In The Room Of The Great Fireplace
( Originally Published 1907 )
SHALL I not take mine ease in mine inn?" demands Falstaff, voicing thus a widely human appeal for comfort. And in this once-while inn there is one room peculiarly fitted either for taking ease or for working. It is that room of spacious coziness, to which distinction is given by the eight-foot fireplace.
Other rooms of the inn have loftier ceilings, and finely modeled cornicing, and proportions that are a dignified delight to the eye. But always there is the desire for the most cozy room for work or for relaxation. Why, even the stately palaces have their cozy quarters! At Versailles, the visitor sees a succession of mighty rooms-and is then pleased with the snug little corner where Marie Antoinette led her intimate life. We are all human, whether monarchs or Americans, and share the universal human love for coziness. And so, shall we not take our ease, or our work, in this low-ceilinged room of the inn! Falstaff loved to take his ease, so the picture of comfort is given us, in front of a sea-coal fire; but surely he would have loved a great fire of wood leaping and roaring in such a fireplace as this.
The rising sun comes in at one side of the room and the setting sun at the other. From the windows, there is first the grass, and then the light lines of stone walls, and then the trees and the mounting hills; and, inside the room, there is first a dull soft green paper, and then the light lines of the old grooved chair-rail, and, rising above this, a green paper covered with trees of a green that is darker. At the windows are curtains of white muslin, with a pattern of little white trees; the curtains being hung in the fashion followed by Martha Washington at Mt. Vernon, with a frill across the top, ,and side breadths falling straight at either side but not covering the glass, and all being within the casing of the window.
Within the great fireplace are a pair of iron fire-dogs, topped with heavy faceted balls. A big black iron kettle on the hearth holds some wood, but a convenient reserve supply is in the lowest of the wooden doored hutches at the side of the fireplace, used originally for oven and cupboards. There is fascination in the word, as well as in a hutch itself-perhaps owing to memories of the hutched treasures that were forthcoming on a certain gay evening spent by King Richard and the Clerk of Copmanhurst-and we use the upper hutches for the laying by of other things than wood.
The erstwhile crane had disappeared, and we mourned for it, for although we could find cranes a-plenty, we could hear of none of a size sufficient for so ample a space. But at length, upon a scrap heap, a dozen miles away, the requisite crane was discerned! It was not eight feet in length; we could not hope to find one that size; but as this one had filled the entire space of a five-foot fireplace, it would stretch its single arm past the middle of ours. It was carried home in triumph. A village mason dug out a few bricks, set the crane, and solidly re-placed the bricks. And the crane swung there as naturally as if it had never swung anywhere else. A few pothooks are upon it, gathered from this place and that; and a quaint little black kettle, three-legged, hangs there; and a splendid great copper tea-kettle, loaned us by a descendant of one of the early State Governors. Up the chimney, black-throated with the smoke of so many years, we like to hang flitches of bacon, or a ham.
There are iron tongs and a long iron poker-for the fireplace is in iron with the exception of the cop-per kettle and the brass nose on the bellows. About the poker there seems to hang an old-time charm. A most capable implement it is, three and a half feet in length, with oddly curved handle and still more oddly two-pronged points; and in its coat of the dull black which, for effectiveness, it is well to use on fire-irons, latches, and other pieces of iron, it looks particularly efficient, and as if it were a relic of the past. It has attracted much attention, and we have by more than one been told that it is "just such a poker as my grandfather used to have."
But it is not old. Neither did we ever see an old one like it. We had no idea of deceiving anybody. We began to use the poker as a needful makeshift till we should secure an old one, and we still use it, so serviceable it is in handling the logs, even though we have come into possession of a good old poker of equal length but with a single prong. It is not the first time, in the history of the world, that the unpedigreed has received more attention than the legitimate.
Till now, we have never told it; but this two pronged poker, this "devil-stick" as it has naturally come to be called, is but a discarded net support from a tennis court!
Upon the brick face of the side wall of the fireplace is a bunch of bayonets, each with a history or association. Bound together, and with the butt-ends up, they form candle holders. Not only is this utilitarian and effective, but it follows the traditions of the old-time armies, for many a tent has been thus lighted.
Above the fireplace, in the two-foot space between its top and the ceiling, runs a hewn oak beam, and against the lower edge of this is now placed a teninch-wide shelf, extending the entire width of the brick facing of the fireplace. This relieves a certain bareness of aspect which would otherwise be there, and the shelf is so painted as to harmonize with the color of the brick, this end being attained by coloring it with a mixture of brown floor stain and red roofing paint. Upon this shelf, and not too crowded, is a line of pewter and glass.
