Little town on the prair.., p.16
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       Little Town on the Prairie, p.16
 

         Part #7 of Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder
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  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, an
d 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.

  Chapter 21

  The Madcap Days

  After the party, Laura hardly cared about studying. The party had made such a jolly friendliness among the big girls and boys that now at recess and noon on stormy days they gathered around the stove, talking and joking.

  The pleasant days between snowstorms were even livelier. Then they all played at snowballing each other outdoors. This was not ladylike, but it was such fun! They came in panting and laughing, stamping snow from their shoes and shaking it from coats and hoods in the entry, and they went to their seats warm and glowing and full of fresh air.

  Laura was having such a good time that she almost forgot about improving her opportunity in school. She stayed at the head of all her classes, but her grades were no longer 100. She made mistakes in arithmetic, sometimes even in history. Once her arithmetic grade went down to 93. Still, she thought she could make up lost time by studying hard next summer, though she knew by heart the true words:

  Lost, between sunrise and sunset,

  One golden hour, set with sixty diamond minutes.

  No reward is offered, for it is gone forever.

  The little boys brought their Christmas-present sleds to school. Sometimes the big boys borrowed them, and took the girls sled-riding. The boys pulled the sleds, for there were no hills to slide down, and this winter no blizzards made big, hard snowdrifts.

  Then Cap and Ben made a hand-bobsled, big enough for all four girls to crowd into. The four boys pulled it. At recess they raced at great speed, far out onto the prairie road and back. At noon they had time to go even farther.

  At last Nellie Oleson could not bear standing alone at the window and watching this. She had always disdained to play outdoors in the cold that might roughen her delicate complexion and chap her hands, but one day at noon she declared that she would go for a sled ride.

  The sled was not large enough for five, but the boys would not agree to let any one of the other girls stay behind. They coaxed all five girls into the sled. The girls’ feet stuck out from the sides, their skirts had to be gathered in till their woolen stockings showed above their high shoetops. Away they went, out on the snowy road.

  They were windblown, disheveled, red-faced from cold and wind and laughter and excitement as the boys swung in a circle over the prairie and ran toward town, drawing the sled behind them. They whisked past the schoolhouse and Cap shouted, “Let’s go up and down Main Street!”

  With laughter and shouts the other boys agreed, running even faster.

  Nellie shrieked, “Stop this minute! Stop! Stop, I tell you!”

  Ida called, “Oh boys, you mustn’t!” but she could not stop laughing. Laura was laughing, too, for they were such a funny sight, heels kicking helplessly, skirts blowing, fascinators and mufflers and hair whipping in the wind. Nellie’s screaming only added to the boys’ merriment as they ran the faster. Surely, Laura thought, they wouldn’t go onto Main Street. Surely they would turn back any minute.

  “No! No! Arthur, no!” Minnie was screaming, and Mary Power was begging, “Don’t! Oh, please don’t!”

  Laura saw the brown Morgan horses standing blanketed at the hitching posts. Almanzo Wilder, in a big fur coat, was untying them. He turned to see what caused the girls’ screaming, and at the same instant Laura knew that the boys meant to take them all past him, past all the eyes on Main Street. This was not funny at all.

  The other girls were making such a commotion that Laura had to speak low, to be heard.

  “Cap!” she said. “Please make them stop. Mary doesn’t want to go on Main Street.”

  Cap began to turn at once. The other boys pulled against him, but Cap said, “Aw, come on,” and swung the sled.

  They were on their way back to the schoolhouse and the bell was ringing. At the schoolhouse door they scrambled out of the sled good-naturedly, all but Nellie. Nellie was furious.

  “You boys think you’re smart!” she raged. “You— you—you ignorant westerners!”

  The boys looked at her, sober and silent. They could not say what they wanted to, because she was a girl. Then Cap glanced anxiously at Mary Power, and she smiled at him.

  “Thank you, boys, for the ride,” Laura said.

  “Yes, thank you all, it was such fun!” Ida chimed in.

  “Thank you,” Mary Power said, smiling at Cap, and his flashing smile lighted up his whole face.

