Little Town On The Priarie (Chapter 20)

Little Town On The Priarie

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 20
The Birthday Party

All the next week Laura thought of the party. She wanted to go and she did not want to. Once, long ago when she was a little girl, she had gone to Nellie Oleson’s party, but that was a little girl’s party. This would be different.

At school Ida and Mary Power were excited about it. Arthur had told Minnie that it would be a birthday party, for Ben’s birthday. From politeness they could hardly say a word about it, because Nellie was with them at recess, and Nellie had not been invited. She could not have come, because she lived in the country.

On the night of the party, Laura was dressed and ready at seven o’clock. Mary Power was coming to go with her to the depot, but she would not come for half an hour yet.

Laura tried to read again her favorite of Tennyson’s poems,

Come into the garden, Maud,
For the black bat, night, has flown,
Come into the garden, Maud,
I am here at the gate alone;
And the woodbine spices are wafted abroad
And the musk of the rose is blown.

She could not sit still. She took one more look into the looking glass that hung on the wall. She wished so much to be tall and slim that she almost hoped to see a slender, tall girl. But in the glass she saw a small, round girl in a Sunday-best dress of blue cashmere.

At least it was a young lady’s dress, so long that it hid the high tops of her buttoned shoes. The full-gathered skirt was gathered as full in the back as it could possibly be. Over it fitted the tight basque that came down in points in front and in back, and buttoned snugly with little green buttons straight up the front. A band of blue-and-gold-and-green plaid went around the skirt just above the hem, and narrow strips of plaid edged the pointed bottom of the basque and went around the wrists of the tight, long sleeves. The upstanding collar was of the plaid, with a frill of white lace inside it, and Ma had lent Laura her pearl-shell pin to fasten the collar together under her chin.

Laura could not find one fault with the dress. But, oh! how she wished she were tall and willowy, like Nellie Oleson. Her waist was as round as a young tree, her arms were slender but round, too, and her very small hands were rather plump and capable-looking. They were not thin and languid like Nellie’s hands.

Even the face in the glass was all curves. The chin was a soft curve and the red mouth had a short, curving upper lip. The nose was almost right, but the least bit of a saucy tilt kept it from being Grecian. The eyes, Laura thought, were too far apart, and they were a softer blue than Pa’s. They were wide-open and anxious. They did not sparkle at all.

Straight across the forehead was the line of curled bangs. At least, her hair was thick and very long, though it was not golden. It was drawn back smooth from the bangs to the heavy mat of the coiled braid that covered the whole back of her head. Its weight made her feel really grown-up. She turned her head slowly to see the lamplight run glistening on its brown smoothness. Then suddenly she realized that she was behaving as if she were vain of her hair.

She went to the window. Mary Power was not yet in sight. Laura so dreaded the party that she felt she simply could not go.

“Sit down and wait quietly, Laura,” Ma gently admonished her. Just then Laura caught sight of Mary Power, and feverishly she got into her coat and put on her hood.

She and Mary Power said hardly anything as they walked together up Main Street to its end, then followed the railroad track to the depot, where the Woodworths lived. The upstairs windows were brightly lighted, and a lamp burned in the telegraph office downstairs, where Ben’s older brother Jim was still working. He was the telegraph operator. The electric telegraph’s chattering sounded sharp in the frosty night.

“I guess we go into the waiting room,” Mary Power said. “Do we knock, or just go right in?”

“I don’t know,” Laura confessed. Oddly, she felt a little better because Mary Power was uncertain, too. Still her throat was thick and her wrists were fluttering. The waiting room was a public place, but its door was shut and this was a party.

Mary Power hesitated, then knocked. She did not knock loudly, but the sound made them both start.

No one came. Boldly Laura said, “Let’s go right in!”

As she spoke, she took hold of the door handle, and suddenly Ben Woodworth opened the door.

Laura was so upset that she could not answer his, ‘Good evening.” He was wearing his Sunday suit and stiff white collar. His hair was damp and carefully combed. He added, “Mother’s upstairs.”

They followed him across the waiting room and up the stairs to where his mother was waiting in a little hall at their head. She was small as Laura, and plumper, and she was daintiness itself, in a soft, thin gray dress with snowy white ruffles at throat and wrists. But she was so friendly that Laura felt comfortable at once.

