Part 1 out of 3
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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
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
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
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
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
"Yes," says Herbert, combatively, "if you don't sit before it too
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
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
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 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
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
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
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 be 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
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
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
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
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
THE YOUNG LADY. Why was n't Thackeray ever inspired to create a
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
On the night of the third day of my abstinence, rendered more nervous
and excitable than usual by the privation, I retired late, and later
still I fell into an uneasy sleep, and thus into a dream, vivid,
illuminated, more real than any event of my life. I was at home, and
fell sick. The illness developed into a fever, and then a delirium
set in, not an intellectual blank, but a misty and most delicious
wandering in places of incomparable beauty. I learned subsequently
that our regular physician was not certain to finish me, when a
consultation was called, which did the business. I have the
satisfaction of knowing that they were of the proper school. I lay
sick for three days.
On the morning of the fourth, at sunrise, I died. The sensation was
not unpleasant. It was not a sudden shock. I passed out of my body
as one would walk from the door of his house. There the body lay,--a
blank, so far as I was concerned, and only interesting to me as I was
rather entertained with watching the respect paid to it. My friends
stood about the bedside, regarding me (as they seemed to suppose),
while I, in a different part of the room, could hardly repress a
smile at their mistake, solemnized as they were, and I too, for that
matter, by my recent demise. A sensation (the word you see is
material and inappropriate) of etherealization and imponderability
pervaded me, and I was not sorry to get rid of such a dull, slow mass
as I now perceived myself to be, lying there on the bed. When I
speak of my death, let me be understood to say that there was no
change, except that I passed out of my body and floated to the top of
a bookcase in the corner of the room, from which I looked down. For
a moment I was interested to see my person from the outside, but
thereafter I was quite indifferent to the body. I was now simply
soul. I seemed to be a globe, impalpable, transparent, about six
inches in diameter. I saw and heard everything as before. Of
course, matter was no obstacle to me, and I went easily and quickly
wherever I willed to go. There was none of that tedious process of
communicating my wishes to the nerves, and from them to the muscles.
I simply resolved to be at a particular place, and I was there. It
was better than the telegraph.
It seemed to have been intimated to me at my death (birth I half
incline to call it) that I could remain on this earth for four weeks
after my decease, during which time I could amuse myself as I chose.
I chose, in the first place, to see myself decently buried, to stay
by myself to the last, and attend my own funeral for once. As most
of those referred to in this true narrative are still living, I am
forbidden to indulge in personalities, nor shall I dare to say
exactly how my death affected my friends, even the home circle.
Whatever others did, I sat up with myself and kept awake. I saw the
"pennies" used instead of the "quarters" which I should have
preferred. I saw myself "laid out," a phrase that has come to have
such a slang meaning that I smile as I write it. When the body was
put into the coffin, I took my place on the lid.
I cannot recall all the details, and they are commonplace besides.
The funeral took place at the church. We all rode thither in
carriages, and I, not fancying my place in mine, rode on the outside
with the undertaker, whom I found to be a good deal more jolly than
he looked to be. The coffin was placed in front of the pulpit when
we arrived. I took my station on the pulpit cushion, from which
elevation I had an admirable view of all the ceremonies, and could
hear the sermon. How distinctly I remember the services. I think I
could even at this distance write out the sermon. The tune sung was
of--the usual country selection,--Mount Vernon. I recall the text.
I was rather flattered by the tribute paid to me, and my future was
spoken of gravely and as kindly as possible,--indeed, with remarkable
charity, considering that the minister was not aware of my presence.
I used to beat him at chess, and I thought, even then, of the last
game; for, however solemn the occasion might be to others, it was not
so to me. With what interest I watched my kinsfolks, and neighbors
as they filed past for the last look! I saw, and I remember, who
pulled a long face for the occasion and who exhibited genuine
sadness. I learned with the most dreadful certainty what people
really thought of me. It was a revelation never forgotten.
Several particular acquaintances of mine were talking on the steps as
we passed out.
"Well, old Starr's gone up. Sudden, was n't it? He was a first-rate
"Yes, queer about some things; but he had some mighty good streaks,"
said another. And so they ran on.
Streaks! So that is the reputation one gets during twenty years of
life in this world. Streaks!
