The lady, or the tiger? and other stories/Our Fire-Screen


IT was a fire-screen,—that is, it was a frame for one,—and it was made of ash. My wife had worked a very pretty square of silk, with flowers and other colored objects upon it; and when it was finished she thought she would use it for a fire-screen, and asked me to have a frame made for it. I ordered the frame of ash, because the cabinet-maker said that that was the fashionable wood at present; and when it came home my wife and I both liked it very much, although we could not help thinking that it ought to be painted. It was well made,—you could see the construction everywhere. One part ran through another part, and the ends were fastened with pegs. It was modelled, so the cabinet-maker informed me, in the regular Eastlake style.

It was a pretty frame, but the wood was of too light a color. It stared out at us from the midst of the other furniture. Of course it might be stained, and so made to harmonize with the rest of our sitting-room . but what would be the good of having it of ash if i were painted over? It might as well be of pine.

However, at my wife's suggestion, I got a couple of Eastlake chairs, also ash; and with these at each side of the fire-place, the screen looked much better. The chairs were very well made, and would last a long time, especially, my wife said, as no one would care to sit down in them. They were, certainly, rather stiff and uncomfortable, but that was owing to the Eastlake pattern; and as we did not need to use them, this was of no importance to us. Our house was furnished very comfortably. We made a point of having easy-chairs for our visitors as well as ourselves, and in fact, every thing about our house was easy, warm and bright. We believed that home should be a place of rest; and we bought chairs and sofas and lounges which took you in their arms like a mother, and made you forget the toils of the world.

But we really did not enjoy the screen as much as we expected we should, and as much as we had enjoyed almost every thing that we had before bought for our house. Even with the companionship of the chairs, it did not seem to fit into the room. And every thing else fitted. I think I may honestly say that we were people of taste, and that there were few incongruities in our house-furnishing.

But the two chairs and the screen did not look like any thing else we had. They made our cosey sitting-room uncomfortable. We bore it as long as we could, and then we determined to take a bold step. We had always been consistent and thorough; we would be so now. So we had all the furniture of the room removed, excepting the fire-screen and the two chairs, and replaced it with articles of the Eastlake style, in ash and oak. Of course our bright Wilton carpet did not suit these things, and we took it up, and had the floor puttied and stained and bought a Turko-Persian carpet that was only partly large enough for the room. The walls we re-papered, so as to tone them down to the general stiffness, and we had the ceiling colored sage-green, which would be in admirable keeping, the decorating man said.

We didn't like this room, but we thought we would try and learn to like it. The fault was in ourselves perhaps. High art in furniture was something we ought to understand and ought to like. We would do both if we could.

But we soon saw that one reason why we did not like our sitting-room was the great dissimilarity between it and the rest of the house. To come from our comfortable bedroom, or our handsome, bright and softly furnished parlor, or our cheerful dining-room, into this severe and middle-aged sitting-room was too great a rise (or fall) for our perceptions. The strain or the shock was injurious to us. So we determined to strike another blow in the cause of consistency. We would furnish our whole house in the Eastlake style.

Fortunately, my wife's brother had recently married, and had bought a house about a quarter of a mile from our place. He had, so far, purchased but little furniture, and when we refurnished our sitting-room, he took the old furniture at a moderate price, for which I was very glad, for I had no place to put it. I call it "old" furniture to distinguish it from the new; but in reality, it had not been used very long, and was in admirable condition. After buying these things from us, Tom—my brother-in-law—seemed to come to a stop in his house-furnishing. He and his wife lived in one or two rooms of their house, and appeared to be in no hurry to get themselves fixed and settled. Tom often came over and made remarks about our sitting-room, and the curious appearance it presented in the midst of a house furnished luxuriously in the most modern style; and this helped us to come to the determination to Eastlake our house, thoroughly and completely.

Of course, as most of our new furniture had to be made to order, we could make our changes but slowly, and so refurnished one room at a time. Whenever a load of new furniture was brought to the house Tom was on hand to buy the things we had been using. I must say that he was very honorable about the price, for he always brought a second-hand-furniture man from the city, and made him value the things, and he then paid me according to this valuation. I was frequently very much surprised at the low estimates placed on articles for which I had paid a good deal of money, but of course I could not expect more than the regular second-hand-market price. He brought a different man every time; and their estimates were all low, in about the same proportion, so I could not complain. I do not think he used the men well, however, for I found out afterward that they thought that he wanted to sell the goods to them.

Tom was a nice fellow, of course, because he was my wife's brother, but there were some things about him I did not like. He annoyed me a good deal by coming around to our house, after it was newly furnished, and making remarks about the things.

"I can't see the sense," he said, one day, "in imitating furniture that was made in the days when people didn't know how to make furniture."

"Didn't know how!" I exclaimed. Why, those were just the days when they did know how. Look at that bedstead! Did you ever see any thing more solid and stanch and thoroughly honest than that? It will last for centuries and always be what you see it now, a strong, good, ash bedstead."

"That's the mischief of it," Tom answered. "It will always be what it is now. If there was any chance of its improving I'd like it better. I don't know exactly what you mean by an honest bedstead, but if it's one that a fellow wouldn't wish to lie in, perhaps you're right. And what do you want with furniture that will last for centuries? You won't last for centuries, so what difference can it make to you? "

"Difference enough," I answered. "I want none of your flimsy modern furniture. I want well-made things, in which the construction is first-class and evident. Look at that chair, for instance; you can see just how it is put together."

