Raking Up The Fire by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Story type: Essay

We have a custom at our house which we call raking up the fire. That is to say, the last half hour before bedtime, we draw in, shoulder to shoulder, around the last brands and embers of our hearth, which we prick up and brighten, and dispose for a few farewell flickers and glimmers. This is a grand time for discussion. Then we talk over parties, if the young people have been out of an evening,–a book, if we have been reading one; we discuss and analyze characters,–give our views on all subjects, aesthetic, theological, and scientific, in a way most wonderful to hear; and, in fact, we sometimes get so engaged in our discussions that every spark of the fire burns out, and we begin to feel ourselves shivering around the shoulders, before we can remember that it is bedtime.

So, after the reading of my last article, we had a “raking-up talk,”–to wit, Jenny, Marianne, and I, with Bob Stephens: my wife, still busy at her work-basket, sat at the table a little behind us. Jenny, of course, opened the ball in her usual incisive manner.

“But now, papa, after all you say in your piece there, I cannot help feeling that, if I had the taste and the money too, it would be better than the taste alone with no money. I like the nice arrangements and the books and the drawings, but I think all these would appear better still with really elegant furniture.”

“Who doubts that?” said I. “Give me a large tub of gold coin to dip into, and the furnishing and beautifying of a house is a simple affair. The same taste that could make beauty out of cents and dimes could make it more abundantly out of dollars and eagles. But I have been speaking for those who have not and cannot get riches, and who wish to have agreeable houses; and I begin in the outset by saying that beauty is a thing to be respected, reverenced, and devoutly cared for, and then I say that BEAUTY IS CHEAP,–nay, to put it so that the shrewdest Yankee will understand it,–BEAUTY IS THE CHEAPEST THING YOU CAN HAVE, because in many ways it is a substitute for expense. A few vases of flowers in a room, a few blooming, well-kept plants, a few prints framed in fanciful frames of cheap domestic fabric, a statuette, a bracket, an engraving, a pencil-sketch,–above all, a few choice books,–all these arranged by a woman who has the gift in her finger-ends, often produce such an illusion on the mind’s eye that one goes away without once having noticed that the cushion of the armchair was worn out, and that some veneering had fallen off the centre-table.

“I have a friend, a schoolmistress, who lives in a poor little cottage enough, which, let alone of the Graces, might seem mean and sordid, but a few flower-seeds and a little weeding in the spring make it, all summer, an object which everybody stops to look at. Her aesthetic soul was at first greatly tried with the water-barrel which stood under the eaves spout,–a most necessary evil, since only thus could her scanty supply of soft water for domestic purposes be secured. One of the Graces, however, suggested to her a happy thought. She planted a row of morning-glories round the bottom of her barrel, and drove a row of tacks around the top, and strung her water-butt with twine, like a great harpsichord. A few weeks covered the twine with blossoming plants, which every morning were a mass of many-colored airy blooms, waving in graceful sprays, and looking at themselves in the water. The water-barrel, in fact, became a celebrated stroke of ornamental gardening, which the neighbors came to look at.”

“Well, but,” said Jenny, “everybody hasn’t mamma’s faculty with flowers. Flowers will grow for some people, and for some they won’t. Nobody can see what mamma does so very much, but her plants always look fresh and thriving and healthy,–her things blossom just when she wants them, and do anything else she wishes them to; and there are other people that fume and fuss and try, and their things won’t do anything at all. There’s Aunt Easygo has plant after plant brought from the greenhouse, and hanging-baskets, and all sorts of things; but her plants grow yellow and drop their leaves, and her hanging-baskets get dusty and poverty-stricken, while mamma’s go on flourishing as heart could desire.”

“I can tell you what your mother puts into her plants,” said I,–“just what she has put into her children, and all her other home-things,–her heart. She loves them; she lives in them; she has in herself a plant-life and a plant-sympathy. She feels for them as if she herself were a plant; she anticipates their wants,–always remembers them without an effort, and so the care flows to them daily and hourly. She hardly knows when she does the things that make them grow, but she gives them a minute a hundred times a day. She moves this nearer the glass,–draws that back,–detects some thief of a worm on one,–digs at the root of another, to see why it droops,–washes these leaves and sprinkles those,–waters, and refrains from watering, all with the habitual care of love. Your mother herself doesn’t know why her plants grow; it takes a philosopher and a writer for the ‘Atlantic’ to tell her what the cause is.”

