Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Over a Wood Fire
By Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel) (1822–1908)
From ‘Reveries of a Bachelor’

I HAVE got a quiet farm-house in the country,—a very humble place to be sure, tenanted by a worthy enough man of the old New England stamp, where I sometimes go for a day or two in the winter, to look over the farm accounts and to see how the stock is thriving on the winter’s keep.  1
  One side the door, as you enter from the porch, is a little parlor, scarce twelve feet by ten, with a cozy-looking fireplace, a heavy oak floor, a couple of arm-chairs and a brown table with carved lions’ feet. Out of this room opens a little cabinet, only big enough for a broad bachelor bedstead, where I sleep upon feathers, and wake in the morning with my eye upon a saucy-colored lithographic print of some fancy “Bessy.”  2
  It happens to be the only house in the world of which I am bona fide owner; and I take a vast deal of comfort in treating it just as I choose. I manage to break some article of furniture almost every time I pay it a visit; and if I cannot open the window readily of a morning, to breathe the fresh air, I knock out a pane or two of glass with my boot. I lean against the walls in a very old arm-chair there is on the premises, and scarce ever fail to worry such a hole in the plastering as would set me down for a round charge for damages in town, or make a prim housewife fret herself into a raging fever. I laugh out loud with myself, in my big arm-chair, when I think that I am neither afraid of one nor the other.  3
  As for the fire, I keep the little hearth so hot as to warm half the cellar below, and the whole space between the jambs roars for hours together with white flame. To be sure, the windows are not very tight, between broken panes and bad joints; so that the fire, large as it is, is by no means an extravagant comfort.  4
  As night approaches, I have a huge pile of oak and hickory placed beside the hearth; I put out the tallow candle on the mantel (using the family snuffers, with one leg broken)—then, drawing my chair directly in front of the blazing wood, and setting one foot on each of the old iron fire-dogs, until they grow too warm, I dispose myself for an evening of such sober and thoughtful quietude as I believe, on my soul, that very few of my fellow-men have the good fortune to enjoy.  5
  My tenant, meantime, in the other room, I can hear now and then—though there is a thick stone chimney and broad entry between—multiplying contrivances with his wife, to put two babies to sleep. This occupies them, I should say, usually an hour; though my only measure of time (for I never carry a watch into the country) is the blaze of my fire. By ten, or thereabouts, my stock of wood is nearly exhausted; I pile upon the hot coals what remains, and sit watching how it kindles, and blazes, and goes out—even like our joys!—and then slip by the light of the embers into my bed, where I luxuriate in such sound and healthful slumber as only such rattling window frames and country air can supply.  6
  But to return: the other evening—it happened to be on my last visit to my farm-house—when I had exhausted all the ordinary rural topics of thought: had formed all sorts of conjectures as to the income of the year; had planned a new wall around one lot, and the clearing up of another, now covered with patriarchal wood; and wondered if the little rickety house would not be after all a snug enough box to live and to die in,—I fell on a sudden into such an unprecedented line of thought, which took such deep hold of my sympathies, sometimes even starting tears, that I determined the next day to set as much of it as I could recall, on paper.  7
  Something—it may have been the home-looking blaze (I am a bachelor of say six-and-twenty), or possibly a plaintive cry of the baby in my tenant’s room—had suggested to me the thought of—Marriage.  8
  I piled upon the heated fire-dogs the last armful of my wood; and now, said I, bracing myself courageously between the arms of my chair,—I’ll not flinch;—I’ll pursue the thought wherever it leads, though it leads me to the D—— (I am apt to be hasty)—at least—continued I, softening—until my fire is out.  9
  The wood was green, and at first showed no disposition to blaze. It smoked furiously. Smoke, thought I, always goes before blaze; and so does doubt go before decision: and my Revery, from that very starting-point, slipped into this shape:—  10
I. Smoke—Signifying Doubt

  A WIFE?—thought I;—yes, a wife!
