Little Town On The Priarie (Chaprer 19)
Little Town On The Priarie
Laura Ingalls Wilder
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.
Most marvelous of all was the pig. It stood so lifelike, propped up by short sticks, above a great pan filled with baked apples. It smelled so good. Better than any smell of any other food was that rich, oily, brown smell of roasted pork, that Laura had not smelled for so long.
Already people were sitting at the tables, filling and refilling their plates, passing dishes to each other, eating and talking. Already the rich, pale meat, steaming hot inside its rim of crackling brown fat, was being sliced away from one side of the pig.
“How much pork have you got there?” Laura heard a man ask as he passed back his plate for more, and the man who was carving answered, while he cut a thick slice, “Can’t say exactly, but it weighed a good forty pounds, dressed.”
There was not a vacant place at the table. Up and down behind the chairs Mrs. Tinkham and Mrs. Bradley were hurrying, reaching behind shoulders to refill cups with tea or coffee. Other ladies were clearing away used plates and replacing them with clean ones. As soon as anyone finished eating and left his place, it was taken, though the supper cost fifty cents. The church was almost full of people, and more were coming in.
This was all new to Laura. She felt lost and did not know what to do, until she saw Ida busily washing dishes at a table in a corner. Ma had begun to help wait on table, so Laura went to help Ida.
“Didn’t you bring an apron?” Ida asked. “Then pin this towel on, so I can’t splash your dress.” Being a minister’s daughter, Ida was used to church work. Her sleeves were rolled up, her dress was covered by a big apron, and she laughed and chattered while she washed dishes at a great rate and Laura swiftly wiped them.
“Oh, this supper’s a great success!” Ida rejoiced. “Did you ever think we’d get such a crowd!”
“No,” Laura answered. She whispered, “Will anything be left for us to eat?”
“Oh, yes!” Ida answered confidently, and she went on, low, “Mother Brown always sees to that. She’s keeping back a couple of the best pies and a layer cake.”
Laura did not care so much for the fruit pies and the cake, but she did hope that some of the pork might be left when her turn came to go to the table.
Some was left when Pa got places for Carrie and Grace and himself. Laura glimpsed them, eating happily, while she went on wiping dishes. As fast as she wiped plates and cups, they were whisked away to the tables, while even faster, it seemed, more dirty ones were piled around the dishpan.
“We really need help here,” Ida said cheerfully. No one had expected such a crowd. Ma was fairly flying about, and so were most of the other ladies. Faithfully Laura kept on wiping dishes. She would not leave Ida to cope with them alone, though she grew hungrier and hungrier, and had less and less hope of getting anything to eat.
It was a long time before the tables began to be deserted. At last only the members of the Ladies’ Aid, and Ida and Laura, were still hungry. Then plates and cups, knives and forks and spoons, were washed and wiped again, one table was set again, and they could sit down. A pile of bones lay where the pig had been, but Laura was happy to see that plenty of meat remained on them, and some chicken pie was left in the pan. Quietly Mrs. Brown brought out the kept-back layer cake and the pies.
For a little while Laura and Ida rested and ate, while the women complimented each other’s cooking and said what a success the supper had been. There was a clamor of talking all along the crowded benches by the walls, and in the corners and around the stove the men stood talking.
Then the tables were finally cleared. Laura and Ida washed and wiped dishes again, and the women sorted them out and packed them into baskets with whatever food was left. It was a compliment to Ma’s cooking that not a bite of the pumpkin pie nor a spoonful of the beans remained. Ida washed the baking pan and the milkpan, Laura wiped them, and Ma crowded them into her basket.
Mrs. Bradley was playing the organ, and Pa and some others were singing, but Grace was asleep and it was time to go home.
“I know you are tired, Caroline,” said Pa as he carried Grace homeward, while Ma carried the lantern to light the way and Laura and Carrie followed, lugging the basket of dishes. “But your Aid Society sociable was a great success.”
“I am tired,” Ma replied. A little edge to her gentle voice startled Laura. “And it wasn’t a sociable. It was a New England Supper.”
Pa said no more. The clock was striking eleven when he unlocked the door, and the next day was another school day, and tomorrow night was the Friday Literary.
It was to be a debate, “Resolved: That Lincoln was a greater man than Washington.” Laura was eager to hear it, for Lawyer Barnes was leading the affirmative and his argument would be good.
“They will be educational,” she said to Ma while they were hurriedly getting ready to go. She was really carrying on an argument with herself, for she knew that she should be studying. She had missed two whole evenings of study in that one week. Still, there would be a few days at Christmas, between the school terms, when she could make up for lost time.
The Christmas box had gone to Mary. In it Ma carefully placed the nubia that Laura had crocheted of soft, fleecy wool, as white as the big snowflakes falling gently outside the window. She put in the lace collar that she had knitted of finest white sewing thread. Then she put in six handkerchiefs that Carrie had made of thin lawn. Three were edged with narrow, machine-made lace, and three were plainly hemmed. Grace could not yet make a Christmas present, but she had saved her pennies to buy half a yard of blue ribbon, and Ma had made this into a bow for Mary to pin at her throat, on the white lace collar. Then they had all written a long Christmas letter, and into the envelope Pa put a five-dollar bill.
“That will buy the little things she needs,” he said. Mary’s teacher had written, praising Mary highly. The letter said, too, that Mary could send home an example of her bead work if she could buy the beads, and that she needed a special slate to write on, and that perhaps later they would wish her to own another kind of special slate on which to write Braille, a kind of writing that the blind could read with their fingers.
“Mary will know that we are all thinking of her at Christmas time,” said Ma, and they were all happier in knowing that the Christmas box was on its way.
