As a card carrying member of the Bicentennial class of the graduating high schoolers of 1976, I’m sure that at some point those of our parents, teachers and elders wondered how we ever made it to become such privileged students. When I first read this story I thought to myself, “Well, we can honestly lay claim to a bit more luck than most but the Centennials were more of a miracle than we are, as this story testifies in its own jocular way.” I never could abide fireworks of any kind. I think they are a terrible waste of money but sometimes I see a pretty one- like the ones below and if not an eardrum breaker I am a bit in awe every now and then. – The Castle Lady
a story by Lucretia P. Hale
The day began early. A compact had been made with the little boys the evening before. They were to be allowed to usher in the glorious day by the blowing of horns exactly at sunrise. But they were to blow them for precisely five minutes only, and no sound of the horns should be heard afterward ‘til the family were downstairs. It was thought that peace might thus be bought by a short though crowded period of noise.
The morning came. Even before the morning, at half-past three o’clock, a terrible blast of the horns aroused the whole family. Mrs. Peterkin clasped her hands to her head and exclaimed: “I am thankful the lady from Philadelphia is not here!” For she had been invited to stay a week, but had declined to come before the Fourth of July, as she was not well, and her doctor had prescribed quiet. And the number of the horns was most remarkable! It was as though every cow in the place had arisen and was blowing through both her own horns!
“How many little boys are there? How many have we?” exclaimed Mr. Peterkin, going over their names one by one mechanically, thinking he would do it, as he might count imaginary sheep humping over a fence, to put himself to sleep. Alas! The counting could not put him to sleep now in such a din. And how unexpectedly long the five minutes seemed! Elizabeth Eliza was to take out her watch and give the signal for the end of the five minutes and the ceasing of the horns. Why did not the signal come? Why did not Elizabeth Eliza stop them? And certainly it was long before sunrise; there was no dawn to be seen!
“We will not try this plan again,” said Mrs. Peterkin.
“If we live to another Fourth,” added Mr. Peterkin, hastening to the door, to inquire into the state of affairs.
Alas! Amanda, by mistake, had waked up the little boys an hour too early. And by another mistake the little boys had invited three or four of their friends to spend the night with them. Mrs. Peterkin had given them permission to have the boys for the whole day and they understood the day as beginning when they went to bed the night before. This accounted for the number of horns.
It would have been impossible to hear any explanation; but the five minutes were over, and the horns had ceased, and there remained only the noise of a singular leaping of feet, explained perhaps by a possible pillow-fight, that kept the family below partially awake until the bells and cannon made known the dawning of the glorious day- the sunrise, or “the rising of the sons,” as Mr. Peterkin jocosely called it when they heard the little boys and their friends clattering down the stairs to begin the outside festivities.
They were bound first for the swamp, for Elizabeth Eliza, at the suggestion of the lady from Philadelphia, had advised them to hang some flags around the pillars of the piazza. Now the little boys knew of a place in the swamp where they had been in the habit of digging for ‘flag-root,’ and where they might find plenty of flag flowers. They did bring away all they could, but they were a little out of bloom. The boys were in the midst of nailing up all they had on the pillars of the piazza when the procession of the Antiques and Horribles passed along. As the procession saw the festive arrangements on the piazza and the crowd of boys who cheered them loudly it stopped to salute the house with some especial strains of greeting.
Poor Mrs. Peterkin! They were directly under her windows! In the few moments of quiet during the boys’ absence from the house on their visit to the swamp, she had been trying to find out whether she had a sick-headache or whether it was all the noise and she was just deciding it was the sick-headache but was falling into a light slumber when the fresh noise outside began. There were the imitations of the crowing of cocks and braying of donkeys and the sound of horns, encored and increased by the cheers of the boys. Then began the torpedoes and the Antiques and Horribles had Chinese crackers also!
And, in despair of sleep, the family came down to breakfast.
Mrs. Peterkin had always been much afraid of fireworks and had never allowed the boys to bring gunpowder into the house. She was even afraid of torpedoes; they looked so much like sugar-plums, she was sure some of the children would swallow them and explode before anybody knew it. She was very timid about other things. She was not sure even about peanuts. Everybody exclaimed over this: “Surely there was no danger in peanuts!” But Mrs. Peterkin declared she had been very much alarmed at the exhibition and in the crowded corners of the street in Boston, at the peanut stands where they had machines to roast the peanuts. She did not think it was safe. They might go off any time, in the midst of a crowd of people, too. Mr. Peterkin thought there actually was no danger, and he should be sorry to give up the peanut. He thought it an American institution, something really belonging to the Fourth of July. He even confessed to a quiet pleasure in crushing the empty shells with his feet on the sidewalks as he went along the streets. Agamemnom thought it a simple joy.
