The Soap Making of Remember Biddle
"I T may chance that you will not be able to return by Thanksgiving Day?" Remember Biddle asked with almost a sob in her voice.
A little Puritan girl of long ago was Remember, dressed in a long straight gown of gray stuff, heavy hobnailed shoes and wearing a white kerchief crossed about her neck. She stood in the door of the little log farm-house that looked out upon the dreary stretch of the Atlantic coast with Plymouth Rock raising its gray head not so very far away.
No wonder Remember felt unhappy. Her mother was at the door mounted upon their horse, and ready to start away for quite a long journey as journeys were counted in those days. She was going with a bundle of herbs to care for a sick neighbor who lived a distance of ten miles away. It had been an urgent summons, brought by the post carrier that morning. The neighbor was ill, indeed, and the fame of Mistress Biddle's herb brewing was well known through the countryside.
She leaned down from the saddle to touch Remember's dark braids. The little girl had run out beside the horse and laid her cheek against his soft side. Her father was far away in Boston, attending to some important matters of shipping. Her mother's going left Remember all alone. She repeated her question,
"Shall I be alone for Thanksgiving Day, mother, dear?" she asked.
Her mother turned away that the little daughter might not see that her eyes, as well, were full of sorrow.
"I know not, Remember. I sent a letter this morning by the post carrier to Boston telling your father that I should wait for him at Neighbor Allison's, and if I could leave the poor woman he could come home with me. I hope that we shall be here in time for Thanksgiving Day, but if it should happen, Remember, that you must be alone take no thought of your loneliness. Think only of how much cause we have for being thankful in this free, fertile land of New England. And keep busy, dear child. You will find plenty to do in the house until my return."
Throwing the girl a good-bye kiss, Mistress Biddle gave the horse a light touch with her riding whip and was off down the road, her long, dark cloak blowing like a gray cloud on the horizon in the chill November wind.
For a few moments Remember leaned against the beams of the door listening to the call of a flock of flying crows and the crackling of the dried cornstalks in the field back of the house. Beyond the cornfield lay the brown and green woods, uncut, save by an occasional winding Indian trail. The neighboring cabins were so far away that they looked like toy houses set on the edge of other fields of dried cornstalks. Looking again toward the woods Remember shivered a little. She saw in imagination, a tall, dark figure in a gay blanket and trailing feather headdress stalk out from the depths of the thicket of pines and oaks. Then she laughed.
"There hasn't an Indian passed here since early in the summer," she said to herself. "Mother would not have left me here alone if she had not known that I should be quite safe. I will go in now and play that I am the mistress of this house, and I am getting it ready for company on Thanksgiving Day. It will be so much fun that I shall forget all about being a lonely little girl.
It was a happy play. Remember tied one of her mother's long aprons over her dress to keep it clean, and began her busy work of cleaning the house and making it shine from cellar to ceiling. She sorted the piles of ruddy apples and winter squashes and pumpkins in the cellar, and rehung the slabs of rich bacon and the strings of onions. As she touched the bundles of savory herbs that hung about the cellar walls, Remember gave a little sigh.
"I see no chance of these being used in the stuffing of a fat turkey for Thanksgiving," she said to herself. "It may be that I shall have to eat nothing but mush and apple sauce for my dinner, and all alone. Ah, well-a-day!" She began to sing in her sweet, child voice one of the hymns that she had learned at the big white meeting-house:
As she sang, Remember lifted a bucket of soft soap that stood on the cellar floor and tugged it up to the kitchen. Then she went to work with a will.
Several days passed before Remember had cleaned the house to her satisfaction. On her hands and knees she scoured the floors, her rosy hands and arms drenched with the foaming soapsuds. Afterward she sprinkled sand upon the spotless boards in pretty patterns as was the fashion in those days. She swept the brick hearth with a broom made of twigs, and she scoured the pewter and copper utensils until they were as bright as so many mirrors. She washed the wooden chairs until the bunch of cherries painted upon the back of each looked bright enough to pick and eat. She dusted the straight rush-bottomed chairs and the settle that stood by the side of the fireplace. Even the tall clock in the corner had its round glass face washed. Then Remember stood in the center of the kitchen looking at the good result of her work.
"My mother, herself, could have done no better!" she thought. Then she looked at the keg that had held their precious store of soft soap. There was no soap to be bought in those long-ago days; the Puritans were obliged to make their own.
"I have used up all the soap. Oh, what will my mother say at such waste? What shall I do?" Remember said, in dismay.
She sat down by the fire and thought. Suddenly she jumped up. A happy plan had come to her.
"I will make a mess of soap," Remember said to herself. "I have helped mother to make soap many a time and I can do no more than try. It is yet some days until Thanksgiving and I should be sadly idle with nothing more to do, now that the house is put so well in order.
