Dog and Duck, by Arthur Machen

How to Spend Christmas

It seems paradoxical, but I am strongly inclined to think that the more comfortable we become, the less we know of comfort. As I may have remarked before in this work, there is no reason to suppose that the Anglo–Indians of the Plains really appreciate the glorious sunshine of the dry season. It would take a new-comer from the Hebrides to enjoy the golden blaze.

You will remember that I once saw a man enjoy a noble fire as it ought to be enjoyed. It was a bitter day of fog and frost in London, and the fire was indeed a gorgeous one, with radiant depths of glowing coal at the heart of it, and great boulders from which jets of burning gas came shooting with a hissing, rushing noise, and flames that roared up the chimney. The man laughed as he came into the room and saw this mighty blaze.

‘Ah!’ he said as he drew his chair up to the heat, ‘you don’t really appreciate a good fire till you’ve been where I’ve been.’

Then Amundsen began to talk to me about the Polar places where he had been, of the remorseless cold, of wading up to the waist through boundless plains of freezing slush. And he looked at the fire as though he loved it. Now, he was no doubt right in holding that if a man would really taste all the full savours of a blazing hearth, he must go to the North Pole; to the utter, bitter darkness of the world. But the recipe is a severe one, and the journey long, and one cannot afford to be all that time away from business. Still, in the old days, people contrived to relish their firesides without taking the extreme measure of Polar Exploration. There is an old coaching print of which I am very fond. It shows the coach overturned in a wild, snowy landscape. The passengers are picking their way heavily, clumsily through the drift, one going on before with a lantern. ‘What miserable discomfort!’ you will say. Not a bit of it. I know, and they know, that after half an hour or so of our English substitute for the North Pole, they will come to the noblest roadside inn. The glow of it will gush out into the wild night through red-curtained windows; as the door opens the genial heat will conquer in an instant all winter weather; and within, a fire that would melt the frozen Pole itself, and tempting armchairs, and firelight and candlelight flickering and glittering on right Spanish mahogany. The coach passengers will laugh just as Amundsen laughed as they come into the room, and the guard — the man with the lamp — will say: ‘Make yourselves comfortable, gentlemen; we shan’t be able to get on for another couple of hours, or maybe three,’ and there will most certainly be punch, and probably some jolly stories. My belief is that when the coach was announced, and the passengers were packed in the straw and muffled up to the eyes in their shawls, they all declared that they had seldom passed a pleasanter evening, and fell asleep for the rest of the journey five minutes afterwards.

In these days one cannot do that kind of thing. Suppose the express is hung up for a while in a snowdrift. The steam heat is on, certainly; but there is nothing jolly about steam heat. As to punch: it is past ten o’clock and punch after ten is felony. Besides, most of the passengers have been instructed by ‘A Physician’ in their morning paper that there is nothing more chilling in its effects on the human frame than hot spirits. So there you are. The coach incident was, undeniably, something of a lark. There is nothing of a lark in sitting still in an express for an hour or two, waiting for the snow ploughs. And putting these incidents of travel on one side, I believe we are losing our sense of the joy of a blazing fire. We are getting to be rationalists on this subject; and it is always a bad thing to be a rationalist on any subject. I remember one night in my own house some guests of mine began to fall out about the heat of the room. Some said it was too hot, others that it was not hot enough. Whereupon an American gentleman in company, raised in the tradition of central heating, said sourly:

‘What’s the good of talking about the temperature of this room? There are probably ten distinct temperatures in this room.’

Of course there were; and that’s just the fun of it. You can only relish the joy of warmth properly when cold is, as it were, at your elbow.

