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A DAY BY THE FIRE.
AM one of those that delight in a fireside, and
can enjoy it without even the help of a cat or a tea-kettle. To cats, indeed, I have an aversion, as animals that only affect a sociality,
without caring a jot for any thing but their own luxury ; * and my tea-kettle, I frankly confess, has long been displaced, or rather dismissed, by a bronze-colored and graceful urn; though, between ourselves, I am not sure that I have gained any thing by the exchange. Cowper, it is true, talks of the “bubbling and loud-hissing urn,” which —
“Throws up a steamy column ;" but there was something so primitive and unaffected, so warm-hearted and unpresuming, in the tea-kettle, – its song was so much more cheerful and continued, and it kept the water so hot and comfortable as long as you wanted it, — that I sometimes feel as if I had sent off a good, plain, faithful old friend, who had but one wish to serve me, for a superficial, smooth-faced upstart of a fellow, who, after a little promising and vaporing, grows cold
* This was written in the early days of Leigh Hunt's literary career; but years after, when he was older and wiser, he did full and complete justice to the familiar household cat, in an admirable paper, entitled, “The Cat by the Fire," published in “The Seer.” – Ed.
and contemptuous, and thinks himself bound to do nothing but stand on a rug and have his person admired by the circle. To this admiration, in fact, I have been obliged to resort, in order to make myself think well of my bargain, if possible ; and, accordingly, I say to myself every now and then during the tea, “A pretty look with it, — that urn;" or, “It's wonderful what a taste the Greeks had ;” or, “The eye might have a great many enjoyments, if people would but look after forms and shapes.” In the mean while, the urn leaves off its “bubbling and hissing,” — but then there is such an air with it! My tea is made of cold water, — but then, the Greeks were such a nation !
If there is any one thing that can reconcile me to the loss of my kettle, more than another, it is that my fire has been left to itself: it has full room to breathe and to blaze, and I can poke it as I please. What recollections does that idea excite ? — Poke it as I please! Think, benevolent reader, — think of the pride and pleasure of having in your hand that awful, but at the same time artless, weapon, a poker, — of putting it into the proper bar, gently levering up the coals, and seeing the instant and bustling flame above ! * To what can I compare that moment? that sudden, empyreal enthusiasm ? that fiery expression of vivification ? that ardent acknowledgment, as it were, of the care and kindliness of the operator ? Let me consider a moment: it is very odd; I was always reckoned a lively hand at a simile; but language and combination absolutely fail me here. If it is like any thing, it must be something beyond every thing in beauty and life. Oh, I have it now: think, reader, if you are one of those who
* Charles Lamb's friend and school-mate, Le Grice, wrote a book on the “Art of Poking the Fire.” – Ed.
can muster up sufficient sprightliness to engage in a game of forfeits, — on Twelfth night, for instance, — think of a blooming girl who is condemned to “open her mouth and shut her eyes, and see what heaven,” in the shape of a mischievous young fellow,“ will send her.” Her mouth is opened accordingly, the fire of her eyes is dead, her face assumes a doleful air ; up walks the aforesaid heaven or mischievous young fellow (young Ouranos, Hesiod would have called him), and, instead of a piece of paper, a thimble, or a cinder, claps into her mouth a peg of orange or a long slice of citron ; then her eyes above instantly light up again, the smiles wreath about, the sparklings burst forth, and all is warmth, brilliancy, and delight. I am aware that this simile is not perfect; but if it would do for an epic poem, as I think it might, after Virgil's whipping-tops and Homer's jackasses and black-puddings, the reader, perhaps, will not quarrel with it.
But to describe my feelings in an orderly manner, I must request the reader to go with me through a day's enjoyments by the fireside. It is part of my business to look about for helps to reflection; and, for this reason, among many others, I indulge myself in keeping a good fire from morning till night. I have also a reflective turn for an easy chair, and a very thinking attachment to comfort in general. But of this as I proceed. Imprimis, then : the morning is clear and cold ; time, half-past seven; scene, a breakfast-room. Some persons, by the by, prefer a thick and rainy morning, with a sobbing wind, and the clatter of pattens along the streets; but I confess, for my own part, that being a sedentary person, and too apt to sin against the duties of exercise, I have somewhat too sensitive a consciousness of bad weather, and feel a heavy sky go over me like a feather-bed, or rather like a
huge brush which rubs all my nap the wrong way. I am growing better in this respect, and, by the help of a stout walk at noon, and getting, as it were, fairly into a favorite poet and a warm fire of an evening, begin to manage a cloud or an east wind tolerably well; but still, for perfection's sake on the present occasion, I must insist upon my clear morning, and will add to it, if the reader pleases, a little hoar-frost upon the windows, a bird or two coming after the crumbs, and the light smoke from the neighboring chimneys brightening up into the early sunshine. Even the dustman's bell is not unpleasant from its association; and there is something absolutely musical in the clash of the milk-pails suddenly unyoked, and the ineffable, ad libitum note that follows.
The waking epicure rises with an elastic anticipation ; enjoys the freshening cold water which endears what is to come; and even goes placidly through the villanous scraping process which we soften down into the level and lawny appellation of shaving. He then hurries down stairs, rubbing his hands, and sawing the sharp air through his teeth ; and, as he enters the breakfast-room, sees his old companion glowing through the bars, the life of the apartment, and wanting only his friendly hand to be lightened a little, and enabled to shoot up into dancing brilliancy. (I find I am getting into a quantity of epithets here, and must rein in my enthusiasm.) What need I say? The poker is applied, and would be so whether required or not, for it is impossible to resist the sudden ardor inspired by that sight? The use of the poker, on first seeing one's fire, is as natural as shaking hands with a friend. At that movement a hundred little sparkles fly up from the coaldust that falls within, while from the masses themselves, a roaring flame mounts aloft with a deep and fitful sound as of a shaken carpet, - epithets again; I must recur to poetry at once:
Then shine the bars, the cakes in smoke aspire,
The utility, as well as beauty, of the fire during breakfast, need not be pointed out to the most unphlogistic observer. A person would rather be shivering at any time of the day than at that of his first rising; the transition would be too unnatural, — he is not prepared for it, as Barnardine says, when he objects to being hanged. If you eat plain bread and butter with your tea, it is fit that your moderation should be rewarded with a good blaze ; and if you indulge 'in hot rolls or toast, you will hardly keep them to their warmth without it, particularly if you read; and then, if you take in a newspaper, what a delightful change from the wet, raw, dabbing fold of paper when you first touch it, to the dry, crackling, crisp superficies which, with a skilful spat of the finger-nails at its upper end, stands at once in your hand, and looks as if it said, “Come read me.” Nor is it the look of the newspaper only which the fire must render complete: it is the interest of the ladies who may happen to form part of your family, — of your wife in particular, if you have one, — to avoid the niggling and pinching aspect of cold; it takes away the harmony of her features, and the graces of her behavior ; while, on the other hand, there is scarcely a more interesting sight in the world than that of a neat, delicate, good-humored
* Parody upon part of the well-known description of night, with which Pope bas swelled out the passage in Homer, and the faults of which have long been appreciated by general readers.