  And why?  12
  And pray, my dear sir, why not—why? Why not doubt; why not hesitate; why not tremble?  13
  Does a man buy a ticket in a lottery—a poor man, whose whole earnings go in to secure the ticket—without trembling, hesitating, and doubting?  14
  Can a man stake his bachelor respectability, his independence and comfort, upon the die of absorbing, unchanging, relentless marriage, without trembling at the venture?  15
  Shall a man who has been free to chase his fancies over the wide world, without let or hindrance, shut himself up to marriageship, within four walls called home, that are to claim him, his time, his trouble, and his tears, thenceforward forevermore, without doubts thick and thick-coming as smoke?  16
  Shall he who has been hitherto a mere observer of other men’s cares and business—moving off where they made him sick of heart, approaching whenever and wherever they made him gleeful—shall he now undertake administration of just such cares and business, without qualms? Shall he, whose whole life has been but a nimble succession of escapes from trifling difficulties, now broach without doubtings that matrimony, where if difficulty beset him there is no escape? Shall this brain of mine, careless-working, never tired of idleness, feeding on long vagaries and high gigantic castles, dreaming out beatitudes hour by hour—turn itself at length to such dull task-work as thinking out a livelihood for wife and children?  17
  Where thenceforward will be those sunny dreams in which I have warmed my fancies and my heart, and lighted my eye with crystal? This very marriage, which a brilliant-working imagination has invested time and again with brightness and delight, can serve no longer as a mine for teeming fancy: all, alas, will be gone—reduced to the dull standard of the actual! No more room for intrepid forays of imagination, no more gorgeous realm-making—all will be over!  18
  Why not, I thought, go on dreaming?  19
  Can any wife be prettier than an after-dinner fancy, idle and yet vivid, can paint for you? Can any children make less noise than the little rosy-cheeked ones who have no existence except in the omnium gatherum of your own brain? Can any housewife be more unexceptionable than she who goes sweeping daintily the cobwebs that gather in your dreams? Can any domestic larder be better stocked than the private larder of your head dozing on a cushioned chair-back at Delmonico’s? Can any family purse be better filled than the exceeding plump one you dream after reading such pleasant books as ‘Münchausen’ or ‘Typee’?  20
  But if, after all, it must be—duty, or what-not, making provocation—what then? And I clapped my feet hard against the fire-dogs, and leaned back, and turned my face to the ceiling, as much as to say:—“And where on earth, then, shall a poor devil look for a wife?”  21
  Somebody says—Lyttleton or Shaftesbury, I think—that “marriages would be happier if they were all arranged by the Lord Chancellor.” Unfortunately, we have no Lord Chancellor to make this commutation of our misery.  22
  Shall a man, then, scour the country on a mule’s back, like honest Gil Blas of Santillane; or shall he make application to some such intervening providence as Madame St. Marc, who, as I see by the Presse, manages these matters to one’s hand, for some five per cent. on the fortunes of the parties?  23
  I have trouted, when the brook was so low and the sky so hot that I might as well have thrown my fly upon the turnpike; and I have hunted hare at noon, and woodcock in snow-time, never despairing, scarce doubting: but for a poor hunter of his kind, without traps or snares, or any aid of police or constabulary, to traverse the world, where are swarming, on a moderate computation, some three hundred and odd millions of unmarried women, for a single capture—irremediable, unchangeable—and yet a capture which by strange metonymy, not laid down in the books, is very apt to turn captor into captive, and make game of hunter—all this surely, surely may make a man shrug with doubt!  24
  Then, again, there are the plaguy wife’s relations. Who knows how many third, fourth, or fifth cousins will appear at careless complimentary intervals, long after you had settled into the placid belief that all congratulatory visits were at an end? How many twisted-headed brothers will be putting in their advice, as a friend to Peggy?  25
  How many maiden aunts will come to spend a month or two with their “dear Peggy,” and want to know every tea-time “if she isn’t a dear love of a wife”? Then dear father-in-law will beg (taking dear Peggy’s hand in his) to give a little wholesome counsel; and will be very sure to advise just the contrary of what you had determined to undertake. And dear mamma-in-law must set her nose into Peggy’s cupboard, and insist upon having the key to your own private locker in the wainscot.  26
