GOING TO CHURCH
It was Saturday night and Pa sat on the doorstep, smoking his after-supper pipe. Laura and Mary sat close on either side of him. Ma, with Carrie on her lap, rocked gently to and fro, just inside the doorway.
The winds were still. The stars hung low and bright. The dark sky was deep beyond the stars, and Plum Creek talked softly to itself.
“They told me in town this afternoon that there will be preaching in the new church to- morrow,” said Pa. “I met the home missionary, Reverend Alden, and he wanted us to be sure to come. I told him we would.”
“Oh, Charles,” Ma exclaimed, “we haven’t been to church for so long!”
Laura and Mary had never seen a church. But they knew from Ma’s voice that going to church must be better than a party. After a while Ma said, “I am so glad I finished my new dress.”
“You will look sweet as a posy in it,” Pa told her. “We must start early.”
Next morning was a hurry. Breakfast was a hurry, work was a hurry, and Ma hurried about dressing herself and Carrie. She called up the lad- der in a hurrying voice: “Come on down, girls. I’ll tie your ribbons.”
They hurried down. Then they stood and stared at Ma. She was perfectly beautiful in her new dress. It was black-and-white calico, a narrow stripe of white, then a wider stripe of black lines and white lines no wider than threads. Up the front it was buttoned with black buttons. And the skirt was pulled back and lifted up to puffs and shirrings behind.
Crocheted lace edged the little stand-up col- lar. Crocheted lace spread out in a bow on Ma’s breast, and the gold breastpin held the collar and the bow. Ma’s face was lovely. Her cheeks were flushed, and her eyes were bright.
She turned Laura and Mary around and quickly tied the ribbons on their braids. Then she took Carrie’s hand. They all went out on the door- step and Ma locked the door.
Carrie looked like one of the little angel-birds in the Bible. Her dress and her tiny sunbonnet were white, and all trimmed with lace. Her eyes were big and solemn; her golden curls hung by her cheeks and peeped from under the bonnet be- hind.
Then Laura saw her own pink ribbons on Mary’s braids. She clapped her hand over her mouth before a word came out. She scrooged and looked down her own back. Mary’s blue ribbons were on her braids!
She and Mary looked at each other and did not say a word. Ma, in her hurry, had made a mistake. They hoped she would not notice. Laura was so tired of pink and Mary was so tired of blue. But Mary had to wear blue because her hair was golden, and Laura had to wear pink because her hair was brown.
Pa came driving the wagon from the stable. He had brushed Sam and David till they shone in the morning sunshine. They stepped proudly, tossing their heads, and their manes and tails rippled.
There was a clean blanket on the wagon seat and another spread on the bottom of the wagon box. Pa carefully helped Ma climb up over the wheel. He lifted Carrie to Ma’s lap. Then he tossed Laura into the wagon box, and her braids flew out.
“Oh dear!” Ma exclaimed. “I put the wrong ribbons on Laura’s hair!”
“It’ll never be noticed on a trotting horse!” said Pa. So, Laura knew she could wear the blue ribbons.
Sitting beside Mary on the clean blanket in the wagon bottom, she pulled her braids over her shoulder. So did Mary, and they smiled at each other. Laura could see the blue whenever she looked down, and Mary could see the pink.
Pa was whistling, and when Sam and David started, he began to sing.
“Oh, every Sunday morning My wife is by my side
A-waiting for the wagon, And we’ll all take a ride!”
“Charles,” Ma said, softly, to remind him that this was Sunday. Then they all sang together,
“There is a happy land, Far, far away,
Where saints in glory stand, Bright, bright as day!”
Plum Creek came out from the willow shadows and spread wide and flat and twinkling in the sunshine. Sam and David trotted through the sparkling shallows. Glittering drops flew up, and waves splashed from the wheels. Then they were away on the endless prairie.
The wagon rolled softly along the road that hardly made a mark on the green grasses. Birds sang their morning songs. Bees hummed. Great yellow bumblebees went bumbling from flower to flower, and big grasshoppers flew whirring up and away.
Too soon they came to town. The blacksmith shop was shut and still. The doors of the stores were closed. A few dressed-up men and women, with their dressed-up children, walked along the edges of dusty Main Street. They were all going toward the church.
