Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 5)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Working in Town
No one could imagine what work there could be for a girl in town, if it wasn’t working as a hired girl in the hotel.
“It’s a new idea of Clancy’s,” Pa said. Mr. Clancy was one of the new merchants. Pa was working on his store building. “We’ve got the store pretty near finished, and he’s moving in his dry goods. His wife’s mother’s come West with them, and she’s going to make shirts.”
“Make shirts?” said Ma.
“Yes. So many men are baching on their claims around here that Clancy figures he’ll get most of the trade in yard goods, with somebody there in the store making them up into shirts, for men that haven’t got any womenfolks to do their sewing.”
“That is a good idea,” Ma had to admit.
“You bet! There’s no flies on Clancy,” said Pa, “He’s got a machine to sew the shirts.”
Ma was interested. “A sewing machine. Is it like that picture we saw in the Inter-Ocean? How does it work?”
“About like I figured out it would,” Pa answered. “You work the pedal with your feet, and that turns the wheel and works the needle up and down. There’s a little contraption underneath the needle that’s wound full of thread, too. Clancy was showing some of us. It goes like greased lightning, and makes as neat a seam as you’d want to see.
“I wonder how much it costs,” said Ma.
“’Way too much for ordinary folks,” said Pa. “But Clancy looks on it as an investment; he’ll get his money back in profits.”
“Yes, of course,” Ma said. Laura knew she was thinking how much work such a machine would save, but even if they could afford it, it would be foolish to buy one only for family sewing. “Does he expect Laura to learn how to run it?”
Laura was alarmed. She could not be responsible for some accident to such a costly machine.
“Oh, no, Mrs. White’s going to run it,” Pa replied. “She wants a good handy girl to help with the hand sewing.”
He said to Laura: “She was asking me if I knew such a girl. I told her you’re a good sewer, and she wants you to come in and help her. Clancy’s got more orders for shirts than she can handle by herself. She says she’ll pay a good willing worker twenty-five cents a day and dinner.”
Quickly Laura multiplied in her head. That was a dollar and a half a week, a little more than six dollars a month. If she worked hard and pleased Mrs. White, maybe she could work all summer. She might earn fifteen dollars, maybe even twenty, to help send Mary to college.
She did not want to work in town, among strangers. But she couldn’t refuse a chance to earn maybe fifteen dollars, or ten, or five. She swallowed, and asked, “May I go, Ma?”
Ma sighed. “I don’t like it much, but it isn’t as if you had to go alone. Your Pa will be there in town. Yes, if you want to, you may.”
“I—don’t want to leave you all the work to do,” Laura faltered.
Carrie eagerly offered to help. She could make beds, and sweep, and do the dishes by herself, and weed in the garden. Ma said that Mary was a great help in the house, too, and now that the stock was picketed out, the evening’s chores were not so much to do. She said, “We’ll miss you, Laura, but we can manage.”
There was no time to waste next morning. Laura brought the water and milked Ellen, she hurried to wash and to brush and braid her hair and pin it up. She put on her newest calico dress, and stockings and shoes. She rolled up her thimble in a freshly ironed apron.
The little breakfast that she had time to swallow had no taste. She tied on her sunbonnet and hurried away with Pa. They must be at work in town by seven o’clock.
Morning freshness was in the air. Meadow larks were singing, and up from Big Slough rose the thunder-pumps with long legs dangling and long necks outstretched, giving their short, booming cry. It was a beautiful, lively morning, but Pa and Laura were too hurried. They were running a race with the sun.
Up rose the sun with no effort at all, while they kept walking as fast as they could, north on the prairie road toward the south end of Main Street.
The town was so changed that it seemed like a new place. Two whole blocks on the west side of Main Street were solidly filled with new, yellow-pine buildings. A new board sidewalk was in front of them. Pa and Laura did not have time to cross the street to it. They hurried, Indian file, along the narrow dusty path on the other side of the street.
On this side, the prairie still covered all the vacant lots, right up to Pa’s stable and his office-building at the corner of Main and Second
Streets. But beyond them, on the other side of Second Street, the studding of a new building stood on the corner lot. Beyond it, the path hurried past vacant lots again till it came to Clancy’s new store.
The inside of the store was all new, and still smelled of pine shavings. It had, too, the faint starchy smell of bolts of new cloth. Behind two long counters, all along both walls ran long shelves, stacked to the ceiling with bolts of muslin and calicoes and lawns, challis and cashmeres and flannels and even silks.
There were no groceries, and no hardware, no shoes or tools. In the whole store there was nothing but dry goods. Laura had never before seen a store where nothing was sold but dry goods.
At her right hand was a short counter-top of glass, and inside it were cards of all kinds of buttons, and papers of needles and pins. On the counter beside it, a rack was full of spools of thread of every color. Those colored threads were beautiful in the light from the windows.
The sewing machine stood just behind the front end of the other counter, near that window. Its nickel parts and its long needle glittered and its varnished wood shone. A spool of white thread stood up on its thin black ridge. Laura would not have touched it for anything.
Mr. Clancy was unrolling bolts of calico before two customers, men in very dirty shirts. A large, fat woman with tight-combed black hair was pinning pattern pieces of newspaper to a length of checked calico spread on the counter near the sewing machine. Pa took off his hat and said good morning to her. He said, “Mrs. White, here’s my girl, Laura.”
Mrs. White took the pins out of her mouth and said, “I hope you’re a fast, neat sewer. Can you baste bias facings and make good firm buttonholes?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Laura said.
