow,” said Pa. “We’ve just had a three-days’ blizzard. There’s plenty of wood chopped to last through the next one, and I can take time to go to town now.”
“Well, if you think best,” Ma said. “At least, Charles, promise me that you will stay in town if a storm comes up.”
“I wouldn’t try to stir a step without safe hold on a rope, in one of these storms,” said Pa. “But it is not like you, Caroline, to be afraid to have me go anywhere.”
“I can’t help it,” Ma answered. “I don’t feel right about your going. I have a feeling—it’s just foolishness, I guess.”
Pa laughed. “I’ll bring in the woodpile, just in case I do have to stay in town.”
He filled the woodbox and piled wood high around it. Ma urged him to put on an extra pair of socks, to keep his feet from being frost-bitten. So, Laura brought the bootjack and Pa pulled off his boots and drew another pair of socks over those he already wore. Ma gave him a new pair which she had just finished knitting of thick, warm wool.
“I do wish you had a buffalo overcoat,” said Ma. “That old coat is worn so thin.”
“And I wish you had some diamonds,” said Pa. “Don’t you worry, Caroline. It won’t be long till spring.”
Pa smiled at them while he buckled the belt of his old, threadbare overcoat and put on his warm felt cap.
“That wind is so bitter cold, Charles,” Ma worried. “Do pull down the earlaps.”
“Not this morning!” said Pa. “Let the wind whistle! Now you girls be good, all of you, till I come back.” And his eyes twinkled at Laura as he shut the door behind him.
After Laura and Mary had washed and wiped the dishes, swept the floor, made their bed, and dusted, they settled down with their books. But the house was so cosy and pretty that Laura kept looking up at it.
The black stove was polished till it gleamed. A kettle of beans was bubbling on its top and bread was baking in the oven. Sunshine slanted through the shining windows between the pink- edged curtains. The red-checked cloth was on the table. Beside the clock on its shelf stood Carrie’s little brown-and-white dog, and Laura’s sweet jewel-box. And the little pink-and-white shepherdess stood smiling on the wood-brown bracket.
Ma had brought her mending-basket to her rocking-chair by the window, and Carrie sat on the footstool by her knee. While Ma rocked and mended, she heard Carrie say her letters in the primer. Carrie told big A and little a, big B and little b, then she laughed and talked and looked at the pictures. She was still so little that she did not have to keep quiet and study.
The clock struck twelve. Laura watched its pendulum wagging, and the black hands moving on the round white face. It was time for Pa to come home. The beans were cooked, the bread was baked. Everything was ready for Pa’s dinner. Laura’s eyes strayed to the window. She stared a moment before she knew that something was wrong with the sunshine.
“Ma!” she cried, “the sun is a funny color.”
Ma looked up from her mending, startled. She went quickly into the bedroom, where she could see the north-west, and she came quietly back.
“You may put away your books, girls,” she said. “Bundle up and bring in more wood. If Pa hasn’t started home, he will stay in town and we will need more wood in the house.”
From the woodpile Laura and Mary saw the dark cloud coming. They hurried, they ran, but there was time only to get into the house with their armloads of wood before the storm came howling. It seemed angry that they had got the two loads of wood. Snow whirled so thickly that they could not see the doorstep, and Ma said:
“That will do for now. The storm can’t get much worse, and Pa may come in a few minutes.” Mary and Laura took off their wraps and warmed their cold-stiff hands. Then they waited for Pa.
The wind shrieked and howled and jeered around the house. Snow swished against the blank windows. The long black hand of the clock moved slowly around its face, the shorthand moved to one, and then to two.
Ma dished up three bowls of the hot beans. She broke into pieces a small loaf of the fresh warm bread.
“Here, girls,” she said. “You might as well eat your dinner. Pa must have stayed in town.”
She had forgotten to fill a bowl for herself. Then she forgot to eat until Mary reminded her. Even then she did not really eat; she said she was not hungry.
The storm was growing worse. The house trembled in the wind. Cold crept over the floor, and powdery snow was driven in around the windows and the doors that Pa had made so tight.
“Pa has surely stayed in town,” Ma said. “He will stay there all night, and I’d better do the chores now.”
She drew on Pa’s old, tall stable-boots. Her little feet were lost in them, but they would keep out the snow. She fastened Pa’s jumper snug at her throat and belted it around her waist. She tied her hood and put on her mittens.
“May I go with you, Ma?” Laura asked. “No,” said Ma. “Now listen to me. Be careful of fire. Nobody but Mary is to touch the stove, no matter how long I am gone. Nobody is to go out- doors, or even open a door, till I come back.”
She hung the milk-pail on her arm and reached through the whirling snow till she got hold of the clothesline. She shut the back door behind her.
Laura ran to the darkened window, but she could not see Ma. She could see nothing but the whirling whiteness swishing against the glass. The wind screamed and howled and gibbered. There seemed to be voices in it.
Ma would go step by step, holding tight to the clothesline. She would come to the post and go on, blind in the hard snow whirling and scratching her cheeks. Laura tried to think slowly, one step at a time, till now, surely, Ma bumped against the stable door.
Ma opened the door and blew in with the snow. She turned and pushed the door shut quickly and dropped the latch into its notch. The stable would be warm from the heat of the animals, and steamy with their breath. It was quiet there; the storm was outside, and the sod walls were thick. Now Sam and David turned their heads and whickered to Ma. The cow coaxed, “Moo-oo,” and the big calf cried, “Baw!” The pullets were scratching here and there, and one of the hens was saying to herself, “Crai-ai-kree- eek.”
