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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Donald Grant Mitchell (Ik Marvel) (1822–1908)

Over a Wood Fire

I HAVE got a quiet farmhouse 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.

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 armchairs, 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.”

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 armchair 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 armchair, when I think that I am neither afraid of one nor the other.

As for the fire, I keep the little hearth so hot as to warm half the cellar below, and the whole space between the jams roars for two 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.

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.

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.

But to return: the other evening—it happened to be on my last visit to my farmhouse—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.

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.

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.”

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 reverie, from that very starting-point, slipped into this shape:

I. Smoke—Signifying Doubt

A wife? thought I. Yes, a wife.

And why?

And pray, my dear sir, why not—why? Why not doubt? why not hesitate; why not tremble?

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?

Can a man stake his bachelor respectability, his independence, and comfort, upon the die of absorbing, unchanging, relentless marriage, without trembling at the venture?

Shall a man who has been free to chase his fancies over the wide world, without let or hindrance, shut himself up to marriage-ship, 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?

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 with 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?

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!

Why not, I thought, go on dreaming?

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 of, after reading such pleasant books as Munchausen or Typee?

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?

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.

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?

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 snowtime—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!

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?

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.”

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.

Then she, for one, means that her children sha’n’t go a-begging for clothes—and another pull at the purse. Trust a poor mother to dress her children in finery!

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 Chausse; 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!

“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!”

Perhaps Peggy is pretty enough, only shrewish.

No matter for cold coffee; you should have been up before.

What sad, thin, poorly cooked chops, to eat with your rolls!

She thinks they are very good, and wonders how you can set such an example to your children.

The butter is nauseating.

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.

“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.

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.

She thinks Captain So-and-So a splendid-looking fellow, and wishes you would trim up a little, were it only for appearance’ sake.

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!

But, again, Peggy loves you—at least she swears it, with her hand on “The Sorrows of Werter.” 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!

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.

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.

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 [Greek] of tragic chorus.

The nurse is getting dinner; you are holding the baby; Peggy is reading Bruyère.

The fire smoked thick as pitch, and puffed out little clouds over the chimney-piece. I gave the fore-stick a kick, at the thought of Peggy, baby, and Bruyère.

Suddenly the flame flickered bluely athwart the smoke—caught at a twig below—rolled round 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.