In consideration, however, of the fact that they had had no real celebration of the Fourth the last year, Mrs. Peterkin had consented to give over the day, this year, to the amusement of the family as a Centennial celebration. She would prepare herself for a terrible noise- only she did not want any gunpowder brought into the house. The little boys had begun by firing some torpedoes a few days beforehand, that their mother might be used to the sound and had selected their horns some weeks before.
Solomon John had been very busy in inventing some fireworks. As Mrs. Peterkin objected to the use of gunpowder, he found out from the dictionary what the different parts of gunpowder are- saltpeter, charcoal and sulphur. Charcoal he discovered they had in the woodhouse; saltpeter they would find in the cellar, in the beef-barrel; and sulphur they could buy at the apothecary’s. He explained to his mother that these materials had never yet exploded in the house and she was quieted. Agamemnom, meanwhile, remembered a recipe he had read somewhere for making a ‘fulminating paste’ of iron filings and powder of brimstone. He had it written down on a piece of paper in his pocketbook. But the iron filings must be finely powdered. This they began upon a day or two before, and, the very afternoon before, laid out some of the paste on the piazza. Pinwheels and rockets were contributed by Mr. Peterkin for the evening. According to a programme drawn up by Agamemnon and Solomon John, the reading of the Declaration of Independence was to take place in the morning on the piazza under the flags. The Bromwiches brought over their flag to hang over the door.
“That is what the lady from Philadelphia meant,” explained Elizabeth Eliza.
“She said flags of our country,” said the little boys. “We thought she meant ‘in the country.’”
Quite a company assembled; but it seemed nobody had a copy of the “Declaration of Independence. Elizabeth Eliza said she could say one line, if they each could add as much. But it proved they all knew the same line that she did, as they began:
“When, in the course of- when, in the course of- when, in the course of human events- when, in the course of human events, it becomes- when, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary- when, in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people-“…
They could not get any farther. Some of the party decided that “one people” was a good place to stop and the little boys sent off some fresh torpedoes in honor of the people. But Mr. Peterkin was not satisfied. He invited the assembled party to stay until sunset and meanwhile he would find a copy and torpedoes were to be saved to be fired off at the close of every sentence. And now the noon bells rang and the noon bells ceased. Mrs. Peterkin wanted to ask everybody to dinner. She should have some cold beef. She had let Amanda go, because it was the Fourth, and everybody ought to be free that one day, so she could not have much of a dinner. But when she went to cut her beef, she found Solomon John had taken it to soak, on account of the saltpeter for the fireworks! Well, they had a pig, so she took a ham and the boys had bought tamarinds and buns and a coconut. So the company stayed on and when the Antiques and Horribles passed again, they were treated to peanuts and lemonade.
They sang patriotic songs, they told stories; they fired torpedoes, they frightened the cats with them. It was a warm afternoon; the red poppies were out wide and the hot sun poured down on the alleyways in the garden. There was a seething sound of a hot day in the buzzing of insects, in the steaming heat that came up from the ground. Some neighboring boys were firing a toy cannon. Every time it went off, Mrs. Peterkin started and looked to see if one of the little boys was gone. Mr. Peterkin had set out to find a copy of the “Declaration.” Agamemnon had disappeared. She had not a moment to decide about her headache. She asked Ann Maria if she were not anxious about the fireworks and if rockets were not dangerous. They went up but you were never sure where they came down.
Then came a fresh tumult! All the fire engines in town rushed toward them, clanging with bells, men and boys yelling! They were out for a practice and for a Fourth of July show. Mrs. Peterkin thought the house was on fire and so did some of the guests. There was a great rushing hither and thither. Some thought they would better go home, some thought they would better stay. Mrs. Peterkin hastened into the house to save herself, or see what she could save. Elizabeth Eliza followed her, first proceeding to collect all the pokers and tongs she could find, because they could be thrown out of the window without breaking. She had read of people who had flung looking-glasses out of windows by mistake, in the excitement of the house being on fire and had carried the pokers and tongs carefully into the garden. There was nothing like being prepared. She always had determined to do the reverse. So with calmness she told Solomon John to take down the looking-glasses. But she met with a difficulty; – there were no pokers and tongs, as they did not use them. They had no open fires; Mrs. Peterkin had been afraid of them. So, Elizabeth Eliza took all the pots and kettles up to the upper windows, ready to be thrown out.
