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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

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

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

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

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

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Online LibraryCharles Dudley WarnerBacklog Studies → online text (page 2 of 12)