Praise of Open Fires
THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
I HAVE read and heard much praise of open fires, but I recall no praise of bringing in the wood. There is, to be sure, the good old song: —
My merrie, merrie boys,
The Christmas log to the firing;
While my good dame, she
Bids ye all make free,
And drink to your heart’s desiring.
But this refers to a particular log, the Yule log (or clog, as they used to call it) which was brought in only once a year, and, even so, the singer evidently is not bringing it in himself. He is looking on. The merrie, merrie boys, he thinks, need encouragement. After they have got the log in, and the good dame has produced the rewarding jug, bowl, or bottle, everybody will feel better. Dry without and wet within; how oft, indeed, has praise of open fire kept company with praise of open bottle! Forests uncounted have been cut down, the hillside beech, from where the owlets meet and screech; the crackling pine, the cedar sweet, the knotted oak, with fragrant peat, — and burned up, stick by stick; so that, as the poet explains, the bright flames, dancing, winking, shall light us at our drinking. Others than inebriates have sung the praise of open fires; but the most highly respectable, emulating the bright flames, have usually winked at drinking. And never one of them, so far as I remember, has praised the honest, wholesome, temperate exercise of bringing in the wood.
And there is the Song That Has Never Been Sung — nor ever will be, so the tune is immaterial: —
lo pop out of bed just a bit before dawning,
And, thinking the while of your jolly cold bath,
To kindle a flame on your jolly cold hearth!
Ah me, it is merry!
I chuckle with glee at this quaint little whim.
I make up the fire — pray Heaven it catches!
But what in the world have they done with the
Ah me, it is merry!
And so forth, and so forth.
I invented that song myself, in January, 1918, when circumstances led me so to speak, by the nape of the neck to heat my home with wood because nowhere could I buy coal. But I felt no impulse to sing it — simply a deeper, kindlier sympathy for forefather in the good old days before stoves and furnaces. I do not blame him for not taking a cold bath. I wish in vain that he had had the thing that I call a match. An archæological authority tells me how forefather managed without it: ‘Holding between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand a piece of imported gun-flint (long quarried at Brandon in Suffolk, England), strike it diagonally against a circlet of properly tempered steel held in the left hand, so that the spark flies downward on a dry, scorched linen rag lying in a tin cup (the tinder-box). When the spark instantly catches the rag, blow or touch it into flame against the sulphur-tipped end of a match, which will not otherwise ignite. Then with the burning match, light a candle socketed in the lid of the tinder-box, and smother the smouldering rag with an inner tin lid dropped upon it. Thus you were master of the house of a winter’s morning when the fires were out.’
But I would n’t believe that archæological authority if he had added, ‘ singing at your task.’ Singeing at it seems more plausible.
To many of us plain bread-andbutter persons, praise of open fires sometimes seems a little too warm and comfortable — too smugly contemplative. We like open fires. We would have them in every room in the house except the kitchen and bathroom — and perhaps in the bathroom, where we could hang our towels from the mantelpiece (as gallant practical gentlemen, now some centuries dead, named it by hanging up their wet mantels), and let them warm while we were taking our baths. We go as far as any in regarding the open fire as a welcoming host in the hall, an undisturbing companion in the library, an encourager of digestion in the dining-room, an enlivener in the living-room, and a goodnight thought of hospitality in the guest-chamber. But we cannot follow the essayist who speaks contemptuously of hot-water pipes. ‘From the security of ambush,’ says he, ‘they merely heat, and heat whose source is invisible is not to be coveted at all.’
Oh, merely heat! The blithe gentleman betrays himself out of his own ink-well. He may have forgotten it, — very likely somebody else takes care of it, — but there is a furnace in his cellar. Does he, we ask him seriously, covet the reciprocal affection of some beloved woman — start as angrily as he may at our suggestion of any comparison between her and a hot-water pipe — only when he can see her ? Or, supposing him a confirmed woman-hater, does he repudiate underwear?
He brushes aside the questions. ‘With afire in one’s bedroom,’ says he, ‘sleep comes witchingly.’
‘Unless,’ say we, ‘a spark or coal jumps out on the rug and starts to set the bedroom afire. Better,’ say we, pursuing the subject in our heavy way, ‘a Philistine in bed than a fellow of fine taste stamping out a live coal with his bare feet.’
And so we thank the thoughtful host who safely and sanely screens the open fire in his guest-chamber; but fie, fie upon him if he has decoratively arranged on our temporary hearth Wood without Kindlings!
