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An essay by Harriet Beecher Stowe

The Ravages Of A Carpet

Title:     The Ravages Of A Carpet
Author: Harriet Beecher Stowe [More Titles by Stowe]

"My dear, it's so cheap!"

These words were spoken by my wife, as she sat gracefully on a roll of Brussels carpet which was spread out in flowery lengths on the floor of Messrs. Ketchem & Co.

"It's so cheap!"

Milton says that the love of fame is the last infirmity of noble minds. I think he had not rightly considered the subject. I believe that last infirmity is the love of getting things cheap! Understand me, now. I don't mean the love of getting cheap things, by which one understands showy, trashy, ill-made, spurious articles, bearing certain apparent resemblances to better things. All really sensible people are quite superior to that sort of cheapness. But those fortunate accidents, which put within the power of a man things really good and valuable for half or a third of their value, what mortal virtue and resolution can withstand? My friend Brown has a genuine Murillo, the joy of his heart and the light of his eyes, but he never fails to tell you, as its crowning merit, how he bought it in South America for just nothing,--how it hung smoky and deserted in the back of a counting-room, and was thrown in as a makeweight to bind a bargain, and, upon being cleaned turned out a genuine Murillo; and then he takes out his cigar, and calls your attention to the points in it; he adjusts the curtain to let the sunlight fall just in the right spot; he takes you to this and the other point of view; and all this time you must confess that, in your mind as well as his, the consideration that he got all this beauty for ten dollars adds lustre to the painting. Brown has paintings there for which he paid his thousands, and, being well advised, they are worth the thousands he paid; but this ewe lamb that he got for nothing always gives him a secret exaltation in his own eyes. He seems to have credited to himself personally merit to the amount of what he should have paid for the picture. Then there is Mrs. Croesus, at the party yesterday evening, expatiating to my wife on the surprising cheapness of her point-lace set. "Got for just nothing at all, my dear!" and a circle of admiring listeners echoes the sound. "Did you ever hear anything like it? I never heard of such a thing in my life;" and away sails Mrs. Croesus as if she had a collar composed of all the cardinal virtues. In fact, she is buoyed up with a secret sense of merit, so that her satin slippers scarcely touch the carpet. Even I myself am fond of showing a first edition of "Paradise Lost" for which I gave a shilling in a London bookstall, and stating that I would not take a hundred dollars for it. Even I must confess there are points on which I am mortal.

But all this while my wife sits on her roll of carpet, looking into my face for approbation, and Marianne and Jenny are pouring into my ear a running fire of "How sweet! How lovely! Just like that one of Mrs. Tweedleum's!"

"And she gave two dollars and seventy-five cents a yard for hers, and this is"--

My wife here put her hand to her mouth and pronounced the incredible sum in a whisper, with a species of sacred awe, common, as I have observed, to females in such interesting crises. In fact Mr. Ketchem, standing smiling and amiable by, remarked to me that really he hoped Mrs. Crowfield would not name generally what she gave for the article, for positively it was so far below the usual rate of prices that he might give offense to other customers; but this was the very last of the pattern, and they were anxious to close off the old stock, and we had always traded with them, and he had a great respect for my wife's father, who had always traded with their firm, and so, when there were any little bargains to be thrown in any one's way, why, he naturally, of course--And here Mr. Ketchem bowed gracefully over the yardstick to my wife, and I consented.

Yes, I consented; but whenever I think of myself at that moment, I always am reminded, in a small way, of Adam taking the apple; and my wife, seated on that roll of carpet, has more than once suggested to my mind the classic image of Pandora opening her unlucky box. In fact, from the moment I had blandly assented to Mr. Ketchem's remarks, and said to my wife, with a gentle air of dignity, "Well, my dear, since it suits you, I think you had better take it," there came a load on my prophetic soul which not all the fluttering and chattering of my delighted girls and the more placid complacency of my wife could entirely dissipate. I presaged I know not what of coming woe, and all I presaged came to pass.

In order to know just what came to pass, I must give you a view of the house and home into which this carpet was introduced.

