By Charles Dudley Warner
The fire on the hearth has almost gone out in New England; the hearth has gone out; the family has lost its center; age ceases to be respected; sex is only distinguished by a difference between millinery bills and tailors' bills; there is no more toast-and-cider; the young are not allowed to eat mince-pies at ten o'clock at night; half a cheese is no longer set to toast before the fire; you scarcely ever see in front of the coals a row of roasting apples, which a bright little girl, with many a dive and start, shielding her sunny face from the fire with one hand, turns from time to time; scarce are the gray-haired sires who strop their razors on the family Bible, and doze in the chimney-corner. A good many things have gone out with the fire on the hearth.
I do not mean to say that public and private morality have vanished with the hearth. A good degree of purity and considerable happiness are possible with grates and blowers; it is a day of trial, when we are all passing through a fiery furnace, and very likely we shall be purified as we are dried up and wasted away. Of course the family is gone, as an institution, though there still are attempts to bring up a family round a "register." But you might just as well try to bring it up by hand, as without the rallying-point of a hearthstone. Are there any homesteads nowadays? Do people hesitate to change houses any more than they do to change their clothes? People hire houses as they would a masquerade costume, liking, sometimes, to appear for a year in a little fictitious stone-front splendor above their means. Thus it happens that so many people live in houses that do not fit them. I should almost as soon think of wearing another person's clothes as his house; unless I could let it out and take it in until it fitted, and somehow expressed my own character and taste. But we have fallen into the days of conformity. It is no wonder that people constantly go into their neighbors' houses by mistake, just as, in spite of the Maine law, they wear away each other's hats from an evening party. It has almost come to this, that you might as well be anybody else as yourself.
Am I mistaken in supposing that this is owing to the discontinuance of big chimneys, with wide fireplaces in them? How can a person be attached to a house that has no center of attraction, no soul in it, in the visible form of a glowing fire, and a warm chimney, like the heart in the body? When you think of the old homestead, if you ever do, your thoughts go straight to the wide chimney and its burning logs. No wonder that you are ready to move from one fireplaceless house into another. But you have something just as good, you say. Yes, I have heard of it. This age, which imitates everything, even to the virtues of our ancestors, has invented a fireplace, with artificial, iron, or composition logs in it, hacked and painted, in which gas is burned, so that it has the appearance of a wood-fire. This seems to me blasphemy. Do you think a cat would lie down before it? Can you poke it? If you can't poke it, it is a fraud. To poke a wood-fire is more solid enjoyment than almost anything else in the world. The crowning human virtue in a man is to let his wife poke the fire. I do not know how any virtue whatever is possible over an imitation gas-log. What a sense of insincerity the family must have, if they indulge in the hypocrisy of gathering about it. With this center of untruthfulness, what must the life in the family be? Perhaps the father will be living at the rate of ten thousand a year on a salary of four thousand; perhaps the mother, more beautiful and younger than her beautified daughters, will rouge; perhaps the young ladies will make wax-work. A cynic might suggest as the motto of modern life this simple legend,—"just as good as the real." But I am not a cynic, and I hope for the rekindling of wood-fires, and a return of the beautiful home light from them. If a wood-fire is a luxury, it is cheaper than many in which we indulge without thought, and cheaper than the visits of a doctor, made necessary by the want of ventilation of the house. Not that I have anything against doctors; I only wish, after they have been to see us in a way that seems so friendly, they had nothing against us.
My fireplace, which is deep, and nearly three feet wide, has a broad hearthstone in front of it, where the live coals tumble down, and a pair of gigantic brass andirons. The brasses are burnished, and shine cheerfully in the firelight, and on either side stand tall shovel and tongs, like sentries, mounted in brass. The tongs, like the two-handed sword of Bruce, cannot be wielded by puny people. We burn in it hickory wood, cut long. We like the smell of this aromatic forest timber, and its clear flame. The birch is also a sweet wood for the hearth, with a sort of spiritual flame and an even temper,—no snappishness. Some prefer the elm, which holds fire so well; and I have a neighbor who uses nothing but apple-tree wood,—a solid, family sort of wood, fragrant also, and full of delightful suggestions. But few people can afford to burn up their fruit trees. I should as soon think of lighting the fire with sweet-oil that comes in those graceful wicker-bound flasks from Naples, or with manuscript sermons, which, however, do not burn well, be they never so dry, not half so well as printed editorials.
Few people know how to make a wood-fire, but everybody thinks he or she does. You want, first, a large backlog, which does not rest on the andirons. This will keep your fire forward, radiate heat all day, and late in the evening fall into a ruin of glowing coals, like the last days of a good man, whose life is the richest and most beneficent at the close, when the flames of passion and the sap of youth are burned out, and there only remain the solid, bright elements of character. Then you want a forestick on the andirons; and upon these build the fire of lighter stuff. In this way you have at once a cheerful blaze, and the fire gradually eats into the solid mass, sinking down with increasing fervor; coals drop below, and delicate tongues of flame sport along the beautiful grain of the forestick. There are people who kindle a fire underneath. But these are conceited people, who are wedded to their own way. I suppose an accomplished incendiary always starts a fire in the attic, if he can. I am not an incendiary, but I hate bigotry. I don't call those incendiaries very good Christians who, when they set fire to the martyrs, touched off the fagots at the bottom, so as to make them go slow. Besides, knowledge works down easier than it does up. Education must proceed from the more enlightened down to the more ignorant strata. If you want better common schools, raise the standard of the colleges, and so on. Build your fire on top. Let your light shine. I have seen people build a fire under a balky horse; but he wouldn't go, he'd be a horse-martyr first. A fire kindled under one never did him any good. Of course you can make a fire on the hearth by kindling it underneath, but that does not make it right. I want my hearthfire to be an emblem of the best things.
It must be confessed that a wood-fire needs as much tending as a pair of twins. To say nothing of fiery projectiles sent into the room, even by the best wood, from the explosion of gases confined in its cells, the brands are continually dropping down, and coals are being scattered over the hearth. However much a careful housewife, who thinks more of neatness than enjoyment, may dislike this, it is one of the chief delights of a wood-fire. I would as soon have an Englishman without side-whiskers as a fire without a big backlog; and I would rather have no fire than one that required no tending,—one of dead wood that could not sing again the imprisoned songs of the forest, or give out in brilliant scintillations the sunshine it absorbed in its growth. Flame is an ethereal sprite, and the spice of danger in it gives zest to the care of the hearth-fire. Nothing is so beautiful as springing, changing flame,—it was the last freak of the Gothic architecture men to represent the fronts of elaborate edifices of stone as on fire, by the kindling flamboyant devices. A fireplace is, besides, a private laboratory, where one can witness the most brilliant chemical experiments, minor conflagrations only wanting the grandeur of cities on fire. It is a vulgar notion that a fire is only for heat. A chief value of it is, however, to look at. It is a picture, framed between the jambs. You have nothing on your walls, by the best masters (the poor masters are not, however, represented), that is really so fascinating, so spiritual. Speaking like an upholsterer, it furnishes the room. And it is never twice the same. In this respect it is like the landscape-view through a window, always seen in a new light, color, or condition. The fireplace is a window into the most charming world I ever had a glimpse of.
Yet direct heat is an agreeable sensation. I am not scientific enough to despise it, and have no taste for a winter residence on Mount Washington, where the thermometer cannot be kept comfortable even by boiling. They say that they say in Boston that there is a satisfaction in being well dressed which religion cannot give. There is certainly a satisfaction in the direct radiance of a hickory fire which is not to be found in the fieriest blasts of a furnace. The hot air of a furnace is a sirocco; the heat of a wood-fire is only intense sunshine, like that bottled in Lacrimae Christi. Besides this, the eye is delighted, the sense of smell is regaled by the fragrant decomposition, and the ear is pleased with the hissing, crackling, and singing,—a liberation of so many out-door noises. Some people like the sound of bubbling in a boiling pot, or the fizzing of a frying-spider. But there is nothing gross in the animated crackling of sticks of wood blazing on the earth, not even if chestnuts are roasting in the ashes. All the senses are ministered to, and the imagination is left as free as the leaping tongues of flame.