If you give it half a chance, my friend, this ‘joy perpetual,’ as you call it, will eat you up.
And yet we agree with anybody that nothing else in the house has appealed so long and so universally to the imagination of man. It began before houses. Remote and little in the far perspective of time, we see a distant and awful-looking relative, whom we blush to acknowledge, kindling his fire; and that fire, open as all outdoors, was the seed and beginning of domestic living. With it, the Objectionable Ancestor learned to cook, and in this way differentiated himself from the beasts. Kindling it, he learned to swear, and differentiated himself further. Thinking about it, his dull but promising mind conceived the advantage of having somebody else to kindle it: so he caught an awful-looking woman, and instituted the family circle. Soon, I fancy, he acquired the habit of sitting beside his fire when he should have been doing something more active; but a million years must pass before he was presentable, and another million before he had coat-tails, and could stand in front of it, spreading them like a peacock in the pride of his achievement — a Captain Bonavita turning his back on the lion. I would have you note, for what it may be worth, that praise of open fires has always been masculine rather than feminine.
Nowadays, I judge, many of his descendants find the open fire much like a little movie theatre in the home. Under the proscenium arch of the fireplace the flames supply actors and scenery, and the show goes on indefinitely. It is better than a movie, for it has color, and lacks the agonizing facial contortions and interpolated text: ‘Even a Princess is just a girl — at Coney Island’; ‘It is like the nobility of your true heart, old friend, but I cannot accept the heroic sacrifice.’
Sometimes it is useful. An author sits by the fire, and smokes; and soon the puppets of his next romance obligingly appear and act a chapter for him. To-morrow he will dictate that chapter to his pretty stenographer. Sometimes it is consoling. A lover sits by the fire and smokes; presently he sees his love in the flames, and sighs — as Shakespeare would say—dike a furnace. Sometimes it does n’t work. I sit by the fire, and smoke; and I see nothing but fire and smoke.
It is a pleasant place to sit — and yet how rapidly and unanimously, when coal came into use, and stoves came on the market, did people stop sitting, and brick up their fireplaces! They had no time for essays, but praise of stoves ascended wherever the wonderful things were available. A new world was born: stoves! kitchen ranges! furnaces! hot-water pipes! heat all over the house!—invisible, to be sure, but nobody seemed to worry about that. And out went the open fire — to be lit again later, but never again as a cooker of food and a warmer of the whole house. It came back to be sat by.
There are times, indeed, — speaking as the spokesman of bread-and-butter, — when the open fire seems to stimulate amazingly our powers of conversation. We sparkle (for us); we become (or at least we feel) engagingly animated; but is it really the open fire? I have met those with whom it is no more stimulating to sit cosily beside an open fire than cosily beside an open sea or an open trolley-car or an open window or an open oyster. I have known others in whose company a kitchen range seems just as stimulating.
Fires go out, but each new flame is a reincarnation. Our open fires are but miniatures of the old-time roarers that set the hall or tavern harmlessly ablaze, and lit its windows for the ruddy encouragement of winter-blown travelers. Reverting to the menagerie for a figure, the open fires of the past were lions, those of to-day are cubs. Like cubs they amuse us; and so we forget what grim and tragic humors of life the open fire must necessarily have witnessed. Was it not before an open fire that Cain killed Abel? In the glow of those bright flames, dancing, winking, has been planned every villainy of which mankind is capable: winked they have at every sin that could be sinned by firelight. Elemental and without morals, the open fire has lived in hovels as well as in palaces; it has lighted the student, heels in air and lying on his belly to study his book; the Puritan on his knees at prayer; the reveler, flat on his back and snoring in maudlin sleep under the table. And now, a luxury of the well-to-do, it is departing, dancing and winking as usual, out of the universal life to which it has been as necessary as cooked food and warmth in winter.
But perhaps, after all, it is not yet too late for praise of bringing in the wood. Let us at least provide the good old song — and trust to luck that four or five hundred years from now some imaginative gentleman, digesting his dinner before a surviving open fire, will hear afar off the faint but jolly chorus:—
And get the wood in.
This brisk zero weather
Is pleasant as sin.
Put on your warm hosen,
And shuffle a bit;
Your toes may be frozen
Before you know it.
To sit hug-a-mugging
The fire who could,
That might be out lugging
In armfuls of wood?
In — armfuls —of — wood!