But where was Mrs. Peterkin? Solomon John found she had fled to the attic in terror. He persuaded her to come down, assuring her it was the most unsafe place; but she insisted upon stopping to collect some bags of old pieces, that nobody would think of saving from the general wreck, she said, unless she did. Alas! This was the result of fireworks on Fourth of July! As they came downstairs, they heard the voices of all the company declaring there was no fire- the danger was past. It was long before Mrs. Peterkin could believe it. They told her the fire company was only out for show and to celebrate the Fourth of July. She thought it already too much celebrated.
Elizabeth Eliza’s kettles and pans had come down through the windows with a crash, that had only added to the festivities, the little boys thought. Mr. Peterkin had been about all this time in search of a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The public library was shut and he had to go from house to house; but now as the sunset bells and cannon began, he returned with a copy, and read it, to the pealing of the bells and sounding of the cannon. Torpedoes and crackers were fired at every pause. Some sweet marjoram pots, tin cans filled with crackers which were lighted went off with great explosions. At the most exciting moment, near the close of the reading, Agamemnon, with an expression of terror, pulled Solomon John aside.
“I have suddenly remembered where I read about the ‘fulminating paste’ we made. It was in the preface to ‘Woodstock,’ and I have been around to borrow the book to read the directions over again because I was afraid about the ‘paste’ going off. Read this quickly and tell me- where is the fulminating paste?”
Solomon John was busy winding some covers of paper over a little parcel. It contained chlorate of potash and sulphur mixed. A friend had told him of the composition. The more thicknesses of paper you put around it, the louder it would go off. You must pound it with a hammer. Solomon John felt it must be perfectly safe, as his mother had taken potash for a medicine. He still held the parcel as he read from Agamemnon’s book: “This paste, when it has lain together about twenty-six hours, will of itself take fire and burn all the sulphur away with a blue flame and a bad smell.”
“Where is the paste?” repeated Solomon John, in terror.
“We made it just twenty-six hours ago,” said Agamemnon.
“We put it on the piazza,” exclaimed Solomon John, rapidly recalling the facts, “and it is in front of mother’s feet!”
He hastened to snatch the paste away before it should take fire, flinging aside the packet in his hurry. Agamemnon, jumping upon the piazza at the same moment, trod upon the paper parcel, which exploded at once with the shock, and he fell to the ground while at the same moment the paste “fulminated” into a blue flame directly in front of Mrs. Peterkin! It was a moment of great confusion. There were cries and screams. The bells were still ringing, the cannon firing and Mr. Peterkin had just reach the closing words: “Our lives, our fortune and our sacred honor.”
“We are all blown up, as I feared we should be,” Mrs. Peterkin at length ventured to say, finding herself in a lilac bush by the side of the piazza. She scarcely dared to open her eyes to see the scattered limbs about her. It was so with all. Even Ann Maria Bromwich clutched a pillar of the piazza, with closed eyes. At length, Mr. Peterkin said, calmly: “Is anybody killed?”
There was no reply. Nobody could tell whether it was because everybody was killed or because they were too wounded to answer. It was a great while before Mrs. Peterkin ventured to move. But the little boys soon shouted with joy and cheered the success of Solomon John’s fireworks and hoped he had some more. One of them had his face blackened by an unexpected cracker and Elizabeth Eliza’s muslin dress was burned here and there. But no one was hurt; no one had lost any limbs, though Mrs. Peterkin was sure she had seen some flying in the air. Nobody could understand how, as she had kept her eyes firmly shut. No greater accident had occurred than the singeing of Solomon John’s nose. But there was an unpleasant and terrible odor from the ‘fulminating paste’. Mrs. Peterkin was extricated from the lilac bush. No one knew how she got there. Indeed, the thundering noise had stunned everybody. It had roused the neighborhood even more than before. Answering explosions came on every side and though the sunset light had not faded away, the little boys hastened to send off rockets under cover of the confusion. Solomon John’s other fireworks would not go. But all felt he had done enough. Mrs. Peterkin retreated into the parlor, deciding she really did have headache. At times she had to come out when a rocket went off, to see if it was one of the little boys. She was exhausted by the adventures of the day and almost thought it could not have been worse if the boys had been allowed gunpowder. The distracted lady was thankful there was likely to be but one Centennial Fourth in her lifetime and declared she should never more keep anything in the house as dangerous as salt petered beef and she should never venture to take another spoonful of potash.