The Furnis Man, a story from 1916

This is a perfectly silly, soppy, and very dated story from an old magazine that I found because it’s illustrated by an illustrator I am quite fond of and I periodically do a search for her works just because I like to look at them.  But as silly, soppy, and utterly dated as it is, a period piece that simply couldn’t have come from any other country or era than the one it did, it tickled me.  While I am all for the merits of timeless literature, sometimes I like those stories precisely because of their dated references and standards.
It’s also classist, obliviously so even while making fun of classism, and yet, it made me smile.  It passed away a few minutes in mild enjoyment, an elbow-chair for the mind, complete with calorie-free chocolate bon-bons for the brain.

Miss Anita Hollowway rested her arms inelegantly on her breakfast tray and fronwncd down at the silver coffee-pot, the cream-pitcher, the two slieces of toast, and the pile of letters that met her sardonic glance. She was twenty- four.  A dear and candid friend had once said of her that she looked like a girl in her teens when she was interested, and thirty when she was bored. She was not interested now. Another day had begun, and there was every prospect that it would be very much like the previous seventy- eight days which had followed her reluctant return to New York from her big house in the country. She had been bored there, but not oppressively; she was oppressively bored in town, and she fiercely resented the fact.

In twenty minutes her masseuse would arrive, and the strenuous hour of this young person’s visit would be succeeded the attentions of a maid, who might or might not arouse the momentary interest attending the building of a new style of coiffure on the head of her mistress. After that there would be the nuisance of getting dressed, Anita reflected gloomily- and then a luncheon at which eight or ten women would gabble about nothing, none listening to any of the others. At five she must go to Harriet Mason’s tea, “to meet” a person she had not the slightest desire to meet and talk about pointless things she had not the slightest desire to talk about; and she must get away from that in time to dress for a seven-o’clock dinner, followed by a play concerning which she had heard the most depressing reports.

As to the mail, she knew before she opened her letters about what they contained: An appeal in behalf of the Polish fund; an appeal in behalf of the Servian fund; an almost tearful plea from a local charity organization not to forget the deserving poor at home; three invitations to dinners; five or six invitations to luncheons; four requests that she be a hostess of some fund-raisers, all entertainments for worthy ends of course, and requests that she buy half a dozen tickets at five dollars each; one or two casual notes from women friends as blasé as herself; several notes from uninteresting men with uninteresting conversational gifts inviting her to see the Russian dancers.  As she flicked through those invitations, Miss Holloway reflected with increasing gloom that one should see those Russian dancers with interesting men or one should not see them at all.

She opened other letters. They realized her darkest forebodings. But at the bottom of the heap, almost hidden under the rim of her plate, was a tiny envelope, addressed in sprawling printed letters; and at the sight of which the lovely but cold face of Miss Holloway warmed and brightened as if touched by a sudden beam from the sun of romance and became not just lovely, but delightfully human and charming. She tore open the envelope, swept an eye past a line of white ducks in frenzied fight across the top of a blue page, and read the words below:

DERE AUNT NITA:

Mother says I can Ask just the Ones I Want for my burthday partie. It is Thursday.an I want you. Will you come?

Mother says Tell you the Rest so it is Jim who does not belong to eny One. He sels papers he is Older than Me. And my nurs. And there is the the Furnis man and Carlota from Sweden she dosn’t no anybody and is lonsom.  And my Own dokter and Profeser Gray Farther says he nos more Than Any one els in the Unervercity but he has not Got eny Litel Boy. Pleas cum I kno you wil like The furnis Man. Yur lovin frend,

Philip

Miss Holloway read the letter twice. Then she threw back her head with a laugh, such an unexpected sound that it had a shattering effect on the nervous system of the maid who was just coming in to remove the breakfast-tray. Subsequently, as Anita resigned herself to the ministrations of the masseuse, and still later to those of the artiste in coiffures, her lips were curved in a tender and absent smile.

She recalled the list of Philip’s prospective guests, and they seemed to pass before her in imagined review: Carlotta of Sweden. who sounded like a royal, but was probably a cook; Gray, visualized as a dried-up, academic person who had won Philip’s heart by showing him a tadpole or a caterpillar; Jim. evidently a pal near Philip’s tender age; and last, but far from least, the Furnace Man Philip was sure she would like. She knew how the boy must have met this person in his explorations through the cellar of the great Cameron house. She could just picture the big-eyed, passionately friendly child sitting on an upturned box, watching the Furnace Man at his labors, and winning the heart of that untidy individual, as he won the hearts of all who touched his life.

Philip was a darling, a very prince of darlings; she had always adored him, and now she was almost passionately grateful to him for giving her a thrill of real interest. She wrote a personal acceptance of his and, light-heartedly leaving the remaining letters for her secretary to answer according to the dictates of grammar and the rules of etiquette, she went to the gabbling luncheon, which was fully as gabbling as she had expected it to be.