Here I saw my wife laughing over her work-basket as she answered,–

“Girls, one of these days I will write an article for the ‘Atlantic,’ that your papa need not have all the say to himself; however, I believe he has hit the nail on the head this time.”

See also  Preface To The Preceptor, Containing A General Plan Of Education by Samuel Johnson

“Of course he has,” said Marianne. “But, mamma, I am afraid to begin to depend much on plants for the beauty of my rooms, for fear I should not have your gift,–and, of all forlorn and hopeless things in a room, ill-kept plants are the most so.”

“I would not recommend,” said I, “a young housekeeper, just beginning, to rest much for her home ornament on plant-keeping, unless she has an experience of her own love and talent in this line which makes her sure of success; for plants will not thrive if they are forgotten or overlooked, and only tended in occasional intervals; and, as Marianne says, neglected plants are the most forlorn of all things.”

“But, papa,” said Marianne anxiously, “there, in those patent parlors of John’s that you wrote of, flowers acted a great part.”

“The charm of those parlors of John’s may be chemically analyzed,” I said. “In the first place, there is sunshine, a thing that always affects the human nerves of happiness. Why else is it that people are always so glad to see the sun after a long storm? why are bright days matters of such congratulation? Sunshine fills a house with a thousand beautiful and fanciful effects of light and shade,–with soft, luminous, reflected radiances, that give picturesque effects to the pictures, books, statuettes of an interior. John, happily, had no money to buy brocatelle curtains, and, besides this, he loved sunshine too much to buy them, if he could. He had been enough with artists to know that heavy damask curtains darken precisely that part of the window where the light proper for pictures and statuary should come in, namely, the upper part. The fashionable system of curtains lights only the legs of the chairs and the carpets, and leaves all the upper portion of the room in shadow. John’s windows have shades which can at pleasure be drawn down from the top or up from the bottom, so that the best light to be had may always be arranged for his little interior.”

“Well, papa,” said Marianne, “in your chemical analysis of John’s rooms, what is the next thing to the sunshine?”

“The next,” said I, “is harmony of color. The wall-paper, the furniture, the carpets, are of tints that harmonize with one another. This is a grace in rooms always, and one often neglected. The French have an expressive phrase with reference to articles which are out of accord,–they say that they swear at each other, I have been in rooms where I seemed to hear the wall-paper swearing at the carpet, and the carpet swearing back at the wall-paper, and each article of furniture swearing at the rest. These appointments may all of them be of the most expensive kind, but with such dis-harmony no arrangement can ever produce anything but a vulgar and disagreeable effect. On the other hand, I have been in rooms where all the material was cheap and the furniture poor, but where, from some instinctive knowledge of the reciprocal effect of colors, everything was harmonious, and produced a sense of elegance.

“I recollect once traveling on a Western canal through a long stretch of wilderness, and stopping to spend the night at an obscure settlement of a dozen houses. We were directed to lodgings in a common frame house at a little distance, where, it seemed, the only hotel was kept. When we entered the parlor, we were struck with utter amazement at its prettiness, which affected us before we began to ask ourselves how it came to be pretty. It was, in fact, only one of the miracles of harmonious color working with very simple materials. Some woman had been busy there, who had both eyes and fingers. The sofa, the common wooden rocking-chairs, and some ottomans, probably made of old soap-boxes, were all covered with American nankeen of a soft yellowish-brown, with a bordering of blue print. The window-shades, the table-cover, and the piano-cloth all repeated the same colors, in the same cheap material. A simple straw matting was laid over the floor, and, with a few books, a vase of flowers, and one or two prints, the room had a home-like and even elegant air, that struck us all the more forcibly from its contrast with the usual tawdry, slovenly style of such parlors.

“The means used for getting up this effect were the most inexpensive possible,–simply the following out, in cheap material, a law of uniformity and harmony, which always will produce beauty. In the same manner, I have seen a room furnished, whose effect was really gorgeous in color, where the only materials used were Turkey-red cotton and a simple ingrain carpet of corresponding color.