The church was a new building not far from the schoolhouse. Pa drove toward it through the prairie grass. It was like the schoolhouse, except that on its roof was a tiny room with no walls and nothing in it.
“What’s that?” Laura asked.
“Don’t point, Laura,” said Ma. “It’s a belfry.”
Pa stopped the wagon against the high porch of the church. He helped Ma out of the wagon, but Laura and Mary just stepped over the side of the wagon box. They all waited there while Pa drove into the shade of the church, unhitched Sam and David and tied them to the wagon box.
People were coming through the grass, climbing the steps and going into the church. There was a solemn, low rustling inside it.
At last Pa came. He took Carrie on his arm and walked with Ma into the church. Laura and Mary walked softly, close behind them. They all sat in a row on a long bench.
Church was exactly like a schoolhouse, except that it had a strange, large, hollow feeling. Every little noise was loud against the new board walls.
A tall, thin man stood up behind the tall desk on the platform. His clothes were black, and his big cravat was black and his hair and the beard that went around his face were dark. His voice was gentle and kind. All the heads bowed down. The man’s voice talked to God for a long time, while Laura sat perfectly still and looked at the blue ribbons on her braids.
Suddenly, right beside her, a voice said, “Come with me.”
Laura almost jumped out of her skin. A pretty lady stood there, smiling out of soft blue eyes. The lady said again, “Come with me, little girls. We are going to have a Sunday-school class.”
Ma nodded at them, so Laura and Mary slid down from the bench. They had not known there was going to be school on Sunday.
The lady led them to a corner. All the girls from school were there, looking questions at one another. The lady pulled benches around to make a square pen. She sat down and took Laura and Christy beside her. When the others were settled on the square of benches, the lady said her name was Mrs. Tower, and she asked their names. Then she said, “Now, I’m going to tell you a story!”
Laura was very pleased. But Mrs. Tower began, “It is all about a little baby, born long ago in Egypt. His name was Moses.”
So, Laura did not listen anymore. She knew all about Moses in the bulrushes. Even Carrie knew that.
After the story, Mrs. Tower smiled more than ever, and said, “Now we’ll all learn a Bible verse! Won’t that be nice?”
“Yes, ma’am,” they all said. She told a Bible verse to each girl in turn. They were to remember the verses and repeat them to her next Sunday. That was their Sunday-school lesson.
When it was Laura’s turn, Mrs. Tower cuddled her and smiled almost as warm and sweet as Ma. She said, “My very littlest girl must have a very small lesson. It will be the shortest verse in the Bible!”
Then Laura knew what it was. But Mrs. Tower’s eyes smiled, and she said, “It is just two words!” She said them, and asked, “Now do you think you can remember that for a whole week?” Laura was surprised at Mrs. Tower. Why, she remembered long Bible verses and whole songs! But she did not want to hurt Mrs. Tower’s feelings. So, she said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“That’s my little girl!” Mrs. Tower said. But Laura was Ma’s little girl. “I’ll tell you again, to help you remember. Just two words,” said Mrs. Tower. “Now can you say them after me?” Laura squirmed.
“Try,” Mrs. Tower urged her. Laura’s head bowed lower and she whispered the verse.
“That’s right!” Mrs. Tower said. “Now will you do your best to remember, and tell me next Sunday?” Laura nodded.
After that everyone stood up. They all opened their mouths and tried to sing “Jerusalem, the Golden.” Not many of them knew the words or the tune. Miserable squiggles went up Laura’s backbone and the insides of her ears crinkled. She was glad when they all sat down again.
Then the tall, thin man stood up and talked. Laura thought he never would stop talking.
She looked through the open windows at butter- flies going where they pleased. She watched the grasses blowing in the wind. She listened to the wind whining thin along the edges of the roof. She looked at the blue hair ribbons. She looked at each of her fingernails and admired how the fingers of her hands would fit together. She stuck her fingers out straight, so they looked like the corner of a log house. She looked at the underneath of shingles, overhead. Her legs ached from dangling still.
At last everyone stood up and tried again to sing. When that was over, there was no more. They could go home.
