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A NOVEL VENTURE
THAT evening — the evening we finished drawing the wood — a new plan was hit on for raising more school money. On his way home, Addison had called at the post office and got our weekly newspapers.
Theodora usually read the news items in The Independent, quite carefully. As she sat poring them over, she suddenly looked across to Addison and said, "What are 'Christmas greens?' "
The latter looked up, uncertain for the moment, then replied that he guessed they were not anything eatable. "What else does it say about them?" he asked absently.
"It says, 'Christmas greens have begun to come into the city (New York). The trade in Christmas trees bids fair to be brisk,'" Theodora read from her paper.
"Oh, it's some kind of green stuff, laurel or evergreens, I suppose, for decorating rooms and halls and churches," replied Addison.
At that time Christmas trees had not come in vogue with us; we had scarcely heard of them. Addison, however, had read of such use of small evergreen trees. "They stand a little pine, or spruce, or fir tree, up in a church, or a room, and put wax tapers on it and also presents, I believe," said he.
At the Old Squire's the only rite or festivity at Christmas consisted of hanging one's stocking in the chimney corner. Sometimes a few cents, or a stick of candy, or a roll of lozenges had been known to be found in stockings on Christmas mornings.
"Well, here we could easily get a 'Christmas tree' by going out to the woods," Theodora remarked, "but in New York the folks have to buy them."
"They would have to buy them in Boston, or even in Portland, or any city," said Addison. "People cannot go out in the vicinity of a city and chop down a tree at pleasure. Probably such evergreen trees bring a good price."
"If they do, we could make something by selling what there are out along the border of our woods," said Theodora, laughing.
"Maybe," said Addison, still absently, — for he was trying to read all the while.
Nothing further was said at the time, but it was mentioned at the breakfast table next morning, when Theodora remarked that if any one could sell a hundred Christmas trees at fifty cents apiece, quite a nice sum would come of it.
"I think it likely they would sell for that in Portland," replied Addison. "But it would be a long way to draw them from here."
It seemed a very visionary scheme to us all, at first; no one was serious about it, till it had been mentioned several times, when Addison suddenly grew interested and expressed a conviction that we could really make it profitable. The Old Squire also thought the plan might succeed.
Next evening Theodora called at the Edwards, Wilburs and Murches, and canvassed the project afresh. After much discussion of ways and means, Thomas and Willis offered to furnish each a horse, and so make up a span, if we would set our large hay-rack on two traverse-sleds for transporting the trees to Portland.
Next forenoon we hitched up and driving down the wood-road to the borders of the lot, began the task of selecting and cutting small spruce and fir trees. Ned, Thomas, both the Murch boys and also Catherine, Elsie Wilbur, Theodora and Ellen went with us. It was an entirely new business, and there were a great many diverse opinions and much earnest discussion as to how it should be conducted. Theodora had the clearest idea as to what was wanted, and took the lead in selecting the trees to be cut. Most of the evergreens chosen were from eight to ten feet in height, and we took great care not to mar the graceful boughs and "balsam buds" of the firs.
As fast as one was cut, the girls dragged it to the rack and soon had the snow around it covered with green heaps.
I recollect that we cut three large trees, for we argued that in some of the churches the Sunday school children might be holding a festival, and would want a big one. One of these larger firs was fully twenty feet in height, and not less than thirty-five feet in circumference.
I remember that at first we were not a little puzzled how to pack them in the rack so as not to crush the delicate boughs. At last we tried standing them up, beginning at the forward end, and crowding them as closely as possible, and succeeded in packing more in the rack than one would suppose possible. I think there were fifty-seven or fifty-eight trees. The three large ones were set in the rear, and allowed to lean far back over the rail.
It was a prodigiously bulky, green load, though by no means a heavy one. We were tired and hungry before we reached home with it.