  Then, perhaps, there is a little bevy of dirty-nosed nephews who come to spend the holidays, and eat up your East India sweetmeats; and who are forever tramping over your head or raising the Old Harry below, while you are busy with your clients. Last, and worse, is some fidgety old uncle, forever too cold or too hot, who vexes you with his patronizing airs, and impudently kisses his little Peggy!  27
  That could be borne, however; for perhaps he has promised his fortune to Peggy. Peggy, then, will be rich (and the thought made me rub my shins, which were now getting comfortably warm upon the fire-dogs). Then she will be forever talking of her fortune; and pleasantly reminding you, on occasion of a favorite purchase, how lucky that she had the means; and dropping hints about economy; and buying very extravagant Paisleys.  28
  She will annoy you by looking over the stock-list at breakfast-time; and mention quite carelessly to your clients that she is interested in such or such a speculation.  29
  She will be provokingly silent when you hint to a tradesman that you have not the money by you for his small bill: in short, she will tear the life out of you, making you pay in righteous retribution of annoyance, grief, vexation, shame, and sickness of heart, for the superlative folly of “marrying rich.”  30
  But if not rich, then poor. Bah! the thought made me stir the coals; but there was still no blaze. The paltry earnings you are able to wring out of clients by the sweat of your brow will now be all our income; you will be pestered for pin-money, and pestered with your poor wife’s relations. Ten to one, she will stickle about taste,—“Sir Visto’s,”—and want to make this so pretty, and that so charming, if she only had the means; and is sure Paul (a kiss) can’t deny his little Peggy such a trifling sum, and all for the common benefit.  31
  Then she, for one, means that her children shan’t go a-begging for clothes,—and another pull at the purse. Trust a poor mother to dress her children in finery!  32
  Perhaps she is ugly; not noticeable at first, but growing on her, and (what is worse) growing faster on you. You wonder why you didn’t see that vulgar nose long ago; and that lip—it is very strange, you think, that you ever thought it pretty. And then to come to breakfast with her hair looking as it does, and you not so much as daring to say, “Peggy, do brush your hair!” Her foot too—not very bad when decently chaussée—but now since she’s married she does wear such infernal slippers! And yet for all this, to be prigging up for an hour when any of my old chums come to dine with me!  33
  “Bless your kind hearts! my dear fellows,” said I, thrusting the tongs into the coals, and speaking out loud, as if my voice could reach from Virginia to Paris—“not married yet!”  34
  Perhaps Peggy is pretty enough—only shrewish.  35
  No matter for cold coffee: you should have been up before.  36
  What sad, thin, poorly cooked chops to eat with your rolls!  37
  She thinks they are very good, and wonders how you can set such an example to your children.  38
  The butter is nauseating.  39
  She has no other, and hopes you’ll not raise a storm about butter a little turned. I think I see myself, ruminated I, sitting meekly at table, scarce daring to lift up my eyes, utterly fagged out with some quarrel of yesterday, choking down detestably sour muffins, that my wife thinks are “delicious,”—slipping in dried mouthfuls of burnt ham off the side of my fork-tines,—slipping off my chair sideways at the end, and slipping out with my hat between my knees, to business, and never feeling myself a competent, sound-minded man till the oak door is between me and Peggy!  40
  “Ha, ha,—not yet!” said I; and in so earnest a tone, that my dog started to his feet, cocked his eye to have a good look into my face, met my smile of triumph with an amiable wag of the tail, and curled up again in the corner.  41
  Again, Peggy is rich enough, well enough, mild enough, only she doesn’t care a fig for you. She has married you because father or grandfather thought the match eligible, and because she didn’t wish to disoblige them. Besides, she didn’t positively hate you, and thought you were a respectable enough young person;—she has told you so repeatedly at dinner. She wonders you like to read poetry; she wishes you would buy her a good cook-book; and insists upon your making your will at the birth of the first baby.  42
  She thinks Captain So-and-So a splendid-looking fellow, and wishes you would trim up a little, were it only for appearance’s sake.  43
  You need not hurry up from the office so early at night: she, bless her dear heart! does not feel lonely. You read to her a love tale: she interrupts the pathetic parts with directions to her seamstress. You read of marriages: she sighs, and asks if Captain So-and-So has left town! She hates to be mewed up in a cottage, or between brick walls: she does so love the Springs!  44