An old lady, in New York, promised to fetch from her old home in an inland county, a tall lidded pew-ter tankard, holding about two quarts. She did so, and gave it to us, and it stands upon this shelf. It came to her by descent from the family of an ancestor who was one of the "Signers," as those who put their names to the immortal Declaration are briefly and honorably termed; it is known to have been part of the household effects of about his period; it was, therefore, probably enough used by the "Signer" himself; "But," says the donor, with anxious feminine honesty, "I don't know for sure that it was his, although I know it was so near him!"
Two old pewter cups, on this shelf, came to us at the break-up of a New York family. They are of the type with glass bottoms; and one would like to fancy them as coming from those old "Border" days, when men would not drink in doubtful company, except from glass cups or cups with glass bottoms, so needful was it that they keep their companions' dirk hands every moment in view!
There are a few other flagons and mugs and platters; and there is, too, a toby. This came oddly to us. An old Irish woman, who had long worked for us in New York, was deeply interested in our acquisitions. She was an interesting compound of ignorance and intelligence, and loved to tell of how, al-though coming to this country in the last year of the Rebellion, she did not know that any war was in progress! She told of getting a position in a boarding house on Houston Street and of how she found the boarders all fighting with one another on the first night of her service, after which fight she swept up "three basketfuls of broken crockery!" It was a curious sidelight on manners and local history.
She said she would fetch to us an old thing that she had long possessed; "an old man that I keep matches in; an old man with a queer look in his eye" ; and the piece proved to be this fine old toby, of the kind described by Dickens in his novel of eighteenth century London, as being "a jug of well-browned clay, fashioned into the form of an old gentleman," the said gentleman, chancing to be full of liquor, being raised "till he stood on his head on the lock-smith's nose."
Beneath the shelf there is, just what should be there, an old gun; not quite an "ole queen's-arm fetched back from Concord busted," but an army piece connected with a war and a battle of a later date than the Revolution.
Here and there in the room are candlesticks, silver or brass, with candles in them ready for use, thus again placing utilitarianism to the fore. All of the candlesticks have some especial history or reason for being; and one, squat and low, heavily silverplated, with extinguisher attached, came from one of the ships of the old navy, of the days long before there were electric lights in the cabins. It was disposed of, with other fittings, at the breaking up of the ship, and from the friend who obtained it, years ago, it came directly to us. It is beaded with a circlet of rope, is marked with an anchor, and bears inconspicuously the initials, "U.S.N."
Beside this great fireplace, which so broadly dominates the room, and in relation to which so many things fall in place, one may always sit with pleasure, whether to read or to talk, and, when the autumn storms blow, "drink deep of the pleasures of shelter."
There are numerous old houses still to be found, containing fireplaces nearly as large as this. An acquaintance in another State possesses a house a century and a half old, in the wing of which is a fire-place of capacious width. To make it impossible for thieves to climb down and steal, he has had a wrought iron grill made to be closed every evening in front of the fireplace-efficacious, this, but far from good looking. He was evidently not familiar with tales of wonderful escapes in the old days, when political prisoners were kept for years in big rooms with big fireplaces, or it would have occurred to him that an easy way to make such a fireplace prohibitive to clamberers is to set iron bars across, firmly mortared, a little up the chimney and out of sight.
At one side of our own fireplace room is a cedar chest, rug covered and cushioned, and facing it, across the room, is the desk. It is of good mahogany; but, after all, it is Honduras, and not of the darker and still more beautiful San Domingo. It is what would be termed a slant-top secretary, and the slanting piece unfolds down and outwards, and rests on two "stops," to make a writing surface. The desk has claw-and-ball feet, which are properly short and heavy, as they should be on such an article of furniture.
It is impossible to fix the date of this desk with positiveness, except that it is well over the century age. It appears to be of about 1770; and this, among other reasons, from the markings of the original brass handles. The handles which were on it when we obtained it are not of the same age as the desk, which is apt to be the case with the handles of old pieces. But the original markings may still be discerned, although they were filled in and polished, and they point to a style that was common about a century and a quarter ago. And, too, the drawer-fronts overlap; they extend over the drawer-openings instead of fitting entirely inside, making the face of each drawer larger than the hole that the drawer slides into; and this is another of the numerous indications which, put together, infallibly indicate age.