The attention which a wood-fire demands is one of its best recommendations. We value little that which costs us no trouble to maintain. If we had to keep the sun kindled up and going by private corporate action, or act of Congress, and to be taxed for the support of customs officers of solar heat, we should prize it more than we do. Not that I should like to look upon the sun as a job, and have the proper regulation of its temperature get into politics, where we already have so much combustible stuff; but we take it quite too much as a matter of course, and, having it free, do not reckon it among the reasons for gratitude. Many people shut it out of their houses as if it were an enemy, watch its descent upon the carpet as if it were only a thief of color, and plant trees to shut it away from the mouldering house. All the animals know better than this, as well as the more simple races of men; the old women of the southern Italian coasts sit all day in the sun and ply the distaff, as grateful as the sociable hens on the south side of a New England barn; the slow tortoise likes to take the sun upon his sloping back, soaking in color that shall make him immortal when the imperishable part of him is cut up into shell ornaments. The capacity of a cat to absorb sunshine is only equaled by that of an Arab or an Ethiopian. They are not afraid of injuring their complexions.
White must be the color of civilization; it has so many natural disadvantages. But this is politics. I was about to say that, however it may be with sunshine, one is always grateful for his wood-fire, because he does not maintain it without some cost.
Yet I cannot but confess to a difference between sunlight and the light of a wood-fire. The sunshine is entirely untamed. Where it rages most freely it tends to evoke the brilliancy rather than the harmonious satisfactions of nature. The monstrous growths and the flaming colors of the tropics contrast with our more subdued loveliness of foliage and bloom. The birds of the middle region dazzle with their contrasts of plumage, and their voices are for screaming rather than singing. I presume the new experiments in sound would project a macaw's voice in very tangled and inharmonious lines of light. I suspect that the fiercest sunlight puts people, as well as animals and vegetables, on extremes in all ways. A wood-fire on the hearth is a kindler of the domestic virtues. It brings in cheerfulness, and a family center, and, besides, it is artistic. I should like to know if an artist could ever represent on canvas a happy family gathered round a hole in the floor called a register. Given a fireplace, and a tolerable artist could almost create a pleasant family round it. But what could he conjure out of a register? If there was any virtue among our ancestors,—and they labored under a great many disadvantages, and had few of the aids which we have to excellence of life,—I am convinced they drew it mostly from the fireside. If it was difficult to read the eleven commandments by the light of a pine-knot, it was not difficult to get the sweet spirit of them from the countenance of the serene mother knitting in the chimney-corner.
When the fire is made, you want to sit in front of it and grow genial in its effulgence. I have never been upon a throne,—except in moments of a traveler's curiosity, about as long as a South American dictator remains on one,—but I have no idea that it compares, for pleasantness, with a seat before a wood-fire. A whole leisure day before you, a good novel in hand, and the backlog only just beginning to kindle, with uncounted hours of comfort in it, has life anything more delicious? For "novel" you can substitute "Calvin's Institutes," if you wish to be virtuous as well as happy. Even Calvin would melt before a wood-fire. A great snowstorm, visible on three sides of your wide-windowed room, loading the evergreens, blown in fine powder from the great chestnut-tops, piled up in ever accumulating masses, covering the paths, the shrubbery, the hedges, drifting and clinging in fantastic deposits, deepening your sense of security, and taking away the sin of idleness by making it a necessity, this is an excellent ground to your day by the fire.
To deliberately sit down in the morning to read a novel, to enjoy yourself, is this not, in New England (I am told they don't read much in other parts of the country), the sin of sins? Have you any right to read, especially novels, until you have exhausted the best part of the day in some employment that is called practical? Have you any right to enjoy yourself at all until the fag-end of the day, when you are tired and incapable of enjoying yourself? I am aware that this is the practice, if not the theory, of our society,—to postpone the delights of social intercourse until after dark, and rather late at night, when body and mind are both weary with the exertions of business, and when we can give to what is the most delightful and profitable thing in life, social and intellectual society, only the weariness of dull brains and over-tired muscles. No wonder we take our amusements sadly, and that so many people find dinners heavy and parties stupid. Our economy leaves no place for amusements; we merely add them to the burden of a life already full. The world is still a little off the track as to what is really useful.
I confess that the morning is a very good time to read a novel, or anything else which is good and requires a fresh mind; and I take it that nothing is worth reading that does not require an alert mind. I suppose it is necessary that business should be transacted; though the amount of business that does not contribute to anybody's comfort or improvement suggests the query whether it is not overdone. I know that unremitting attention to business is the price of success, but I don't know what success is. There is a man, whom we all know, who built a house that cost a quarter of a million of dollars, and furnished it for another like sum, who does not know anything more about architecture, or painting, or books, or history, than he cares for the rights of those who have not so much money as he has. I heard him once, in a foreign gallery, say to his wife, as they stood in front of a famous picture by Rubens: "That is the Rape of the Sardines!" What a cheerful world it would be if everybody was as successful as that man! While I am reading my book by the fire, and taking an active part in important transactions that may be a good deal better than real, let me be thankful that a great many men are profitably employed in offices and bureaus and country stores in keeping up the gossip and endless exchange of opinions among mankind, so much of which is made to appear to the women at home as "business." I find that there is a sort of busy idleness among men in this world that is not held in disrepute. When the time comes that I have to prove my right to vote, with women, I trust that it will be remembered in my favor that I made this admission. If it is true, as a witty conservative once said to me, that we never shall have peace in this country until we elect a colored woman president, I desire to be rectus in curia early.
The fireplace, as we said, is a window through which we look out upon other scenes. We like to read of the small, bare room, with cobwebbed ceiling and narrow window, in which the poor child of genius sits with his magical pen, the master of a realm of beauty and enchantment. I think the open fire does not kindle the imagination so much as it awakens the memory; one sees the past in its crumbling embers and ashy grayness, rather than the future. People become reminiscent and even sentimental in front of it. They used to become something else in those good old days when it was thought best to heat the poker red hot before plunging it into the mugs of flip. This heating of the poker has been disapproved of late years, but I do not know on what grounds; if one is to drink bitters and gins and the like, such as I understand as good people as clergymen and women take in private, and by advice, I do not know why one should not make them palatable and heat them with his own poker. Cold whiskey out of a bottle, taken as a prescription six times a day on the sly, is n't my idea of virtue any more than the social ancestral glass, sizzling wickedly with the hot iron. Names are so confusing in this world; but things are apt to remain pretty much the same, whatever we call them.
Perhaps as you look into the fireplace it widens and grows deep and cavernous. The back and the jambs are built up of great stones, not always smoothly laid, with jutting ledges upon which ashes are apt to lie. The hearthstone is an enormous block of trap rock, with a surface not perfectly even, but a capital place to crack butternuts on. Over the fire swings an iron crane, with a row of pot-hooks of all lengths hanging from it. It swings out when the housewife wants to hang on the tea-kettle, and it is strong enough to support a row of pots, or a mammoth caldron kettle on occasion. What a jolly sight is this fireplace when the pots and kettles in a row are all boiling and bubbling over the flame, and a roasting spit is turning in front! It makes a person as hungry as one of Scott's novels. But the brilliant sight is in the frosty morning, about daylight, when the fire is made. The coals are raked open, the split sticks are piled up in openwork criss-crossing, as high as the crane; and when the flame catches hold and roars up through the interstices, it is like an out-of-door bonfire. Wood enough is consumed in that morning sacrifice to cook the food of a Parisian family for a year. How it roars up the wide chimney, sending into the air the signal smoke and sparks which announce to the farming neighbors another day cheerfully begun! The sleepiest boy in the world would get up in his red flannel nightgown to see such a fire lighted, even if he dropped to sleep again in his chair before the ruddy blaze. Then it is that the house, which has shrunk and creaked all night in the pinching cold of winter, begins to glow again and come to life. The thick frost melts little by little on the small window-panes, and it is seen that the gray dawn is breaking over the leagues of pallid snow. It is time to blow out the candle, which has lost all its cheerfulness in the light of day. The morning romance is over; the family is astir; and member after member appears with the morning yawn, to stand before the crackling, fierce conflagration. The daily round begins. The most hateful employment ever invented for mortal man presents itself: the "chores" are to be done. The boy who expects every morning to open into a new world finds that to-day is like yesterday, but he believes to-morrow will be different. And yet enough for him, for the day, is the wading in the snowdrifts, or the sliding on the diamond-sparkling crust. Happy, too, is he, when the storm rages, and the snow is piled high against the windows, if he can sit in the warm chimney-corner and read about Burgoyne, and General Fraser, and Miss McCrea, midwinter marches through the wilderness, surprises of wigwams, and the stirring ballad, say, of the Battle of the Kegs:—
"Come, gallants, attend and list a friend Thrill forth harmonious ditty; While I shall tell what late befell At Philadelphia city."