“Now, you girls have been busy lately in schemes for buying a velvet carpet for the new parlor that is to be, and the only points that have seemed to weigh in the council were that it was velvet, that it was cheaper than velvets usually are, and that it was a genteel pattern.”

“Now, papa,” said Jenny, “what ears you have! We thought you were reading all the time!”

“I see what you are going to say,” said Marianne. “You think that we have not once mentioned the consideration which should determine the carpet, whether it will harmonize with our other things. But you see, papa, we don’t really know what our other things are to be.”

See also  The Filterable Virus by Arthur B Reeve

“Yes,” said Jenny, “and Aunt Easygo said it was an unusually good chance to get a velvet carpet.”

“Yet, good as the chance is, it costs just twice as much as an ingrain.”

“Yes, papa, it does.”

“And you are not sure that the effect of it, after you get it down, will be as good as a well-chosen ingrain one.”

“That’s true,” said Marianne reflectively.

“But then, papa,” said Jenny, “Aunt Easygo said she never heard of such a bargain; only think, two dollars a yard for a velvet!”

“And why is it two dollars a yard? Is the man a personal friend, that he wishes to make you a present of a dollar on the yard, or is there some reason why it is undesirable?” said I.

“Well, you know, papa, he said those large patterns were not so salable.”

“To tell the truth,” said Marianne, “I never did like the pattern exactly; as to uniformity of tint, it might match with anything, for there’s every color of the rainbow in it.”

“You see, papa, it’s a gorgeous flower-pattern,” said Jenny.

“Well, Marianne, how many yards of this wonderfully cheap carpet do you want?”

“We want sixty yards for both rooms,” said Jenny, always primed with statistics.

“That will be a hundred and twenty dollars,” I said.

“Yes,” said Jenny; “and we went over the figures together, and thought we could make it out by economizing in other things. Aunt Easygo said that the carpet was half the battle,–that it gave the air to everything else.”

“Well, Marianne, if you want a man’s advice in the case, mine is at your service.”

“That is just what I want, papa.”

“Well, then, my dear, choose your wall-papers and borderings, and, when they are up, choose an ingrain carpet to harmonize with them, and adapt your furniture to the same idea. The sixty dollars that you save on your carpet spend on engravings, chromo lithographs, or photographs of some good works of art, to adorn your walls.”

“Papa, I’ll do it,” said Marianne.

“My little dear,” said I, “your papa may seem to be a sleepy old book-worm, yet he has his eyes open. Do you think I don’t know why my girls have the credit of being the best-dressed girls on the street?”

“Oh papa!” cried out both girls in a breath.

“Fact, that!” said Bob, with energy, pulling at his mustache. “Everybody talks about your dress, and wonders how you make it out.”

“Well,” said I, “I presume you do not go into a shop and buy a yard of ribbon because it is selling at half price, and put it on without considering complexion, eyes, hair, and shade of the dress, do you?”

“Of course we don’t!” chimed in the duo with energy.

“Of course you don’t. Haven’t I seen you mincing downstairs, with all your colors harmonized, even to your gloves and gaiters? Now, a room must be dressed as carefully as a lady.”

“Well, I’m convinced,” said Jenny, “that papa knows how to make rooms prettier than Aunt Easygo; but then she said this was cheap, because it would outlast two common carpets.”

“But, as you pay double price,” said I, “I don’t see that. Besides, I would rather, in the course of twenty years, have two nice, fresh ingrain carpets, of just the color and pattern that suited my rooms, than labor along with one ill-chosen velvet that harmonized with nothing.”

“I give it up,” said Jenny; “I give it up.”

“Now, understand me,” said I; “I am not traducing velvet or Brussels or Axminster. I admit that more beautiful effects can be found in those goods than in the humbler fabrics of the carpet rooms. Nothing would delight me more than to put an unlimited credit to Marianne’s account, and let her work out the problems of harmonious color in velvet and damask. All I have to say is, that certain unities of color, certain general arrangements, will secure very nearly as good general effects in either material. A library with a neat, mossy green carpet on the floor, harmonizing with wall-paper and furniture, looks generally as well, whether the mossy green is made in Brussels or in ingrain. In the carpet stores, these two materials stand side by side in the very same pattern, and one is often as good for the purpose as the other. A lady of my acquaintance, some years since, employed an artist to decorate her parlors. The walls being frescoed and tinted to suit his ideal, he immediately issued his decree that her splendid velvet carpets must be sent to auction, and others bought of certain colors harmonizing with the walls. Unable to find exactly the color and pattern he wanted, he at last had the carpets woven in a neighboring factory, where, as yet, they had only the art of weaving ingrains. Thus was the material sacrificed at once to the harmony.”