  “We’ll go again at recess,” he promised, as they all trooped into the schoolhouse.

  In March the snow was melting, and final examinations were near. Still Laura did not study as she should. All the talk now was about the last Literary of that winter. What it would be was a secret that everyone was trying to guess. Even Nellie’s family was coming to it, and Nellie was going to wear a new dress.

  At home, instead of studying, Laura sponged and pressed her blue cashmere and freshened its lace frill. She so wanted a hat to wear instead of her hood that Ma bought for her half a yard of beautiful brown velvet.

  “I know you’ll take the very best care of the hat,” Ma made excuse to herself, “and it will be perfectly good to wear for some winters to come.”

  So on Saturdays Mary Power and Laura made their hats. Mary’s was of dark blue cloth, trimmed with a twist of black velvet and blue, all from her father’s scrap bag. Laura’s was of that lovely brown velvet, so soft to touch, and with a tawny-golden sheen to its silkiness. She wore it for the first time to the Literary.

  In the schoolhouse no preparation was to be seen, except that the teacher’s desk had been moved from the platform. People crowded three in a seat, and every inch of standing room was jammed. Even on the teacher’s desk, boys stood tightly crowded. Mr. Bradley and Lawyer Barnes pressed back the mass of people, to keep the center aisle clear. No one knew why, and no one knew what was happening when a great shout went up from the people outside who were trying to get in.

  Then up the center aisle came marching five black-faced men in raggedy-taggedy uniforms. White circles were around their eyes and their mouths were wide and red. Up onto the platform they marched, then facing forward in a row suddenly they all advanced, singing,

  “Oh, talk about your Mulligan Guards!

  These darkies can’t be beat!”

  Backward, forward and backward and forward they marched, back and forth, back and forth.

  “Oh TALK aBOUT your MULLigan GUARDS!

  These DARKies CAN’t be BEAT!

  We MARCH in TIME and CUT a SHINE!

  Just WATCH these DARKies’ feet!”

  The man in the middle was clog dancing. Back against the wall stood the four raggedy black-faced men. One played a jew’s-harp, one played a mouth organ, one kept the time with rattling bones, and one man clapped with hands and feet.

  The cheering started; it couldn’t be stopped. Feet could not be kept still. The whole crowd was carried away by the pounding music, the grinning white-eyed faces, the wild dancing.
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  There was no time to think. When the dancing stopped, the jokes began. The white-circled eyes rolled, the big red mouths blabbed questions and answers that were the funniest ever heard. Then there was music again, and even wilder dancing.

  When the five darkies suddenly raced down the aisle and were gone, everyone was weak from excitement and laughing. It did not seem possible that the whole evening had gone. The famous minstrel shows in New York surely could not be better than that minstrel show had been. Then a question ran through the whole jostling crowd, “Who were they?”

  In their rag-tag clothing and with their blackened faces, it had been hard to know who they were. Laura was sure that the clog dancer was Gerald Fuller, for she had once seen him dance a jig on the sidewalk in front of his hardware store. And as she remembered the black hands that had held the long, flat, white bones between their fingers and kept them rattling out the tunes, she would have been certain that the darky was Pa, if the darky had had whiskers.

  “Pa couldn’t have cut off his whiskers, could he?” she asked Ma, and in horror Ma answered, “Mercy, no!” Then she added, “I hope not.”

  “Pa must have been one of the darkies,” Carrie said, “because he did not come with us.”

  “Yes, I know he was practicing to be in the minstrel show,” said Ma, walking faster.

  “Well, but none of the darkies had whiskers, Ma,” Carrie reminded her.

  “My goodness,” Ma said. “Oh my goodness.” She had been so carried away that she had not thought of that. “He couldn’t have,” she said, and she asked Laura, “Do you suppose he would?”

  “I don’t know,” Laura answered. She really thought that, for such an evening, Pa would have sacrificed even his whiskers, but she did not know what he had done.

  They hurried home. Pa was not there. It seemed a much longer time than it was, before he came in, cheerfully asking, “Well, how was the minstrel show?”

 
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