I should like to know what heroism a boy in an old New England farmhouse—rough-nursed by nature, and fed on the traditions of the old wars did not aspire to. "John," says the mother, "You'll burn your head to a crisp in that heat." But John does not hear; he is storming the Plains of Abraham just now. "Johnny, dear, bring in a stick of wood." How can Johnny bring in wood when he is in that defile with Braddock, and the Indians are popping at him from behind every tree? There is something about a boy that I like, after all.
The fire rests upon the broad hearth; the hearth rests upon a great substruction of stone, and the substruction rests upon the cellar. What supports the cellar I never knew, but the cellar supports the family. The cellar is the foundation of domestic comfort. Into its dark, cavernous recesses the child's imagination fearfully goes. Bogies guard the bins of choicest apples. I know not what comical sprites sit astride the cider-barrels ranged along the walls. The feeble flicker of the tallow-candle does not at all dispel, but creates, illusions, and magnifies all the rich possibilities of this underground treasure-house. When the cellar-door is opened, and the boy begins to descend into the thick darkness, it is always with a heart-beat as of one started upon some adventure. Who can forget the smell that comes through the opened door;—a mingling of fresh earth, fruit exhaling delicious aroma, kitchen vegetables, the mouldy odor of barrels, a sort of ancestral air,—as if a door had been opened into an old romance. Do you like it? Not much. But then I would not exchange the remembrance of it for a good many odors and perfumes that I do like.
It is time to punch the backlog and put on a new forestick.
The log was white birch. The beautiful satin bark at once kindled into a soft, pure, but brilliant flame, something like that of naphtha. There is no other wood flame so rich, and it leaps up in a joyous, spiritual way, as if glad to burn for the sake of burning. Burning like a clear oil, it has none of the heaviness and fatness of the pine and the balsam. Woodsmen are at a loss to account for its intense and yet chaste flame, since the bark has no oily appearance. The heat from it is fierce, and the light dazzling. It flares up eagerly like young love, and then dies away; the wood does not keep up the promise of the bark. The woodsmen, it is proper to say, have not considered it in its relation to young love. In the remote settlements the pine-knot is still the torch of courtship; it endures to sit up by. The birch-bark has alliances with the world of sentiment and of letters. The most poetical reputation of the North American Indian floats in a canoe made of it; his picture-writing was inscribed on it. It is the paper that nature furnishes for lovers in the wilderness, who are enabled to convey a delicate sentiment by its use, which is expressed neither in their ideas nor chirography. It is inadequate for legal parchment, but does very well for deeds of love, which are not meant usually to give a perfect title. With care, it may be split into sheets as thin as the Chinese paper. It is so beautiful to handle that it is a pity civilization cannot make more use of it. But fancy articles manufactured from it are very much like all ornamental work made of nature's perishable seeds, leaves, cones, and dry twigs,—exquisite while the pretty fingers are fashioning it, but soon growing shabby and cheap to the eye. And yet there is a pathos in "dried things," whether they are displayed as ornaments in some secluded home, or hidden religiously in bureau drawers where profane eyes cannot see how white ties are growing yellow and ink is fading from treasured letters, amid a faint and discouraging perfume of ancient rose-leaves.
The birch log holds out very well while it is green, but has not substance enough for a backlog when dry. Seasoning green timber or men is always an experiment. A man may do very well in a simple, let us say, country or backwoods line of life, who would come to nothing in a more complicated civilization. City life is a severe trial. One man is struck with a dry-rot; another develops season-cracks; another shrinks and swells with every change of circumstance. Prosperity is said to be more trying than adversity, a theory which most people are willing to accept without trial; but few men stand the drying out of the natural sap of their greenness in the artificial heat of city life. This, be it noticed, is nothing against the drying and seasoning process; character must be put into the crucible some time, and why not in this world? A man who cannot stand seasoning will not have a high market value in any part of the universe. It is creditable to the race, that so many men and women bravely jump into the furnace of prosperity and expose themselves to the drying influences of city life.
The first fire that is lighted on the hearth in the autumn seems to bring out the cold weather. Deceived by the placid appearance of the dying year, the softness of the sky, and the warm color of the foliage, we have been shivering about for days without exactly comprehending what was the matter. The open fire at once sets up a standard of comparison. We find that the advance guards of winter are besieging the house. The cold rushes in at every crack of door and window, apparently signaled by the flame to invade the house and fill it with chilly drafts and sarcasms on what we call the temperate zone. It needs a roaring fire to beat back the enemy; a feeble one is only an invitation to the most insulting demonstrations. Our pious New England ancestors were philosophers in their way. It was not simply owing to grace that they sat for hours in their barnlike meeting-houses during the winter Sundays, the thermometer many degrees below freezing, with no fire, except the zeal in their own hearts,—a congregation of red noses and bright eyes. It was no wonder that the minister in the pulpit warmed up to his subject, cried aloud, used hot words, spoke a good deal of the hot place and the Person whose presence was a burning shame, hammered the desk as if he expected to drive his text through a two-inch plank, and heated himself by all allowable ecclesiastical gymnastics. A few of their followers in our day seem to forget that our modern churches are heated by furnaces and supplied with gas. In the old days it would have been thought unphilosophic as well as effeminate to warm the meeting-houses artificially. In one house I knew, at least, when it was proposed to introduce a stove to take a little of the chill from the Sunday services, the deacons protested against the innovation. They said that the stove might benefit those who sat close to it, but it would drive all the cold air to the other parts of the church, and freeze the people to death; it was cold enough now around the edges. Blessed days of ignorance and upright living! Sturdy men who served God by resolutely sitting out the icy hours of service, amid the rattling of windows and the carousal of winter in the high, windswept galleries! Patient women, waiting in the chilly house for consumption to pick out his victims, and replace the color of youth and the flush of devotion with the hectic of disease! At least, you did not doze and droop in our over-heated edifices, and die of vitiated air and disregard of the simplest conditions of organized life. It is fortunate that each generation does not comprehend its own ignorance. We are thus enabled to call our ancestors barbarous. It is something also that each age has its choice of the death it will die. Our generation is most ingenious. From our public assembly-rooms and houses we have almost succeeded in excluding pure air. It took the race ages to build dwellings that would keep out rain; it has taken longer to build houses air-tight, but we are on the eve of success. We are only foiled by the ill-fitting, insincere work of the builders, who build for a day, and charge for all time.
When the fire on the hearth has blazed up and then settled into steady radiance, talk begins. There is no place like the chimney-corner for confidences; for picking up the clews of an old friendship; for taking note where one's self has drifted, by comparing ideas and prejudices with the intimate friend of years ago, whose course in life has lain apart from yours. No stranger puzzles you so much as the once close friend, with whose thinking and associates you have for years been unfamiliar. Life has come to mean this and that to you; you have fallen into certain habits of thought; for you the world has progressed in this or that direction; of certain results you feel very sure; you have fallen into harmony with your surroundings; you meet day after day people interested in the things that interest you; you are not in the least opinionated, it is simply your good fortune to look upon the affairs of the world from the right point of view. When you last saw your friend,—less than a year after you left college,—he was the most sensible and agreeable of men; he had no heterodox notions; he agreed with you; you could even tell what sort of a wife he would select, and if you could do that, you held the key to his life.
Well, Herbert came to visit me the other day from the antipodes. And here he sits by the fireplace. I cannot think of any one I would rather see there, except perhaps Thackery; or, for entertainment, Boswell; or old, Pepys; or one of the people who was left out of the Ark. They were talking one foggy London night at Hazlitt's about whom they would most like to have seen, when Charles Lamb startled the company by declaring that he would rather have seen Judas Iscariot than any other person who had lived on the earth. For myself, I would rather have seen Lamb himself once, than to have lived with Judas. Herbert, to my great delight, has not changed; I should know him anywhere,—the same serious, contemplative face, with lurking humor at the corners of the mouth,—the same cheery laugh and clear, distinct enunciation as of old. There is nothing so winning as a good voice. To see Herbert again, unchanged in all outward essentials, is not only gratifying, but valuable as a testimony to nature's success in holding on to a personal identity, through the entire change of matter that has been constantly taking place for so many years. I know very well there is here no part of the Herbert whose hand I had shaken at the Commencement parting; but it is an astonishing reproduction of him,—a material likeness; and now for the spiritual.