In her bedroom they took off their wraps. The room was as dainty as Mrs. Woodworth. They hesitated to lay their coats on the dainty bed, with its knitted white coverlet and ruffled pillow shams. Thin, ruffled white muslin curtains were draped back at the windows, and on a little stand-table a knitted lace doily lay under the lamp. White knitted lace to match was spread on the bureau top, and white lace was draped across the top of the mirror frame.

Mary Power and Laura looked into the mirror, and with their fingers they fluffed up their bangs, slightly flattened by their hoods. Then in the friendliest way Mrs. Woodworth said, “If you’ve finished your primping, come into the sitting room.”

Ida and Minnie, Arthur and Cap and Ben were already there. Mrs. Woodworth said, smiling, “Now when Jim comes up from work, our party will be complete.” She sat down and began to talk pleasantly. The sitting room was pleasant with shaded lamplight and cozy with warmth from the heater. Dark red cloth curtains were draped at the windows, and the chairs were not set against the wall but gathered about the stove, where the coals glowed through the isinglass of the stove’s door. Besides the plush photograph album on the center-table’s marble top, there were several other books standing on its lower shelf. Laura longed to look into them, but it would not be polite to be so inattentive to Mrs. Woodworth.

After a few moments Mrs. Woodworth excused herself and went into the kitchen. Then a stillness settled on everyone. Laura felt that she should say something, but she could think of nothing to say. Her feet seemed too big and she did not know what to do with her hands.

Through a doorway she saw a long table covered with a white cloth. China and silver sparkled on it, in the light of a lamp that hung suspended on long gilt chains from the ceiling. Glittering glass pendants hung down all around the edge of the lamp’s milk-white shade.

It was all so pretty, but Laura could not forget her feet. She tried to draw them farther back beneath her skirts. She looked at the other girls, and knew that she must say something, for no one else could. Yet it was more than she could do, to break that silence. Her heart sank as she thought that, after all, a party was as uncomfortable as a sociable.

Then footsteps came springing up the stairs, and Jim came breezing in. He looked around at them all, and gravely asked, “Are you playing Quaker meeting?”

They all laughed. After that they were able to talk, though all the time they heard small clinks of china from the other room where Mrs. Woodworth was moving about the table. Jim was so much at ease that he called out, “Supper ready, mother?”

“Yes, it is,” Mrs. Woodworth said from the doorway. “Won’t you all come into the dining room?” It seemed that the Woodworths used that room only for eating in.

Eight places were set at the table, and on each of the plates was a soup plate full of steaming oyster soup. Ben’s place was at the head of the table, Jim’s at the foot. Mrs. Woodworth told each of the others where to sit, and said that she would wait on them all. Now Laura’s feet were under the table, her hands had something to do, and it was all so bright and gay that she was no longer bashful.

In the very center of the table was a silver castor holding cut-glass bottles of vinegar, mustard and pepper sauce, and tall salt- and pepper-shakers. The plate at each place was of white china with a wreath of tiny, many-colored flowers around the edge. Beside each plate a white napkin stood up, folded in such a way that it partly opened out like a large flower. Most marvelous of all, in front of each plate was an orange. Not only that; for these oranges, too, had been made into flowers. The orange’s peel had been cut down from the top in little pointed sections, and each section was curled inward and down, like a flower’s red-gold petals. Held within these petals, the flesh of the orange curved up, covered with its thin, white skin.

The oyster soup alone was treat enough to make a party, and to go with it Mrs. Woodworth passed a bowl of tiny, round oyster crackers. When the last drop of that delicious soup had been spooned up and swallowed, she took away the soup plates, and she set on the table a platter heaped with potato patties. The small, flat cakes of mashed potatoes were fried a golden brown. She brought then a platter full of hot, creamy, brown codfish balls, and then a plate of tiny, hot biscuits. She passed butter in a round glass butter dish.

Mrs. Woodworth urged generous helpings, not once, but twice. Then she brought cups of coffee, and passed the cream and sugar.

