Just before Thanksgiving the affairs of theSimpsons reached what might have been calleda crisis, even in their family, which had beenborn and reared in a state of adventurous poverty andperilous uncertainty.
Riverboro was doing its best to return the entiretribe of Simpsons to the land of its fathers, so tospeak, thinking rightly that the town which hadgiven them birth, rather than the town of theiradoption, should feed them and keep a roof over theirheads until the children were of an age for self-support. There was little to eat in the household andless to wear, though Mrs. Simpson did, as always,her poor best. The children managed to satisfy theirappetites by sitting modestly outside their neighbors'
kitchen doors when meals were about to beserved. They were not exactly popular favorites, butthey did receive certain undesirable morsels from themore charitable housewives.
Life was rather dull and dreary, however, and inthe chill and gloom of November weather, with thevision of other people's turkeys bursting with fat,and other people's golden pumpkins and squashesand corn being garnered into barns, the youngSimpsons groped about for some inexpensive formof excitement, and settled upon the selling of soapfor a premium. They had sold enough to theirimmediate neighbors during the earlier autumn tosecure a child's handcart, which, though very weakon its pins, could be trundled over the country roads.
With large business sagacity and an executive capacitywhich must have been inherited from their father,they now proposed to extend their operationsto a larger area and distribute soap to contiguousvillages, if these villages could be induced to buy. TheExcelsior Soap Company paid a very small return ofany kind to its infantile agents, who were scatteredthrough the state, but it inflamed their imaginationsby the issue of circulars with highly colored picturesof the premiums to be awarded for the sale of a certainnumber of cakes. It was at this juncture thatClara Belle and Susan Simpson consulted Rebecca,who threw herself solidly and wholeheartedly into theenterprise, promising her help and that of EmmaJane Perkins. The premiums within their possiblegrasp were three: a bookcase, a plush reclining chair,and a banquet lamp. Of course the Simpsons hadno books, and casting aside, without thought or pang,the plush chair, which might have been of someuse in a family of seven persons (not counting Mr.
Simpson, who ordinarily sat elsewhere at the town'sexpense), they warmed themselves rapturously inthe vision of the banquet lamp, which speedily be-came to them more desirable than food, drink, orclothing. Neither Emma Jane nor Rebecca perceivedanything incongruous in the idea of theSimpsons striving for a banquet lamp. They lookedat the picture daily and knew that if they themselveswere free agents they would toil, suffer, ay sweat,for the happy privilege of occupying the same roomwith that lamp through the coming winter evenings.
It looked to be about eight feet tall in the catalogue,and Emma Jane advised Clara Belle to measure theheight of the Simpson ceilings; but a note in themargin of the circular informed them that it stoodtwo and a half feet high when set up in all its dignityand splendor on a proper table, three dollars extra.
It was only of polished brass, continued the circular,though it was invariably mistaken for solid gold, andthe shade that accompanied it (at least it accompaniedit if the agent sold a hundred extra cakes)was of crinkled crepe paper printed in a dozendelicious hues, from which the joy-dazzled agent mighttake his choice.
Seesaw Simpson was not in the syndicate. ClaraBelle was rather a successful agent, but Susan, whocould only say "thoap," never made large returns,and the twins, who were somewhat young to be thoroughlytrustworthy, could be given only a half dozencakes at a time, and were obliged to carry with themon their business trips a brief document stating theprice per cake, dozen, and box. Rebecca and EmmaJane offered to go two or three miles in some onedirection and see what they could do in the way ofstirring up a popular demand for the Snow-White andRose-Red brands, the former being devoted to laundrypurposes and the latter being intended for the toilet.
There was a great amount of hilarity in thepreparation for this event, and a long council in EmmaJane's attic. They had the soap company's circularfrom which to arrange a proper speech, and theyhad, what was still better, the remembrance of acertain patent-medicine vender's discourse at theMilltown Fair. His method, when once observed,could never be forgotten; nor his manner, nor hisvocabulary. Emma Jane practiced it on Rebecca,and Rebecca on Emma Jane.
"Can I sell you a little soap this afternoon? Itis called the Snow-White and Rose-Red Soap, sixcakes in an ornamental box, only twenty cents forthe white, twenty-five cents for the red. It is madefrom the purest ingredients, and if desired could beeaten by an invalid with relish and profit.""Oh, Rebecca, don't let's say that!" interposedEmma Jane hysterically. "It makes me feel like afool.""It takes so little to make you feel like a fool,Emma Jane," rebuked Rebecca, "that sometimes Ithink that you must BE one I don't get to feelinglike a fool so awfully easy; now leave out that eatingpart if you don't like it, and go on.""The Snow-White is probably the most remarkablelaundry soap ever manufactured. Immerse thegarments in a tub, lightly rubbing the more soiledportions with the soap; leave them submerged inwater from sunset to sunrise, and then the youngestbaby can wash them without the slightest effort.""BABE, not baby," corrected Rebecca from the circular.
