These Happy Golden Years (Chaprer 28)
These Happy Golden Years
Laura Ingalls Wilder
The Cream-Colored Hat
The new schoolhouse stood on a corner of Mr. Wilkins’ claim, only a little way from his house. When Laura opened its door on Monday morning, she saw that it was an exact replica of the Perry schoolhouse, even to the dictionary on the desk, and the nail in the wall for her sunbonnet.
This was a happy omen, she thought; and it was. All her days in that school were pleasant. She felt herself a capable teacher now, and she dealt so well with every little difficulty that none ever lasted until the next day. Her pupils were friendly and obedient, and the little ones were often funny, though she kept her smiles unseen.
She boarded at the Wilkinses’, and they were all friendly to Laura and pleasant to each other. Florence still went to school and at night told Laura all the day’s happenings. Laura shared Florence’s room, and they spent the evenings cosily there with their books.
On the last Friday in April, Mr. Wilkins paid Laura twenty-two dollars, her first month’s salary, less two dollars a week for her board. Almanzo drove her home that evening, and next day she went with Ma to town to buy materials. They bought bleached muslin for underwear, chemises and drawers, petticoats and nightgowns; two of each. “These, with what you have, should be plenty,” said Ma. They bought stronger, bleached muslin, for two pairs of sheets and two pairs of pillow cases.
For Laura’s summer dress they bought ten yards of delicate pink lawn with small flowers and pale green leaves scattered over it. Then they went to Miss Bell’s to find a hat to go with the dress.
There were several beautiful hats, but Laura knew at once which one she wanted. It was a fine, cream-colored straw with a narrow brim, rolled narrower at the sides. The brim in front came down over the middle of Laura’s forehead. Around the crown was a band of satin ribbon a little darker than the straw, and three ostrich tips stood straight up at the crown’s left side. They were shaded in color, from the light cream of the straw to slightly darker than the satin ribbon. The hat was held on the head by a fine, white silk elastic cord that scarcely showed because it fitted under the mass of Laura’s braided hair.
As they walked up the street after they had bought that hat, Laura begged Ma to take five dollars and spend it for herself.
“No, Laura,” Ma refused. “You are a good girl to think of it, but there is nothing that I need.”
So they came to the wagon, waiting for them in front of Fuller’s hardware store. Something bulky stood in the wagon box, covered with a horse blanket. Laura wondered what it was, but she had no time to look, for Pa untied the horses quickly and they all started home.
“What have you got in back, Charles?” Ma asked.
“I can’t show you now, Caroline. Wait until we get home,” Pa answered.
At home he stopped the wagon close to the house door. “Now, girls,” he said, “take your own packages in, but leave mine alone until I get back from putting up the horses. Don’t you peek under the blanket either!”
He unhitched the horses and hurried them away.
“Now whatever can that be?” Ma said to Laura. They waited. As soon as possible, Pa came hurrying back. He lifted the blanket away, and there stood a shining new sewing machine.
“Oh, Charles!” Ma gasped.
“Yes, Caroline, it is yours,” Pa said proudly. “There’ll be a lot of extra sewing, with Mary coming home and Laura going away, and I thought you’d need some help.”
“But how could you?” Ma asked, touching the shiny black iron of the machine’s legs.
“I had to sell a cow anyway, Caroline; there wouldn’t be room in the stable next winter unless I did,” Pa explained. “Now if you will help me unload this thing, we will take its cover off and see how it looks.”
A long time ago, Laura remembered, a tone in Ma’s voice when she spoke of a sewing machine had made Laura think that she wanted one. Pa had remembered that.
He took the endgate out of the wagon, and he and Ma and Laura lifted the sewing machine carefully down and carried it into the sitting room, while Carrie and Grace hovered around excitedly. Then Pa lifted the box-cover of the machine and they stood in silent admiration.
“It is beautiful,” Ma said at last, “and what a help it will be. I can hardly wait to use it.” But this was late on Saturday afternoon. The sewing machine must stand still over Sunday.
Next week Ma studied the instruction book and learned to run the machine, and the next Saturday she and Laura began to work on the lawn dress. The lawn was so crisp and fresh, the colors so dainty, that Laura was afraid to cut it lest she make a mistake, but Ma had made so many dresses that she did not hesitate. She took Laura’s measurements; then, with her dressmaker chart, she made the pattern for the waist, and fearlessly cut the lawn.