I remarked, in passing, that this was before Bigelow’s mechanical genius had unlocked for America the higher secrets of carpet-weaving, and made it possible to have one’s desires accomplished in Brussels or velvet. In those days, English carpet-weavers did not send to America for their looms, as they now do.

“But now to return to my analysis of John’s rooms.

See also  Milling In Pompeii by Bill Nye

“Another thing which goes a great way towards giving them their agreeable air is the books in them. Some people are fond of treating books as others do children. One room in the house is selected, and every book driven into it and kept there. Yet nothing makes a room so home-like, so companionable, and gives it such an air of refinement, as the presence of books. They change the aspect of a parlor from that of a mere reception-room, where visitors perch for a transient call, and give it the air of a room where one feels like taking off one’s things to stay. It gives the appearance of permanence and repose and quiet fellowship; and, next to pictures on the walls, the many-colored bindings and gildings of books are the most agreeable adornment of a room.”

“Then, Marianne,” said Bob, “we have something to start with, at all events. There are my English Classics and English Poets, and my uniform editions of Scott and Thackeray and Macaulay and Prescott and Irving and Longfellow and Lowell and Hawthorne and Holmes and a host more. We really have something pretty there.”

“You are a lucky girl,” I said, “to have so much secured. A girl brought up in a house full of books, always able to turn to this or that author and look for any passage or poem when she thinks of it, doesn’t know what a blank a house without books might be.”

“Well,” said Marianne, “mamma and I were counting over my treasures the other day. Do you know, I have one really fine old engraving, that Bob says is quite a genuine thing; and then there is that pencil-sketch that poor Schoene made for me the month before he died,–it is truly artistic.”

“And I have a couple of capital things of Landseer’s,” said Bob.

“There’s no danger that your rooms will not be pretty,” said I, “now you are fairly on the right track.”

“But, papa,” said Marianne, “I am troubled about one thing. My love of beauty runs into everything. I want pretty things for my table; and yet, as you say, servants are so careless, one cannot use such things freely without great waste.”

“For my part,” said my wife, “I believe in best china, to be kept carefully on an upper shelf, and taken down for high-days and holidays; it may be a superstition, but I believe in it. It must never be taken out except when the mistress herself can see that it is safely cared for. My mother always washed her china herself; and it was a very pretty social ceremony, after tea was over, while she sat among us washing her pretty cups, and wiping them on a fine damask towel.”

“With all my heart,” said I; “have your best china and venerate it,–it is one of the loveliest of domestic superstitions; only do not make it a bar to hospitality, and shrink from having a friend to tea with you, unless you feel equal to getting up to the high shelf where you keep it, getting it down, washing, and putting it up again.

“But in serving a table, I say, as I said of a house, beauty is a necessity, and beauty is cheap. Because you cannot afford beauty in one form, it does not follow that you cannot have it in another. Because one cannot afford to keep up a perennial supply of delicate china and crystal, subject to the accidents of raw, untrained servants, it does not follow that the every-day table need present a sordid assortment of articles chosen simply for cheapness, while the whole capacity of the purse is given to the set forever locked away for state occasions.

“A table-service all of simple white, of graceful forms, even though not of china, if arranged with care, with snowy, well-kept table-linen, clear glasses, and bright American plate in place of solid silver, may be made to look inviting; add a glass of flowers every day, and your table may look pretty: and it is far more important that it should look pretty for the family every day than for company once in two weeks.”

“I tell my girls,” said my wife, “as the result of my experience, you may have your pretty china and your lovely fanciful articles for the table only so long as you can take all the care of them yourselves. As soon as you get tired of doing this, and put them into the hands of the trustiest servants, some good, well-meaning creature is sure to break her heart and your own and your very pet darling china pitcher all in one and the same minute, and then her frantic despair leaves you not even the relief of scolding.”

