Little Town on the Prairie (Chaprer 10)
Little Town on the Prairie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mary Goes To College
The last day came. Tomorrow Mary was going away.
Pa and Ma had brought home her new trunk. It was covered outside with bright tin, pressed into little bumps that made a pattern. Strips of shiny varnished wood were riveted around its middle and up its corners, and three strips ran lengthwise of its curved lid. Short pieces of iron were screwed onto the corners, to protect the wooden strips. When the lid was shut down, two iron tongues fitted into two small iron pockets, and two pairs of iron rings came together so that the trunk could be locked with padlocks.
“It’s a good, solid trunk,” Pa said. “And I got fifty feet of stout new rope to rope it with.”
Mary’s face shone while she felt it over carefully with her sensitive fingers and Laura told her about the bright tin and shiny yellow wood. Ma said, “It is the very newest style in trunks, Mary, and it should last you a lifetime.”
Inside, the trunk was smooth-polished wood. Ma lined it carefully with newspapers, and packed tightly into it all Mary’s belongings. Every corner she crammed with wadded newspapers, so firmly that nothing could move during the rough journey on the train. She put in many layers of newspapers, too, for she feared that Mary did not have enough clothes to fill the trunk. But when everything was in and cram-jammed down as tightly as possible, the paper-covered mound rose up high enough to fill the curved lid, and Ma sat on it to hold it down while Pa snapped the padlocks.
Then, rolling the trunk end over end, and over and over, Pa tugged and strained loops of the new rope around it, and Laura helped hold the rope tight while he drew the knots fast.
“There,” he said finally. “That’s one job well done.” As long as they were busy, they could keep pushed deep down inside them the knowledge that Mary was going away. Now everything was done. It was not yet supper time, and the time was empty, for thinking.
Pa cleared his throat and went out of the house. Ma brought her darning basket, but she set it on the table and stood looking out of the window. Grace begged, “Don’t go away, Mary, why? Don’t go away, tell me a story.”
This was the last time that Mary would hold Grace in her lap and tell the story of Grandpa and the panther in the Big Woods of Wisconsin. Grace would be a big girl before Mary came back.
“No, Grace, you must not tease,” Ma said, when the story was finished. “What would you like for supper, Mary?” It would be Mary’s last supper at home.
“Anything you put on the table is good, Ma,” Mary answered.
“It is so hot,” Ma said. “I believe I will have cottage cheese balls with onions in them, and the cold creamed peas. Suppose you bring in some lettuce and tomatoes from the garden, Laura.”
Suddenly Mary asked, “Could I come with you? I would like a little walk.”
“You needn’t hurry,” Ma told them. “There is plenty of time before supper.”
They went walking past the stable and up the low hill beyond. The sun was sinking to rest, like a king, Laura thought, drawing the gorgeous curtains of his great bed around him. But Mary was not pleased by such fancies. So Laura said, “The sun is sinking, Mary, into white downy clouds that spread to the edge of the world. All the tops of them are crimson, and streaming down from the top of the sky are great gorgeous curtains of rose and gold with pearly edges. They are a great canopy over the whole prairie. The little streaks of sky between them are clear, pure green.”
Mary stood still. “I’ll miss our walks,” she said, her voice trembling a little.
“So will I.” Laura swallowed, and said, “but only think, you are going to college.”
“I couldn’t have, without you,” Mary said. “You have always helped me to study, and you gave Ma your nine dollars for me.”
“It wasn’t much,” said Laura. “It wasn’t anything like I wish I—”
“It was, too!” Mary contradicted. “It was a lot.”
Laura’s throat choked up. She winked her eyelids hard and took a deep breath but her voice quivered. “I hope you like college, Mary.”
“Oh, I will. I will!” Mary breathed. “Think of being able to study and learn—Oh, everything! Even to play the organ. I do owe it partly to you, Laura. Even if you aren’t teaching school yet, you have helped me to go.”
“I am going to teach school as soon as I am old enough,” said Laura. “Then I can help more.”
“I wish you didn’t have to,” Mary said.
“Well, I do have to,” Laura replied. “But I can’t, till I’m sixteen. That’s the law, a teacher has to be sixteen years old.”
“I won’t be here then,” said Mary. Then suddenly they felt as if she were going away forever. The years ahead of them were empty and frightening.
“Oh, Laura, I never have been away from home before. I don’t know what I’ll do,” Mary confessed. She was trembling all over.
“It will be all right,” Laura told her stoutly. “Ma and Pa are going with you, and I know you can pass the examinations. Don’t be scared.”
“I’m not scared. I won’t be scared,” Mary insisted. “I’ll be lonesome. But that can’t be helped.”
“No,” Laura said. After a minute she cleared her throat and told Mary, “The sun has gone through the white clouds. It is a huge, pulsing ball of liquid fire. The clouds above it are scarlet and crimson and gold and purple, and the great sweeps of cloud over the whole sky are burning flames.”
“It seems to me I can feel their light on my face,” Mary said. “I wonder if the sky and the sunsets are different in Iowa?”
Laura did not know. They came slowly down the low hill. This was the end of their last walk together, or at least, their last walk for such a long time that it seemed forever.
“I am sure I can pass the examinations, because you helped me so much,” Mary said. “You went over every word of your lessons with me, until I do know everything in the school books. But Laura, what will you do? Pa is spending so much for me—the trunk, and a new coat, a new pair of shoes, the railroad fares, and all—it worries me. How can he ever manage school books and clothes for you and Carrie?”
“Never mind, Pa and Ma will manage,” said Laura. “You know they always do.”
Early next morning, even before Laura was dressed, Ma was scalding and plucking the blackbirds that Pa had killed. She fried them after breakfast, and as soon as they were cool she packed in a shoe box the lunch to take on the train.
Pa and Ma and Mary had bathed the night before. Now Mary put on her best old calico dress and her second-best shoes. Ma dressed in her summer challis, and Pa put on his Sunday suit. A neighbor boy had agreed to drive them to the depot. Pa and Ma would be gone a week, and when they came home without Mary they could walk from town.
The wagon came. The freckled boy, with red hair sticking through a rent in his straw hat, helped Pa load Mary’s trunk into the wagon. The sun was shining hot and the wind was blowing.
“Now, Carrie and Grace, be good girls and mind Laura,” Ma said. “Remember to keep the chickens’ water pan filled, Laura, and look out for hawks, and scald and sun the milk pans every day.”
“Yes, Ma,” they all answered.
“Good-by,” Mary said. “Good-by Laura. And Carrie. And Grace.”
“Good-by,” Laura and Carrie managed to say. Grace only stared round-eyed. Pa helped Mary to climb up the wagonwheel to sit with Ma and the boy on the wagon seat. He took his seat on the trunk.
“All right, let’s go,” he said to the boy. “Good-by, girls.”
The wagon started. Grace’s mouth opened wide and she bawled.
“For shame, Grace! For shame! a big girl like you, crying!” Laura choked out. Her throat was swelling so that it hurt. Carrie looked as though she might cry in a moment. “Shame on you!” Laura said again, and Grace gulped down a last sob.
Pa and Ma and Mary did not look back. They had to go. The wagon taking them away left silence behind it. Laura had never felt such a stillness. It was not the happy stillness of the prairie. She felt it in the very pit of her stomach.
“Come,” she said. “We’ll go into the house.”
That silence had settled into the house. It was so still that Laura felt she must whisper. Grace smothered a whimpering. They stood there in their own house and felt nothing around them but silence and emptiness. Mary was gone.
Grace began to cry again and two large tears stood in Carrie’s eyes. This would never do. Right now, and for a whole week, everything was in Laura’s charge, and Ma must be able to depend on her.
“Listen to me, Carrie and Grace,” she said briskly. “We are going to clean this house from top to bottom, and we’ll begin right now! So when Ma comes home, she’ll find the fall housecleaning done.”
There had never been such a busy time in all Laura’s life. The work was hard, too. She had not realized how heavy a quilt is, to lift soaked and dripping from a tub, and to wring out, and to hang on a line. She had not known how hard it would be, sometimes, never to be cross with Grace who was always trying to help and only making more work. It was amazing, too, how dirty they all got, while cleaning a house that had seemed quite clean. The harder they worked, the dirtier everything became.
The worst day of all was very hot. They had tugged and lugged the straw ticks outdoors, and emptied them and washed them, and when they were dry they had filled them with sweet fresh hay. They had got the bed springs off the bedsteads and leaned them against the walls, and Laura had jammed her finger. Now they were pulling the bedsteads apart. Laura jerked at one corner and Carrie jerked at the other. The corners came apart, and suddenly the headboard came down on Laura’s head so that she saw stars.
“Oh, Laura! did it hurt you?” Carrie cried.
“Well, not very much,” Laura said. She pushed the headboard against the wall, and it slid down softly and hit her anklebone. “Ouch!” she couldn’t help yelling. Then she added, “Let it lie there if it wants to!”
“We have to scrub the floor,” Carrie pointed out.
“I know we have to,” Laura said grimly. She sat on the floor, gripping her ankle. Her straggling hair stuck to her sweating neck. Her dress was damp and hot and dirty, and her fingernails were positively black. Carrie’s face was smudged with dust and sweat and there were bits of hay in her hair.
“We ought to have a bath,” Laura murmured. Suddenly she cried out, “Where’s Grace?”
They had not thought of Grace for some time. Grace had once been lost on the prairie. Two children at Brookins, lost on the prairie, had died before they could be found.
“Here I yam,” Grace answered sweetly, coming in. “It’s raining.”
“No!” Laura exclaimed. Indeed, a shadow was over the house. A few large drops were falling. At that moment, thunder crashed. Laura screamed, “Carrie! The straw ticks! The bedding!”
They ran. The straw ticks were not very heavy, but they were stuffed fat with hay. They were hard to hold on to. The edge kept slipping out of Laura’s grasp or Carrie’s. When they got one to the house, they had to hold it up edgewise to get it through the doorway.
“We can hold it up or we can move it, we can’t do both,” Carried panted. Already the swift thunderstorm was rolling overhead and rain was falling fast.
“Get out of the way!” Laura shouted. Somehow she pushed and carried the whole straw tick into the house. It was too late to bring in the other one, or the bedding from the line. Rain was pouring down.
The bedding would dry on the line, but the other straw tick must be emptied again, washed again, and filled again. Straw ticks must be perfectly dry, or the hay in them would smell musty.
“We can move everything out of the other bedroom into the front room, and go on scrubbing,” said Laura. So they did that. For some time there was no sound but thunder and beating rain, and the swish of scrubbing cloths and the wringing out. Laura and Carrie had worked backward on hands and knees almost across the bedroom floor, when Grace called happily, “I’m helping!”
She was standing on a chair and blacking the stove. She was splashed from head to foot with blacking. On the floor all around the stove were dribbles and splotches of blacking. Grace had filled the blacking box full of water. As she looked up beaming for Laura’s approval, she gave the smeared stove top another swipe of the blacking cloth, and pushed the box of soft blacking off it.
Her blue eyes were filled with tears.
Laura gave one wild look at that house that Ma had left so neat and pretty. She just managed to say, “Never mind, Grace; don’t cry. I’ll clean it up.” Then she sank down on the stacked pieces of the bedsteads and let her forehead sink to her pulled-up knees. “Oh, Carrie, I just don’t seem to know how to manage the way Ma does!” she almost wailed.
That was the worst day. On Friday the house was almost in order, and they worried lest Ma come home too soon. They worked far into the night that night, and on Saturday it was almost midnight before Laura and Carrie took their baths and collapsed to sleep. But for Sunday the house was immaculate.
