Time To Light The Furnace by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

The twenty-eighth of October. Coal nine dollars a ton. Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell had made a resolution not to start the furnace until Thanksgiving. And in the biting winds of Long Island that requires courage.

Commuters the world over are a hardy, valorous race. The Arab commutes by dromedary, the Malay by raft, the Indian rajah by elephant, the African chief gets a team of his mothers-in-law to tow him to the office. But wherever you find him, the commuter is a tough and tempered soul, inured to privation and calamity. At seven-thirty in the morning he leaves his bungalow, tent, hut, palace, or kraal, and tells his wife he is going to work.

How the winds whistle and moan over those Long Island flats! Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell had laid in fifteen tons of black diamonds. And hoping that would be enough, they were zealous not to start the furnace until the last touchdown had been made.

But every problem has more than one aspect. Belinda, the new cook, had begun to work for them on the fifth of October. Belinda came from the West Indies, a brown maiden still unspoiled by the sophistries of the employment agencies. She could boil an egg without cracking it, she could open a tin can without maiming herself. She was neat, guileless, and cheerful. But, she was accustomed to a warm climate.

The twenty-eighth of October. As Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell sat at dinner, Mr. Blackwell buttoned his coat, and began a remark about how chilly the evenings were growing. But across the table came one of those glances familiar to indiscreet husbands. Passion distorted, vibrant with rebuke, charged with the lightning of instant dissolution, Mrs. Blackwell’s gaze struck him dumb with alarm. Husbands, husbands, you know that gaze!

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Mr. Blackwell kept silence. He ate heartily, choosing foods rich in calories. He talked of other matters, and accepted thankfully what Belinda brought to him. But he was chilly, and a vision of coal bills danced in his mind.

* * * * *

After dinner he lit the open fire in the living room, and he and Mrs. Blackwell talked in discreet tones. Belinda was merrily engaged in washing the dishes.

“Bob, you consummate blockhead!” said Mrs. Blackwell, “haven’t you better sense than to talk about its being chilly? These last few days Belinda has done nothing but complain about the cold. She comes from Barbados, where the thermometer never goes below sixty. She said she couldn’t sleep last night, her room was so cold. I’ve given her my old fur coat and the steamer rug from your den. One other remark like that of yours and she’ll leave. For heaven’s sake, Bob, use your skull!”

Mr. Blackwell gazed at her in concern. The deep, calculating wisdom of women was made plain to him. He ventured no reply.

Mrs. Blackwell was somewhat softened by his docility.

“You don’t realize, dear,” she added, “how servants are affected by chance remarks they overhear. The other day you mentioned the thermometer, and the next morning I found Belinda looking at it. If you must say anything about the temperature, complain of the heat. Otherwise we’ll have to start the furnace at once.”

Mr. Blackwell’s face was full of the admiration common to the simple-minded race of husbands.

“Jumbo,” he said, “you’re right. I was crazy. Watch me from now on. Mental suggestion is the dope. The power of the chance remark!”

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The next evening at dinner, while Belinda was passing the soup, Mr. Blackwell fired his first gun. “It seems almost too warm for hot soup,” he said. “All the men at the office were talking about the unseasonable hot weather. I think we’d better have a window open.” To Mrs. Blackwell’s dismay, he raised one of the dining-room windows, admitting a pungent frostiness of October evening. But she was game, and presently called for a palm-leaf fan. When Belinda was in the room they talked pointedly of the heat, and Mr. Blackwell quoted imaginary Weather Bureau notes from the evening paper.

After dinner, as he was about to light the log fire, from force of habit, Mrs. Blackwell snatched the burning match from him just as he was setting it to the kindling. They grinned at each other wistfully, for the ruddy evening blaze was their chief delight. Mr. Blackwell manfully took off his coat and waistcoat and sat in his shirtsleeves until Belinda had gone to bed. Then he grew reckless and lit a roaring fire, by which they huddled in glee. He rebuilt the fire before retiring, so that Belinda might suspect nothing in the morning.

The next evening Mr. Blackwell appeared at dinner in a Palm Beach suit. Mrs. Blackwell countered by ordering iced tea. They both sneezed vigorously during the meal. “It was so warm in town to-day, I think I caught a cold,” said Mr. Blackwell.

Later Mrs. Blackwell found Belinda examining the thermometer with a puzzled air. That night they took it down and hid it in the attic. But the great stroke of the day was revealed when Mrs. Blackwell explained that Mr. and Mrs. Chester, next door, had promised to carry on a similar psychological campaign. Belinda and Mrs. Chester’s cook, Tulip–jocularly known as the Black Tulip–were friends, and would undoubtedly compare notes. Mrs. Chester had agreed not to start her furnace without consultation with Mrs. Blackwell.

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October yielded to November. By good fortune the weather remained sunny, but the nights were crisp. Belinda was given an oil-stove for her attic bedroom. Mrs. Blackwell heard no more complaints of the cold, but sometimes she and her husband could hear uneasy creakings upstairs late at night. “I wonder if Barbados really is so warm?” she asked Bob. “I’m sure it can’t be warmer than Belinda’s room. She never opens the windows, and the oil-stove has to be filled every morning.”

“Perhaps some day we can get an Eskimo maid,” suggested Mr. Blackwell drowsily. He wore his Palm Beach suit every night for dinner, but underneath it he was panoplied in heavy flannels.

* * * * *

Through Mr. Chester the rumour of the Blackwells’ experiment in psychology spread far among suburban husbands. On the morning train less fortunate commuters, who had already started their fires, referred to him as “the little brother of the iceberg.” Mr. and Mrs. Chester came to dinner on the 16th of November. Both the men loudly clamoured for permission to remove their coats, and sat with blanched and chattering jaws. Mr. Blackwell made a feeble pretence at mopping his brow, but when the dessert proved to be ice-cream his nerve forsook him. “N-no, Belinda,” he said. “It’s too warm for ice-cream to-night. I don’t w–want to get chilled. Bring me some hot coffee.” As she brought his cup he noticed that her honest brown brow was beaded with perspiration. “By George,” he thought, “this mental suggestion business certainly works.” Late that evening he lit the log fire and revelled by the blaze in an ulster.

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The next evening when Mr. Blackwell came home from business he met the doctor in the hall.

“Hello, doc,” he said, “what’s up?”

“Mrs. Blackwell called me in to see your maid,” said the doctor. “It’s the queerest thing I’ve met in twenty years’ practice. Here it is the 17th of November, and cold enough for snow. That girl has all the symptoms of sunstroke and prickly heat.”

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