Willis, Tom and Ned, Addison and I, then arranged to start for Portland at four o'clock the next morning. Theodora and Catherine suggested that Willis should dress up as "St. Nicholas," with Tom and Ned as his assistants. Such a device, they fancied, would help the sale, and the girls worked two "signs," with the words, "Christmas Trees, 50 cents each!" upon them. The letters were in red yarn, a foot high, on a broad strip of white cloth. These were to be stretched on either side of the load on entering the city. For a seat on our drive to Portland, we rigged a board across the top of the rack at the forward end.
Next morning we were astir at three o'clock, but it was between four and five before we were ready to start.
Day had scarcely broken. The morning star shone cold and bright, and the wind blew sharply, making the snow fly at times.
Our seat was sheltered by the green boughs, and we sat as snugly as we could to keep warm, but we were obliged to get down at times and run smartly to stir our blood.
It was a tedious day's drive, yet we had some sport from it. Almost every one we met would cry out, "What are you going to do with all that green stuff?" or, "Where are ye taking all those firs to?" Addison's answer was always, "Christmas trees, for Portland!"
We ran foul of a load of hay which we met in the road, but got clear without any great damage. At a place where the highway was near the railroad, our horses, unused to the steam cars, tried to run away, and it proved difficult holding them from that high seat, without a fender to brace our feet against.
In the afternoon, too, we passed a schoolhouse just as the boys came out, at recess. Full of fun, they began to snowball us. We jumped down and retaliated. The snowballs flew! There was a battle, but we routed them and drove them into their entry.
Several snowballs flew in at the door. The master came out, and we fell back, leaving one fellow rubbing his ear.
That night we put up at a farmer's, named Martin, in the town of Westbrook, a few miles out of Portland. He charged us "nine shillings" for our night's lodging.
Getting an early start the next morning, we drove into town. Near the bridge from Westbrook into the city, we put out our signs, but could not muster courage to don the old hats, coats and belts which we had brought to personate St. Nicholas.
Following the street, which had a track laid for horse-cars, we came out into another long, broad street, probably Congress Street.
It was early, much too early, in fact; the great street looked gray, cold and deserted. Just then an almost empty car came grinding past. The driver did not so much as notice us with a cast of his eye.
Here and there a muffled-up passer's boot-heels struck loudly on the sidewalk. A policeman from the other side of the street gave us a surly glance. It seemed as if nobody would or could possibly want anything of us or our load.
"Well, what are we going to do, Willis?" Tom asked at last. "Say something. Sing out, 'Christmas trees!' " But for one, I felt as if I could not open my mouth.
"You call out, Willis," said Addison.
"No, you," said Willis, "I'm driving."
At length Ned mustered his voice and cried, "Christmas trees!" But it was in such a timid voice, with such shamefaced accent (for all the world as if he were afraid somebody would hear him) that we all laughed. A newsboy standing inside a doorway took in the situation, and reviled us.
"You keep quiet!" Thomas shouted to him, and having thus got his mouth open, he cried, "Christmas trees!" and did a little better.
Thereupon we all shouted, "Christmas trees! Christmas trees!" making the lonesome streets reecho.
No sort of notice, however, was taken of this appeal, a circumstance which disheartened us not a little. We journeyed on, up and down different streets, but a great and ever-darkening cloud of discouragement had fallen upon us. The streets filled after a time. Carts and hacks rumbled past us. There were many people passing now, but they seemed to ignore us, as if from a settled purpose.
Never in my life have I felt more out of place than on that morning, and my own feelings were faithfully reflected in the faces of my youthful partners.
Martin, the farmer, had advised us to ring the door bells as we drove along with our load and tell the people what we had to sell. After a time we bethought ourselves of this advice, and as Willis went on, Ned, Thomas and myself began ringing. We were now on a street where there were handsome brick dwelling-houses. Our calls, however, were mostly answered by frowzy-headed servant girls who cried, Be off with ye!" and slammed the doors in our faces.
Ten o'clock finally struck from a church steeple — and not a tree had been sold. We had frequently halted beside the curbstone, and during one of these waits, a door opened close beside us, and an old gentleman, gray-headed and much wrinkled, came out, picking his way with his gold-headed cane.