The floor around the stove was scrubbed bone-white. Only faintest traces of the blacking remained. The beds were made up with clean, bright quilts and they smelled sweetly of fresh hay. The windowpanes glittered. Every shelf in the cupboards was scrubbed and every dish washed. “And we’ll eat bread and drink milk from now on, and keep the dishes clean!” said Laura.
There remained only the curtains to be washed and ironed and hung, and of course the usual washing to do, on Monday. They were glad that Sunday is a day of rest.
Early Monday morning, Laura washed the curtains. They were dry when she and Carrie hung the rest of the washing on the line. They sprinkled the curtains and ironed them, and hung them at the window. The house was perfect.
“We’ll keep Grace out of it till Pa and Ma come home,” Laura said privately to Carrie. Neither of them felt like even taking a walk. So they sat on the grass in the shade of the house and watched Grace run about, and watched for the smoke of the train.
They saw it rolling up from the prairie and fading slowly along the skyline like a line of writing that they could not read. They heard the train whistle. After a pause it whistled again, and the curling smoke began again to write low above the skyline. They had almost decided that Pa and Ma had not come yet, when they saw them small and far away, walking out on the road from town.
Then all the lonesomeness for Mary came back, as sharply as if she had just gone away.
They met Pa and Ma at the edge of Big Slough, and for a little while they all talked at once.
Pa and Ma were greatly pleased with the college. They said it was a fine place, a large brick building. Mary would be warm and comfortable in it when winter came. She would have good food, and she was with a crowd of pleasant girls. Ma liked her roommate very much. The teachers were kind. Mary had passed the examinations with flying colors. Ma had seen no clothes there nicer than hers. She was going to study political economy, and literature, and higher mathematics, and sewing, knitting, beadwork, and music. The college had a parlor organ.
Laura was so glad for Mary that she could almost forget the lonesome ache of missing her. Mary had always so loved to study. Now she could revel in studying so much that she had never before had a chance to learn.
“Oh, she must stay there, she must!” Laura thought, and she renewed her vow to study hard, though she didn’t like to, and get a teacher’s certificate as soon as she was sixteen, so that she could earn the money to keep Mary in college.
She had forgotten that week of housecleaning, but as they came to the house Ma asked, “Carrie, what are you and Grace smiling about? You’re keeping something up your sleeves!”
Then Grace jumped up and down and shouted, “I blacked the stove!”
“So you did,” said Ma, going into the house. “It looks very nice, but Grace, I am sure that Laura helped you black it. You must not say—” Then she saw the curtains. “Why, Laura,” she said, “did you wash the—and the windows—and— Why, I declare!”
“We did the fall housecleaning for you, Ma,” said Laura, and Carrie chimed in, “We washed the bedding, and filled the straw ticks, and scrubbed the floors, and everything.”
Ma lifted her hands in surprise, then she sat weakly down and let her hands fall. “My goodness!” Next day, when she unpacked her valise, she surprised them. She came from the bedroom with three small flat packages, and gave one to Laura, one to Carrie, and one to Grace.
In Grace’s package was a picture book. The colorful pictures, on shiny paper, were pasted to cloth leaves of many pretty colors, and every leaf was pinked around its edges.
In Laura’s package was a beautiful small book, too. It was thin, and wider than it was tall. On its red cover, embossed in gold, were the words,
The pages, of different soft colors, were blank. Carrie had another exactly like it, except that the cover of hers was blue and gold.
“I found that autograph albums are all the fashion nowadays,” said Ma. “All the most fashionable girls in Vinton have them.”
“What are they, exactly?” Laura asked.
“You ask a friend to write a verse on one of the blank pages and sign her name to it,” Ma explained. “If she has an autograph album, you do the same for her, and you keep the albums to remember each other by.”
“I won’t mind going to school so much now,” said Carrie. “I will show my autograph album to all the strange girls, and if they are nice to me I will let them write in it.”
Ma was glad that the autograph albums pleased them both. She said, “Your Pa and I wanted our other girls to have something from Vinton, Iowa, where Mary is going to college.”