These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 19)

These Happy Golden Years

Laura Ingalls Wilder

Chapter 19
The Brown Poplin

Now that Ma had spoken of her clothes, Laura saw that she should do something about them. So early Saturday morning she walked to town to see Miss Bell.

“Indeed I shall be glad to have your help,” said Miss Bell. “I’ve been at my wits’ end to keep up with all the work, there are so many new people in town. But I thought you were teaching school.”

“Not on Saturdays,” Laura laughed. “Beginning in July, I can work all week if you like.”

So every Saturday she sewed all day long for Miss Bell. Before her school ended, she was able to buy ten yards of a beautiful brown poplin which Miss Bell had ordered from Chicago. And every evening when she went home there was something new to see, for Ma was making up the brown poplin for her, and Pa was building the new room for the organ.

He built it across the east end of the house, with a door in the north looking toward town, and windows in both the east and the south walls. Under the southern window he built a low seat, wide enough for one person to sleep on, so that it could be used as an extra bed.

One evening when Laura came home, the new room was complete. Pa had brought the organ; it stood against the north wall by the door. It was a beautiful organ, of polished walnut, with a tall back. Its overhanging canopy of shining wood almost touched the ceiling. Beneath that, three perfect little mirrors of thick glass were set into the rich walnut, and on either side of the music rack was a solid shelf for a lamp. The slanting music rack was of open woodwork cut in scrolls and backed with red cloth. It lifted on hinges, and revealed behind it a storage space for songbooks. Beneath this, the long, smooth lid folded back into the organ, or unfolded and dropped down to cover the row of black and white keys. Above the keys was a row of stops, marked tremolo and forte and other names, that changed the tone of the organ when they were pulled out. Underneath the keys were two levers, that folded back against the organ, or opened out so that a player’s knees could work them. Pressed outward, they made the music louder. Just above the floor were two slanting pedals, covered with carpet, that a player’s feet must press down and let up, to pump the organ.

With this beautiful organ, there was a walnut stool. It had a round top, standing on four curved legs. Grace was so excited about this stool that Laura could hardly look at the organ.

“Look, Laura, looky,” Grace said, and she sat on the stool and whirled. The top of the stool worked on a screw, and it rose or sank under Grace as she whirled.

“We must not call this a claim shanty any more,” said Ma. “It is a real house now, with four rooms.”

She had hung white muslin curtains at the windows; they were edged with white knitted lace. The black whatnot stood in the corner by the south window; the carved wooden bracket with the china shepherdess on it was hung on the eastern wall. The two rocking chairs sat comfortably by the east window and bright patchwork cushions lay on the wooden seat under the south window.

“What a pleasant place to sew in,” Ma said, looking at this new sitting room with a happy smile. “I shall hurry your dress now, Laura. Perhaps I can have it finished by Sunday.”

“There is no hurry,” Laura told her. “I don’t want to wear it until I have my new hat. Miss Bell is making the very hat I want, but it will take two more Saturdays’ work to pay for it.”

“Well, how do you like your organ, Laura?” Pa said, coming in from the stable. In the other room, which was only a kitchen now, Carrie was straining the milk.

“My goodness, Grace!” Ma exclaimed, just as Grace and the organ stool crashed on the floor. Grace sat up, too frightened to make a sound, and even Laura was horrified, for the stool lay in two pieces. Then Pa laughed.

“Never mind, Grace,” he said. “You only unscrewed it all the way. But,” he said sternly, “you stay off this stool, after this.”

“I will, Pa,” she said, trying to stand up. She was too dizzy. Laura set her on her feet and held her steady, and tried to say to Pa how much the organ pleased her. She could hardly wait until Mary came to play it while Pa played the fiddle.

At supper Ma said again that this was not a claim shanty any more. The kitchen was so spacious now, with only the stove, the cupboard, the table and chairs in it.

“This won’t be a claim, either, by year after next,” Pa reminded her. “Another eighteen months, and I’ll be able to prove up; it will be our land.”

“I hadn’t forgotten, Charles,” said Ma. “I’ll be proud when we have our patent from the government. All the more reason to call this place a house, from now on.”

“And next year, if all goes well, I’m going to get it sided and painted,” Pa promised himself.

When Laura came home next Saturday she brought her new hat, after all. She carried it carefully, well wrapped in paper to protect it from dust.

“Miss Bell said I’d better take it, before someone else saw it and wanted it,” she explained. “She says I can do the work for it afterward, just as well.”