"It's just the same thing," argued Emma Jane.
"Of course it's just the same THING; but a babyhas got to be called babe or infant in a circular,the same as it is in poetry! Would you rather say infant?""No," grumbled Emma Jane; "infant is worseeven than babe. Rebecca, do you think we'd betterdo as the circular says, and let Elijah or Elisha trythe soap before we begin selling?""I can't imagine a babe doing a family wash withANY soap," answered Rebecca; "but it must be trueor they would never dare to print it, so don't let'sbother. Oh! won't it be the greatest fun, EmmaJane? At some of the houses--where they can'tpossibly know me--I shan't be frightened, and Ishall reel off the whole rigmarole, invalid, babe, andall. Perhaps I shall say even the last sentence, if Ican remember it: `We sound every chord in thegreat mac-ro-cosm of satisfaction."This conversation took place on a Friday afternoonat Emma Jane's house, where Rebecca, to herunbounded joy, was to stay over Sunday, her auntshaving gone to Portland to the funeral of an oldfriend. Saturday being a holiday, they were goingto have the old white horse, drive to North Riverborothree miles away, eat a twelve o'clock dinnerwith Emma Jane's cousins, and be back at fouro'clock punctually.
When the children asked Mrs. Perkins if theycould call at just a few houses coming and going,and sell a little soap for the Simpsons, she at firstreplied decidedly in the negative. She was anindulgent parent, however, and really had littleobjection to Emma Jane amusing herself in this unusualway; it was only for Rebecca, as the niece of thedifficult Miranda Sawyer, that she raised scruples;but when fully persuaded that the enterprise was acharitable one, she acquiesced.
The girls called at Mr. Watson's store, andarranged for several large boxes of soap to be chargedto Clara Belle Simpson's account. These werelifted into the back of the wagon, and a happiercouple never drove along the country road thanRebecca and her companion. It was a gloriousIndian summer day, which suggested nothing ofThanksgiving, near at hand as it was. It was arustly day, a scarlet and buff, yellow and carmine,bronze and crimson day. There were still manyleaves on the oaks and maples, making a goodlyshow of red and brown and gold. The air was likesparkling cider, and every field had its heaps ofyellow and russet good things to eat, all ready for thebarns, the mills, and the markets. The horse forgothis twenty years, sniffed the sweet bright air, andtrotted like a colt; Nokomis Mountain looked blueand clear in the distance; Rebecca stood in thewagon, and apostrophized the landscape with suddenjoy of living:--"Great, wide, beautiful, wonderful World,With the wonderful water round you curled,And the wonderful grass upon your breast,World, you are beautifully drest!"Dull Emma Jane had never seemed to Rebeccaso near, so dear, so tried and true; and Rebecca,to Emma Jane's faithful heart, had never been sobrilliant, so bewildering, so fascinating, as in thisvisit together, with its intimacy, its freedom, andthe added delights of an exciting business enterprise.
A gorgeous leaf blew into the wagon.
"Does color make you sort of dizzy?" asked Rebecca.
"No," answered Emma Jane after a long pause;"no, it don't; not a mite.""Perhaps dizzy isn't just the right word, but it'snearest. I'd like to eat color, and drink it, andsleep in it. If you could be a tree, which onewould you choose?"Emma Jane had enjoyed considerable experienceof this kind, and Rebecca had succeeded in unstoppingher ears, ungluing her eyes, and loosening hertongue, so that she could "play the game" aftera fashion.
"I'd rather be an apple-tree in blossom,--thatone that blooms pink, by our pig-pen."Rebecca laughed. There was always somethingunexpected in Emma Jane's replies. "I'd chooseto be that scarlet maple just on the edge of thepond there,"--and she pointed with the whip.
"Then I could see so much more than your pinkapple-tree by the pig-pen. I could look at all therest of the woods, see my scarlet dress in my beautifullooking-glass, and watch all the yellow and browntrees growing upside down in the water. WhenI'm old enough to earn money, I'm going to havea dress like this leaf, all ruby color--thin, youknow, with a sweeping train and ruffly, curly edges;then I think I'll have a brown sash like the trunkof the tree, and where could I be green? Do theyhave green petticoats, I wonder? I'd like a greenpetticoat coming out now and then underneath toshow what my leaves were like before I was a scarlet maple.""I think it would be awful homely," said EmmaJane. "I'm going to have a white satin with a pinksash, pink stockings, bronze slippers, and a spangledfan."