After the funeral I rode home with the family. It was pleasanter
than the ride down, though it seemed sad to my relations. They did
not mention me, however, and I may remark, that although I stayed
about home for a week, I never heard my name mentioned by any of the
family. Arrived at home, the tea-kettle was put on and supper got
ready. This seemed to lift the gloom a little, and under the
influence of the tea they brightened up and gradually got more
cheerful. They discussed the sermon and the singing, and the mistake
of the sexton in digging the grave in the wrong place, and the large
congregation. From the mantel-piece I watched the group. They had
waffles for supper,--of which I had been exceedingly fond, but now I
saw them disappear without a sigh.
For the first day or two of my sojourn at home I was here and there
at all the neighbors, and heard a good deal about my life and
character, some of which was not very pleasant, but very wholesome,
doubtless, for me to hear. At the expiration of a week this
amusement ceased to be such for I ceased to be talked of. I realized
the fact that I was dead and gone.
By an act of volition I found myself back at college. I floated into
my own room, which was empty. I went to the room of my two warmest
friends, whose friendship I was and am yet assured of. As usual,
half a dozen of our set were lounging there. A game of whist was
just commencing. I perched on a bust of Dante on the top of the
book-shelves, where I could see two of the hands and give a good
guess at a third. My particular friend Timmins was just shuffling
"Be hanged if it is n't lonesome without old Starr. Did you cut? I
should like to see him lounge in now with his pipe, and with feet on
the mantel-piece proceed to expound on the duplex functions of the
"There--misdeal," said his vis-a-vis. "Hope there's been no misdeal
for old Starr."
"Spades, did you say?" the talk ran on, "never knew Starr was
"No more was he; stouter than you are, and as brave and plucky as he
was strong. By George, fellows,--how we do get cut down! Last term
little Stubbs, and now one of the best fellows in the class."
"How suddenly he did pop off,--one for game, honors easy,--he was
good for the Spouts' Medal this year, too."
"Remember the joke he played on Prof. A., freshman year? "asked
"Remember he borrowed ten dollars of me about that time," said
Timmins's partner, gathering the cards for a new deal.
"Guess he is the only one who ever did," retorted some one.
And so the talk went on, mingled with whist-talk, reminiscent of me,
not all exactly what I would have chosen to go into my biography, but
on the whole kind and tender, after the fashion of the boys. At
least I was in their thoughts, and I could see was a good deal
regretted,--so I passed a very pleasant evening. Most of those
present were of my society, and wore crape on their badges, and all
wore the usual crape on the left arm. I learned that the following
afternoon a eulogy would be delivered on me in the chapel.
The eulogy was delivered before members of our society and others,
the next afternoon, in the chapel. I need not say that I was
present. Indeed, I was perched on the desk within reach of the
speaker's hand. The apotheosis was pronounced by my most intimate
friend, Timmins, and I must say he did me ample justice. He never
was accustomed to "draw it very mild" (to use a vulgarism which I
dislike) when he had his head, and on this occasion he entered into
the matter with the zeal of a true friend, and a young man who never
expected to have another occasion to sing a public "In Memoriam." It
made my hair stand on end,--metaphorically, of course. From my
childhood I had been extremely precocious. There were anecdotes of
preternatural brightness, picked up, Heaven knows where, of my
eagerness to learn, of my adventurous, chivalrous young soul, and of
my arduous struggles with chill penury, which was not able (as it
appeared) to repress my rage, until I entered this institution, of
which I had been ornament, pride, cynosure, and fair promising bud
blasted while yet its fragrance was mingled with the dew of its
youth. Once launched upon my college days, Timmins went on with all
sails spread. I had, as it were, to hold on to the pulpit cushion.
Latin, Greek, the old literatures, I was perfect master of; all
history was merely a light repast to me; mathematics I glanced at,
and it disappeared; in the clouds of modern philosophy I was wrapped
but not obscured; over the field of light literature I familiarly
roamed as the honey-bee over the wide fields of clover which blossom
white in the Junes of this world! My life was pure, my character
spotless, my name was inscribed among the names of those deathless
few who were not born to die!
It was a noble eulogy, and I felt before he finished, though I had
misgivings at the beginning, that I deserved it all. The effect on
the audience was a little different. They said it was a "strong"
oration, and I think Timmins got more credit by it than I did. After
the performance they stood about the chapel, talking in a subdued
tone, and seemed to be a good deal impressed by what they had heard,
or perhaps by thoughts of the departed. At least they all soon went
over to Austin's and called for beer. My particular friends called
for it twice. Then they all lit pipes. The old grocery keeper was
good enough to say that I was no fool, if I did go off owing him four
dollars. To the credit of human nature, let me here record that the
fellows were touched by this remark reflecting upon my memory, and
immediately made up a purse and paid the bill,--that is, they told
the old man to charge it over to them. College boys are rich in
credit and the possibilities of life.