"Exactly so," replied Tom, "but what's the good of having one part of a chair run through another part and fastened with a peg, so that its construction may be evident? If those old fellows in the Middle Ages had known how to put chairs together as neatly and strongly as some of our modern furniture,—such as mine, for instance, which you know well enough is just as strong as any furniture need be,—don't you suppose they would have done it? Of course they would. The trouble about the construction of a chair like that is that it makes your own construction too evident. When I sit in one of them I think I know exactly where my joints are put together, especially those in my back."

Tom seemed particularly to dislike the tiles that were set in many articles of my new furniture. He could not see what was the good of inserting crockery into bedsteads and writing-desks; and as to the old pictures on the tiles, he utterly despised them.

"If the old buffers who made the originals of those pictures," he said, "had known that free and enlightened citizens of the nineteenth century were going to copy them they'd have learned to draw."

However, we didn't mind this talk very much, and we even managed to smile when he made fun and puns and said:

"Well, I suppose people in your station are bound to do this thing, as it certainly is stylish." But there was one thing he said that did trouble us. He came into the house one morning, and remarked:

"I don't want to make you dissatisfied with your new furniture, but it seems to me—and to other people, too, for I've heard them talking about it—that such furniture never can look as it ought to in such a house. In old times, when the people didn't know how to make any better furniture than this, they didn't know how to build decent houses either. They had no plate-glass windows, or high ceilings, or hot and cold water in every room, or stationary wash-tubs, or any of that sort of thing. They had small windows with little panes of glass set in lead, and they had low rooms with often no ceiling at all, so that you could see the construction of the floor overhead, and they had all the old inconveniences that we have cast aside. If you want your furniture to look like what it makes believe to be you ought to have it in a regular Middle-Age house,—Elizabethan or Mary Annean, or whatever they call that sort of architecture. You could easily build such a house something like that inconvenient edifice put up by the English commissioners at the Centennial Exhibition; and if you want to sell this house"——

"Which I don't," I replied quickly. "If I do any thing, I'll alter this place. I'm not going to build another."

As I said, this speech of Tom's disturbed us; and after talking about the matter for some days we determined to be consistent, and we had our house altered so that Tom declared it was a regular Eastlake house and no mistake. We had a doleful time while the alterations were going on; and when all was dope and we had settled down to quiet again, we missed very many of the comforts and conveniences to which we had been accustomed. But we were getting used to missing comfort; and so we sat and looked out of our little square window-panes, and tried to think the landscape as lovely and the sky as spacious and blue as when we viewed it through our high and wide French-plate windows.

But the landscape did not look very well, for it was not the right kind of a landscape. We altered our garden and lawn, and made "pleached alleys" and formal garden-rows and other old-time arrangements.

And so, in time, we had an establishment which was consistent,—it all matched the fire-screen, or rather the frame for a fire-screen.

It might now be supposed that Tom would let us rest a while. But he did nothing of the kind.

"I tell you what it is," said he. "There's just one thing more that you need. You ought to wear clothes to suit the house and furniture. If you'd get an Eastlake coat, with a tile set in the back"——

This was too much; I interrupted him.

That evening I took our fire-screen and I turned it around. There was a blank expanse on the back of it, and on this I painted, with a brush and some black paint,—with which my wife had been painting storks on some odd-shaped red clay pottery,—the following lines from Dante's "Inferno:"

"Soltaro finichezza poldo viner
Glabo icce suzza sil
Valuchicho mazza churi
Provenza succi—y gli."

This is intended to mean:

"Why, oh, why have I taken
And thrown away my comfort on earth,
And descended into an old-fashioned hell!"

But as I do not understand Italian it is not likely that any of the words I wrote are correct; but it makes no difference, as so few persons understand the language and I can always tell them what I meant the inscription to mean. The "y" and the"gli" are real Italian and I will not attempt to translate them—but they look well and give an air of proper construction to the whole. I might have written the thing in Old English, but that is harder for me than Italian. The translation, which is my own, I tried to make, as nearly as possible, consistent with Dante's poem.

A few days after this I went over to Tom's house. A brighter, cosier house you never saw. I threw myself into one of my ex-arm-chairs. I lay back; I stretched out my legs under a table,—I could never stretch out my legs under one of my own tables because they had heavy Eastlake bars under them, and you had to sit up and keep your legs at an Eastlake angle. I drew a long sigh of satisfaction. Around me were all the pretty, tasteful, unsuitable things that Tom had bought from us—at eighty-seven per cent off. Our own old spirit of home comfort seemed to be here. I sprang from my chair.

"Tom," I cried, "what will you take for this house, this furniture—every thing just as it stands?"

Tom named a sum. I closed the bargain.

We live in Tom's house now, and two happier people are not easily found. Tom wanted me to sell him my re-modelled house, but I wouldn't do it. He would alter things. I rent it to him; and he has to live there, for he can get no other house in the neighborhood. He is not the cheerful fellow he used to be, but his wife comes over to see us very often.