What Ben and the Twins Did for Chicago” was the only piece of fiction in Robert Merry’s Museum to be inspired by the Chicago Fire of October 1871. Its author, Sara Conant, subscribed to the Museum as a child, but the magazine still inspired her as an adult: “ … now, as a woman, I sit before my fire, and when some thought or fancy begins to shape itself in my brain, I think, ‘That is just the thing for Merry’s Museum’—‘dear old Merry’s Museum,’ as I call it.” (February 1872; p. 52) The story was one of five pieces by Conant to appear in “dear old Merry’s Museum.”

“What Ben And The Twins Did For Chicago,” by Sara Conant (from Robert Merry’s Museum, December 1871; pp. 284-287)

“What are all those ladies here for, to-day, Bessie?” asked Ben, as he came in from school.

“Sewing meeting,” responded Bessie.

“It isn’t the day.”

“It’s not that meeting, but one for the naked and suffering of Chicago,” said Susie, pausing in her employment of sticking pins in a cushion.

“O, that’s it. I should think Mrs. Dean was talking for somebody’s benefit.”

“Let’s see if we can’t talk faster,” proposed Bessie; and that delightful occupation entirely absorbed them for a few minutes.

“Susie’s given up,” cried Ben.

Susie sat back in the rocking-chair, and looked before her without speaking.

“You beat!” said Ben, out of breath, while Bessie chattered on.

“Say, children!” cried Susie, jumping up; “let us have a fair.”

“A speech, a speech!” shouted Ben.

“No, I’m in earnest.”

“Hear, hear!” persisted Ben.

“Ben, if you don’t keep still, I won’t let you in.”

“Might is right,” returned Ben, drumming his heels on the floor.

“Miss Cathy says, will you please make less noise,” said Ann, looking into the room.

“Sartin,” said Ben, drawing his legs up under him Turk fashion. “Now, Sue, go it.”

“Are you going to be good?”

“O, yes, he will; tell what you mean,” said Bessie.

“Why, everybody’s giving to Chicago, having meetings, and sewing, and sending old clothes. Aunt Cathy sent our blue dresses, and let us have a fair, and send some money.”

“What, a real fair, with afghans, and grab-bags? That would be jolly!” and Ben danced a double shuffle on the floor.

“Now, Ben, stop! Of ocurse we could not do such things, but we could invent it.”

“Just us three?” asked Bessie.

“O, yes,” said Ben; “and I’ll initiate you; hold up your right hands.”

The girls sprang up and stretched out their arms with all the fingers spread.

“Now say after me: Hereby I solemnly promise and declare to do just as Ben says—”

“No, I won’t,” cried Susie.

“Cousin George says Jura, jura,” said Bessie.

“Then all together, loud!” cried Ben; “and stamp each three times.”

The effect was so delightful that they tried it a second time, and aunt Cathy came up.

“Don’t make such a noise, children; what are you doing?”

“It’s for the benefit of Chicago,” replied Ben.

“Well, I think a little quiet would help them as well, and be better for us.”

And this was the way the project was started.

The next day, and many days after, found the children busy in their playroom. Ben made wind-mills with colored paper, kites with marvellous painted figures, a little ship, masts, sails and all. Susie and Bessie made pin-balls, satchels, needle-books, and each gave up one of her dolls, and dressed it elaborately for the occasion.

“You know we are initiated,” Ben declared, as he whittled vigorously; “and the first one who tells will have his choice of being put in boiling oil, or hung by the heels until he is quite dead.”

p. 285

Bessie gave a scream of horror, but Susie said,—

“Where would you get the oil? and besides, if you hurt one of us, the other will die.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Cousin George says twins are like love-birds, and they can’t live alone.”

“That’s all bosh!” said Ben, making a slash with his knife, and suddenly jumping up and dancing about the room.

“What’s the matter?” cried Susie, running to him.

“I’ve cut me,” replied Ben, bending double over his finger.

“O-o-o,” screamed the girls. “Go to aunt Cathy.”

They all went down, the wound was carefully bound up, and that was the end of Ben’s work for that day.

“We sha’nt have things enough,” he said, as he watched the girls sew.