The central-heating and steam-pipe people argue, no doubt, that fires are merely means to give heat, and that since the modern systems distribute heat more evenly and more effectually, they are quite evidently superior to open fires. Now, this sounds reasonable; but as a matter of fact it is nonsense. Nay, but it is so. Offer a fin gourmet the rarest of Bordeaux, the noblest Burgundy that you like to imagine, in a teacup, and watch his face. And be quick about it; for he will certainly kill you, and the verdict will be ‘Justifiable Homicide.’ Rationally, the wine is as good in old Betty’s teacup as in the thinnest and most curious glass: but — we know better. It isn’t. Science would assure us that Château Un Tel or Clos Chose cannot possibly be affected in any way by being poured into porcelain or earthenware instead of glass; and as usual where science is concerned we are forced to answer: ‘You are perfectly right: but you lie for all that.’ How does this matter of the wine and the teacup — one could drink Château vintages out of a teapot, for the matter of that — relate to that other matter of pipe-heating versus a roaring fire? Why, each example illustrates the singular but undeniable principle that, even in matters of the senses, there is much more involved than the senses; rather, perhaps, more than the particular sense which is to be gratified. The old hearth, if one comes to think of it, is a species of sacrament, symbolizing a whole world of dear and friendly and sacred and happy things. That leaping flame on the wild winter’s night is much more than a means of securing that the temperature of the room shall not fall below 60° Fahrenheit. They understood this so well in old Rome that there were gods of the hearth, the Lares and Penates, and it was in their honour that the flame on the hearth blazed and glowed. And we have something of that ancient feeling still with us; we talk of fighting for our hearths and homes. Has anybody ever talked of fighting for our cellular ‘Thermidor’ improved reverberating radiators? But the ‘Thermidor,’ no doubt, distributes heat in a much more even manner than any open fire of coal or logs. And yet again, it doesn’t. If we were sheep and goats ‘that nourish a blind life within the brain’ and felt the cold, then the radiator would be our proper apparatus of heat; but being men, we require, odd as it may seem, to have our souls warmed as well as our bodies; and so we choose, if we are wise, the flame of the sacred hearth, and if we are lucky and have a good store of well-seasoned oak logs, it is of them that we build the fire, and add to our joys the exquisite aroma, the incense of burning wood.

And so, of course, with the parallel case of good wine and the way to drink it. We drink wine for its rare savours and for the genial warmth of body and mind that it produces. But we do not drink it as we drink quinine. I have never heard of a quinine or castor oil gourmet who insisted on quaffing these beverages from a particular kind of glass — I suppose it would be a graduated medicine glass with the beautiful figures for drachms and scruples duly inscribed on its surface. But wine, somehow, we desire to receive after a different fashion. It must be brought to us, either ancient in its encrusted bottle with the dust and cobwebs of its deep, dark cellar thick upon it, or else decanted, in a vessel of cut glass; and the actual glass from which we drink it must be as fine as may be, a pleasure to the eye, a pleasure to the lip on which it rests. Here, again, we are unscientific. The flavour of our Bordeaux or Burgundy or old Port would be just as good if the wine were brought to table in a beer-jug and poured out in a coarse mug with blue band and a brown, blobby tree for its decoration; and, once more, how blest are they who ne’er consent by the ill advice of science to walk! It is a very odd thing — the world is simply chock full of very odd things — but the effect of consenting to walk by the advice of science would be to reduce humanity pretty well to the rank of beasts and barbarians. A pig is not particular as to the design of its trough, and a savage who drinks doesn’t care in the least about the shape of the bottle which contains the firewater. This, as I say, is really odd, considering that science is supposed to be the guiding star of the very latest civilization. Science is triumphantly new, modern, progressive; and yet, as we have seen, its practical tendency would appear to be reactionary — though, after all, pigs are very nice animals, and there is a good deal to be said for the Red Man. And thus we come back to the paradox with which we started: the more comfortable we become, the less we know of comfort. We follow scientific principles, close up the hearth and take to the radiator, the error being that man is considered simply as a physiological surface, capable of certain impressions of cold and heat. He is that, but he is quite a number of other things, which are often more important to the sum of his well-being. Why, I dare say that science would be inclined to agree with Mr. Uriah Heep. He, being in gaol, thought that it would be better for everybody if they could be ‘took up and brought here.’ And as far as I can make out from reading that infernal ‘Physician’ in the daily paper, those are exactly the conclusions of the latest science. We all eat too much. In gaol our bill-of-fare would be expressed in ounces, and not many of them. Some of us drink ‘alcohol’— to think that there are scoundrels so shameless as to call a fine Corton ‘alcohol’! In gaol there is no ‘alcohol.’ Some of us are given to inhaling the dubious or more than dubious alkaloids generally known as tobacco. In gaol no smoking is allowed. Outside, we are often lazy. Inside, scientific authority would see that each got the exact amount of work and exercise proper to his case and constitution. Outside, all sorts of temptations, every kind of vice; nothing of the kind in a prison cell. Outside, houses are often damp and in defective repair — I have had a loose slate on my roof for weeks — inside, everything of this kind is in perfect condition.

In short, we should all be much better off if we were to spend this Christmas in gaol. Clearly: on scientific principles. It is undeniable; and it is also, as usual with scientific principles, the Devil’s own lie.

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39