Read CHAPTER XVII of The House that Jill Built after Jack's had proved a failure, free online book, by E. C. Gardner, on


Jack’s benevolent ambition to distribute their superfluous plans among those in need of such aids was strengthened by the receipt of another roll of drawings, showing designs for the interior work, wainscots, cornices, architraves, paneled ceilings and such wood finishings as are commonly found in houses that are built in conventional fashion, with lathed and plastered walls, trimmed at all corners and openings with wood more or less elaborately wrought. Of course, it was a large condescension in the architect to offer such a variety, and contrary to his avowed determination to decide without appeal all questions of construction and design, but he appreciated his clients and knew when to break his own rules and when to insist upon their observance. If Jill, had required an assortment he would doubtless have suggested that certain “practical” builders could furnish a full line of ready-made “artistic” patterns for little more than the cost of the paper on which they were printed; from these he would have advised her to select her own designs, as she might have chosen from a medicine chest sweet-smelling drops or sugar-coated pills of varying hue and form the result would doubtless he as satisfactory in one case as in the other. Since she had not demanded it as an inalienable right he gave her an opportunity to criticise and select, which she accepted by no means unwillingly. As a rule, the designs were, in her opinion, too elaborate and obtrusive. There were too many mouldings, there was too much carving, and too evident a purpose to provide a finish that should challenge attention by its extent or elegance. It would require too much labor to keep it in order, and it would cost too much. If she could not have work that was truly artistic, and therefore enduringly beautiful, whatever changes of fashion might occur, it was her wish to keep all the essential part of the building and finish modestly in the background, not attempting to make it ornamental, but relying upon the furniture for whatever conspicuous ornament or decoration might be desired. Nothing annoyed her more than an elegantly-finished house scantily provided with shabby, incongruous and misapplied furniture. The amiable concession of the architect came near causing a fatal quarrel, as amiable concessions are apt to do, for he found it almost impossible to satisfy Jill’s taste in the direction of simplicity; he seemed to feel that he was neglecting his duty if he gave her plain, narrow bands of wood absolutely devoid of all design beyond a designation of their width and thickness. Any carpenter’s boy could make such plans. “It would be worse,” he wrote, “than prescribing bread pills and ‘herb drink’ for a sick man.” To which Jill replied in substance that the needs of the patient are more important than professional rules.

Over the first great question, regarding the visible wood work of the interior, Jack and Jill had held many protracted discussions: should any of it be painted, or should all the wood be left to show its natural graining and color? To the argument that unpainted wood is not only “natural” but strictly genuine and more interesting than paint, Jack replied that “natural” things are not always beautiful; that paint, which makes no pretense of being anything but paint, is as genuine as shellac or varnish, and that if the object is to be interesting, the bark, the knots, the worm-holes, and, if possible, the worms themselves should be displayed. “Besides,” said he, “if we decide on hard wood, who shall choose the kinds? There’s beech, birch and maple; cherry, whitewood and ebony; ash and brown ash and white ash and black ash; ditto oak, drawn and quartered; there’s rosewood, redwood, gopherwood and wormwood; mahogany, laurel, holly and mistletoe; cedar of Lebanon and pine of Georgia, not to mention chestnut, walnut, butternut, cocoanut and peanut, all of which are popular and available woods for finishing modern dwellings. If we choose from this list, which may be indefinitely extended, the few kinds for which we can find room in our house, we shall be tormented with regret as long as we both do live because we didn’t choose something else. Now if we paint, behold how simple a thing it is! We buy a lot of white pine boards, put them up where they belong and paint them in whatever unnamable hues the prevailing fashion may chance to dictate. Our boards need not even be of the best quality; an occasional piece of sound sap, a few hard knots, or now and then a ’snoodledog’ as they say in Nantucket would do no harm. A prudent application of shellac and putty before painting will make everything right. Then if the fashions change, or if we should be refined beyond our present tastes and wish to go up higher, all we should need to lift the house to the same elevated plane is another coat of paint. On the other hand, if we had a room finished in old English oak, growing blacker and blacker every year; in mahogany or in cheap and mournful black walnut, what could we do if the imperious mistress of the world should decree light colors? With rare, pale, faded tints on the walls our strong, bold, heavy hard-wood finish would be painful in the extreme. We couldn’t change the wood and we couldn’t change the fashion.”

“If you were not my own husband, Jack, I should say you were dreadfully obtuse. Concerning fashions in house-building and furnishing I feel very much as Martin Luther felt about certain, formal religious dogmas. If we are asked to respect them as a matter of amiable compliance, if we find them convenient, agreeable and at the same time harmless, then let us quietly accept them; but, if we are commanded to obey them as vital, if they are set before us as solemn obligations to be reverenced as we reverence the everlasting truth, then, for Heaven’s sake, let us tear them in pieces and trample them under our feet, lest we lose our power to distinguish the substance from the shadow. The moment any particular style of building, finishing or furnishing becomes a recognized fashion, that moment I feel inclined to turn against it with all my might.”

“If you were not my own idolized wife, I should say that was ’pure cussedness.’”