“You can wear it to church tomorrow,” Ma told her. “For I have your dress finished.” The brown poplin was laid out on Laura’s bed, all pressed and shimmering, for her to see.

“Oh, let’s see your hat, too,” Carrie asked, when they had all admired the dress, but Laura would not unwrap it.

“Not now,” she refused. “I don’t want you to see it, until I put it on with the dress.”

Next morning they were all up bright and early, to have time to get ready for church. It was a fresh, clear morning; the meadow larks were singing and the sunshine drinking the dew from the grass. All ready in her starched Sunday lawn and Sunday hair ribbons, Carrie sat carefully on her bed, to watch Laura dress.

“You do have beautiful hair, Laura,” she said.

“It isn’t golden, like Mary’s,” Laura answered. But in the sunshine as she brushed it, her hair was beautiful. It was fine, but very thick, and so long that the shimmering brown length of it, unbraided, fell below her knees. She brushed it back satin-smooth, and coiled and pinned the mass of braids. Then she took the curlers out of her bangs and carefully arranged the curly mass. She put on her knitted white-lace stockings, and buttoned her high, well-polished black shoes.

Then carefully over her under-petticoats she put on her hoops. She liked these new hoops. They were the very latest style in the east, and these were the first of the kind that Miss Bell had got. Instead of wires, there were wide tapes across the front, almost to her knees, holding the petticoats so that her dress would lie flat. These tapes held the wire bustle in place at the back, and it was an adjustable bustle. Short lengths of tape were fastened to either end of it; these could be buckled together underneath the bustle, to puff it out, either large or small. Or they could be buckled together in front, drawing the bustle down close in back, so that a dress rounded smoothly over it. Laura did not like a large bustle, so she buckled the tapes in front.

Then carefully over all she buttoned her best petticoat, and over all the starched petticoats she put on the underskirt of her new dress. It was of brown cambric, fitting smoothly around the top over the bustle, and gored to flare smoothly down over the hoops. At the bottom, just missing the floor, was a twelve-inch-wide flounce of the brown poplin, bound with an inch-wide band of plain brown silk. The poplin was not plain poplin, but striped with an openwork silk stripe.

Then over this underskirt and her starched white corset-cover, Laura put on the polonaise. Its smooth, long sleeves fitted her arms perfectly to the wrists, where a band of the plain silk ended them. The neck was high, with a smooth band of the plain silk around the throat. The polonaise fitted tightly and buttoned all down the front with small round buttons covered with the plain brown silk. Below the smooth hips it flared and rippled down and covered the top of the flounce on the under-skirt. A band of the plain silk finished the polonaise at the bottom.

Around the brown silk neckband Laura placed a blue ribbon two inches wide. She pinned it together at her throat with the pearl bar pin that Ma had given her. The ends of the ribbon fell in streamers to her waist.

Then, Laura unwrapped her hat. Carrie sighed with delight when she saw it.

It was a sage-green, rough straw, in poke-bonnet shape. It completely covered Laura’s head and framed her face with its flaring brim. It was lined with shirred silk, blue. Wide blue ribbons tied under her left ear and held the bonnet securely in place.

The blue of the lining, the blue ribbon bow, and the blue neck ribbon, exactly matched the blue of Laura’s eyes.

Pa and Ma and Grace were ready for church when she came out of the bedroom, with Carrie following her. Pa looked from the top of Laura’s head to the bottom of the brown poplin flounce, where the soft black toes of her shoes peeped out. Then he said, “They say that fine feathers make fine birds, but I say it took a fine bird to grow such feathers.”

Laura was so pleased that she could not speak.

“You look very nice,” Ma praised, “but remember that pretty is as pretty does.”

“Yes, Ma,” Laura said.

“That’s a funny hat,” said Grace.

“It isn’t a hat. It’s a poke bonnet,” Laura explained to her.

Then Carrie said, “When I’m a young lady, I’m going to earn me a dress just exactly like that.”

“Likely you’ll have a prettier one,” Laura answered quickly, but she was startled. She had not thought that she was a young lady. Of course she was, with her hair done up and her skirts almost touching the ground. She was not sure she liked being a young lady.

“Come,” Pa said. “The team is waiting, and we’ll be late to church if we don’t hurry.”

The day was so pleasant and sunny that Laura hated to sit in the church, and Reverend Brown’s long sermon seemed even duller than usual. The wild prairie grass was green outside the open windows and the light wind enticed her as it softly brushed her cheek. It seemed that there should be more, in such a day, than going to church and going home again.