“I have become perfectly sure,” said I “that there are spiteful little brownies, intent on seducing good women to sin, who mount guard over the special idols of the china closet. If you hear a crash, and a loud Irish wail from the inner depths, you never think of its being a yellow pie-plate, or that dreadful one-handled tureen that you have been wishing were broken these five years; no, indeed,–it is sure to be the lovely painted china bowl, wreathed with morning-glories and sweet-peas, or the engraved glass goblet, with quaint Old English initials. China sacrificed must be a great means of saintship to women. Pope, I think, puts it as the crowning grace of his perfect woman that she is

See also  "Who Is Sylvia?" by Myra Kelly

“‘Mistress of herself though china fall.’”

“I ought to be a saint by this time, then,” said mamma; “for in the course of my days I have lost so many idols by breakage, and peculiar accidents that seemed by a special fatality to befall my prettiest and most irreplaceable things, that in fact it has come to be a superstitious feeling now with which I regard anything particularly pretty of a breakable nature.”

“Well,” said Marianne, “unless one has a great deal of money, it seems to me that the investment in these pretty fragilities is rather a poor one.”

“Yet,” said I, “the principle of beauty is never so captivating as when it presides over the hour of daily meals. I would have the room where they are served one of the pleasantest and sunniest in the house. I would have its coloring cheerful, and there should be companionable pictures and engravings on the walls. Of all things, I dislike a room that seems to be kept, like a restaurant, merely to eat in. I like to see in a dining-room something that betokens a pleasant sitting-room at other hours. I like there some books, a comfortable sofa or lounge, and all that should make it cosy and inviting. The custom in some families, of adopting for the daily meals one of the two parlors which a city house furnishes, has often seemed to me a particularly happy one. You take your meals, then, in an agreeable place, surrounded by the little pleasant arrangements of your daily sitting-room; and after the meal, if the lady of the house does the honors of her own pretty china herself, the office may be a pleasant and social one.

“But in regard to your table-service I have my advice at hand. Invest in pretty table-linen, in delicate napkins, have your vase of flowers, and be guided by the eye of taste in the choice and arrangement of even the every-day table articles, and have no ugly things when you can have pretty ones by taking a little thought. If you are sore tempted with lovely china and crystal, too fragile to last, too expensive to be renewed, turn away to a print-shop and comfort yourself by hanging around the walls of your dining-room beauty that will not break or fade, that will meet your eye from year to year, though plates, tumblers, and teasets successively vanish. There is my advice for you, Marianne.”

At the same time let me say, in parenthesis, that my wife, whose weakness is china, informed me that night, when we were by ourselves, that she was ordering secretly a teaset as a bridal gift for Marianne every cup of which was to be exquisitely painted with the wild flowers of America, from designs of her own,–a thing, by the by, that can now be very nicely executed in our country, as one may find by looking in at our friend Briggs’s on School Street. “It will last her all her life,” she said, “and always be such a pleasure to look at; and a pretty tea-table is such a pretty sight!” So spoke Mrs. Crowfield, “unweaned from china by a thousand falls.” She spoke even with tears in her eyes. Verily these women are harps of a thousand strings!

But to return to my subject.

“Finally and lastly,” I said, “in my analysis and explication of the agreeableness of those same parlors, comes the growing grace,–their homeliness. By ‘homeliness’ I mean not ugliness, as the word is apt to be used, but the air that is given to a room by being really at home in it. Not the most skillful arrangement can impart this charm.

“It is said that a king of France once remarked, ‘My son, you must seem to love your people.’

“‘Father, how shall I seem to love them?’

“‘My son, you must love them.’

“So, to make rooms seem home-like, you must be at home in them. Human light and warmth are so wanting in some rooms, it is so evident that they are never used, that you can never be at ease there. In vain the housemaid is taught to wheel the sofa and turn chair toward chair; in vain it is attempted to imitate a negligent arrangement of the centre-table.

“Books that have really been read and laid down, chairs that have really been moved here and there in the animation of social contact, have a sort of human vitality in them; and a room in which people really live and enjoy is as different from a shut-up apartment as a live woman from a wax image.

“Even rooms furnished without taste often become charming from this one grace, that they seem to let you into the home life and home current. You seem to understand in a moment that you are taken into the family, and are moving in its inner circles, and not revolving at a distance in some outer court of the gentiles.