They made the waist tight-fitting, with two clusters of tucks down the back, and two in front. Down the center of the front, between the tucks, tiny, white pearl buttons buttoned the waist. The collar was a straight, upstanding fold of the lawn; the sleeves were long, gathered at the shoulders and close-fitting to the waist, finished with a hem the width of the tucks.
The skirt was gathered very full all round into a narrow waistband, which buttoned over the bottom of the waist to secure them from slipping apart. All down the full skirt, tucks went around and around it, spaced evenly a little way apart, and beneath the bottom tuck was a full-gathered ruffle four inches wide that just touched Laura’s shoe tips.
This dress was finished when Almanzo brought Laura home on the last Friday in May.
“Oh! it is pretty, Ma!” Laura said when she saw it. “All those tucks are so even, and stitched so beautifully.”
“I declare,” said Ma, “I don’t know how we ever got along without that sewing machine. It does the work so easily; tucking is no trouble at all. And such beautiful stitching. The best of seamstresses could not possibly equal it by hand.”
Laura was silent a moment, looking at her new, machine-stitched dress. Then she said, “Mr. Wilkins paid me another month’s salary today, and I really don’t need it. I have fifteen dollars left of my April pay. I will need a new dress for next fall…”
“Yes, and you will need a nice wedding dress,” Ma interrupted.
“Fifteen dollars ought to buy the two,” Laura considered. “They, with the clothes I have, will be enough for a long time. Besides, I will have another twenty-two dollars next month. I wish you and Pa would take this fifteen dollars. Please, Ma. Use it to pay for Mary’s visit home, or to buy the clothes she needs.”
“We can manage without taking the money for your last term of school,” Ma said quietly.
“I know you can, but there are so many things for you and Pa to manage. I would like to help again just this once. Then I would feel all right about going away and not helping any more, and having all these nice clothes for myself,” Laura urged.
Ma yielded. “If it will please you to do so, give the money to your Pa. Since he spent the cow money for the sewing machine, he will be glad to have it, I know.”
Pa was surprised and objected that Laura would need the money herself. But when she explained and urged again, he took it gladly. “It will help me out of a pinch,” he admitted. “But this is the last one. From now on I think we will have clear sailing. The town is growing so fast that I am going to have plenty of carpenter work. The cattle are growing fast, too. Beats all how they multiply, and they live off the homestead, and next year I win my bet with Uncle Sam and this homestead will be ours. So you need never worry about helping any more, Half-Pint. You have done your share and then some.”
When she drove away with Almanzo that Sunday evening, Laura’s heart was brimming with contentment. But it seemed that always there must be some wish unsatisfied. Now she regretted that she would miss Mary’s coming home. Mary was coming that week, and Laura would be teaching a class in fractions in Wilkins school when Mary came.
On Friday afternoon, Almanzo drove Prince and Lady, and they trotted fast all the way home. As they came near the door of home, Laura heard the music of the organ. Before Almanzo stopped the horses she was out of the buggy and running into the house.
“See you Sunday,” he called after her, and she fluttered her ringed hand in answer. Then she was giving Mary a big hug before she could get up from the organ stool, and the first thing Mary said was, “Oh, Laura! I was so surprised to find the organ waiting here for me.”
“We had to keep the secret a long time,” Laura answered. “But it didn’t spoil by keeping, did it? Oh, Mary, let me look at you. How well you’re looking!”
Mary was even more beautiful than ever. Laura would never grow tired of looking at her. And now there was so much to tell each other that they talked every moment. Sunday afternoon they walked once more to the top of the low hill beyond the stable, and Laura picked wild roses to fill Mary’s arms.
“Laura,” Mary asked soberly, “do you really want to leave home to marry that Wilder boy?”
Laura was serious, too. “He isn’t that Wilder boy any more, Mary. He is Almanzo. You don’t know anything about him, do you? or not much since the Hard Winter.”
“I remember his going after the wheat, of course. But why do you want to leave home and go with him?” Mary persisted.
“I guess it’s because we just seem to belong together,” Laura said. “Besides, I have practically left home anyway; I am away so much. I won’t be any further away than I am at Wilkins.”
“Oh, well, I guess it has to be that way. I went away to college, and now you’re going away. That’s growing up, I suppose.”