There is wealth of drawer and cubby hole, but no secret compartment! For that, search was made in vain. One should always examine an old desk for this, as secret compartments were not uncommon in the old days. And one may readily satisfy himself. Measure the outside dimensions; then measure each drawer and pigeonhole; and if at any part there is discrepancy, investigate there for the space. Be-hind the swing-door compartment which is so common in old desks, in the centre of the pigeonholes, is a favorite place for the concealed cavity, and it is usual to get at it by touching a spring and drawing the entire swing-door compartment forward like a box-whereupon the space is disclosed, behind.
When this old desk was obtained it was among our first cares to varnish, lightly, the inside of each drawer. It is well to do this with the drawers of any old piece, for it gives an assurance of cleanliness and a sense of making the piece one's own.
Extremely low book shelves occupy the greater part of the lower wall space. The floor is covered with some rugs; the large one in the centre of Oriental make, several woven of torn cloth strips, and one "hooked" in a pattern of woolen tufts. Two of the rag rugs were woven in colors to match the colors of the room; it is as easy to do this as to have rugs woven at random; it requires only somewhat of selection of rags and directions to the weaver as to the warp.
The chairs, as the chairs in such a room ought to be, are peculiarly for comfort and use. There is a great fireplace chair; also a chair in leather, easy, broad, rotund and low; there are a couple of Connecticut splint-bottoms from the musician's gallery of a ballroom of a century ago; for the desk there is a Windsor armchair. This, one of the household be-longings of a great-grandmother, came through reasons genealogical and was sent from the other side of the Atlantic.
A peculiarity of this chair is its unusual lower bracing, a rung stretching from one front leg to the other, but sweeping far back under the chair, semi-circularly, in so doing, so as to be out of the way of the feet, and being met, at the back, by two short bracing pins, one leading to each of the rear legs.
There is a curious point to notice in the construction of this Windsor chair. Its back, instead of being of an unbroken line of spokes, has a splat down the centre (there being an extension back, there are in this case two splats, one above the other), and this peculiarity, of a splat in the back of a Windsor, may always be looked upon as showing that it was made in Great Britain. We have never heard of an American Windsor made in this way, nor of other collectors who have found or heard of any, and if any have been so made they are very rare.
We call this chair an "extension back." It is not that the chair-back is necessarily higher than with other Windsors, but that, to make the chair stronger, there is a hickory arm line extended around the entire back, making two sets of short spokes in-stead of one set of long. It was in an extension-back Windsor that Jefferson sat when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
There is also a rocking-chair in this room; it is, after all, a kind of chair indigenous to our soil. Rockers were made in America before they were made anywhere else in the world, and it seems probable that none were made much before the time of the Revolution. Comfortable chairs that they are, one thinks with amusement of the serious-minded Thor-eau striving long to make his favorite chair a thing of ease, and trying upon it one pair of rockers after another until, shortly before his death, he succeeded in getting it precisely to suit him, by making a thing which was of distressing discomfort to any one else.
In choosing which pictures we should hang here, it was endeavored to harmonize them, not only with the spirit of the olden time but also with the characteristics of the room itself.
A few photographed Corots harmonize delightfully with the suggestion of subdued greenery in the room and with the trees and the greenery seen from the windows. Such pictures as these are of any time or all time. A Corot is always as old as Nature herself, and always as young as today.
Beside the fireplace hangs a little painting of a fireplace in an ancient house; and, near by, a photograph of Mona Lisa smiles the enigmatical smile that has piqued and fascinated the centuries. Among the other pictures is an attractive old engraving of a military scene in ancient Leipsic.
The windows look forth on a garden in which stands a sun-dial, always a thing of allurement in connection with an old house and old furniture. It should itself be old, if possible; yet even the most modern copy carries the subtle suggestion as of centuries. Our own is American, dates from early in the past century, and is fortunate in having been made for almost this identical latitude. It came unexpectedly, in the trunk of a visitor who had saved it from her father's garden and knew how highly we should esteem it.
The charm of a sun-dial is always increased if it bears a motto on its fingered face; and it may be such an optimistic boast as, "I only mark the shining hours," or such a monitory preachment as, "The night cometh."
Yet, even though the night cometh, your sun-dial will still-with a little arithmetic-mark the shining hours of the moon as well! You have but to note the hour pointed out by the moon's shadow; then find the age of the moon, by days, in the calendar; and then take three-fourths of that number and add it, as hours, to the hour the shadow shows ; and you have found the time. On the sixteenth night of the moon, therefore, the sun-dial points the time without necessitating any effort mathematical.