My wife and I were somewhat advanced housekeepers, and our dwelling was first furnished by her father, in the old-fashioned jog-trot days when furniture was made with a view to its lasting from generation to generation. Everything was strong and comfortable,--heavy mahogany, guiltless of the modern device of veneering, and hewed out with a square solidity which had not an idea of change. It was, so to speak, a sort of granite foundation of the household structure. Then we commenced housekeeping with the full idea that our house was a thing to be lived in, and that furniture was made to be used. That most sensible of women, Mrs. Crowfield, agreed fully with me that in our house there was to be nothing too good for ourselves,--no room shut up in holiday attire to be enjoyed by strangers for three or four days in the year, while we lived in holes and corners; no best parlor from which we were to be excluded; no silver plate to be kept in the safe in the bank, and brought home only in case of a grand festival, while our daily meals were served with dingy Britannia. "Strike a broad, plain average," I said to my wife; "have everything abundant, serviceable, and give all our friends exactly what we have ourselves, no better and no worse;" and my wife smiled approval on my sentiment.

Smile? she did more than smile. My wife resembles one of those convex mirrors I have sometimes seen. Every idea I threw out, plain and simple, she reflected back upon me in a thousand little glitters and twinkles of her own; she made my crude conceptions come back to me in such perfectly dazzling performances that I hardly recognized them. My mind warms up when I think what a home that woman made of our house from the very first day she moved into it. The great, large, airy parlor, with its ample bow-window, when she had arranged it, seemed a perfect trap to catch sunbeams. There was none of that discouraging trimness and newness that often repel a man's bachelor friends after the first call, and make them feel, "Oh, well, one cannot go in at Crowfield's now, unless one is dressed; one might put them out." The first thing our parlor said to any one was, that we were not people to be put out, that we were widespread, easy-going, and jolly folk. Even if Tom Brown brought in Ponto and his shooting-bag, there was nothing in that parlor to strike terror into man and dog; for it was written on the face of things that everybody there was to do just as he or she pleased. There were my books and my writing-table spread out with all its miscellaneous confusion of papers on one side of the fireplace, and there were my wife's great, ample sofa and work-table on the other; there I wrote my articles for the "North American;" and there she turned and ripped and altered her dresses; and there lay crochet and knitting and embroidery side by side with a weekly basket of family mending, and in neighborly contiguity with the last book of the season, which my wife turned over as she took her after-dinner lounge on the sofa. And in the bow-window were canaries always singing, and a great stand of plants always fresh and blooming, and ivy which grew and clambered and twined about the pictures. Best of all, there was in our parlor that household altar, the blazing wood fire, whose wholesome, hearty crackle is the truest household inspiration. I quite agree with one celebrated American author who holds that an open fireplace is an altar of patriotism. Would our Revolutionary fathers have gone barefooted and bleeding over snows to defend air-tight stoves and cooking-ranges? I trow not. It was the memory of the great open kitchen-fire, with its back log and fore stick of cord-wood, its roaring, hilarious voice of invitation, its dancing tongues of flame, that called to them through the snows of that dreadful winter to keep up their courage, that made their hearts warm and bright with a thousand reflected memories. Our neighbors said that it was delightful to sit by our fire,--but then, for their part, they could not afford it, wood was so ruinously dear, and all that. Most of these people could not, for the simple reason that they felt compelled, in order to maintain the family dignity, to keep up a parlor with great pomp and circumstance of upholstery, where they sat only on dress occasions, and of course the wood fire was out of the question.

When children began to make their appearance in our establishment, my wife, like a well-conducted housekeeper, had the best of nursery arrangements,--a room all warmed, lighted, and ventilated, and abounding in every proper resource of amusement to the rising race; but it was astonishing to see how, notwithstanding this, the centripetal attraction drew every pair of little pattering feet to our parlor.

"My dear, why don't you take your blocks upstairs?"

"I want to be where oo are," said with a piteous under lip, was generally a most convincing answer.

Then, the small people could not be disabused of the idea that certain chief treasures of their own would be safer under papa's writing-table or mamma's sofa than in the safest closet of their domains. My writing-table was dockyard for Arthur's new ship, and stable for little Tom's pepper-and-salt-colored pony, and carriage-house for Charley's new wagon, while whole armies of paper dolls kept house in the recess behind mamma's sofa.

And then, in due time, came the tribe of pets who followed the little ones and rejoiced in the blaze of the firelight. The boys had a splendid Newfoundland, which, knowing our weakness, we warned them with awful gravity was never to be a parlor dog; but somehow, what with little beggings and pleadings on the part of Arthur and Tom, and the piteous melancholy with which Rover would look through the window-panes when shut out from the blazing warmth into the dark, cold veranda, it at last came to pass that Rover gained a regular corner at the hearth, a regular status in every family convocation. And then came a little black-and-tan English terrier for the girls; and then a fleecy poodle, who established himself on the corner of my wife's sofa; and for each of these some little voice pleaded, and some little heart would be so near broken at any slight that my wife and I resigned ourselves to live in a menagerie, the more so as we were obliged to confess a lurking weakness towards these four-footed children ourselves.

So we grew and flourished together,--children, dogs, birds, flowers, and all; and although my wife often, in paroxysms of housewifeliness to which the best of women are subject, would declare that we never were fit to be seen, yet I comforted her with the reflection that there were few people whose friends seemed to consider them better worth seeing, judging by the stream of visitors and loungers which was always setting towards our parlor. People seemed to find it good to be there; they said it was somehow home-like and pleasant, and that there was a kind of charm about it that made it easy to talk and easy to live; and as my girls and boys grew up, there seemed always to be some merry doing or other going on there. Arty and Tom brought home their college friends, who straightway took root there and seemed to fancy themselves a part of us. We had no reception-rooms apart, where the girls were to receive young gentlemen; all the courting and flirting that were to be done had for their arena the ample variety of surface presented by our parlor, which, with sofas and screens and lounges and recesses, and writing and work tables, disposed here and there, and the genuine _laisser aller_ of the whole menage, seemed, on the whole, to have offered ample advantages enough; for at the time I write of, two daughters were already established in marriage, while my youngest was busy, as yet, in performing that little domestic ballet of the cat with the mouse, in the case of a most submissive youth of the neighborhood.

All this time our parlor furniture, though of that granitic formation I have indicated, began to show marks of that decay to which things sublunary are liable. I cannot say that I dislike this look in a room. Take a fine, ample, hospitable apartment, where all things, freely and generously used, softly and indefinably grow old together, there is a sort of mellow tone and keeping which pleases my eye. What if the seams of the great inviting armchair, where so many friends have sat and lounged, do grow white? What, in fact, if some easy couch has an undeniable hole worn in its friendly cover? I regard with tenderness even these mortal weaknesses of these servants and witnesses of our good times and social fellowship. No vulgar touch wore them; they may be called, rather, the marks and indentations which the glittering in and out of the tide of social happiness has worn in the rocks of our strand. I would no more disturb the gradual toning-down and aging of a well-used set of furniture by smart improvements than I would have a modern dauber paint in emendations in a fine old picture.

So we men reason, but women do not always think as we do. There is a virulent demon of housekeeping not wholly cast out in the best of them, and which often breaks out in unguarded moments. In fact Miss Marianne, being on the lookout for furniture wherewith to begin a new establishment, and Jenny, who had accompanied her in her peregrinations, had more than once thrown out little disparaging remarks on the time-worn appearance of our establishment, suggesting comparison with those of more modern furnished rooms.

"It is positively scandalous, the way our furniture looks," I one day heard one of them declaring to her mother; "and this old rag of a carpet!"

My feelings were hurt, not the less so that I knew that the large cloth which covered the middle of the floor, and which the women call a bocking, had been bought and nailed down there, after a solemn family council, as the best means of concealing the too evident darns which years of good cheer had made needful in our stanch old household friend, the three-ply carpet, made in those days when to be a three-ply was a pledge of continuance and service.

Well, it was a joyous and bustling day when, after one of those domestic whirlwinds which the women are fond of denominating house-cleaning, the new Brussels carpet was at length brought in and nailed down, and its beauty praised from mouth to mouth. Our old friends called in and admired, and all seemed to be well, except that I had that light and delicate presage of changes to come which indefinitely brooded over me.

The first premonitory symptom was the look of apprehensive suspicion with which the female senate regarded the genial sunbeams that had always glorified our bow-window.

"This house ought to have inside blinds," said Marianne, with all the confident decision of youth; "this carpet will be ruined if that sun is allowed to come in like that."

"And that dirty little canary must really be hung in the kitchen," said Jenny; "he always did make such a litter, scattering his seed chippings about; and he never takes his bath without flirting out some water. And, mamma, it appears to me it will never do to have the plants here. Plants are always either leaking through the pots upon the carpet, or scattering bits of blossoms and dead leaves, or some accident upsets or breaks a pot. It was no matter, you know, when we had the old carpet; but this we really want to have kept nice."

Mamma stood her ground for the plants,--darlings of her heart for many a year,--but temporized, and showed that disposition towards compromise which is most inviting to aggression.

I confess I trembled; for, of all radicals on earth, none are to be compared to females that have once in hand a course of domestic innovation and reform. The sacred fire, the divine furor, burns in their bosoms; they become perfect Pythonesses, and every chair they sit on assumes the magic properties of the tripod. Hence the dismay that lodges in the bosoms of us males at the fateful spring and autumn seasons denominated house-cleaning. Who can say whither the awful gods, the prophetic fates, may drive our fair household divinities; what sins of ours may be brought to light; what indulgences and compliances, which uninspired woman has granted in her ordinary mortal hours, may be torn from us? He who has been allowed to keep a pair of pet slippers in a concealed corner, and by the fireside indulged with a chair which he might _ad libitum_ fill with all sorts of pamphlets and miscellaneous literature, suddenly finds himself reformed out of knowledge, his pamphlets tucked away into pigeonholes and corners, and his slippers put in their place in the hall, with, perhaps, a brisk insinuation about the shocking dust and disorder that men will tolerate.

The fact was, that the very first night after the advent of the new carpet I had a prophetic dream. Among our treasures of art was a little etching, by an English artist friend, the subject of which was the gambols of the household fairies in a baronial library after the household were in bed. The little people are represented in every attitude of frolic enjoyment. Some escalade the great armchair, and look down from its top as from a domestic Mont Blanc; some climb about the bellows; some scale the shaft of the shovel; while some, forming in magic ring, dance festively on the yet glowing hearth. Tiny troops promenade the writing-table. One perches himself quaintly on the top of the inkstand, and holds colloquy with another who sits cross-legged on a paper weight, while a companion looks down on them from the top of the sandbox. It was an ingenious little device, and gave me the idea, which I often expressed to my wife, that much of the peculiar feeling of security, composure, and enjoyment which seems to be the atmosphere of some rooms and houses came from the unsuspected presence of these little people, the household fairies, so that the belief in their existence became a solemn article of faith with me.

Accordingly, that evening, after the installation of the carpet, when my wife and daughters had gone to bed, as I sat with my slippered feet before the last coals of the fire, I fell asleep in my chair, and, lo! my own parlor presented to my eye a scene of busy life. The little people in green were tripping to and fro, but in great confusion. Evidently something was wrong among them; for they were fussing and chattering with each other, as if preparatory to a general movement. In the region of the bow-window I observed a tribe of them standing with tiny valises and carpetbags in their hands, as though about to depart on a journey. On my writing-table another set stood around my inkstand and pen-rack, who, pointing to those on the floor, seemed to debate some question among themselves; while others of them appeared to be collecting and packing away in tiny trunks certain fairy treasures, preparatory to a general departure. When I looked at the social hearth, at my wife's sofa and work-basket, I saw similar appearances of dissatisfaction and confusion. It was evident that the household fairies were discussing the question of a general and simultaneous removal. I groaned in spirit, and, stretching out my hand, began a conciliatory address, when whisk went the whole scene from before my eyes, and I awaked to behold the form of my wife asking me if I were ill, or had had the nightmare, that I groaned so. I told her my dream, and we laughed at it together.

"We must give way to the girls a little," she said. "It is natural, you know, that they should wish us to appear a little as other people do. The fact is, our parlor is somewhat dilapidated; think how many years we have lived in it without an article of new furniture."

"I hate new furniture," I remarked, in the bitterness of my soul. "I hate anything new."

My wife answered me discreetly, according to approved principles of diplomacy. I was right. She sympathized with me. At the same time, it was not necessary, she remarked, that we should keep a hole in our sofa-cover and armchair,--there would certainly be no harm in sending them to the upholsterer's to be new-covered; she didn't much mind, for her part, moving her plants to the south back room; and the bird would do well enough in the kitchen: I had often complained of him for singing vociferously when I was reading aloud.

So our sofa went to the upholsterer's; but the upholsterer was struck with such horror at its clumsy, antiquated, unfashionable appearance that he felt bound to make representations to my wife and daughters: positively, it would be better for them to get a new one, of a tempting pattern which he showed them, than to try to do anything with that. With a stitch or so here and there it might do for a basement dining-room; but, for a parlor, he gave it as his disinterested opinion,--he must say, if the case were his own, he should get, etc., etc. In short, we had a new sofa and new chairs, and the plants and the birds were banished, and some dark-green blinds were put up to exclude the sun from the parlor, and the blessed luminary was allowed there only at rare intervals, when my wife and daughters were out shopping, and I acted out my uncivilized male instincts by pulling up every shade and vivifying the apartment as in days of old.

But this was not the worst of it. The new furniture and new carpet formed an opposition party in the room. I believe in my heart that for every little household fairy that went out with the dear old things there came in a tribe of discontented brownies with the new ones. These little wretches were always twitching at the gowns of my wife and daughters, jogging their elbows, and suggesting odious comparisons between the smart new articles and what remained of the old ones. They disparaged my writing-table in the corner; they disparaged the old-fashioned lounge in the other corner, which had been the maternal throne for years; they disparaged the work-table, the work-basket, with constant suggestions of how such things as these would look in certain well-kept parlors where new-fashioned furniture of the same sort as ours existed.

"We don't have any parlor," said Jenny one day. "Our parlor has always been a sort of log cabin,--library, study, nursery, greenhouse, all combined. We never have had things like other people."

"Yes, and this open fire makes such a dust; and this carpet is one that shows every speck of dust; it keeps one always on the watch."

"I wonder why papa never had a study to himself; I'm sure I should think he would like it better than sitting here among us all. Now there's the great south room off the dining-room; if he would only move his things there and have his open fire, we could then close up the fireplace and put lounges in the recesses, and mamma could have her things in the nursery,--and then we should have a parlor fit to be seen."

I overheard all this, though I pretended not to,--the little busy chits supposing me entirely buried in the recesses of a German book over which I was poring.

There are certain crises in a man's life when the female element in his household asserts itself in dominant forms that seem to threaten to overwhelm him. The fair creatures, who in most matters have depended on his judgment, evidently look upon him at these seasons as only a forlorn, incapable male creature, to be cajoled and flattered and persuaded out of his native blindness and absurdity into the fairyland of their wishes.

"Of course, mamma," said the busy voices, "men can't understand such things. What can men know of housekeeping, and how things ought to look? Papa never goes into company; he don't know and don't care how the world is doing, and don't see that nobody now is living as we do."

"Aha, my little mistresses, are you there?" I thought; and I mentally resolved on opposing a great force of what our politicians call backbone to this pretty domestic conspiracy.

"When you get my writing-table out of this corner, my pretty dears, I'd thank you to let me know it."

Thus spake I in my blindness, fool that I was. Jupiter might as soon keep awake when Juno came in best bib and tucker, and with the cestus of Venus, to get him to sleep. Poor Slender might as well hope to get the better of pretty Mistress Anne Page as one of us clumsy-footed men might endeavor to escape from the tangled labyrinth of female wiles.

In short, in less than a year it was all done, without any quarrel, any noise, any violence,--done, I scarce knew when or how, but with the utmost deference to my wishes, the most amiable hopes that I would not put myself out, the most sincere protestations that, if I liked it better as it was, my goddesses would give up and acquiesce. In fact I seemed to do it of myself, constrained thereto by what the Emperor Napoleon has so happily called the logic of events,--that old, well-known logic by which the man who has once said A must say B, and he who has said B must say the whole alphabet. In a year we had a parlor with two lounges in decorous recesses, a fashionable sofa, and six chairs and a looking-glass, and a grate always shut up, and a hole in the floor which kept the parlor warm, and great, heavy curtains that kept out all the light that was not already excluded by the green shades.

It was as proper and orderly a parlor as those of our most fashionable neighbors; and when our friends called, we took them stumbling into its darkened solitude, and opened a faint crack in one of the window-shades, and came down in our best clothes and talked with them there. Our old friends rebelled at this, and asked what they had done to be treated so, and complained so bitterly that gradually we let them into the secret that there was a great south room, which I had taken for my study, where we all sat; where the old carpet was down; where the sun shone in at the great window; where my wife's plants flourished, and the canary-bird sang, and my wife had her sofa in the corner, and the old brass andirons glistened, and the wood fire crackled,--in short, a room to which all the household fairies had emigrated.

When they once had found that out, it was difficult to get any of them to sit in our parlor. I had purposely christened the new room my study, that I might stand on my rights as master of ceremonies there, though I opened wide arms of welcome to any who chose to come. So, then, it would often come to pass that, when we were sitting round the fire in my study of an evening, the girls would say,--

"Come, what do we always stay here for? Why don't we ever sit in the parlor?"

And then there would be manifested among guests and family friends a general unwillingness to move.

"Oh, hang it, girls!" would Arthur say; "the parlor is well enough, all right; let it stay as it is, and let a fellow stay where he can do as he pleases and feels at home;" and to this view of the matter would respond divers of the nice young bachelors who were Arthur's and Tom's sworn friends.

In fact nobody wanted to stay in our parlor now. It was a cold, correct, accomplished fact; the household fairies had left it,--and when the fairies leave a room, nobody ever feels at home in it. No pictures, curtains, no wealth of mirrors, no elegance of lounges, can in the least make up for their absence. They are a capricious little set; there are rooms where they will not stay, and rooms where they will; but no one can ever have a good time without them.

[The end]
Harriet Beecher Stowe's essay: Ravages Of A Carpet