“How many people do we call on from year to year and know no more of their feelings, habits, tastes, family ideas and ways, than if they lived in Kamtschatka! And why? Because the room which they call a front parlor is made expressly so that you never shall know. They sit in a back room,–work, talk, read, perhaps. After the servant has let you in and opened a crack of the shutters, and while you sit waiting for them to change their dress and come in, you speculate as to what they may be doing. From some distant region, the laugh of a child, the song of a canary-bird reaches you, and then a door claps hastily to. Do they love plants? Do they write letters, sew, embroider, crochet? Do they ever romp and frolic? What books do they read? Do they sketch or paint? Of all these possibilities the mute and muffled room says nothing. A sofa and six chairs, two ottomans fresh from the upholsterer’s, a Brussels carpet, a centre-table with four gilt Books of Beauty on it, a mantel-clock from Paris, and two bronze vases,–all those tell you only in frigid tones, ‘This is the best room,’–only that, and nothing more,–and soon she trips in in her best clothes, and apologizes for keeping you waiting, asks how your mother is, and you remark that it is a pleasant day, and thus the acquaintance progresses from year to year. One hour in the back room, where the plants and canary-bird and children are, might have made you fast friends for life; but, little as it is, you care no more for them than for the gilt clock on the mantel.

See also  The – School Of Giorgione by Walter Pater

“And now, girls,” said I, pulling a paper out of my pocket, “you must know that your father is getting to be famous by means of these ‘House and Home Papers.’ Here is a letter I have just received:–

“MOST EXCELLENT MR. CROWFIELD,–Your thoughts have lighted into our family circle and echoed from our fireside. We all feel the force of them, and are delighted with the felicity of your treatment of the topic you have chosen. You have taken hold of a subject that lies deep in our hearts, in a genial, temperate, and convincing spirit. All must acknowledge the power of your sentiments upon their imaginations; if they could only trust to them in actual life! There is the rub.

“Omitting further upon these points, there is a special feature of your articles upon which we wish to address you. You seem as yet (we do not know, of course, what you may hereafter do) to speak only of homes whose conduct depends upon the help of servants. Now your principles apply, as some of us well conceive, to nearly all classes of society; yet most people, to take an impressive hint, must have their portraits drawn out more exactly. We therefore hope that you will give a reasonable share of your attention to us who do not employ servants, so that you may ease us of some of our burdens, which, in spite of common sense, we dare not throw off. For instance, we have company,–a friend from afar (perhaps wealthy), or a minister, or some other man of note. What do we do? Sit down and receive our visitor with all good will and the freedom of a home? No; we (the lady of the house) flutter about to clear up things, apologizing about this, that, and the other condition of unpreparedness, and, having settled the visitor in the parlor, set about marshaling the elements of a grand dinner or supper, such as no person but a gourmand wants to sit down to, when at home and comfortable; and in getting up this meal, clearing away and washing the dishes, we use up a good half of the time which our guest spends with us. We have spread ourselves, and shown him what we could do; but what a paltry, heart-sickening achievement! Now, good Mr. Crowfield, thou friend of the robbed and despairing, wilt thou not descend into our purgatorial circle, and tell the world what thou hast seen there of doleful remembrance? Tell us how we, who must do and desire to do our own work, can show forth in our homes a homely yet genial hospitality, and entertain our guests without making a fuss and hurlyburly, and seeming to be anxious for their sake about many things, and spending too much time getting meals, as if eating were the chief social pleasure. Won’t you do this, Mr. Crowfield?

“Yours beseechingly,

“R. H. A.”

“That’s a good letter,” said Jenny.

“To be sure it is,” said I.

“And shall you answer it, papa?”

“In the very next ‘Atlantic,’ you may be sure I shall. The class that do their own work are the strongest, the most numerous, and, taking one thing with another, quite as well cultivated a class as any other. They are the anomaly of our country,–the distinctive feature of the new society that we are building up here; and, if we are to accomplish our national destiny, that class must increase rather than diminish. I shall certainly do my best to answer the very sensible and pregnant questions of that letter.”

Here Marianne shivered and drew up a shawl, and Jenny gaped; my wife folded up the garment in which she had set the last stitch, and the clock struck twelve.

Bob gave a low whistle. “Who knew it was so late?”

“We have talked the fire fairly out,” said Jenny.

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *