Here, beside the roaring ocean, this blaze represents the only receptacle more vast than ocean. We say, "unstable as water." But there is nothing unstable about the flickering flame; it is persistent and desperate, relentless in following its ends. It is the most tremendous physical force that man can use. "If drugs fail," said Hippocrates, "use the knife; should the knife fail, use fire." Conquered countries were anciently given over to fire and sword: the latter could only kill, but the other could annihilate. See how thoroughly it does its work, even when domesticated: it takes up everything upon the hearth and leaves all clean. The Greek proverb says, that "the sea drinks up all the sins of the world." Save fire only, the sea is the most capacious of all things.
But its task is left incomplete: it only hides its records, while fire destroys them. In the Norse Edda, when the gods try their games, they find themselves able to out-drink the ocean, but not to eat like the flame. Logi, or fire, licks up food and trencher and all. This chimney is more voracious than the sea. Give time enough, and all which yonder depths contain might pass through this insatiable throat, leaving only a few ashes and the memory of a flickering shade,--pulvis et umbra. We recognize this when we have anything to conceal. Deep crimes are buried in earth, deeper are sunk In water, but the deepest of all are confided by trembling men to the profounder secrecy of flame. If every old chimney could narrate the fearful deeds whose last records it has cancelled, what sighs of undying passion would breathe from its dark summit,--what groans of guilt! Those lurid sparks that whirl over yonder house-top, tossed aloft as if fire itself could not contain them, may be the last embers of some written scroll, one rescued word of which might suffice for the ruin of a household, and the crushing of many hearts.
But this domestic hearth of ours holds only, besides its drift-wood, the peaceful records of the day,--its shreds and fragments and fallen leaves. As the ancients poured wine upon their flames, so I pour rose-leaves in libation; and each morning contributes the faded petals of yesterday's wreaths. All our roses of this season have passed up this chimney in the blaze. Their delicate veins were filled with all the summer's fire, and they returned to fire once more,--ashes to ashes, flame to flame. For holding, with Bettina, that every flower which is broken becomes immortal in the sacrifice, I deem it more fitting that their earthly part should die by a concentration of that burning element which would at any rate be in some form their ending; so they have their altar on this bright hearth.
Let us pile up the fire anew with drift-wood, Annie. We can choose at random; for our logs came from no single forest. It is considered an important branch of skill in the country to know the varieties of firewood, and to choose among them well. But to-night we have the whole Atlantic shore for our wood-pile, and the Gulf Stream for a teamster. Every foreign tree of rarest name may, for aught we know, send its treasures to our hearth. Logwood and satinwood may mingle with cedar and maple; the old cellar floors of this once princely town are of mahogany, and why not our fire? I have a very indistinct impression what teak is; but if it means something black and impenetrable and nearly indestructible, then there is a piece of it, Annie, on the hearth at this moment.
It must be owned, indeed, that timbers soaked long enough in salt-water seem almost to lose their capacity of being burnt. Perhaps it was for this reason that, in the ancient "lyke-wakes" of the North of England, a pinch of salt was placed upon the dead body, as a safeguard against purgatorial flames. Yet salt melts ice, and so represents heat, one would think; and one can fancy that these fragments should be doubly inflammable, by their saline quality, and by the unmerciful rubbing which the waves have given them. I have noticed what warmth this churning process communicates to the clotted foam that lies in tremulous masses among the rocks, holding all the blue of ocean in its bubbles. After one's hands are chilled with the water, one can warm them in the foam. These drift-wood fragments are but the larger foam of shipwrecks.
What strange comrades this flame brings together! As foreign sailors from remotest seas may sit and chat side by side, before some boarding-house fire in this seaport town, so these shapeless sticks, perhaps gathered from far wider wanderings, now nestle together against the backlog, and converse in strange dialects as they burn. It is written in the Heetopades of Veeshnoo Sarma, that, "as two planks, floating on the surface of the mighty receptacle of the waters, meet, and having met are separated forever, so do beings in this life come together and presently are parted." Perchance this chimney reunites the planks, at the last moment, as death must reunite friends.
And with what wondrous voices these strayed wanderers talk to one another on the hearth! They bewitch us by the mere fascination of their language. Such a delicacy of intonation, yet such a volume of sound. The murmur of the surf is not so soft or so solemn. There are the merest hints and traceries of tones,--phantom voices, more remote from noise than anything which is noise; and yet there is an undertone of roar, as from a thousand cities, the cities whence these wild voyagers came. Watch the decreasing sounds of a fire as it dies,--for it seems cruel to leave it, as we do, to die alone. I watched beside this hearth last night. As the fire sank down, the little voices grew stiller and more still, and at last there came only irregular beats, at varying intervals, as if from a heart that acted spasmodically, or as if it were measuring off by ticks the little remnant of time. Then it said, "Hush!" two or three times, and there came something so like a sob that it seemed human; and then all was still.
If these dying voices are so sweet and subtile, what legends must be held untold by yonder fragments that lie unconsumed! Photography has familiarized us with the thought that every visible act, since the beginning of the world, has stamped itself upon surrounding surfaces, even if we have not yet skill to discern and hold the image. And especially, in looking on a liquid expanse, such as the ocean in calm, one is haunted with these fancies. I gaze into its depths, and wonder if no stray reflection has been imprisoned there, still accessible to human eyes, of some scene of passion or despair it has witnessed; as some maiden visitor at Holyrood Palace, looking in the ancient metallic mirror, might start at the thought that perchance some lineament of Mary Stuart may suddenly look out, in desolate and forgotten beauty, mingled with her own. And if the mere waters of the ocean, satiate and wearied with tragedy as they must be, still keep for our fancy such records, how much more might we attribute a human consciousness to these shattered fragments, each seared by its own special grief.
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