Such a wide chance for divergence in the spiritual. It has been such a busy world for twenty years. So many things have been torn up by the roots again that were settled when we left college. There were to be no more wars; democracy was democracy, and progress, the differentiation of the individual, was a mere question of clothes; if you want to be different, go to your tailor; nobody had demonstrated that there is a man-soul and a woman-soul, and that each is in reality only a half-soul,—putting the race, so to speak, upon the half-shell. The social oyster being opened, there appears to be two shells and only one oyster; who shall have it? So many new canons of taste, of criticism, of morality have been set up; there has been such a resurrection of historical reputations for new judgment, and there have been so many discoveries, geographical, archaeological, geological, biological, that the earth is not at all what it was supposed to be; and our philosophers are much more anxious to ascertain where we came from than whither we are going. In this whirl and turmoil of new ideas, nature, which has only the single end of maintaining the physical identity in the body, works on undisturbed, replacing particle for particle, and preserving the likeness more skillfully than a mosaic artist in the Vatican; she has not even her materials sorted and labeled, as the Roman artist has his thousands of bits of color; and man is all the while doing his best to confuse the process, by changing his climate, his diet, all his surroundings, without the least care to remain himself. But the mind?
It is more difficult to get acquainted with Herbert than with an entire stranger, for I have my prepossessions about him, and do not find him in so many places where I expect to find him. He is full of criticism of the authors I admire; he thinks stupid or improper the books I most read; he is skeptical about the "movements" I am interested in; he has formed very different opinions from mine concerning a hundred men and women of the present day; we used to eat from one dish; we could n't now find anything in common in a dozen; his prejudices (as we call our opinions) are most extraordinary, and not half so reasonable as my prejudices; there are a great many persons and things that I am accustomed to denounce, uncontradicted by anybody, which he defends; his public opinion is not at all my public opinion. I am sorry for him. He appears to have fallen into influences and among a set of people foreign to me. I find that his church has a different steeple on it from my church (which, to say the truth, hasn't any). It is a pity that such a dear friend and a man of so much promise should have drifted off into such general contrariness. I see Herbert sitting here by the fire, with the old look in his face coming out more and more, but I do not recognize any features of his mind,—except perhaps his contrariness; yes, he was always a little contrary, I think. And finally he surprises me with, "Well, my friend, you seem to have drifted away from your old notions and opinions. We used to agree when we were together, but I sometimes wondered where you would land; for, pardon me, you showed signs of looking at things a little contrary."
I am silent for a good while. I am trying to think who I am. There was a person whom I thought I knew, very fond of Herbert, and agreeing with him in most things. Where has he gone? and, if he is here, where is the Herbert that I knew?
If his intellectual and moral sympathies have all changed, I wonder if his physical tastes remain, like his appearance, the same. There has come over this country within the last generation, as everybody knows, a great wave of condemnation of pie. It has taken the character of a "movement!" though we have had no conventions about it, nor is any one, of any of the several sexes among us, running for president against it. It is safe almost anywhere to denounce pie, yet nearly everybody eats it on occasion. A great many people think it savors of a life abroad to speak with horror of pie, although they were very likely the foremost of the Americans in Paris who used to speak with more enthusiasm of the American pie at Madame Busque's than of the Venus of Milo. To talk against pie and still eat it is snobbish, of course; but snobbery, being an aspiring failing, is sometimes the prophecy of better things. To affect dislike of pie is something. We have no statistics on the subject, and cannot tell whether it is gaining or losing in the country at large. Its disappearance in select circles is no test. The amount of writing against it is no more test of its desuetude, than the number of religious tracts distributed in a given district is a criterion of its piety. We are apt to assume that certain regions are substantially free of it. Herbert and I, traveling north one summer, fancied that we could draw in New England a sort of diet line, like the sweeping curves on the isothermal charts, which should show at least the leading pie sections. Journeying towards the White Mountains, we concluded that a line passing through Bellows Falls, and bending a little south on either side, would mark northward the region of perpetual pie. In this region pie is to be found at all hours and seasons, and at every meal. I am not sure, however, that pie is not a matter of altitude rather than latitude, as I find that all the hill and country towns of New England are full of those excellent women, the very salt of the housekeeping earth, who would feel ready to sink in mortification through their scoured kitchen floors, if visitors should catch them without a pie in the house. The absence of pie would be more noticed than a scarcity of Bible even. Without it the housekeepers are as distracted as the boarding-house keeper, who declared that if it were not for canned tomato, she should have nothing to fly to. Well, in all this great agitation I find Herbert unmoved, a conservative, even to the under-crust. I dare not ask him if he eats pie at breakfast. There are some tests that the dearest friendship may not apply.
"Will you smoke?" I ask.
"No, I have reformed."
"Yes, of course."
"The fact is, that when we consider the correlation of forces, the apparent sympathy of spirit manifestations with electric conditions, the almost revealed mysteries of what may be called the odic force, and the relation of all these phenomena to the nervous system in man, it is not safe to do anything to the nervous system that will—"
"Hang the nervous system! Herbert, we can agree in one thing: old memories, reveries, friendships, center about that:—is n't an open wood-fire good?"
"Yes," says Herbert, combatively, "if you don't sit before it too long."
The best talk is that which escapes up the open chimney and cannot be repeated. The finest woods make the best fire and pass away with the least residuum. I hope the next generation will not accept the reports of "interviews" as specimens of the conversations of these years of grace.
But do we talk as well as our fathers and mothers did? We hear wonderful stories of the bright generation that sat about the wide fireplaces of New England. Good talk has so much short-hand that it cannot be reported,—the inflection, the change of voice, the shrug, cannot be caught on paper. The best of it is when the subject unexpectedly goes cross-lots, by a flash of short-cut, to a conclusion so suddenly revealed that it has the effect of wit. It needs the highest culture and the finest breeding to prevent the conversation from running into mere persiflage on the one hand—its common fate—or monologue on the other. Our conversation is largely chaff. I am not sure but the former generation preached a good deal, but it had great practice in fireside talk, and must have talked well. There were narrators in those days who could charm a circle all the evening long with stories. When each day brought comparatively little new to read, there was leisure for talk, and the rare book and the in-frequent magazine were thoroughly discussed. Families now are swamped by the printed matter that comes daily upon the center-table. There must be a division of labor, one reading this, and another that, to make any impression on it. The telegraph brings the only common food, and works this daily miracle, that every mind in Christendom is excited by one topic simultaneously with every other mind; it enables a concurrent mental action, a burst of sympathy, or a universal prayer to be made, which must be, if we have any faith in the immaterial left, one of the chief forces in modern life. It is fit that an agent so subtle as electricity should be the minister of it.
When there is so much to read, there is little time for conversation; nor is there leisure for another pastime of the ancient firesides, called reading aloud. The listeners, who heard while they looked into the wide chimney-place, saw there pass in stately procession the events and the grand persons of history, were kindled with the delights of travel, touched by the romance of true love, or made restless by tales of adventure;—the hearth became a sort of magic stone that could transport those who sat by it to the most distant places and times, as soon as the book was opened and the reader began, of a winter's night. Perhaps the Puritan reader read through his nose, and all the little Puritans made the most dreadful nasal inquiries as the entertainment went on. The prominent nose of the intellectual New-Englander is evidence of the constant linguistic exercise of the organ for generations. It grew by talking through. But I have no doubt that practice made good readers in those days. Good reading aloud is almost a lost accomplishment now. It is little thought of in the schools. It is disused at home. It is rare to find any one who can read, even from the newspaper, well. Reading is so universal, even with the uncultivated, that it is common to hear people mispronounce words that you did not suppose they had ever seen. In reading to themselves they glide over these words, in reading aloud they stumble over them. Besides, our every-day books and newspapers are so larded with French that the ordinary reader is obliged marcher a pas de loup,—for instance.
The newspaper is probably responsible for making current many words with which the general reader is familiar, but which he rises to in the flow of conversation, and strikes at with a splash and an unsuccessful attempt at appropriation; the word, which he perfectly knows, hooks him in the gills, and he cannot master it. The newspaper is thus widening the language in use, and vastly increasing the number of words which enter into common talk. The Americans of the lowest intellectual class probably use more words to express their ideas than the similar class of any other people; but this prodigality is partially balanced by the parsimony of words in some higher regions, in which a few phrases of current slang are made to do the whole duty of exchange of ideas; if that can be called exchange of ideas when one intellect flashes forth to another the remark, concerning some report, that "you know how it is yourself," and is met by the response of "that's what's the matter," and rejoins with the perfectly conclusive "that's so." It requires a high degree of culture to use slang with elegance and effect; and we are yet very far from the Greek attainment.