  But again, Peggy loves you; at least she swears it, with her hand on the ‘Sorrows of Werther.’ She has pin-money which she spends for the Literary World and the ‘Friends in Council.’ She is not bad-looking, save a bit too much of forehead; nor is she sluttish, unless a negligé till three o’clock, and an ink-stain on the forefinger, be sluttish;—but then she is such a sad blue!  45
  You never fancied, when you saw her buried in a three-volume novel, that it was anything more than a girlish vagary; and when she quoted Latin, you thought innocently that she had a capital memory for her samplers.  46
  But to be bored eternally about divine Dante and funny Goldoni is too bad. Your copy of Tasso, a treasure print of 1680, is all bethumbed and dog’s-eared, and spotted with baby-gruel. Even your Seneca—an Elzevir—is all sweaty with handling. She adores La Fontaine, reads Balzac with a kind of artist scowl, and will not let Greek alone.  47
  You hint at broken rest and an aching head at breakfast, and she will fling you a scrap of Anthology—in lieu of the camphor bottle—or chant the aiaî aiaî of tragic chorus.  48
  The nurse is getting dinner; you are holding the baby: Peggy is reading Bruyère.  49
  The fire smoked thick as pitch, and puffed out little clouds over the chimney-piece. I gave the forestick a kick, at the thought of Peggy, baby, and Bruyère.  50
  Suddenly the flame flickered bluely athwart the smoke—caught at a twig below—rolled around the mossy oak stick—twined among the crackling tree-limbs—mounted—lit up the whole body of smoke, and blazed out cheerily and bright. Doubt vanished with Smoke, and Hope began with Flame.  51
II. Blaze—Signifying Cheer

  I PUSHED my chair back; drew up another; stretched out my feet cozily upon it, rested my elbows on the chair arms, leaned my head on one hand, and looked straight into the leaping and dancing flame.
  Love is a flame—ruminated I; and (glancing round the room) how a flame brightens up a man’s habitation!  53
  “Carlo,” said I, calling up my dog into the light, “good fellow, Carlo!” and I patted him kindly, and he wagged his tail, and laid his nose across my knee, and looked wistfully up in my face; then strode away,—turned to look again, and lay down to sleep.  54
  “Pho, the brute!” said I; “it is not enough, after all, to like a dog.”  55
  If now in that chair yonder,—not the one your feet lie upon, but the other, beside you—closer yet—were seated a sweet-faced girl, with a pretty little foot lying out upon the hearth, a bit of lace running round the swelling throat, the hair parted to a charm over a forehead fair as any of your dreams—and if you could reach an arm around that chair-back, without fear of giving offense, and suffer your fingers to play idly with those curls that escape down the neck; and if you could clasp with your other hand those little white taper fingers of hers, which lie so temptingly within reach,—and so talk softly and low in presence of the blaze, while the hours slip without knowledge, and the winter winds whistle uncared-for;—if, in short, you were no bachelor, but the husband of some such sweet image (dream, call it rather),—would it not be far pleasanter than this cold single night-sitting—counting the sticks—reckoning the length of the blaze and the height of the falling snow?  56
  And if some or all of those wild vagaries that grow on your fancy at such an hour, you could whisper into listening, because loving ears—ears not tired with listening, because it is you who whisper—ears ever indulgent because eager to praise;—and if your darkest fancies were lit up, not merely with bright wood fire, but with a ringing laugh of that sweet face turned up in fond rebuke—how far better than to be waxing black and sour over pestilential humors—alone—your very dog asleep!  57
  And if when a glowing thought comes into your brain, quick and sudden, you could tell it over as to a second self, to that sweet creature, who is not away, because she loves to be there; and if you could watch the thought catching that girlish mind, illuming that fair brow, sparkling in those pleasantest of eyes—how far better than to feel it slumbering, and going out,—heavy, lifeless, and dead, in your own selfish fancy. And if a generous emotion steals over you, coming you know not whither,—would there not be a richer charm in lavishing it in caress or endearing word upon that fondest and most dear one, than in patting your glossy-coated dog, or sinking lonely to smiling slumbers?  58
  How would not benevolence ripen with such monitor to task it! How would not selfishness grow faint and dull, leaning ever to that second self, which is the loved one! How would not guile shiver, and grow weak, before that girl-brow and eye of innocence! How would not all that boyhood prized of enthusiasm, and quick blood, and life, renew itself in such a presence!  59