"Ah!" said he, stopping short, "Whose are these balsams, my boys?"
"For Christmas, if anybody wants them," replied Willis, in a glum tone.
The old gentleman was critically examining the buds. "They are very good for the lungs," he remarked. "It's a pity folks do not plant them around their houses."
"But these are Christmas trees," Thomas interposed.
"Ah, yes; ah, yes," said the old gentleman absently. "They are Nature's sovereign remedy for the terrible disease of the climate in which they grow."
"These are Christmas trees, Christmas trees," we all told him again, as gently and insinuatingly as possible.
"Blind, blind! How blind! Our children die of consumption, month by month, score by score," the old gentleman ran on, "when a little grove of these round every house would be as sure a preventive as food is of hunger."
Thomas pulled one out of the load and proffered it. "Have one?" said he. "Have one of these good balsams? Only fifty cents."
"Throughout the North Nature has planted this great antidote," the old gentleman went on, fumbling in his pocket. He drew out two quarters, which we took at once, and drove quickly on, fearing, as Ned said, that our customer might "wake up." We left his balsam leaning against a yard fence, the old gentleman still contemplating it, rapt and oblivious.
But our luck had turned. We had not gone a hundred yards farther before we met a nicely dressed lady of middle age — who looked wide-awake enough, too. We saw her eyes brighten.
"How do you sell your Christmas trees, my good boys?" she asked.
"A beauty for fifty cents!" cried Willis.
Seeing her unloose the little chain of her purse, we picked out a nice one, and Ned went with her to carry it to her door, two or three blocks away. She gave him ten cents more for that act of courtesy.
Before he got back we had sold another to a gentleman in a coupe, who tried to draw it into the carriage with him. Not ten minutes after, a butcher in a long white frock bought another.
We sold one every five or ten minutes after that. So wrought up were we by this happy change in our fortunes that not one of us thought of dinner, either for ourselves or our horses.
The best stroke of business was done at about three o'clock in the afternoon. We drew a crowd then, and our stock became small in a very few minutes. Our customers, themselves, forced us to put up our price. They began to offer a dollar for the remaining trees. Shortly after, a party of children ran off to the superintendent of the Sunday school at their church, and coaxed him to come and buy one of the three big trees for their vestry. We received two dollars for it. The other two large firs we did not sell. But I think we might easily have sold fifty more of the small ones if we had had them. Never had a day begun with such discouragement, and ended in such triumph.
Determined to be magnanimous now, we drove past two churches, in the gathering dusk, and left a big fir on the steps of each. It was in the Eastern Argus, next morning, that "some unknown Santa Claus" had left a "beautiful Christmas tree" on the steps of these churches.
We drove back to the same farmer's house where we had spent the previous night, and I am sure his good wife thought we did justice to her supper, and were bound to have our "nine shillings'" worth.
Next morning we set off for home, and it so happened that we passed the schoolhouse where we had had the battle, just as the boys came out at their forenoon recess. We felt so good-humored over our successful venture that we were now for having a jollification with them. They pitched into us, however, like hornets! Their snowballs were all made up and frozen over night. We received an awful pelting. The balls whistled about our ears vindictively, and we were glad to put our horses to their best paces and get away as fast as we could.
The net proceeds of this venture, after deducting all expenses, were thirty-three dollars and fifty cents, and this sum was laid aside for a further school fund. After the winter term was finished, we thought that it would be a good investment to have a short private term, if Joel Pierson, or some other efficient teacher, could be hired. In fact, we had grown very enthusiastic on the subject of more school. A week later, however, it was decided to take six dollars of the money for a schoolhouse stove. The old stove was badly cracked, smoky and small, and Tibbetts was unwilling to allow Glinds to procure a better one; he declared that the old one was good enough. It brought two dollars as old iron; and for eight dollars we procured a new and larger one. Even then Tibbetts condemned the transaction.
The credit for this then novel effort, peddling Christmas trees, was clearly due to Theodora; it was her suggestion, but she never claimed the honor of it.