Still, without Mary it was not like Christmas. Only Grace was wholly joyous when at breakfast they opened the Christmas presents. For Grace there was a real doll, with a china head and hands, and little black slippers sewed on her cloth feet. Pa had put rockers on a cigar box to make a cradle for the doll, and Laura and Carrie and Ma had made little sheets and a pillow and a wee patchwork quilt, and had dressed the doll in a nightgown and a nightcap. Grace was perfectly happy.
Together Laura and Carrie had bought a German-silver thimble for Ma, and a blue silk necktie for Pa. And at Laura’s plate was the blue-and-gilt book, Tennyson’s Poems, Pa and Ma did not guess that she was not surprised. They had brought from Iowa a book for Carrie, too, and kept it hidden. It was Stories of the Moorland.
That was all there was to Christmas. After the morning’s work was done, Laura at last sat down to read “The Lotos-Eaters.” Even that poem was a disappointment, for in the land that seemed always afternoon the sailors turned out to be no good. They seemed to think they were entitled to live in that magic land and lie around complaining. When they thought about bestirring themselves, they only whined, “Why should we ever labor up the laboring wave?” Why, indeed! Laura thought indignantly. Wasn’t that a sailor’s job, to ever labor up the laboring wave? But no, they wanted dreamful ease. Laura slammed the book shut.
She knew there must be beautiful poems in such a book, but she missed Mary so much that she had no heart to read them.
Then Pa came hurrying from the post office with a letter. The handwriting was strange, but the letter was signed, Mary! She wrote that she placed the paper on a grooved, metal slate, and by feeling the grooves she could form the letters with a lead pencil. This letter was her Christmas present to them all.
She wrote that she liked college and that the teachers said she was doing well in her studies. She was learning to read and to write Braille. She wished that she might be with them on Christmas, and they must think of her on Christmas day as she would be thinking of them all.
Quietly the day went by after the letter was read. Once Laura said, “If only Mary were here, how she would enjoy the Literaries!”
Then suddenly she thought how swiftly everything was changing. It would be six more years before Mary came home, and nothing could ever be again the same as it had been.
Laura did no studying at all between those school terms, and January went by so quickly that she had hardly time to catch her breath. That winter was so mild that school was not closed for even one day. Every Friday night there was a Literary, each more exciting than the last.
There was Mrs. Jarley’s Wax Works. From miles around, everyone came that night. Horses and wagons and saddle ponies were tied to all the hitching posts. The brown Morgans stood covered with neatly buckled blankets, and Almanzo Wilder stood with Cap Garland in the crowded schoolhouse.
A curtain of white sheets hid the teacher’s platform. When this curtain was drawn aside, a great gasp went up, for all along the wall and across each end of the platform was a row of wax figures, life-size.
At least, they looked as if they were made of wax.
Their faces were white as wax, except for painted-on black eyebrows and red lips. Draped in folds of white cloth, each figure stood as motionless as a graven image.
After some moments of gazing on those waxen figures, Mrs. Jarley stepped from behind the drawn-back curtain. No one knew who she was. She wore a sweeping black gown and a scoop bonnet, and in her hand she held the teacher’s long pointer.
In a deep voice she said, “George Washington, I command thee! Live and move!” and with the pointer she touched one of the figures.
The figure moved! In short, stiff jerks, one arm lifted and raised from the folds of white cloth a waxlike hand gripping a hatchet. The arm made chopping motions with the hatchet.
Mrs. Jarley called each figure by its name, touched it with the pointer, and each one moved jerkily. Daniel Boone raised and lowered a gun. Queen Elizabeth put on and took off a tall gilt crown. Sir Walter Raleigh’s stiff hand moved a pipe to and from his motionless lips.
One by one all those figures were set in motion. They kept on moving, in such a lifeless, waxen way that one could hardly believe they were really alive.
When finally the curtain was drawn to, there was one long, deep breath, and then wild applause. All the wax figures, naturally alive now, had to come out before the curtain while louder and louder grew the applause. Mrs. Jarley took off her bonnet and was Gerald Fuller. Queen Elizabeth’s crown and wig fell off, and she was Mr. Bradley. There seemed no end to the hilarious uproar.
“This is the climax, surely,” Ma said on the way home.
“You can’t tell,” Pa said teasingly, as if he knew more than he would say. “This whole town has its ginger up now.”
Mary Power came next day to visit with Laura, and all the afternoon they talked about the waxworks. That evening when Laura settled down to study she could only yawn.
“I might as well go to bed,” she said, “I’m too slee—” and she yawned enormously.
“This will make two evenings you’ve lost this week,” said Ma. “And tomorrow night there’s church. We are living in such a whirl of gaiety lately that I declare— Was that a knock at the door?”
The knock was repeated, and Ma went to the door. Charley was there, but he would not come in. Ma took an envelope that he handed her, and shut the door.
“This is for you, Laura,” she said.
Carrie and Grace looked on wide-eyed, and Pa and Ma waited while Laura read the address on the envelope. “Miss Laura Ingalls, De Smet, Dakota Territory.”
“Why, what in the world,” she said. She slit the envelope carefully with a hairpin and drew out a folded sheet of gilt-edged notepaper. She unfolded it and read aloud.
Ben M. Woodworth
requests the pleasure of
your company at his home
Saturday Evening January 28th
Supper at Eight o’clock
Just as Ma sometimes did, Laura sat limply down. Ma took the invitation from her hand and read it again.
“It’s a party,” Ma said. “A supper party.”
“Oh, Laura! You’re asked to a party!” Carrie exclaimed. Then she asked, “What is a party like?”
“I don’t know,” Laura said. “Oh, Ma, what will I do? I never went to a party. How must I behave at a party?”
“You have been taught how to behave wherever you are, Laura,” Ma replied. “You need only behave properly, as you know how to do.”
No doubt this was true, but it was no comfort to Laura.