The Furnace Man, part IV

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

A magazine story from 1916, reposted here in serial form.  Miss Holloway is a wealthy young socialite and philanthropist in New York City.  The ‘furnis man’ is a young giant who is working his way through University by tending furnaces and other jobs.  It in his capacity as The Furnace Man that he has met young Philip Cameron, a charming and precocious child of five who has invited these two and an odd assortment of others of his aquaintances to his birthday party.  Miss Holloway and the Furnace Man have been chatting over lunch, and his knowledge of all things contemporary, literary, musicale and political is quite baffling her, what with his shabby clothing, torn shoes, and admission that he must work to get through college…

 

“What he thought was frequently what Miss Holloway herself thought, and she realized this with surprise. Also, she experienced an impulse to change her opinions if they conflicted with his, a most unusual impulse. He really talked extremely well, but he left her restless, discontented. He was playing a part.  With every word he uttered she felt herself getting further and further away from the real man. Again she was outside of his house, a house warmed and lighted now, but still locked. Resolutely she rang the bell.

“But how have you seen and read and heard all these things? How have you found time-”

“And money?” His eyes twinkled. As if he had kept her long enough on the threshold, the door swung open. “Oh, I have friends in your world- Dick Mason and Bert Houghton take me about a good deal. and Dick’s extra evening clothes fit me to perfection. Once or twice a month, I leave the furnaces and get into the clothes and gad. I feel that I can accept their hospitality because-”

For the first time he hesitated, looking self conscious.
“Well, because Bert’s mother is my aunt, and Dick’s father is my godfather, Miss Holloway.”

She studied him in silence. To her seeing eyes he was as completely transformed by his last words as if a fairy wand had been waved over him. His disguise had fallen off. He stood before her, an enchanted prince glowing in the reflected glory of the Houghtons and the Masons. She knew all about him, now. Harriet Mason talked by the hour of this eccentric young man who was quite willing to accept the affection of the two families, but declined the slightest help at their hands.

Of course they loved to take him about and show him off! A hundred half forgotten details jostled one another in her memory. He was captain of the football team which had defeated Princeton in November, he was the man who had saved Dick Mason’s life when he was accidentally shot in the Maine woods two years ago, he was, oh it made her blush to think of all he was and had been, this youth she had so calmly patronized.

And the Masons and Houghtons allowed him to be a furnace man That thought was the worst of all. It made her writhe, but she told herself she was merely resenting that waste of splendid material.

“But how can they let you work like this?” she exclaimed impatiently. “Surely they could find a way to make you see how absurd it is!” Grubbing over furnaces and tutoring stupid boys-you, of all men!

His fine lips tightened. “They have nothing to do with that,” he said curtly. “That’s my affair. They can take me about if they like, it’s my only chance to see them, for they’re never at home. Besides, it’s part of one’s education. But that’s all I’ll let them do. However, it’s ‘most over. I’ll take my degree this June. After that, they can give me a leg up in starting.”

“Will you come and dine with me sometime?”

He glanced at her, then his eyes fell.

“No, thank you,” he said slowly.

Miss Holloway stared at him, disbelieving her ears.

“That sounds rude,” he conceded, “but of course you understand. “I’ve made it a rule never to accept any invitations but theirs. I will not accept hospitality I cannot return.”

Anita gave him her shoulder. A sudden depression settled upon her, a depression as unexpected as it was inexplicable. She felt horribly lonely. The Furnace Man, too, was staring moodily at his plate.  The voice of Carlotta from Sweden broke the silence that had fallen upon them.

“I ban go home,” she said. “I ban seek for home. I ban so lonesome. It is awful to be lone some. Yes.”

As if swung on a pivot, Anita turned and looked at the Furnace Man. As if impelled by a similar force, he had turned to look at her. For a long five seconds, the gray eyes and the brown ones plumbed each other’s depths and the abyss of each other’s loneliness. Then without a word they glanced away, Anita gave a flattering attention to Jim on her right, to whom as yet, she suddenly realized, she had given almost no attention at all.

Under the warmth of her smile, Jim detached himself from a rich salad and devoted a margin of his mind to social intercourse. Jim it soon appeared knew all about Miss Holloway. He had read of her in the newspapers he sold, and her name was on the brass tablet at the entrance of the big reading room in the newsboys’ home, where he lived. But he had been under the impression that she was one of ‘dem old dames- de kind wit white coils/’ It seemed a blow to him to find her less than seventy, and Miss Holloway left him to the force of a shock from which he seemed unable to rally, and glanced at the neighbor at her left.

The Furnace Man had been listening and smiling to himself. “Wouldn t flatter you, would he?” he asked quizzically. “What a nest of barbarians you’ve fallen into!”

Anita raised an eyebrow. “Do you call him a barbarian?” she asked, with a glance toward Philip. The Furnace Man’s eyes followed hers, growing very soft on the journey.

Philip was again talking to Carlotta, his yellow hair an aureole against the dark wood of the great carved chair in which he sat, his big eyes shining into the somber eyes of the girl, his small teeth showing in his shy, adorable smile. Through the heavy rain of the now general conversation, a few of his words pattered down on them.

“An’ when the flowers is all out in the gardens, and the birds come you’ll like us better. Then you will be happy!”

The cloud passed from the brow of Carlotta from Sweden.
“I could not like you no better as I do,” she said. Philip’s response was as eager as a lover’s. “Does that mean you like me now? really, truly?” he cried.

Carlotta from Sweden answered under her breath, but both Anita and the Furnace Man heard her, “I lofe you,” she said.

“It seems almost indelicate to listen, doesn’t it? commented the Furnace Man.  “But I know exactly how Carlotta feels.”

“Do you?”

“I love him, too,” he said quietly. “I’m simply devoted to the little chap. Once or twice when he has been a bit under the weather and couldn’t come down into the basementm I’ve been almost as disappointed as if the Only One had failed me.

“Is there an Only One?” Miss Holloway asked the question without compunction. She simply could not help it. Besides, anything was permissible at this incredible luncheon.

“Of course!”

“Tell me about her.”

TBC

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