It is needless to dwell upon the days I passed at college during this
probation. So far as I could see, everything went on as if I were
there, or had never been there. I could not even see the place where
I had dropped out of the ranks. Occasionally I heard my name, but I
must say that four weeks was quite long enough to stay in a world
that had pretty much forgotten me. There is no great satisfaction in
being dragged up to light now and then, like an old letter. The case
was somewhat different with the people with whom I had boarded. They
were relations of mine, and I often saw them weep, and they talked of
me a good deal at twilight and Sunday nights, especially the youngest
one, Carrie, who was handsomer than any one I knew, and not much
older than I. I never used to imagine that she cared particularly
for me, nor would she have done so, if I had lived, but death brought
with it a sort of sentimental regret, which, with the help of a
daguerreotype, she nursed into quite a little passion. I spent most
of my time there, for it was more congenial than the college.
But time hastened. The last sand of probation leaked out of the
glass. One day, while Carrie played (for me, though she knew it not)
one of Mendelssohn's "songs without words," I suddenly, yet gently,
without self-effort or volition, moved from the house, floated in the
air, rose higher, higher, by an easy, delicious, exultant, yet
inconceivably rapid motion. The ecstasy of that triumphant flight!
Groves, trees, houses, the landscape, dimmed, faded, fled away
beneath me. Upward mounting, as on angels' wings, with no effort,
till the earth hung beneath me a round black ball swinging, remote,
in the universal ether. Upward mounting, till the earth, no longer
bathed in the sun's rays, went out to my sight, disappeared in the
blank. Constellations, before seen from afar, I sailed among.
Stars, too remote for shining on earth, I neared, and found to be
round globes flying through space with a velocity only equaled by my
own. New worlds continually opened on my sight; newfields of
everlasting space opened and closed behind me.
For days and days--it seemed a mortal forever--I mounted up the great
heavens, whose everlasting doors swung wide. How the worlds and
systems, stars, constellations, neared me, blazed and flashed in
splendor, and fled away! At length,--was it not a thousand years?--I
saw before me, yet afar off, a wall, the rocky bourn of that country
whence travelers come not back, a battlement wider than I could
guess, the height of which I could not see, the depth of which was
infinite. As I approached, it shone with a splendor never yet beheld
on earth. Its solid substance was built of jewels the rarest, and
stones of priceless value. It seemed like one solid stone, and yet
all the colors of the rainbow were contained in it. The ruby, the
diamond, the emerald, the carbuncle, the topaz, the amethyst, the
sapphire; of them the wall was built up in harmonious combination.
So brilliant was it that all the space I floated in was full of the
splendor. So mild was it and so translucent, that I could look for
miles into its clear depths.
Rapidly nearing this heavenly battlement, an immense niche was
disclosed in its solid face. The floor was one large ruby. Its
sloping sides were of pearl. Before I was aware I stood within the
brilliant recess. I say I stood there, for I was there bodily, in my
habit as I lived; how, I cannot explain. Was it the resurrection of
the body? Before me rose, a thousand feet in height, a wonderful
gate of flashing diamond. Beside it sat a venerable man, with long
white beard, a robe of light gray, ancient sandals, and a golden key
hanging by a cord from his waist. In the serene beauty of his noble
features I saw justice and mercy had met and were reconciled. I
cannot describe the majesty of his bearing or the benignity of his
appearance. It is needless to say that I stood before St. Peter, who
sits at the Celestial Gate.
I humbly approached, and begged admission. St. Peter arose, and
regarded me kindly, yet inquiringly.
"What is your name?" asked he, "and from what place do you come?"
I answered, and, wishing to give a name well known, said I was from
Washington, United States. He looked doubtful, as if he had never
heard the name before.
"Give me," said he, "a full account of your whole life."
I felt instantaneously that there was no concealment possible; all
disguise fell away, and an unknown power forced me to speak absolute
and exact truth. I detailed the events of my life as well as I
could, and the good man was not a little affected by the recital of
my early trials, poverty, and temptation. It did not seem a very
good life when spread out in that presence, and I trembled as I
proceeded; but I plead youth, inexperience, and bad examples.