“You might train Dandy to do some tricks, and have a show,” suggested Susie.

“I can do that now;” and in a moment the house resounded with whistles and calls for Dandy.

He soon appeared, a slender black and tan, and for an hour was made to sit up, wear a cocked hat, and hold a toy gun, beg, stand on his hind legs, lie dead at word of command, leap a stick, catch a ball, and everything else that Ben’s wit could invent. The girls’ work did not get on very fast during that time, and though Dandy did not make much progress in his lessons, Ben was perfectly satisfied. By that time the sewing was put away, the children dressed themselves for tea, and crowded in the bay-window together, watching for their father to come home.

“I tell you another thing we can do,” said Ben. “We can go butternutting, and that would be fun, too.”

“And crack them, and pick the meats out, and sell them a cent a paper,” continued Bessie.

“And make some molasses candy with butternuts in it,” said Susie, clapping her hands.

“When are we going to have it?” asked Ben.

“I say the last of the month, the 31st,” said Susie.

“That’s so long to wait!” urged Ben.

“I don’t believe we shall be ready before that,” replied Susie, with an air of great importance.

There was the sound of a key in the door, and away the children ran to meet “father.” They had no mother. Aunt Cathy took that place, and they were petted and allowed to do much as they pleased, for auntie’s eyes filled as she looked at the motherless children, and found it hard to refuse them.

She readily gave permission for the nutting expedition, secretly wondering what had started them, for only the week before Ben had refused, saying it was too hard work. The first Saturday saw them set forth with baskets and pails, in one of which was a nice lunch. As the trees were some distance beyond the town, they rode away in a light wagon.

“If we have not pails enough, we can fill the bottoms of the wagon,” Ben said, as they drove along.

It was a fresh, cold day, and their feet fairly tingled when they got to the grove. Ben shook and thrashed the trees, and the nuts bumped the girls and hid under the leaves, which were hardly browner than they. Such scrambles as they had, and the pails filled so fast! Dandy, who was with them, chased squirrels, and tipped over baskets, digging for suppositious moles; the lunch was delightful, and all went very well, until, as Ben was shaking one of the largest trees, the girls heard an ominous cracking.

“Don’t go on that limb, Ben, it will break!” cried Susie.

p. 286

“Nonsense,” was the reply; and he danced on the bough.

A crash followed, and Ben lay sprawling on the ground, with his head in a bushel basket.

“I suppose he’s killed!” said Susie, running to extricate him.

He was only a little stunned and giddy, but the girls insisted that he ought to go home. They put the nuts in the wagon, and, under Ben’s direction, harnessed Billy. Susie declared Ben must not do anything, and though he bewailed their stupidity, and sprang up and sat down twenty times during the preparations, the girls did it all.

“Now I’m going to drive,” said Susie. “The excitement might not be good for you.”

Billy was a sober, steady old horse, but in all his experience he had never had a driver like Susie. She pulled and jerked, turned him wrong, and held him so tightly that after a time his patience was exhausted, and he refused to go. He was never driven with a whip, and the ends of the reins had no effect. The girls got out and fed him; he ate all they gave him, and obstinately refused to stir. They coaxed, flattered, scolded, all with no effect. Ben took the reins, but Billy only mildly turned and looked at him, and then seemed about to go to sleep. Then Ben got out and tried his eloquence. When they had all dismounted, Billy started.

“Come, girls, get in,” said Ben. But Billy was of another mind, and quickened his steps. Ben managed to get in, and tried to stop him, but that was impossible. He did not run, but trotted briskly on. The girls gave chase, and tried to clamber in behind; but as if Billy was aware of their purpose, he set off at a great rate.

“Don’t try to get out, Ben,” cried Susie; “you’ll fall.”

The nuts rattled out behind, and the girls filled their aprons as they ran. They were not far from home, and when Billy got to the gate, he turned in, and stopped quietly before the door.

“Where are the girls?” asked aunt Cathy, in surprise.

When Ben told the story, she laughed, and finding nothing the matter with him, helped unload the nuts. The girls soon arrived, and Susie’s driving became a standing joke in the family. Ben made a set of furniture for a doll, and ornamented it with butternut shells, for they could not wait until the fair, but ate some of their nuts.