After all this, she cleared the table again, and brought in a white-frosted birthday cake. She set it before Ben and placed a stack of small plates beside it. Ben stood up to cut the cake. He put a slice on each plate, and Mrs. Woodworth set one at each place. They waited then until Ben had cut his own slice of cake.

Laura was wondering about the orange before her. If those oranges were meant to be eaten, she did not know when or how. They were so pretty, it was a pity to spoil them. Still, she had once eaten part of an orange, so she knew how good an orange tastes. Everyone took a bite of cake, but no one touched an orange. Laura thought that perhaps the oranges were to be taken home. Perhaps she could take home an orange, to divide with Pa and Ma and Carrie and Grace. Then everyone saw Ben take his orange. He held it carefully over his plate, stripped off the petaled peeling, and broke the orange into its sections. He took a bite from one section, then he took a bite of cake. Laura took up her orange, and so did everyone else. Carefully they peeled them, divided them into sections, and ate them with the slices of cake.

All the peelings were neat on the plates when supper was finished. Laura remembered to wipe her lips daintily with her napkin and fold it, and so did the other girls.

“Now we’ll go downstairs and play games,” Ben said.

As they all got up from the table, Laura said low to Mary Power, “Oughtn’t we to help with the dishes?” and Ida asked right out, “Sha’n’t we help wash the dishes first, Mrs. Woodworth?” Mrs. Woodworth thanked them, but said, “Run along and enjoy yourselves, girls! Never mind the dishes!”

The big waiting room downstairs was bright with light from the bracket lamps, and warm from the red-hot heating stove. There was plenty of room to play the liveliest games. First they played drop-the-handkerchief, then they played blind-man’s-buff. When at last they all dropped panting onto the benches to rest, Jim said, “I know a game you’ve never played!”

Eagerly they all wanted to know what it was.

“Well, I don’t believe it’s got a name, it’s so new,” Jim answered. “But you all come into my office and I’ll show you how it’s played.”

In the small office there was barely room for them all to stand in a half circle, as Jim told them to do, with Jim at one end and Ben at the other, crowded against Jim’s worktable. Jim told them all to join hands.

“Now stand still,” he told them. They all stood still, wondering what next.

Suddenly a burning tingle flashed through Laura; all the clasped hands jerked, the girls screamed, the boys yelled. Laura was frightfully startled. She made no sound and did not move.

All the others began excitedly to ask, “What was that? What was it? What did you do, Jim? Jim, how did you do that?” Cap said, “I know it was your electricity, Jim, but how did you do it?”

Jim only laughed and asked, “Didn’t you feel anything, Laura?”

“Oh, yes! I felt it,” Laura answered.

“Then why didn’t you yell?” Jim wanted to know. “What was the use?” Laura asked him, and Jim could not tell her that.

“But what was it?” she demanded, with all the others, and Jim would answer only, “Nobody knows.” Pa, too, had said that nobody knows what electricity is. Benjamin Franklin had discovered that it is lightning, but nobody knows what lightning is. Now it worked the electric telegraph, and still nobody knew what it was.

They all felt queer, looking at the little brass machine on the table, that could send its clicking messages so far and fast. Jim made one click on it. “That’s heard in St. Paul,” he said.

“Right now?” Minnie asked, and Jim said, “Right now.”

They were standing silent when Pa opened the door and walked in.

“Is the party over?” he asked. “I came to see my girl home.” The big clock was striking ten. No one had noticed how late it was.

While the boys put on their coats and caps that had been hanging in the waiting room, the girls went upstairs to thank Mrs. Woodworth and tell her good night. In the dainty bedroom they buttoned their coats and tied on their hoods and said Oh! what a good time they had had! Now that the dreaded party was over, Laura only wished that it could last longer.

Downstairs Rev. Brown had come for Ida, and Laura and Mary Power walked home with Pa.

Ma was waiting up when Laura and Pa came in.

“I can see what a good time you’ve had, by the way your eyes are shining,” Ma smiled at Laura. “Now slip quietly up to bed, for Carrie and Grace are asleep. Tomorrow you can tell all of us about the party.”

“Oh, Ma, each one of us had a whole orange!” Laura couldn’t help saying then, but she saved the rest to tell them all together.

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