The fireplace wants to be all aglow, the wind rising, the night heavy and black above, but light with sifting snow on the earth, a background of inclemency for the illumined room with its pictured walls, tables heaped with books, capacious easy-chairs and their occupants,—it needs, I say, to glow and throw its rays far through the crystal of the broad windows, in order that we may rightly appreciate the relation of the wide-jambed chimney to domestic architecture in our climate. We fell to talking about it; and, as is usual when the conversation is professedly on one subject, we wandered all around it. The young lady staying with us was roasting chestnuts in the ashes, and the frequent explosions required considerable attention. The mistress, too, sat somewhat alert, ready to rise at any instant and minister to the fancied want of this or that guest, forgetting the reposeful truth that people about a fireside will not have any wants if they are not suggested. The worst of them, if they desire anything, only want something hot, and that later in the evening. And it is an open question whether you ought to associate with people who want that.
I was saying that nothing had been so slow in its progress in the world as domestic architecture. Temples, palaces, bridges, aqueducts, cathedrals, towers of marvelous delicacy and strength, grew to perfection while the common people lived in hovels, and the richest lodged in the most gloomy and contracted quarters. The dwelling-house is a modern institution. It is a curious fact that it has only improved with the social elevation of women. Men were never more brilliant in arms and letters than in the age of Elizabeth, and yet they had no homes. They made themselves thick-walled castles, with slits in the masonry for windows, for defense, and magnificent banquet-halls for pleasure; the stone rooms into which they crawled for the night were often little better than dog-kennels. The Pompeians had no comfortable night-quarters. The most singular thing to me, however, is that, especially interested as woman is in the house, she has never done anything for architecture. And yet woman is reputed to be an ingenious creature.
HERBERT. I doubt if woman has real ingenuity; she has great adaptability. I don't say that she will do the same thing twice alike, like a Chinaman, but she is most cunning in suiting herself to circumstances.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, if you speak of constructive, creative ingenuity, perhaps not; but in the higher ranges of achievement—that of accomplishing any purpose dear to her heart, for instance—her ingenuity is simply incomprehensible to me.
HERBERT. Yes, if you mean doing things by indirection.
THE MISTRESS. When you men assume all the direction, what else is left to us?
THE FIRE-TENDER. Did you ever see a woman refurnish a house?
THE YOUNG LADY STAYING WITH US. I never saw a man do it, unless he was burned out of his rookery.
HERBERT. There is no comfort in new things.
THE FIRE-TENDER (not noticing the interruption). Having set her mind on a total revolution of the house, she buys one new thing, not too obtrusive, nor much out of harmony with the old. The husband scarcely notices it, least of all does he suspect the revolution, which she already has accomplished. Next, some article that does look a little shabby beside the new piece of furniture is sent to the garret, and its place is supplied by something that will match in color and effect. Even the man can see that it ought to match, and so the process goes on, it may be for years, it may be forever, until nothing of the old is left, and the house is transformed as it was predetermined in the woman's mind. I doubt if the man ever understands how or when it was done; his wife certainly never says anything about the refurnishing, but quietly goes on to new conquests.
THE MISTRESS. And is n't it better to buy little by little, enjoying every new object as you get it, and assimilating each article to your household life, and making the home a harmonious expression of your own taste, rather than to order things in sets, and turn your house, for the time being, into a furniture ware-room?
THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, I only spoke of the ingenuity of it.
THE YOUNG LADY. For my part, I never can get acquainted with more than one piece of furniture at a time.
HERBERT. I suppose women are our superiors in artistic taste, and I fancy that I can tell whether a house is furnished by a woman or a man; of course, I mean the few houses that appear to be the result of individual taste and refinement,—most of them look as if they had been furnished on contract by the upholsterer.
THE MISTRESS. Woman's province in this world is putting things to rights.
HERBERT. With a vengeance, sometimes. In the study, for example. My chief objection to woman is that she has no respect for the newspaper, or the printed page, as such. She is Siva, the destroyer. I have noticed that a great part of a married man's time at home is spent in trying to find the things he has put on his study-table.
THE YOUNG LADY. Herbert speaks with the bitterness of a bachelor shut out of paradise. It is my experience that if women did not destroy the rubbish that men bring into the house, it would become uninhabitable, and need to be burned down every five years.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I confess women do a great deal for the appearance of things. When the mistress is absent, this room, although everything is here as it was before, does not look at all like the same place; it is stiff, and seems to lack a soul. When she returns, I can see that her eye, even while greeting me, takes in the situation at a glance. While she is talking of the journey, and before she has removed her traveling-hat, she turns this chair and moves that, sets one piece of furniture at a different angle, rapidly, and apparently unconsciously, shifts a dozen little knick-knacks and bits of color, and the room is transformed. I couldn't do it in a week.
THE MISTRESS. That is the first time I ever knew a man admit he couldn't do anything if he had time.
HERBERT. Yet with all their peculiar instinct for making a home, women make themselves very little felt in our domestic architecture.
THE MISTRESS. Men build most of the houses in what might be called the ready-made-clothing style, and we have to do the best we can with them; and hard enough it is to make cheerful homes in most of them. You will see something different when the woman is constantly consulted in the plan of the house.
HERBERT. We might see more difference if women would give any attention to architecture. Why are there no women architects?
THE FIRE-TENDER. Want of the ballot, doubtless. It seems to me that here is a splendid opportunity for woman to come to the front.
THE YOUNG LADY. They have no desire to come to the front; they would rather manage things where they are.
THE FIRE-TENDER. If they would master the noble art, and put their brooding taste upon it, we might very likely compass something in our domestic architecture that we have not yet attained. The outside of our houses needs attention as well as the inside. Most of them are as ugly as money can build.
THE YOUNG LADY. What vexes me most is, that women, married women, have so easily consented to give up open fires in their houses.
HERBERT. They dislike the dust and the bother. I think that women rather like the confined furnace heat.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Nonsense; it is their angelic virtue of submission. We wouldn't be hired to stay all-day in the houses we build.
THE YOUNG LADY. That has a very chivalrous sound, but I know there will be no reformation until women rebel and demand everywhere the open fire.
HERBERT. They are just now rebelling about something else; it seems to me yours is a sort of counter-movement, a fire in the rear.
THE MISTRESS. I'll join that movement. The time has come when woman must strike for her altars and her fires.
HERBERT. Hear, hear!
THE MISTRESS. Thank you, Herbert. I applauded you once, when you declaimed that years ago in the old Academy. I remember how eloquently you did it.
HERBERT. Yes, I was once a spouting idiot.
Just then the door-bell rang, and company came in. And the company brought in a new atmosphere, as company always does, something of the disturbance of out-doors, and a good deal of its healthy cheer. The direct news that the thermometer was approaching zero, with a hopeful prospect of going below it, increased to liveliness our satisfaction in the fire. When the cider was heated in the brown stone pitcher, there was difference of opinion whether there should be toast in it; some were for toast, because that was the old-fashioned way, and others were against it, "because it does not taste good" in cider. Herbert said there, was very little respect left for our forefathers.
More wood was put on, and the flame danced in a hundred fantastic shapes. The snow had ceased to fall, and the moonlight lay in silvery patches among the trees in the ravine. The conversation became worldly.
Herbert said, as we sat by the fire one night, that he wished he had turned his attention to writing poetry like Tennyson's.
The remark was not whimsical, but satirical. Tennyson is a man of talent, who happened to strike a lucky vein, which he has worked with cleverness. The adventurer with a pickaxe in Washoe may happen upon like good fortune. The world is full of poetry as the earth is of "pay-dirt;" one only needs to know how to "strike" it. An able man can make himself almost anything that he will. It is melancholy to think how many epic poets have been lost in the tea-trade, how many dramatists (though the age of the drama has passed) have wasted their genius in great mercantile and mechanical enterprises. I know a man who might have been the poet, the essayist, perhaps the critic, of this country, who chose to become a country judge, to sit day after day upon a bench in an obscure corner of the world, listening to wrangling lawyers and prevaricating witnesses, preferring to judge his fellow-men rather than enlighten them.
It is fortunate for the vanity of the living and the reputation of the dead, that men get almost as much credit for what they do not as for what they do. It was the opinion of many that Burns might have excelled as a statesman, or have been a great captain in war; and Mr. Carlyle says that if he had been sent to a university, and become a trained intellectual workman, it lay in him to have changed the whole course of British literature! A large undertaking, as so vigorous and dazzling a writer as Mr. Carlyle must know by this time, since British literature has swept by him in a resistless and widening flood, mainly uncontaminated, and leaving his grotesque contrivances wrecked on the shore with other curiosities of letters, and yet among the richest of all the treasures lying there.