"Have you been accustomed," he said, after a time, rather sadly, "to
break the Sabbath?"
I told him frankly that I had been rather lax in that matter,
especially at college. I often went to sleep in the chapel on
Sunday, when I was not reading some entertaining book. He then asked
who the preacher was, and when I told him, he remarked that I was not
so much to blame as he had supposed.
"Have you," he went on, "ever stolen, or told any lie?"
I was able to say no, except admitting as to the first, usual college
"conveyances," and as to the last, an occasional "blinder" to the
professors. He was gracious enough to say that these could be
overlooked as incident to the occasion.
"Have you ever been dissipated, living riotously and keeping late
This also could be forgiven me as an incident of youth.
"Did you ever," he went on, "commit the crime of using intoxicating
drinks as a beverage?"
I answered that I had never been a habitual drinker, that I had never
been what was called a "moderate drinker," that I had never gone to a
bar and drank alone; but that I had been accustomed, in company with
other young men, on convivial occasions to taste the pleasures of the
flowing bowl, sometimes to excess, but that I had also tasted the
pains of it, and for months before my demise had refrained from
liquor altogether. The holy man looked grave, but, after reflection,
said this might also be overlooked in a young man.
"What," continued he, in tones still more serious, "has been your
conduct with regard to the other sex?"
I fell upon my knees in a tremor of fear. I pulled from my bosom a
little book like the one Leperello exhibits in the opera of "Don
Giovanni." There, I said, was a record of my flirtation and
inconstancy. I waited long for the decision, but it came in mercy.
"Rise," he cried; "young men will be young men, I suppose. We shall
forgive this also to your youth and penitence."
"Your examination is satisfactory, he informed me," after a pause;
"you can now enter the abodes of the happy."
Joy leaped within me. We approached the gate. The key turned in the
lock. The gate swung noiselessly on its hinges a little open. Out
flashed upon me unknown splendors. What I saw in that momentary
gleam I shall never whisper in mortal ears. I stood upon the
threshold, just about to enter.
"Stop! one moment," exclaimed St. Peter, laying his hand on my
shoulder; "I have one more question to ask you."
I turned toward him.
"Young man, did you ever use tobacco?"
"I both smoked and chewed in my lifetime," I faltered, "but..."
"THEN TO HELL WITH YOU!" he shouted in a voice of thunder.
Instantly the gate closed without noise, and I was flung, hurled,
from the battlement, down! down! down! Faster and faster I sank in
a dizzy, sickening whirl into an unfathomable space of gloom. The
light faded. Dampness and darkness were round about me. As before,
for days and days I rose exultant in the light, so now forever I sank
into thickening darkness,--and yet not darkness, but a pale, ashy
light more fearful.
In the dimness, I at length discovered a wall before me. It ran up
and down and on either hand endlessly into the night. It was solid,
black, terrible in its frowning massiveness.
Straightway I alighted at the gate,--a dismal crevice hewn into the
dripping rock. The gate was wide open, and there sat-I knew him at
once; who does not?--the Arch Enemy of mankind. He cocked his eye at
me in an impudent, low, familiar manner that disgusted me. I saw
that I was not to be treated like a gentleman.
"Well, young man," said he, rising, with a queer grin on his face,"
what are you sent here for?
"For using tobacco," I replied.
"Ho!" shouted he in a jolly manner, peculiar to devils, "that's what
most of 'em are sent here for now."
Without more ado, he called four lesser imps, who ushered me within.
What a dreadful plain lay before me! There was a vast city laid out
in regular streets, but there were no houses. Along the streets were
places of torment and torture exceedingly ingenious and disagreeable.
For miles and miles, it seemed, I followed my conductors through
these horrors, Here was a deep vat of burning tar. Here were rows of
fiery ovens. I noticed several immense caldron kettles of boiling
oil, upon the rims of which little devils sat, with pitchforks in
hand, and poked down the helpless victims who floundered in the
liquid. But I forbear to go into unseemly details. The whole scene
is as vivid in my mind as any earthly landscape.
After an hour's walk my tormentors halted before the mouth of an
oven,--a furnace heated seven times, and now roaring with flames.
They grasped me, one hold of each hand and foot. Standing before the
blazing mouth, they, with a swing, and a "one, two, THREE...."
I again assure the reader that in this narrative I have set down
nothing that was not actually dreamed, and much, very much of this
wonderful vision I have been obliged to omit.