Ma would clean all the stalls with the pitch- fork. Forkful by forkful she threw the old bedding on the manure-pile. Then she took the hay they had left in their mangers and spread it to make them clean beds.
From the hay-pile she pitched fresh hay into manger after manger, till all four mangers were full. Sam and David and Spot and her calf munched the rustling good hay. They were not very thirsty, because Pa had watered them all be- fore he went to town.
With the old knife that Pa kept by the turnip- pile Ma cut up turnips. She put some in each feed- box, and now the horses and cattle crunched the crisp turnips. Ma looked at the hens’ water-dish to make sure they had water. She scattered a little corn for them and gave them a turnip to peck.
Now she must be milking Spot.
Laura waited until she was sure that Ma was hanging up the milking-stool. Carefully fastening the stable door behind her, Ma came back toward the house, holding tight to the rope.
But she did not come. Laura waited a long time. She made up her mind to wait longer, and she did. The wind was shaking the house now. Snow as fine and grainy as sugar covered the windowsill and sifted off to the floor and did not melt.
Laura shivered in her shawl. She kept on staring at the blank window-panes, hearing the swishing snow and the howling, jeering winds. She was thinking of the children whose Pa and Ma never came. They burned all the furniture and froze stark stiff.
Then Laura could be still no longer. The fire was burning well, but only that end of the room was really warm. Laura pulled the rocking-chair near the open oven and set Carrie in it and straightened her dress. Carrie rocked the chair gaily, while Laura and Mary went on waiting.
At last the back door burst open. Laura flew to Ma. Mary took the milk-pail while Laura untied Ma’s hood. Ma was too cold and breathless to speak. They helped her out of the jumper.
The first thing she said was, “Is there any milk left?”
There was a little milk in the bottom of the pail, and some was frozen to the pail’s inside.
“The wind is terrible,” Ma said. She warmed her hands, and then she lighted the lamp and set it on the windowsill.
“Why are you doing that, Ma?” Mary asked her, and Ma said, “Don’t you think the lamp- light’s pretty, shining against the snow outside?”
When she was rested, they ate their supper of bread and milk. Then they all sat still by the stove and listened. They heard the voices howling and shrieking in the wind, and the house creaking, and the snow swishing.
“This will never do!” said Ma. “Let’s play bean-porridge hot! Mary, you and Laura play it together, and, Carrie, you hold up your hands. We’ll do it faster than Mary and Laura can!”
So, they all played bean-porridge hot, faster and faster until they could not say the rhymes, for laughing. Then Mary and Laura washed the sup- per cups, while Ma settled down to her knitting.
Carrie wanted more bean-porridge hot, so Mary and Laura took turns playing it with her. Every time they stopped, she shouted, “More! More!”
The voices in the storm howled and giggled and shrieked, and the house trembled. Laura was patting on Carrie’s hands, “Some like it hot, some like it cold, Some like it in the pot, nine days-”
The stovepipe sharply rattled. Laura looked up and screamed, “Ma! The house is on fire!”
A ball of fire was rolling down the stovepipe. It was bigger than Ma’s big ball of yarn. It rolled across the stove and dropped to the floor as Ma sprang up. She snatched up her skirts and stamped on it. But it seemed to jump through her foot, and it rolled to the knitting she had dropped.
Ma tried to brush it into the ashpan. It ran in front of her knitting needles, but it followed the needles back. Another ball of fire had rolled down the stovepipe, and another. They rolled across the floor after the knitting needles and did not burn the floor.
“My goodness!” Ma said.
While they watched those balls of fire rolling, suddenly there were only two. Then there were none. No one had seen where they went.
“That is the strangest thing I ever saw,” said Ma. She was afraid.
All the hair on Jack’s back was standing up. He walked to the door, lifted up his nose, and howled.
Mary cowered in her chair and Ma put her hands over her ears. “For pity’s sake, Jack, hush,” she begged him.
Laura ran to Jack, but he did not want to be hugged. He went back to his corner and lay with his nose on his paws, his hair bristling and his eyes shining in the shadow.
Ma held Carrie, and Laura and Mary crowded into the rocking-chair, too. They heard the wild voices of the storm and felt Jack’s eyes shining, till Ma said:
“Better run along to bed, girls. The sooner you’re asleep, the sooner it will be morning.”
She kissed them good-night, and Mary climbed the attic ladder. But Laura stopped halfway up. Ma was warming Carrie’s nightgown by the oven. Laura asked her, low, “Pa did stay in town, didn’t he?”
Ma did not look up. She said cheerfully, “Why, surely, Laura. No doubt he and Mr. Fitch are sitting by the stove now, telling stories and cracking jokes.”
Laura went to bed. Deep in the night she woke and saw lamplight shining up through the ladder-hole. She crept out of bed into the cold, and kneeling on the floor she looked down.
Ma sat alone in her chair. Her head was bowed, and she was very still, but her eyes were open, looking at her hands clasped in her lap. The lamp was shining in the window.
For a long time, Laura looked down. Ma did not move. The lamp went on shining. The storm howled and hooted after things that fled shrieking through the enormous dark around the frightened house. At last Laura crept silently back to bed and lay shivering.