It is a temptation to a temperate man to become a sot, to hear what talent, what versatility, what genius, is almost always attributed to a moderately bright man who is habitually drunk. Such a mechanic, such a mathematician, such a poet he would be, if he were only sober; and then he is sure to be the most generous, magnanimous, friendly soul, conscientiously honorable, if he were not so conscientiously drunk. I suppose it is now notorious that the most brilliant and promising men have been lost to the world in this way. It is sometimes almost painful to think what a surplus of talent and genius there would be in the world if the habit of intoxication should suddenly cease; and what a slim chance there would be for the plodding people who have always had tolerably good habits. The fear is only mitigated by the observation that the reputation of a person for great talent sometimes ceases with his reformation.
It is believed by some that the maidens who would make the best wives never marry, but remain free to bless the world with their impartial sweetness, and make it generally habitable. This is one of the mysteries of Providence and New England life. It seems a pity, at first sight, that all those who become poor wives have the matrimonial chance, and that they are deprived of the reputation of those who would be good wives were they not set apart for the high and perpetual office of priestesses of society. There is no beauty like that which was spoiled by an accident, no accomplishments—and graces are so to be envied as those that circumstances rudely hindered the development of. All of which shows what a charitable and good-tempered world it is, notwithstanding its reputation for cynicism and detraction.
Nothing is more beautiful than the belief of the faithful wife that her husband has all the talents, and could, if he would, be distinguished in any walk in life; and nothing will be more beautiful—unless this is a very dry time for signs—than the husband's belief that his wife is capable of taking charge of any of the affairs of this confused planet. There is no woman but thinks that her husband, the green-grocer, could write poetry if he had given his mind to it, or else she thinks small beer of poetry in comparison with an occupation or accomplishment purely vegetable. It is touching to see the look of pride with which the wife turns to her husband from any more brilliant personal presence or display of wit than his, in the perfect confidence that if the world knew what she knows, there would be one more popular idol. How she magnifies his small wit, and dotes upon the self-satisfied look in his face as if it were a sign of wisdom! What a councilor that man would make! What a warrior he would be! There are a great many corporals in their retired homes who did more for the safety and success of our armies in critical moments, in the late war, than any of the "high-cock-a-lorum" commanders. Mrs. Corporal does not envy the reputation of General Sheridan; she knows very well who really won Five Forks, for she has heard the story a hundred times, and will hear it a hundred times more with apparently unabated interest. What a general her husband would have made; and how his talking talent would shine in Congress!
HERBERT. Nonsense. There isn't a wife in the world who has not taken the exact measure of her husband, weighed him and settled him in her own mind, and knows him as well as if she had ordered him after designs and specifications of her own. That knowledge, however, she ordinarily keeps to herself, and she enters into a league with her husband, which he was never admitted to the secret of, to impose upon the world. In nine out of ten cases he more than half believes that he is what his wife tells him he is. At any rate, she manages him as easily as the keeper does the elephant, with only a bamboo wand and a sharp spike in the end. Usually she flatters him, but she has the means of pricking clear through his hide on occasion. It is the great secret of her power to have him think that she thoroughly believes in him.
THE YOUNG LADY STAYING WITH Us. And you call this hypocrisy? I have heard authors, who thought themselves sly observers of women, call it so.
HERBERT. Nothing of the sort. It is the basis on which society rests, the conventional agreement. If society is about to be overturned, it is on this point. Women are beginning to tell men what they really think of them; and to insist that the same relations of downright sincerity and independence that exist between men shall exist between women and men. Absolute truth between souls, without regard to sex, has always been the ideal life of the poets.
THE MISTRESS. Yes; but there was never a poet yet who would bear to have his wife say exactly what she thought of his poetry, any more than he would keep his temper if his wife beat him at chess; and there is nothing that disgusts a man like getting beaten at chess by a woman.
HERBERT. Well, women know how to win by losing. I think that the reason why most women do not want to take the ballot and stand out in the open for a free trial of power, is that they are reluctant to change the certain domination of centuries, with weapons they are perfectly competent to handle, for an experiment. I think we should be better off if women were more transparent, and men were not so systematically puffed up by the subtle flattery which is used to control them.
MANDEVILLE. Deliver me from transparency. When a woman takes that guise, and begins to convince me that I can see through her like a ray of light, I must run or be lost. Transparent women are the truly dangerous. There was one on ship-board [Mandeville likes to say that; he has just returned from a little tour in Europe, and he quite often begins his remarks with "on the ship going over;" the Young Lady declares that he has a sort of roll in his chair, when he says it, that makes her sea-sick] who was the most innocent, artless, guileless, natural bunch of lace and feathers you ever saw; she was all candor and helplessness and dependence; she sang like a nightingale, and talked like a nun. There never was such simplicity. There was n't a sounding-line on board that would have gone to the bottom of her soulful eyes. But she managed the captain and all the officers, and controlled the ship as if she had been the helm. All the passengers were waiting on her, fetching this and that for her comfort, inquiring of her health, talking about her genuineness, and exhibiting as much anxiety to get her ashore in safety, as if she had been about to knight them all and give them a castle apiece when they came to land.
THE MISTRESS. What harm? It shows what I have always said, that the service of a noble woman is the most ennobling influence for men.
MANDEVILLE. If she is noble, and not a mere manager. I watched this woman to see if she would ever do anything for any one else. She never did.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Did you ever see her again? I presume Mandeville has introduced her here for some purpose.
MANDEVILLE. No purpose. But we did see her on the Rhine; she was the most disgusted traveler, and seemed to be in very ill humor with her maid. I judged that her happiness depended upon establishing controlling relations with all about her. On this Rhine boat, to be sure, there was reason for disgust. And that reminds me of a remark that was made.
THE YOUNG LADY. Oh!
MANDEVILLE. When we got aboard at Mayence we were conscious of a dreadful odor somewhere; as it was a foggy morning, we could see no cause of it, but concluded it was from something on the wharf. The fog lifted, and we got under way, but the odor traveled with us, and increased. We went to every part of the vessel to avoid it, but in vain. It occasionally reached us in great waves of disagreeableness. We had heard of the odors of the towns on the Rhine, but we had no idea that the entire stream was infected. It was intolerable.
The day was lovely, and the passengers stood about on deck holding their noses and admiring the scenery. You might see a row of them leaning over the side, gazing up at some old ruin or ivied crag, entranced with the romance of the situation, and all holding their noses with thumb and finger. The sweet Rhine! By and by somebody discovered that the odor came from a pile of cheese on the forward deck, covered with a canvas; it seemed that the Rhinelanders are so fond of it that they take it with them when they travel. If there should ever be war between us and Germany, the borders of the Rhine would need no other defense from American soldiers than a barricade of this cheese. I went to the stern of the steamboat to tell a stout American traveler what was the origin of the odor he had been trying to dodge all the morning. He looked more disgusted than before, when he heard that it was cheese; but his only reply was: "It must be a merciful God who can forgive a smell like that!"
The above is introduced here in order to illustrate the usual effect of an anecdote on conversation. Commonly it kills it. That talk must be very well in hand, and under great headway, that an anecdote thrown in front of will not pitch off the track and wreck. And it makes little difference what the anecdote is; a poor one depresses the spirits, and casts a gloom over the company; a good one begets others, and the talkers go to telling stories; which is very good entertainment in moderation, but is not to be mistaken for that unwearying flow of argument, quaint remark, humorous color, and sprightly interchange of sentiments and opinions, called conversation.
The reader will perceive that all hope is gone here of deciding whether Herbert could have written Tennyson's poems, or whether Tennyson could have dug as much money out of the Heliogabalus Lode as Herbert did. The more one sees of life, I think the impression deepens that men, after all, play about the parts assigned them, according to their mental and moral gifts, which are limited and preordained, and that their entrances and exits are governed by a law no less certain because it is hidden. Perhaps nobody ever accomplishes all that he feels lies in him to do; but nearly every one who tries his powers touches the walls of his being occasionally, and learns about how far to attempt to spring. There are no impossibilities to youth and inexperience; but when a person has tried several times to reach high C and been coughed down, he is quite content to go down among the chorus. It is only the fools who keep straining at high C all their lives.
Mandeville here began to say that that reminded him of something that happened when he was on the—
But Herbert cut in with the observation that no matter what a man's single and several capacities and talents might be, he is controlled by his own mysterious individuality, which is what metaphysicians call the substance, all else being the mere accidents of the man. And this is the reason that we cannot with any certainty tell what any person will do or amount to, for, while we know his talents and abilities, we do not know the resulting whole, which is he himself. THE FIRE-TENDER. So if you could take all the first-class qualities that we admire in men and women, and put them together into one being, you wouldn't be sure of the result?