“It’s strange to think,” Laura said. “Carrie and Grace are older now than we used to be. They are growing up, too. Yet it would be even stranger if we stayed as we were for always, wouldn’t it?”
“There he is coming now,” said Mary. She had heard the buggy and Prince’s and Lady’s hoofs, and no one could have guessed that she was blind, to see her beautiful blue eyes turned toward them as if she saw them. “I’ve hardly seen you,” she said. “And now you have to go.”
“Not till after supper. I’ll be back next Friday, and besides, we’ll have all July and most of August together,” Laura reminded her.
At four o’clock on the last Friday in June, Almanzo drove Barnum and Skip up to the Wilkinses’ door to take Laura home. As they drove along the familiar road, he said, “And so another school is finished, the last one.”
“Are you sure?” Laura replied demurely.
“Aren’t we?” he asked. “You will be frying my breakfast pancakes sometime along the last of September.”
“Or maybe a little later,” Laura promised. He had already begun to build the house on the tree claim.
“In the meantime, how about the Fourth of July? Do you want to go to the celebration?”
“I’d much rather go for a drive,” Laura answered.
“Suits me!” he agreed. “This team’s getting too frisky again. I’ve been working on the house and they’ve had a few days’ rest. It’s time we took the ginger out of them on some more of those long drives.”
“Any time! I’m free now.” Laura was gay. She felt like a bird out of a cage.
“We’ll have the first long drive on the Fourth, then,” said Almanzo.
So on the Fourth, soon after dinner, Laura put on her new lawn dress for the first time, and for the first time she wore the cream-colored hat with the shaded ostrich tips. She was ready when Almanzo came.
Barnum and Skip stood for her to get into the buggy, but they were nervous and in a hurry to go. “The crowd excited them, coming through town,” Almanzo said. “We will only go to the end of Main Street, where you can see the flags, then we will go south, away from the noise.”
The road south toward Brewster’s was so changed that it hardly seemed to be the same road that they had traveled so many times to Laura’s first school. New claim shanties and some houses were scattered over the prairie, and there were many fields of growing grain. Cattle and horses were feeding along the way.
Instead of being white with blowing snow, the prairie was many shades of soft green, but the wind still blew. It came from the south and was warm; it blew the wild grass and the grain in the fields; it blew the horses’ manes and tails streaming behind them; it blew the fringes of the lap robe that was tucked in tightly to protect Laura’s delicate lawn dress. And it blew the lovely, cream-colored ostrich feathers off Laura’s hat.
She caught them with the very tips of her fingers as they were being whirled away. “Oh! Oh!” she exclaimed in vexation. “It must be they were not sewed on well.”
“Miss Bell hasn’t been in the west long enough yet,” Almanzo said. “She is not used to prairie winds. Better let me put those feathers in my pocket before you lose them.”
It was suppertime when they came home, and Almanzo stayed to help eat the cold remains of the Fourth of July dinner. There was plenty of cold chicken and pie; there was a cake and a pitcher of lemonade made with fresh, cold water from the well.
At supper Almanzo proposed that Carrie go with him and Laura to see the fireworks in town. “The horses have had such a long drive that I think they will behave,” he said, but Ma replied, “Of course Laura will go if she wishes; she is used to circus horses. But Carrie better not.” So Laura and Almanzo went.
They kept the horses well outside the crowd, so that no one would be trampled or run over. In an open space at safe distance they sat in the buggy and waited until a streak of fire rose in the darkness above the crowd and exploded a star.
At the first flash Barnum reared and Skip leaped. They came down running, and the buggy came down and ran after them. Almanzo swung them in a wide circle, bringing them to face the fireworks again just as another star exploded.
“Don’t bother about the horses,” he told Laura. “I’ll manage them. You watch the fireworks.”
So Laura did. After each explosion of beauty against the darkness, Almanzo drove the circle, always bringing Barnum and Skip around in time to face the next rush and blossom of fire. Not until the last shower of sparks had faded did Almanzo and Laura drive away.
Then Laura said, “It is really a good thing that you have my feathers in your pocket. If they had been on my hat while I was watching the fireworks, they would have been twisted off, we whirled so fast.”
“Are they in my pocket yet?” Almanzo exclaimed in surprise.
“I hope so,” said Laura. “If they are, I can sew them on my hat again.”
The feathers were still in his pocket, and as he handed them to her at home he said, “I will be by for you Sunday. These horses do need exercise.”