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BACKLOG STUDIES

By Charles Dudley Warner




FIRST STUDY




I

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.




II

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.




III

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.




IV

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.





SECOND STUDY




I

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


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