HERBERT. Certainly not. You would probably have a monster. It takes a cook of long experience, with the best materials, to make a dish "taste good;" and the "taste good" is the indefinable essence, the resulting balance or harmony which makes man or woman agreeable or beautiful or effective in the world.
THE YOUNG LADY. That must be the reason why novelists fail so lamentably in almost all cases in creating good characters. They put in real traits, talents, dispositions, but the result of the synthesis is something that never was seen on earth before.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Oh, a good character in fiction is an inspiration. We admit this in poetry. It is as true of such creations as Colonel Newcome, and Ethel, and Beatrix Esmond. There is no patchwork about them.
THE YOUNG LADY. Why was n't Thackeray ever inspired to create a noble woman?
THE FIRE-TENDER. That is the standing conundrum with all the women. They will not accept Ethel Newcome even. Perhaps we shall have to admit that Thackeray was a writer for men.
HERBERT. Scott and the rest had drawn so many perfect women that Thackeray thought it was time for a real one.
THE MISTRESS. That's ill-natured. Thackeray did, however, make ladies. If he had depicted, with his searching pen, any of us just as we are, I doubt if we should have liked it much.
MANDEVILLE. That's just it. Thackeray never pretended to make ideals, and if the best novel is an idealization of human nature, then he was not the best novelist. When I was crossing the Channel—
THE MISTRESS. Oh dear, if we are to go to sea again, Mandeville, I move we have in the nuts and apples, and talk about our friends.
There is this advantage in getting back to a wood-fire on the hearth, that you return to a kind of simplicity; you can scarcely imagine any one being stiffly conventional in front of it. It thaws out formality, and puts the company who sit around it into easy attitudes of mind and body,—lounging attitudes,—Herbert said.
And this brought up the subject of culture in America, especially as to manner. The backlog period having passed, we are beginning to have in society people of the cultured manner, as it is called, or polished bearing, in which the polish is the most noticeable thing about the man. Not the courtliness, the easy simplicity of the old-school gentleman, in whose presence the milkmaid was as much at her ease as the countess, but something far finer than this. These are the people of unruffled demeanor, who never forget it for a moment, and never let you forget it. Their presence is a constant rebuke to society. They are never "jolly;" their laugh is never anything more than a well-bred smile; they are never betrayed into any enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is a sign of inexperience, of ignorance, of want of culture. They never lose themselves in any cause; they never heartily praise any man or woman or book; they are superior to all tides of feeling and all outbursts of passion. They are not even shocked at vulgarity. They are simply indifferent. They are calm, visibly calm, painfully calm; and it is not the eternal, majestic calmness of the Sphinx either, but a rigid, self-conscious repression. You would like to put a bent pin in their chair when they are about calmly to sit down.
A sitting hen on her nest is calm, but hopeful; she has faith that her eggs are not china. These people appear to be sitting on china eggs. Perfect culture has refined all blood, warmth, flavor, out of them. We admire them without envy. They are too beautiful in their manners to be either prigs or snobs. They are at once our models and our despair. They are properly careful of themselves as models, for they know that if they should break, society would become a scene of mere animal confusion.
MANDEVILLE. I think that the best-bred people in the world are the English.
THE YOUNG LADY. You mean at home.
MANDEVILLE. That's where I saw them. There is no nonsense about a cultivated English man or woman. They express themselves sturdily and naturally, and with no subservience to the opinions of others. There's a sort of hearty sincerity about them that I like. Ages of culture on the island have gone deeper than the surface, and they have simpler and more natural manners than we. There is something good in the full, round tones of their voices.
HERBERT. Did you ever get into a diligence with a growling English-man who had n't secured the place he wanted?
[Mandeville once spent a week in London, riding about on the tops of omnibuses.]
THE MISTRESS. Did you ever see an English exquisite at the San Carlo, and hear him cry "Bwavo"?
MANDEVILLE. At any rate, he acted out his nature, and was n't afraid to.
THE FIRE-TENDER. I think Mandeville is right, for once. The men of the best culture in England, in the middle and higher social classes, are what you would call good fellows,—easy and simple in manner, enthusiastic on occasion, and decidedly not cultivated into the smooth calmness of indifference which some Americans seem to regard as the sine qua non of good breeding. Their position is so assured that they do not need that lacquer of calmness of which we were speaking.
THE YOUNG LADY. Which is different from the manner acquired by those who live a great deal in American hotels?
THE MISTRESS. Or the Washington manner?
HERBERT. The last two are the same.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Not exactly. You think you can always tell if a man has learned his society carriage of a dancing-master. Well, you cannot always tell by a person's manner whether he is a habitui of hotels or of Washington. But these are distinct from the perfect polish and politeness of indifferentism.
Daylight disenchants. It draws one from the fireside, and dissipates the idle illusions of conversation, except under certain conditions. Let us say that the conditions are: a house in the country, with some forest trees near, and a few evergreens, which are Christmas-trees all winter long, fringed with snow, glistening with ice-pendants, cheerful by day and grotesque by night; a snow-storm beginning out of a dark sky, falling in a soft profusion that fills all the air, its dazzling whiteness making a light near at hand, which is quite lost in the distant darkling spaces.
If one begins to watch the swirling flakes and crystals, he soon gets an impression of infinity of resources that he can have from nothing else so powerfully, except it be from Adirondack gnats. Nothing makes one feel at home like a great snow-storm. Our intelligent cat will quit the fire and sit for hours in the low window, watching the falling snow with a serious and contented air. His thoughts are his own, but he is in accord with the subtlest agencies of Nature; on such a day he is charged with enough electricity to run a telegraphic battery, if it could be utilized. The connection between thought and electricity has not been exactly determined, but the cat is mentally very alert in certain conditions of the atmosphere. Feasting his eyes on the beautiful out-doors does not prevent his attention to the slightest noise in the wainscot. And the snow-storm brings content, but not stupidity, to all the rest of the household.
I can see Mandeville now, rising from his armchair and swinging his long arms as he strides to the window, and looks out and up, with, "Well, I declare!" Herbert is pretending to read Herbert Spencer's tract on the philosophy of style but he loses much time in looking at the Young Lady, who is writing a letter, holding her portfolio in her lap,—one of her everlasting letters to one of her fifty everlasting friends. She is one of the female patriots who save the post-office department from being a disastrous loss to the treasury. Herbert is thinking of the great radical difference in the two sexes, which legislation will probably never change; that leads a woman always, to write letters on her lap and a man on a table,—a distinction which is commended to the notice of the anti-suffragists.
The Mistress, in a pretty little breakfast-cap, is moving about the room with a feather-duster, whisking invisible dust from the picture-frames, and talking with the Parson, who has just come in, and is thawing the snow from his boots on the hearth. The Parson says the thermometer is 15 deg., and going down; that there is a snowdrift across the main church entrance three feet high, and that the house looks as if it had gone into winter quarters, religion and all. There were only ten persons at the conference meeting last night, and seven of those were women; he wonders how many weather-proof Christians there are in the parish, anyhow.
The Fire-Tender is in the adjoining library, pretending to write; but it is a poor day for ideas. He has written his wife's name about eleven hundred times, and cannot get any farther. He hears the Mistress tell the Parson that she believes he is trying to write a lecture on the Celtic Influence in Literature. The Parson says that it is a first-rate subject, if there were any such influence, and asks why he does n't take a shovel and make a path to the gate. Mandeville says that, by George! he himself should like no better fun, but it wouldn't look well for a visitor to do it. The Fire-Tender, not to be disturbed by this sort of chaff, keeps on writing his wife's name.
Then the Parson and the Mistress fall to talking about the soup-relief, and about old Mrs. Grumples in Pig Alley, who had a present of one of Stowe's Illustrated Self-Acting Bibles on Christmas, when she had n't coal enough in the house to heat her gruel; and about a family behind the church, a widow and six little children and three dogs; and he did n't believe that any of them had known what it was to be warm in three weeks, and as to food, the woman said, she could hardly beg cold victuals enough to keep the dogs alive.
The Mistress slipped out into the kitchen to fill a basket with provisions and send it somewhere; and when the Fire-Tender brought in a new forestick, Mandeville, who always wants to talk, and had been sitting drumming his feet and drawing deep sighs, attacked him.
MANDEVILLE. Speaking about culture and manners, did you ever notice how extremes meet, and that the savage bears himself very much like the sort of cultured persons we were talking of last night?
THE FIRE-TENDER. In what respect?
MANDEVILLE. Well, you take the North American Indian. He is never interested in anything, never surprised at anything. He has by nature that calmness and indifference which your people of culture have acquired. If he should go into literature as a critic, he would scalp and tomahawk with the same emotionless composure, and he would do nothing else.