In one of the rare intervals in which she herself was permitted to gabble. she mentioned Philip’s invitation, and was rewarded by an immediate attention. even from a group which was discussing the latest in weight loss.

“That child will have a lot Of money when he’s twenty—one,” contributed her hostess-“ But he’ll probably be a socialist by that time and give It all away, because of the peculiar notions of his parents. Fancy letting him associate with newsboys and furnace-men !”
“’ But think of getting Professor Gray!” another breathed in awe. “He never goes anywhere, and his books are wonderful.”

“The Camerons ought to be putting up now for the best schools and clubs, so he’ll get in when he’s old enough,” another matron thought. “We entered Billy for Groton the day he was born.”

“Are you really his aunt?” a fourth asked Miss Holloway. “No,” Anita admitted; “only his godmother. But when he was old enough to notice names, and heard his mother call me Anita, he thought it meant ‘Aunt and so.” She stopped. Nobody was listening.

“That luncheon of his will be a weird affair,” said a girl who affected off-hand speech. ” Where d’ ye s’pose he’ll sandwich Nita—between Jim and Carlotta ?”
Anita laughed. “l hope so,” she declared. ” I’d infinitely prefer them to Professor Gray and the doctor.”

The same problem was at the same moment disturbing the breast of Master Philip Cameron. Following their usual method with this precocious infant, his parents had thrown upon him the bur den of the preparations for his party. as well as of the entertainment itself. They were, they lightly mentioned, at his service as a source of general information; but they expected him to untie his own somewhat tangled social knots.
Pale but calm, Master Philip asked a few’ questions. He learned that the table arrangement of his guests was highly important. Also that there were hosts so given to detail that they actually wrote out a list of their guests and then made a diagram of their positions at the banquet-board. His mother seemed to admire such hosts. Philip disappeared with a wan smile. A little later he returned with inky fingers and a blotted list, to which Mrs. Cameron gave immediate and respectful attention.

Jim
Nurs
Carlotta from Sweden
Dokter Clark
Aunt Nita
Profeser Gray
the Furnis man

How many does that make?” his mother demanded. Breathing rather heavily in his interest, Philip counted the names. It was an important matter. There must be no mistake. ” Seven,” he decided. “Eight would be better,” mused the exacting parent. “Eight is an even number and they could go into the dining-room in pairs.”

“Like an’mals into the Ark,” con- firmed Philip, grasping the point.
“Can you think of any one else you’d like to ask? There really should be eight.” Philip shook his head. Then his brow cleared. “Would I do?” he suggested, diffidently. You know I—I— really ‘spected to be there!”
His mother laughed and hugged him, hiding in his yellow hair a conscious face. “I think you will,” she conceded. When the question of the diagram came up after this refreshing interval, Philip drew a circle that bore a depressing resemblance to a leaky egg. A few patient touches gave it better proportions, and then, still following a large general plan, he made crosses at the head and foot to represent his guests, and three marks on each side of the imaginary table.

There remained the delicate matter of arranging the guests, and at this point Mrs. Cameron departed somewhat abruptly, murmuring that a lady usually sat between two gentlemen, and that the guests “one most desired to honor” were placed at one’s right and left. The hints left Philip rather limp, but that night when he was sleeping—somewhat restlessly, it must be confessed, after his mental exertions— his father and mother found this document in his small desk, and bent reverent heads above it:

TBC

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

What they were reading that year, from the pages of a 1915-16 of The Bookman. Not an endorsement (I’ve read three of these and haven’t even heard of the rest), here is some other fiction published in this time-frame:

The Anvil of Chance By Gerald Chitten, A story of character development. The scenes are in a boys boarding school, country life in New England and in Central America.

Around Old Chester By Margaret Deland. More tales of Dr Lavender’s community

The Ashiel Mystery A Detective Story By Mrs Charles Bryce, A detective story involving the mystery of the heroine’s birth and of a strange murder.

The Bachelors By William Dana Orcutt, A story of varying types of American college men and their reactions to the modern world.

Barnavoux By Pierre Mille Being the Authorized Translation by Berengere Drillien. Adventures in the French Colonial Infantry at its various stations.

The Bent Twig By Dorothy Canfield (later Dorothy Canfield Fisher of Understood Betsy fame) A psychological study of a young Western girl her early life and her love affair.

Beyond the Frontier By Randall Parrish. Early days in the Middle West with La Salle and the French explorers.

The Boomerang By William Hamilton Osborne. A mystery story of business and social life in New York.

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens. A holiday edition illustrated by Arthur Rackham

The Corner Stone Bv Margaret Hill Mc Carter. A storv of Western farm life

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