“Well, you can hang your bonnet on that nail there, and I’ll get you started,” said Mrs. White.
Pa gave Laura a helping smile, and then he was gone.
Laura hoped that her trembly feeling would wear off, in time. She hung up her bonnet, tied on her apron, and put her finger into the thimble. Mrs. White handed her pieces of a shirt to baste together, and told her to take the chair in the window by the sewing machine.
Quickly Laura drew the straight-backed chair back a little way, so that the sewing machine partly hid her from the street. She bent her head over her work and basted rapidly.
Mrs. White did not say a word. Anxiously and nervously she kept fitting the pattern-pieces to the goods and cutting out shirt after shirt with long shears. As soon as Laura finished basting a shirt, Mrs. White took it from her and gave her another to baste. After a time, she sat down at the machine. She whirled its wheel with her hand, and then her feet working fast on the pedal underneath kept the wheel whirring. The racketing hum of the machine filled Laura’s head like the buzzing of a gigantic bumblebee. The wheel was a blur and the needle was a streak of light. Mrs. White’s plump hands scrambled on the cloth, feeding it rapidly under the needle.
Laura basted as fast as she could. She put the basted shirt on the shrinking pile at Mrs. White’s left hand, seized pieces of the next one from the counter and basted it. Mrs. White took basted shirts from the pile, sewed them on the machine and piled them at her right hand.
There was a pattern in the way the shirts went, from the counter to Laura to a pile, from the pile to Mrs. White and through the machine to another pile. It was something like the circles that men and teams had made on the prairie, building the railroad. But only Laura’s hands moved, driving the needle as fast as they could along the seams.
Her shoulders began to ache, and the back of her neck. Her chest was cramped and her legs felt tired and heavy. The loud machine buzzed in her head.
Suddenly the machine stopped, still. “There!” Mrs. White said. She had sewed the last basted shirt.
Laura had to gather a sleeve and to baste the armhole and the underarm seam. And the pieces of one more shirt lay waiting on the counter.
“I’ll baste that one,” Mrs. White said, snatching it up. “We’re behindhand.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Laura said. She felt she should have worked faster, but she had done the best she could.
A big man looked in at the door. His dusty face was covered with an unshaved stubble of red beard. He called, “My shirts ready, Clancy?”
“Be ready right after noon,” Mr. Clancy answered.
When the big man had gone on, Mr. Clancy asked Mrs. White when his shirts would be done. Mrs. White said she did not know which were. Then Mr. Clancy swore.
Laura scrooged small in her chair, basting as fast as she could. Mr. Clancy snatched shirts from the pile and almost threw them at Mrs. White. Still shouting and swearing, he said she’d get them done before dinner or he’d know the reason why.
“I’ll not be driven and hounded!” Mrs. White blazed. “Not by you nor any other shanty Irishman!”
Laura hardly heard what Mr. Clancy said then. She wanted desperately to be somewhere else. But Mrs. White told her to come along to dinner. They went into the kitchen behind the store, and Mr. Clancy came raging after them.
The kitchen was hot and crowded and cluttered. Mrs. Clancy was putting dinner on the table, and three little girls and a boy were pushing each other off their chairs. Mr. and Mrs. Clancy and Mrs. White, all quarreling at the top of their voices, sat down and ate heartily. Laura could not even understand what they were quarreling about. She could not tell whether Mr. Clancy was quarreling with his wife or her mother, nor whether they were quarreling with him or with each other.
They seemed so angry that she was afraid they would strike each other. Then Mr. Clancy would say, “Pass the bread,” or, “Fill up this cup, will you?” Mrs. Clancy would do it, while they went on calling each other names, yelling them. The children paid no attention. Laura was so upset that she could not eat, she wanted only to get away. She went back to her work as soon as she could.
Mr. Clancy came from the kitchen whistling a tune, as if he had just had a nice, quiet dinner with his family. He asked Mrs. White cheerfully, “How long’ll it take to finish those shirts?”
“Not more than a couple of hours,” Mrs. White promised. “We’ll both work on them.”
Laura thought of Ma’s saying, “It takes all kinds of people to make a world.”
In two hours they finished the four shirts. Laura basted the collars carefully; collars are hard to set properly onto a shirt. Mrs. White sewed them on the machine. Then there were the cuffs to set on the sleeves, and the narrow hems all around the shirt bottoms to be done. Then the fronts, and the cuff openings, were to be faced. There were all the small buttons to sew firmly on, and the buttonholes to be made.
It is not easy to space buttonholes exactly the same distance apart, and it is very difficult to cut them precisely the right size. The tiniest slip of the scissors will make the hole too large, and even one thread uncut will leave it too small.
When she had cut the buttonholes, Laura whipped the cut edges swiftly, and swiftly covered them with the small, knotted stitches, all precisely the same length and closely set together. She so hated making buttonholes that she had learned to do them quickly, and get it over with. Mrs. White noticed her work, and said, “You can beat me making buttonholes.”
After those four shirts were done, there were only three more hours of work that day. Laura went on finishing shirts, while Mrs. White cut out more.
Laura had never sat still so long. Her shoulders ached, her neck ached, her fingers were roughened by needle pricks and her eyes were hot and blurry. Twice she had to take out bastings and do them over. She was glad to stand up and fold her work when Pa came in.
They walked briskly home together. The whole day had gone and now the sun was setting.
“How did you like your first day of working for pay, Half-Pint?” Pa asked her. “You make out all right?”
“I think so,” she answered. “Mrs. White spoke well of my buttonholes.”