MY fire is my friend," says Colonel Carter. "After it talks to me for hours, we both get sleepy together, and I cover it up with its gray blanket of ashes and then go to bed."
Here the whole story is told. An open fire is a friend, a homely comforting friend of cheerful presence and genial moods, content "to dwell day after day, and one long lonesome night after another, on the dusky hearth, only now and then betraying his wild nature by thrusting his red tongue out of the chimney-pot." And certainly we sin against this elemental spirit when we banish him, when we "put up stoves," or think to improve our condition with hot-air registers cut in the wall, or coils of steam piping under the window-sills. And quite as certainly, too, those who sin against the sentiment of the open fire are branded. The fire-lover knows them at once. When I first left a land in which hickory was burned every day on the hearth, I could recognize at a glance those who knew nothing of "honest old logs." I knew them by their sallow complexions, their dried skins, the complexions of those who have hovered over registers when they wanted to keep warm.
What benignant influences these people had missed! And the poor babies - the children of these offenders - babies who had never been rocked before a nursery fender, nor soothed to sleep on windy winter nights by the dropping of hot cinders one by one, like shooting stars, from the coals of the open grate into the bed of sizzling ashes in a pan below. They have been defrauded, these children, like the little ones to whom no sweet fairy-stories have ever been told.
We certainly lost our heads not so many years since, in our joy of labor-saving devices. The country householder was as pleased over the contrivance for heating her house without the bother of replenishing an extra fire as her husband was by some new and improved implement which would save him the price of an extra man on his farm. In town, the case was only worse, for there were servants in plenty to attend to the fires. It was the worry about curtains that shut up the chimneys, - as though fires made half the dust of other modern improvements, of subways and asphalt and elevated trains puffing the smoke of soft coal straight into some of our windows.
"MY FIRE IS MY FRIEND".
When the passion for registers and steam was at its height, town houses, to be sure, were built with chimneys, but they were chimneys that were never made to draw. Fireplaces, too, were set up in due form in the middle walls of front parlors with properly appointed mantel-shelves above and open spaces below. But woe to the householder who attempted to light a log. The only exit for the smoke was over her best parlor furniture, past her curtains, and so on through her windows and out into the street.
In the new apartments of the day, renting from fifteen hundred dollars or more a year, a fire-lover may search in vain for anything else but gas logs. These are better than nothing. They at least give color. But that "quick and subtle spirit, whom Prometheus lured from heaven to civilize mankind," - that quick and subtle spirit - is not present.
In the new houses, of course, and particularly in those done by our best architects, the fireplace has been revived, not only with the beauty belonging to it in the early history of our country, but with much of the splendor and magnificence which distinguished many of the fireplaces of foreign castles and old feudal halls. Fireplaces indeed are often purchased entire from impecunious inheritors of old estates and put up in our American homes.
No man of means in these days dreams of building a house without having made a careful study of his chimney-piece and insisting that it be an important feature. He knows that an open fire in a room is what a beautiful view is to a window. He cannot afford to ignore it. We have learned much during the last generation. Men and women who have travelled, thought, or read, those men and women who have never had traditions about fires to preserve, nor clung to them, as some have, through poverties and disasters, would be ashamed nowadays to ignore the refining influences of the fire, or to be without an open hearth in some one at least of their chambers. "The good taste and savoir faire of the inmates of a house may be guessed from the means used for heating it," says one writer on the subject.
Chimney-pieces, as we understand them, were unknown in Europe before the middle ages. When they began to be seriously considered by the builders of the Renaissance, they were looked upon as an architectural feature of the room, and the importance of giving an architectural character to the chimney has been insisted upon by all the most distinguished authorities on that subject since that day.
These fireplaces were sometimes of enormous size. In the Chateau of Pierrefonds twelve or sixteen life-size figures stand over the fire-opening, with decorations above. One of them is a portrait of the Empress Eugenie. From the other end of the hall these figures seem hardly more than a row of statuettes arranged at the base of the over-mantel. Some of the chimney-pieces of Europe are as well known among art lovers as pictures. The architects of today go to them for their models, but these sumptuous creations belong only to certain interiors. They would be impossible in ordinary houses, their imitations out of place in conventional drawing-rooms. The simpler forms, those of Italian and French houses, are copied in our smaller houses, and the rest of the room is then brought into key with them. The beautiful and simple mantelpieces known in every-day parlance as the "Colonial," are always looked upon with especial favor.
"FIREPLACES WERE SOMETIMES OF ENORMOUS SIZE'.