  The fire was getting hotter, and I moved into the middle of the room. The shadows the flames made were playing like fairy forms over floor and wall and ceiling.  60
  My fancy would surely quicken, thought I, if such a being were in attendance. Surely imagination would be stronger and purer, if it could have the playful fancies of dawning womanhood to delight it. All toil would be torn from mind-labor, if but another heart grew into this present soul, quickening it, warming it, cheering it, bidding it ever—God-speed!  61
  Her face would make a halo, rich as a rainbow, atop of all such noisome things as we lonely souls call trouble. Her smile would illumine the blackest of crowding cares; and darkness that now seats you despondent in your solitary chair for days together, weaving bitter fancies, dreaming bitter dreams, would grow light and thin, and spread and float away—chased by that beloved smile.  62
  Your friend—poor fellow!—dies;—never mind: that gentle clasp of her fingers, as she steals behind you, telling you not to weep—it is worth ten friends!  63
  Your sister, sweet one, is dead—buried. The worms are busy with all her fairness. How it makes you think earth nothing but a spot to dig graves upon!  64
  It is more: she, she says, will be a sister; and the waving curls as she leans upon your shoulder, touch your cheek, and your wet eye turns to meet those other eyes.—God has sent his angel, surely.  65
  Your mother, alas for it, she is gone! Is there any bitterness to a youth, alone and homeless, like this?  66
  But you are not homeless; you are not alone: she is there;—her tears softening yours, her smile lighting yours, her grief killing yours; and you live again, to assuage that kind sorrow of hers.  67
  Then—those children, rosy, fair-haired; no, they do not disturb you with their prattle now—they are yours! Toss away there on the greensward—never mind the hyacinths, the snowdrops, the violets, if so be any are there: the perfume of their healthful lips is worth all the flowers of the world. No need now to gather wild bouquets to love and cherish: flower, tree, gun, are all dead things; things livelier hold your soul.  68
  And she, the mother, sweetest and fairest of all, watching, tending, caressing, loving, till your own heart grows pained with tenderest jealousy, and cures itself with loving.  69
  You have no need now of any cold lecture to teach thankfulness: your heart is full of it. No need now, as once, of bursting blossoms, of trees taking leaf, and greenness, to turn thought kindly and thankfully: forever beside you there is bloom, and ever beside you there is fruit,—for which eye, heart, and soul are full of unknown, and unspoken, because unspeakable, thank-offering.  70
  And if sickness catches you, binds you, lays you down—no lonely moanings, and wicked curses at careless-stepping nurses. The step is noiseless, and yet distinct beside you. The white curtains are drawn, or withdrawn by the magic of that other presence; and the soft cool hand is upon your brow.  71
  No cold comfortings of friend-watchers, merely come in to steal a word away from that outer world which is pulling at their skirts; but ever the sad shaded brow of her whose lightest sorrow for your sake is your greatest grief,—if it were not a greater joy.  72
  The blaze was leaping light and high, and the wood falling under the growing heat.  73
  So, continued I, this heart would be at length itself; striving with everything gross, even now as it clings to grossness. Love would make its strength native and progressive. Earth’s cares would fly. Joys would double. Susceptibilities be quickened. Love master Self; and having made the mastery, stretch onward and upward toward Infinitude.  74
  And if the end came, and sickness brought that follower—Great Follower—which sooner or later is sure to come after, then the heart and the hand of Love, ever near, are giving to your tired soul, daily and hourly, lessons of that love which consoles, which triumphs, which circleth all and centreth in all—Love Infinite and Divine!  75
  Kind hands—none but hers—will smooth the hair upon your brow as the chill grows damp and heavy on it; and her fingers—none but hers—will lie in yours as the wasted flesh stiffens and hardens for the ground. Her tears—you could feel no others, if oceans fell—will warm your drooping features once more to life; once more your eye, lighted in joyous triumph, kindle in her smile, and then—  76
  The fire fell upon the hearth; the blaze gave a last leap—a flicker—then another—caught a little remaining twig—blazed up—wavered—went out.  77
  There was nothing but a bed of glowing embers, over which the white ashes gathered fast. I was alone with only my dog for company.  78

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