THE FIRE-TENDER. Then you think the red man is a born gentleman of the highest breeding?
MANDEVILLE. I think he is calm.
THE FIRE-TENDER. How is it about the war-path and all that?
MANDEVILLE. Oh, these studiously calm and cultured people may have malice underneath. It takes them to give the most effective "little digs;" they know how to stick in the pine-splinters and set fire to them.
HERBERT. But there is more in Mandeville's idea. You bring a red man into a picture-gallery, or a city full of fine architecture, or into a drawing-room crowded with objects of art and beauty, and he is apparently insensible to them all. Now I have seen country people, —and by country people I don't mean people necessarily who live in the country, for everything is mixed in these days,—some of the best people in the world, intelligent, honest, sincere, who acted as the Indian would.
THE MISTRESS. Herbert, if I did n't know you were cynical, I should say you were snobbish.
HERBERT. Such people think it a point of breeding never to speak of anything in your house, nor to appear to notice it, however beautiful it may be; even to slyly glance around strains their notion of etiquette. They are like the countryman who confessed afterwards that he could hardly keep from laughing at one of Yankee Hill's entertainments,
THE YOUNG LADY. Do you remember those English people at our house in Flushing last summer, who pleased us all so much with their apparent delight in everything that was artistic or tasteful, who explored the rooms and looked at everything, and were so interested? I suppose that Herbert's country relations, many of whom live in the city, would have thought it very ill-bred.
MANDEVILLE. It's just as I said. The English, the best of them, have become so civilized that they express themselves, in speech and action, naturally, and are not afraid of their emotions.
THE PARSON. I wish Mandeville would travel more, or that he had stayed at home. It's wonderful what a fit of Atlantic sea-sickness will do for a man's judgment and cultivation. He is prepared to pronounce on art, manners, all kinds of culture. There is more nonsense talked about culture than about anything else.
HERBERT. The Parson reminds me of an American country minister I once met walking through the Vatican. You could n't impose upon him with any rubbish; he tested everything by the standards of his native place, and there was little that could bear the test. He had the sly air of a man who could not be deceived, and he went about with his mouth in a pucker of incredulity. There is nothing so placid as rustic conceit. There was something very enjoyable about his calm superiority to all the treasures of art.
MANDEVILLE. And the Parson reminds me of another American minister, a consul in an Italian city, who said he was going up to Rome to have a thorough talk with the Pope, and give him a piece of his mind. Ministers seem to think that is their business. They serve it in such small pieces in order to make it go round.
THE PARSON. Mandeville is an infidel. Come, let's have some music; nothing else will keep him in good humor till lunch-time.
THE MISTRESS. What shall it be?
THE PARSON. Give us the larghetto from Beethoven's second symphony.
The Young Lady puts aside her portfolio. Herbert looks at the young lady. The Parson composes himself for critical purposes. Mandeville settles himself in a chair and stretches his long legs nearly into the fire, remarking that music takes the tangles out of him.
After the piece is finished, lunch is announced. It is still snowing.
It is difficult to explain the attraction which the uncanny and even the horrible have for most minds. I have seen a delicate woman half fascinated, but wholly disgusted, by one of the most unseemly of reptiles, vulgarly known as the "blowing viper" of the Alleghanies. She would look at it, and turn away with irresistible shuddering and the utmost loathing, and yet turn to look at it again and again, only to experience the same spasm of disgust. In spite of her aversion, she must have relished the sort of electric mental shock that the sight gave her.
I can no more account for the fascination for us of the stories of ghosts and "appearances," and those weird tales in which the dead are the chief characters; nor tell why we should fall into converse about them when the winter evenings are far spent, the embers are glazing over on the hearth, and the listener begins to hear the eerie noises in the house. At such times one's dreams become of importance, and people like to tell them and dwell upon them, as if they were a link between the known and unknown, and could give us a clew to that ghostly region which in certain states of the mind we feel to be more real than that we see.
Recently, when we were, so to say, sitting around the borders of the supernatural late at night, MANDEVILLE related a dream of his which he assured us was true in every particular, and it interested us so much that we asked him to write it out. In doing so he has curtailed it, and to my mind shorn it of some of its more vivid and picturesque features. He might have worked it up with more art, and given it a finish which the narration now lacks, but I think best to insert it in its simplicity. It seems to me that it may properly be called,
A NEW "VISION OF SIN"
In the winter of 1850 I was a member of one of the leading colleges of this country. I was in moderate circumstances pecuniarily, though I was perhaps better furnished with less fleeting riches than many others. I was an incessant and indiscriminate reader of books. For the solid sciences I had no particular fancy, but with mental modes and habits, and especially with the eccentric and fantastic in the intellectual and spiritual operations, I was tolerably familiar. All the literature of the supernatural was as real to me as the laboratory of the chemist, where I saw the continual struggle of material substances to evolve themselves into more volatile, less palpable and coarse forms. My imagination, naturally vivid, stimulated by such repasts, nearly mastered me. At times I could scarcely tell where the material ceased and the immaterial began (if I may so express it); so that once and again I walked, as it seemed, from the solid earth onward upon an impalpable plain, where I heard the same voices, I think, that Joan of Arc heard call to her in the garden at Domremy. She was inspired, however, while I only lacked exercise. I do not mean this in any literal sense; I only describe a state of mind. I was at this time of spare habit, and nervous, excitable temperament. I was ambitious, proud, and extremely sensitive. I cannot deny that I had seen something of the world, and had contracted about the average bad habits of young men who have the sole care of themselves, and rather bungle the matter. It is necessary to this relation to admit that I had seen a trifle more of what is called life than a young man ought to see, but at this period I was not only sick of my experience, but my habits were as correct as those of any Pharisee in our college, and we had some very favorable specimens of that ancient sect.
Nor can I deny that at this period of my life I was in a peculiar mental condition. I well remember an illustration of it. I sat writing late one night, copying a prize essay,—a merely manual task, leaving my thoughts free. It was in June, a sultry night, and about midnight a wind arose, pouring in through the open windows, full of mournful reminiscence, not of this, but of other summers,—the same wind that De Quincey heard at noonday in midsummer blowing through the room where he stood, a mere boy, by the side of his dead sister, —a wind centuries old. As I wrote on mechanically, I became conscious of a presence in the room, though I did not lift my eyes from the paper on which I wrote. Gradually I came to know that my grandmother—dead so long ago that I laughed at the idea—was in the room. She stood beside her old-fashioned spinning-wheel, and quite near me. She wore a plain muslin cap with a high puff in the crown, a short woolen gown, a white and blue checked apron, and shoes with heels. She did not regard me, but stood facing the wheel, with the left hand near the spindle, holding lightly between the thumb and forefinger the white roll of wool which was being spun and twisted on it. In her right hand she held a small stick. I heard the sharp click of this against the spokes of the wheel, then the hum of the wheel, the buzz of the spindles as the twisting yarn was teased by the whirl of its point, then a step backwards, a pause, a step forward and the running of the yarn upon the spindle, and again a backward step, the drawing out of the roll and the droning and hum of the wheel, most mournfully hopeless sound that ever fell on mortal ear. Since childhood it has haunted me. All this time I wrote, and I could hear distinctly the scratching of the pen upon the paper. But she stood behind me (why I did not turn my head I never knew), pacing backward and forward by the spinning-wheel, just as I had a hundred times seen her in childhood in the old kitchen on drowsy summer afternoons. And I heard the step, the buzz and whirl of the spindle, and the monotonous and dreary hum of the mournful wheel. Whether her face was ashy pale and looked as if it might crumble at the touch, and the border of her white cap trembled in the June wind that blew, I cannot say, for I tell you I did NOT see her. But I know she was there, spinning yarn that had been knit into hose years and years ago by our fireside. For I was in full possession of my faculties, and never copied more neatly and legibly any manuscript than I did the one that night. And there the phantom (I use the word out of deference to a public prejudice on this subject) most persistently remained until my task was finished, and, closing the portfolio, I abruptly rose. Did I see anything? That is a silly and ignorant question. Could I see the wind which had now risen stronger, and drove a few cloud-scuds across the sky, filling the night, somehow, with a longing that was not altogether born of reminiscence?
In the winter following, in January, I made an effort to give up the use of tobacco,—a habit in which I was confirmed, and of which I have nothing more to say than this: that I should attribute to it almost all the sin and misery in the world, did I not remember that the old Romans attained a very considerable state of corruption without the assistance of the Virginia plant.