Ma and Carrie and Grace changed at once into their everyday dresses, but Laura did not want to. She asked, “May I keep my Sunday dress on, Ma? if I wear my big apron and am very careful?”

“You may if you want to,” Ma gave permission. “No reason that anything should happen to your dress if you take care.”

After dinner, and after the dishes were washed, Laura wandered restlessly out of the house. The sky was so blue, the floating piles of cloud were so shimmering and pearly, and far and wide the land was green. In a row around the house the young cottonwoods were growing; the little saplings that Pa had planted were twice as tall as Laura now, spreading their slender branches and rustling leaves. They made a flickering shade in which Laura stood, looking east and south and west at the lovely, empty day.

She looked toward town, and while she looked a buggy came dashing around the corner by Pearson’s livery barn and out along the road toward the Big Slough.

The buggy was new, for the sun flashed and sparkled from its wheels and top. The horses were brown and trotted evenly. Were they the colts that she had helped break? Surely, they were, and as they turned toward her and crossed the slough, she saw that Almanzo was driving them. They came trotting up, and the buggy stopped beside her.

“Would you like to go for a buggy ride?” Almanzo asked, and as Pa came out of the house Laura replied in the words she had always used.

“Oh yes! I’ll be ready in a minute.”

She tied on her poke bonnet, and told Ma that she was going for a buggy ride. Carrie’s eyes were shining, and she stopped Laura and stood tiptoe to whisper, “Aren’t you glad you didn’t change your dress?”

“I am,” Laura whispered back, and she was. She was glad that her dress and her bonnet were so nice. Carefully Almanzo spread the linen lap robe, and she tucked it well under her flounce to cover the brown poplin from dust. Then they were driving away in the afternoon sunshine, southward toward the distant lakes, Henry and Thompson.

“How do you like the new buggy?” Almanzo asked.

It was a beautiful buggy, so black and shining, with glossy red spokes in the wheels. The seat was wide; at either end of it gleaming black supports slanted backward to the folded-down top behind, and the seat had a lazy-back, cushioned. Laura had never before been in a buggy so luxurious.

“It is nice,” Laura said as she leaned comfortably back against the leather cushion. “I never rode in a lazy-back buggy before. The back isn’t quite as high as the plain wooden ones, is it?”

“Maybe this will make it better,” Almanzo said, laying his arm along the top of the back. He was not exactly hugging Laura, but his arm was against her shoulders. She shrugged, but his arm did not move away. So she leaned forward, and shook the buggy whip where it stood in the whipsocket on the dashboard. The colts jumped forward and broke into a run.

“You little devil!” Almanzo exclaimed, as he closed his hands on the lines and braced his feet. He needed both hands to control those colts.

After a time the colts were calmer and quieter, trotting again.

“Suppose they had run away?” Almanzo then asked her indignantly.

“They could run a long way before they came to the end of the prairie,” Laura laughed. “And there’s nothing to run against between here and there.”

“Just the same!” Almanzo began, and then he said, “You’re independent, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” said Laura.

They drove a long way that afternoon, all the way to Lake Henry and around it. Only a narrow tongue of land separated it from Lake Thompson. Between the sheets of blue water there was width enough only for a wagon track. Young cottonwoods and choke-cherry trees stood slim on either side, above a tangle of wild grapevines. It was cool there. The wind blew across the water, and between the trees they could see the little waves breaking against the shore on either side.

Almanzo drove slowly, as he told Laura of the eighty-acre field of wheat he had sown, and the thirty acres of oats.

“You know I have my homestead and my tree claim both to work on,” he said. “Besides that, Cap and I have been hauling lumber for a long ways, out around town to build houses and schoolhouses all over the country. I had to team, to earn money for this new buggy.”

“Why not drive the one you had?” Laura sensibly wanted to know.

“I traded that on these colts last fall,” he explained. “I knew I could break them on the cutter in the winter, but when spring came, I needed a buggy. If I’d had one, I’d have been around to see you before this.”

As they talked, he drove out from between the lakes and around the end of Lake Henry, then away across the prairie to the north. Now and then they saw a little new claim shanty. Some had a stable, and a field of broken sod nearby.

“This country is settling up fast,” Almanzo said as they turned west along the shore of Silver Lake and so toward Pa’s claim. “We have driven only forty miles and we must have seen as many as six houses.”

The sun was low in the west when he helped her out of the buggy at her door.

“If you like buggy rides as well as sleigh rides, I will be back next Sunday,” he said.

“I like buggy rides,” Laura answered. Then suddenly, she felt shy, and hurried into the house.

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