The tall, thin man was standing by the door. He was the Reverend Alden. He shook Ma’s hand and he shook Pa’s hand and they talked. Then he bent down, and he shook Laura’s hand.
His teeth smiled in his dark beard. His eyes were warm and blue. He asked, “Did you like Sunday school, Laura?”
Suddenly Laura did like it. She said, “Yes, sir.”
“Then you must come every Sunday!” he said. “We’ll expect you.” And Laura knew he really would expect her. He would not forget.
On the way home Pa said, “Well, Caroline, it’s pleasant to be with a crowd of people all trying to do the right thing, same as we are.”
“Yes, Charles,” Ma said, thankfully. “It will be a pleasure to look forward to, all week.”
Pa turned on the seat and asked, “How do you girls like the first time you ever went to church?”
“They can’t sing,” said Laura.
Pa’s great laugh rang out. Then he explained, “There was nobody to pitch the hymn with a tuning-fork.”
“Nowadays, Charles,” said Ma, “people have hymn books.”
“Well, maybe we’ll be able to afford some, some day,” Pa said.
After that they went to Sunday school every Sunday. Three or four Sundays they went to Sunday school, and then again, the Reverend Alden was there, and that was a church Sunday. The Reverend Alden lived at his real church, in the East. He could not travel all the way to this church every Sunday. This was his home missionary church, in the West.
There were no more long, dull, tiresome Sundays, because there was always Sunday school to go to, and to talk about afterward. The best Sundays were the Sundays when the Reverend Alden was there. He always remembered Laura, and she remembered him between times. He called Laura and Mary his “little country girls.”
Then one Sunday while Pa and Ma and Mary and Laura were all sitting at the dinner table, talking about that day’s Sunday school, Pa said, “If I’m going to keep on going out among dressed-up folks, I must get a pair of new boots. Look.”
He stretched out his foot. His mended boot was cracked clear across the toes.
They all looked at his red knitted sock showing through that gaping slit. The edges of leather were thin and curling back between little cracks. Pa said, “It won’t hold another patch.”
“Oh, I wanted you to get boots, Charles,” Ma said. “And you brought home that calico for my dress.”
Pa made up his mind. “I’ll get me a new pair when I go to town next Saturday. They will cost three dollars, but we’ll make out somehow till I harvest the wheat.”
All that week Pa was making hay. He had helped put up Mr. Nelson’s hay and earned the use of Mr. Nelson’s fine, quick mowing-machine. He said it was wonderful weather for making hay. He had never known such a dry, sunny summer.
Laura hated to go to school. She wanted to be out in the hayfield with Pa, watching the marvelous machine with its long knives snickety- snicking behind the wheels, cutting through great swathes of grass.
Saturday morning, she went to the field on the wagon, and helped Pa bring in the last load of hay. They looked at the wheat-field, standing up taller than Laura above the mown land. Its level top was rough with wheat-heads, bent with the weight of ripening wheat. They picked three long, fat ones and took them to the house to show Ma.
When that crop was harvested, Pa said, they’d be out of debt and have more money than they knew what to do with. He’d have a buggy, Ma would have a silk dress, they’d all have new shoes and eat beef every Sunday.
After dinner he put on a clean shirt and took three dollars out of the fiddle-box. He was going to town to get his new boots. He walked, because the horses had been working all that week and he left them at home to rest.
It was late that afternoon when Pa came walking home. Laura saw him on the knoll and she and Jack ran up from the old crab’s home in the creek and into the house behind him.
Ma turned around from the stove, where she was taking the Saturday baking of bread out of the oven.
“Where are your boots, Charles?” she asked. “Well, Caroline,” Pa said. “I saw Brother
Alden and he told me he couldn’t raise money enough to put a bell in the belfry. The folks in town had all given every cent they could, and he lacked just three dollars. So, I gave him the money.”
“Oh, Charles!” was all Ma said.
Pa looked down at his cracked boot. “I’ll patch it,” he said. “I can make it hold together somehow. And do you know, we’ll hear that church bell ringing clear out here.”
Ma turned quickly back to the stove, and Laura went quietly out and sat down on the step. Her throat hurt her. She did so want Pa to have good new boots.
“Never mind, Caroline,” she heard Pa saying. “It’s not long to wait till I harvest the wheat.”