A few days before the 31st, when Ben had made everything he could think of, he was lounging about the room while his sisters sewed. He had upset the gum-bottle in Bessie’s basket, lost the tape-needle, tangled the sewing-silk, and finally broke the point of the scissors in prying out a pin from a crack.

“Ben, you are bad,” said Susie, solemnly. “Why can’t you behave?”

“It’s strange—isn’t it?” replied Ben, reflectively.

“I wish I had not ‘one only brother,’ ” said Susie.

“If you had two, you might be worse off,” returned Ben.

“O, Ben!” cried Bessie, jumping up. “See, Susie, what he has done.”

Susie looked, and there was the doll whose white waist was nicely fitted, with red stripes painted across, and a patch of blue on one shoulder.

“How you do act!” she exclaimed.

“Well, it’s a good idea,” said Ben—“dress a black doll as the goddess of liberty.”

“I’m glad you did not paint her petticoat,” replied Susie, having made an examination.

“We might do what Ben says,” said Bessie.

p. 287

“May be we will; and I tell you, Ben, go write the notices. We will have to send them to people, and write them big, so it will be easy to read them.”

Ben, having some time before appointed himself secretary, went to the library, and having supplied himself with the materials, set to work. After some trouble, he wrote a form to please himself, and having ruled the notices with red ink, he proceeded to write them with a grand combination of blue and black. The children had kept their secret well, and no one knew what they were about. Aunt Cathy was to be initiated the day before the fair, for they wanted her help; but the notices were to be the first intimation to their other friends. Ben had been particularly careful to be private, for the girls had prophesied that, through some misadventure of his, they would be discovered.

He was very much absorbed with his writing, his hair in a tumble, his tongue in his cheek, and his elbows at almost impossible angles, when he heard some one coming towards the room. He gave a start, and made such haste to hide his papers, that he knocked over the inkstand. It was aunt Cathy, and as Ben knew how she dreaded ink-stains, he pushed the stand under the table, and concealed the spot with his foot. She only came for a pencil, and when he was gone Ben ran for a cloth to repair the mischief he had done. What was his horror on his return to find he had tracked the ink to the door, his shoe having been stained when he put his foot on what he had spilled! It was vain for him to rub and scrub; the dismal blue stains discolored the pretty carpet, and he had to go and tell aunt Cathy; and that was the way she knew about the fair so long beforehand.

The important day came in due time. The candy was made the night before, and numerous paper bags to put it in. Everything was ready, Dandy was practised until his legs ached, and the children sang the round, “Scotland’s a-burning,” with which Ben insisted the fair should be opened, until they were hoarse. Aunt Cathy let them have the parlor, and presented them with some flowers to dress it. Bridget made a large cake, and at three in the afternoon the fair opened. Evergreens—the children having made another excursion to the woods to gather them—looped the curtains and framed the pictures. The vases were full of flowers, and a bouquet of roses stood on the large table, where the articles to be sold were placed. The Stars and Stripes were festooned over the piano, and the children were flying about everywhere. Ben had spent the day before distributing the notices, and the parlor was full of visitors.

The round was sung precisely at three, and before tea-time everything was sold. Father sent four beautiful forms of ice-cream, and when the tables were cleared, Ann brought them up, and the company were invited to partake. Ben had curtained a recess, and had exhibited Dandy’s tricks, in which he became proficient, for “five cents a head;” but when the ice-cream came, Dandy performed on the table, and the fair ended in a merry romp among the children, and much talking among their elders.

“Just look here,” cried Ben, as they went up to bed; “ten dollars. That’s splendid.”

“It has been a success. Aunt Cathy said so,” said Bessie, while Susie jumped and shouted with glee.

“Won’t the folks be glad to get it!” said Ben. “We’ll send it to-morrow.”

“I’d like to do it all over again,” said Susie; and long after the light was out, the girls lay awake and talked, and Ben hardly slept all night, he felt so important with ten dollars under his pillow which he had helped to earn and was going to give away.

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