“On the contrary, it is high moral principle; that is, moral principle applied to art. It is a simple, outright impossibility for human beings to have any true perception of art while a shadow of a thought of fashion remains. It is, indeed, possible that fashion may, for a moment, follow the straight and narrow road that leads to artistic excellence, as the fitful breath of a cyclone may, at a certain point in its giddy whirl, run parallel with the ceaseless sweep of the mighty trade-winds, but whoever tries to keep constantly in its track is sure to be hopelessly astray.”

“My dear, indignant, despiser of fashion, you know you wouldn’t wear a two-year-old bonnet to church, on a pleasant Sunday morning, for the price of a pew in the broad aisle.”

“Certainly not; that would be both mercenary and irreverent; moreover, my bonnet has nothing to do with artistic rules. It is not a work of art or of science, of nature or of grace. It is a conventional signal by which I announce a friendly disposition toward the follies of my fellow-creatures a sort of flag of truce, a badge of my conformity in little things. I wear it voluntarily and could lay it aside if I chose.”

“Undoubtedly, if you chose. Now, let us resume the original discussion. I had given one powerful argument in favor of paint when I was rashly interrupted: here is another it is much cheaper.”

“That would depend,” said Jill. “Ash, butternut, cherry and various other woods cost little, if any more, than the best pine, and the pine itself is very pretty for chambers.”

“Ah, but you forget the labor question. It is one thing to join two pieces of wood so closely as to leave no visible crack between them, and quite another to bring them into the same neighborhood, fill the chasm with putty and hide the whole under a coat of paint. The difference between these two kinds of joints is the difference between one stroke and two, between one day’s work and five days, between one thousand dollars and five thousand. My third argument you will surely appreciate. Paint is more artistic.” Here Jack paused to give his words effect; then proceeded like one walking on stilts. “Pure tones symphoniously gradated from contralto shadows to the tender brightness of the upper registers and harmoniously blended with the prevailing quality

“Oh, Jack! Don’t go any farther, you are already beyond your depth. When you attempt to quote Bessie’s sentiments you should have her letter before you. Perhaps I have a dim perception of the principle that underlies your thirdly. If so, this room is a pertinent illustration of it. Instead of all this white paint, if the wood work had been colored to match the predominant tint in the background of the paper, or a trifle darker, this being also the general ‘tone’ of the carpet, it is easy to see how the coloring of the room would have been simple and pleasing, instead of glaring and ugly. Yes, your plea for paint is not without value. I think, however, it would be entirely possible to stain the unpainted wood to produce any desired symphony, fugue or discord. It might be unnatural, especially if we wished to look blue, but it would not conceal the marking and shading of the grain of the wood which is so much prettier than any moulding or carving, and vastly easier to keep in order. Your economical arguments are always worth considering. I think the happy compromise for us will be to use hard wood in the first story and painted pine in the chambers, with various combinations and exceptions. The bath-rooms, halls and dressing-rooms of the second story should of course be without paint, and we may relieve the solid monotony of the hardwood finish with occasional fillets or bands of color, painted panels or any other irregularities we choose to invent. But this is invading the mighty and troublous realm of ‘interior decoration,’ from which I had resolved to keep at a respectful distance until the house is at least definitely planned in all its details.”

A wise decision, for although what we call in a general way “interior decoration” is closely allied to essential construction not infrequently seems to be a part of it there is still a sharp though often unseen line between them that cannot be crossed with impunity. Artistic construction is at best only second cousin to decoration, and while we may in building arrange to accommodate a certain style of furniture or ornament, as Bessie’s friend built her parlor to suit the rug, the result of such contriving is apt to be discouraging if not disastrous.

“Two things we must surely have,” said Jill, “which the architect has not sent; one, an old fashion, the other, a new one. We must have ‘chair rails,’ in every room down stairs that has not a solid wainscot, if I have to make the plans and put them up myself. We must also have another band of wood higher up entirely around every room in both stories, to which the pictures can be hung.”

“Perhaps the architect will object to this as interfering with his plans.”

“He cannot, for they belong to our side of the house; they are matters of use, not of design. He may put them where he pleases, within reasonable limits, and make them of any pattern, with due regard to cost. He may treat one as part of the dado, the other as a member of the cornice, if he chooses, but we must have them they are indispensable.”

“They are also dangerous, because they are fashionable.”

“Yes, an illustration of the temporary agreement of fashion and common sense. But things of real worth do not go out of fashion; fashion goes out of them; henceforth they live by their own merit and no one questions their right to be.”

“Have you written to Bessie?”

“Written to Bessie? What for?”

“Why, to come and get ready to start on her mission.”

“No, indeed; I supposed you had forgotten that absurd notion.”

“Not at all absurd. I mentioned it to Jim, and he was delighted. Offered to go up and escort her down. He said they could go out in a different direction every day and do a great deal of good in the course of a week.”

“Jack, I am ashamed of you! Don’t mention the subject to me again.”

“What shall I say to Jim?”

“You needn’t say anything to Jim. Tell him I am going to invite Bessie to visit us in the new house, and if he is in this part of the world I will send for him at the same time.”

“And that will be a full year, for the house is hardly begun.”

“Yes, a full year.”