The soap-making barrel, a hole bored in the bottom, stood in a corner of the cellar; it was light enough so that Remember could easily handle it and she was strong for her twelve summers and winters. In the bottom of the barrel she put a layer of clean, fresh straw from the shed and over this she filled the barrel as far as she could with wood ashes. Then she rolled, and tugged, and lifted the barrel to a high bench that stood by the kitchen door, taking care that the hole was just above a large empty bucket. Then Remember brought pails of water and, standing on a stool, poured the water into the barrel until it began to drip down through the ashes and the straw to the bucket below. It looked rather dirty as it filtered down into the bucket but Remember took good care not to touch it with her fingers for she knew that it had turned into lye. Late in the afternoon Remember took out a hen's egg and dropped it into the bucket to see what would happen.
"It floats!" she said. "Now I am sure that I made the
lye right and I can attend to the grease
Remember had to start a huge fire the next day and she got out the great black soap kettle, filled it with the lye and hung it over the fire. Into this she put many scraps of meat fat and waste grease that her mother had been saving for just such a soap-making emergency as this. It bubbled and boiled and Remember carefully skimmed from the top all the bones and skin and pieces of candle wicking that rose, as the lye absorbed the grease, and cooked it into a thick, ropy mixture. It looked very much like molasses candy as it boiled and after a while Remember knew that it was done. She lifted the kettle off the fire and poured the thick, brown jelly, that was now good soft soap, into big earthenware crocks to cool.
"I made the soap quite as well as my mother could," Remember said to herself with a great deal of satisfaction as she put the crocks, all save one, in the cellar. This one she kept for use in the kitchen.
"There's not another thing that I can think of to do," Remember said now. She looked out of the window at the bleak, bare fields behind which the November sun was just preparing to set in a flame-colored ball. "Here it is the afternoon before Thanksgiving Day and mother and father are not home yet, and we haven't anything in the house for a Thanksgiving dinner!" She looked toward the woods now. What was that?
A speck of color that she could see in the narrow footpath between the trees suddenly came nearer, growing larger and brighter all the time. Remember could distinguish the gaudy blanket, bright moccasins, and feather headdress of an Indian. Stalking across the field, he was fast approaching their little log house which he could easily see from the woods and which seemed to offer him an easy goal.
Remember covered her face with her hands, trying in her terror to think what to do.
The bolt on the kitchen door was but a flimsy protection at best. Remember knew that the Indian would be able to wrench it off with one tug of his brawny arm. She knew, too, that it had been the custom of the Indians who were encamped not far off to take the children of the colonists and hold them for a high ransom.
"The white face takes our lands; we take the papoose of the white face," they had threatened, and they were cruel indeed to the children whom they held, especially if their parents were a long time supplying the necessary ransom. But it had been so long now since an Indian had been seen in their little settlement, that Remember's mother had felt quite safe in leaving her.
Remember looked now for a place to hide. There was none. The cellar would be the first place, she knew, where the Indian would look for her. The tall clock was too small a space into which to squeeze her fat little body; and there was no use hiding under the bed for she would be dragged out at once. Remember turned, now, hearing a footstep. The Indian, big, brown, and frowning had crossed the threshold and stood in the center of the room. His blanket trailed the floor; over his shoulder was slung a pair of wild turkeys he had killed.
Remember trembled, but she faced him bravely.
"How!" she said, reaching out a kind little hand to him. The Indian shook his head, and did not offer to shake hands with the little girl. Instead, he pointed to the door, motioned to her that she was to follow him.
Remember's mind worked quickly. She knew that Indians were fond of trinkets and could sometimes be turned away from their cruel designs by means of very small gifts. She ran to her mother's work basket and offered him in succession a pair of scissors, a case of bright, new needles, a scarlet pincushion, and a silver thimble. Each, in turn, the Indian refused, shaking his head and still indicating by his gestures that Remember was to follow him.
Now he grasped the little girl's hand and tried to pull her. There was no use resisting. But just as they reached the door the Indian caught sight of the crock of soft soap—dark, sticky, and strangely fascinating to him. He stuck one long brown finger in it and started to put it in his mouth, but Remember reached up and pulled his hand away. She shook her head and made a wry face to show him that it was not good to eat.
"How?" he questioned, pointing to the soap.
Remember pulled from his grasp. Pouring a dipperful of water in a basin, she took a handful of the soap and showed the Indian how she could wash her hands. As he watched a look, first of wonder, and then of pleasure, crept into his face. He smiled and looked at his own hands. They were stained with earth and sadly in need of washing. Remember refilled the basin with water and the Indian, helping himself to a huge handful of the soap, washed his hands solemnly as if it were a kind of ceremony.
As Remember watched him, her heart beat fast indeed, "As soon as he finishes he will take me away," she thought.
Slowly the Indian dried his hands on the towel she gave him. Then he picked up the crock of soft soap. He set it on his shoulder. Pointing to the pair of turkeys that he had laid on the table to show that he was giving them to Remember in exchange for the soap, he strode out of the door and was soon lost to sight in the wood's path.
Remember dropped down in a chair and could scarcely believe she was really safe. A quick clatter of hoofs roused her. She darted to the door.
"Father, mother!" she cried.
Yes, it was indeed they; her father riding in front with her mother in the saddle behind.
"Just in time for Thanksgiving!" they cried as they jumped down and embraced Remember.
"And I'm here, too, and we have a pair of turkeys for dinner," Remember said, half smiles and half tears, as she told them her strange adventure.