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Thorne Smith


Interlude with a Furnace

WEDGED rather than crammed into the narrow confines of a packing case the great animal slumbered, sighing deeply in its sleep. It looked terribly uncomfortable, this creature, but was either unaware of the fact or ascetically disregarded it.

"With the entire house at his disposal," Tim wondered as he stood in the kitchen and looked down upon the dog, "why does he insist on pouring himself into that box? It's sheer stupidity—an inability to adapt himself to changing conditions."

Dopey was a large dog—too large, thought Tim Willows. Dopey would have made a better cow or even a small mule. The man's sense of irritation increased. Why, in God's name, why did this dog prefer the slow torture of that box to a pillow-strewn divan, a soft rug, or a comfortable corner in the front room?

Tim failed to realize that what little mind Dopey owned ran on a single track. He had always slept in that box; why should he not continue to sleep in that box? Night after night and even on dull afternoons, on fair days and foul, in sorrow and disgrace that box had been his refuge, his sanctuary. Other dogs no doubt were just waiting for an opportunity to take that box from him. This long had been Dopey's secret fear. But it would never be. That box was the one thing in the world that he actually owned. Growth, either physical or intellectual, meant little or nothing to Dopey. He brushed them aside as trifling considerations. He liked the smell of that box. It was familiar, homelike, and soothing to taut nerves.

When Tim had acquired this dog he had not been in search of a small dog. No. Neither had he wanted a large dog, a pounding, crashing, monolith of a beast. What Tim had been looking for was a nice, middle-size dog, and Dopey had appeared about to fill the bill. As a pup he had given every indication that in the due course of time he would evolve into a conservative, moderately proportioned creature. At that time there had been no suggestion that the dog secretly entertained ambitions to become if not the largest of all animals at least the largest of all dogs. In short, Dopey had appeared to be just such a dog as Mr. Willows most desired, a creature whose size would conform with the specifications of a modest suburban home. But in this Mr. Willows had either been deliberately tricked by the seemingly guileless pup or else had mistaken his intentions. It is possible that Dopey for some time had been deliberately curbing his natural tendency to vastness until he had attained the security of a good home. Certain it is that immediately upon arriving at the Willowses' establishment the dog had abandoned all pretence of self-regulation and had started growing dizzily before the alarmed eyes of his master. It is barely possible, on the other hand, that the thought of deception had never entered the dog's mind and that he was merely giving an outward manifestation of his appreciation of his great good fortune. It is just conceivable that Dopey said to himself, "This kind gentleman seems to have his heart set on owning a dog. Well, just to please him, I'll make as much of a dog of myself as I can manage. In me he will have more than just a dog. He'll have half a dozen dogs in one."

This might have been Dopey's attitude of mind, although his subsequent conduct makes it rather dubious. He speedily developed into a thief, a glutton, and a hypocrite, a nervous wreck in the face of attack, a braggart when danger was past. Had he been able to speak he would have lied steadily from morning to night, for the sheer sake of lying. He was a dog without a redeeming trait, without a spark of pride or an ounce of chivalry. Small dogs were his dish—that is, if they were small enough. In spite of which this animal had succeeded in worming his way into the good graces of Tim and Sally. Even the Twills tolerated him. On his part Dopey liked almost everybody who did not frighten him and who belonged to what he fondly believed to be the upper classes, but as almost everyone frightened him Dopey had few friends. He was also a snob.

For this attitude there was no justification whatever. He was the lowest of low-bred dogs. It would have taken several commodious closets to accommodate his family skeletons. At first there had been some loose talk about his Airedale ancestry. There was nothing to it. At some time during the love life of his indefatigable mother things must have become terribly involved. The result was Dopey, a creature who could call almost any dog brother with a fair chance of being right nine times out of ten. He was a melting-pot of a dog, carrying in his veins so many different strains of canine blood that he was never able to decide what breed of dog he should try hardest to be, or to develop any consistent course of canine conduct. He had no philosophy, no traditions, no moral standards. Dopey was just dog. His mother might have seen an Airedale once or even made a tentative date with an Airedale, but after one good look at her son it was obvious that the date had never amounted to anything definite.

Dopey now lifted a long, tan, knobby head and gazed meltingly at his master, his moist nose quivering delicately. Heaving his great, angular bulk out of the box he stretched painfully, yawned, shook himself, then suddenly became possessed of the devil. After a crashing, three-lap turn about the kitchen he flung his moplike paws against Mr. Willows's chest in a whirlwind of hospitality.

"God Almighty!" protested Tim, ruefully regarding several parallel red welts running down his chest. "What's the meaning of all this? Down, damn you, down."

Now nothing, save perhaps an amorous woman when a man wants to sleep, can be more exasperating, more fiendishly tormenting than a dog that insists on being violently playful and affectionate when one's nerves are about to snap. It is then that one's mind morbidly conceives the idea that an evil spirit has entered into the dog for the purpose of driving one mad. Tim Willows's nerves were at their worst and Dopey was at his. The harassed man turned to the stairs leading down to the basement, cursed them bitterly from the depth of his heart, then slowly descended while Dopey, in close attendance, licked the back of his neck with a tongue that felt like a recently used wash rag. He paused before the furnace and directed the stream of his profanity against its cold, bloated sides. Then he opened the door of the fire box and peered unhopefully into unresponsive blackness. Dopey went him one better and tried to crawl in. This resulted in a struggle between man and beast for the possession of the furnace. It ended in a draw. Tim pulled out the clinkers with one hand and pushed Dopey's inquiring face away with the other. This operation finished, Tim Willows sat down on a box and looked murderously at the dog.

"Blast you," muttered the man. "It's hard enough as it is without you making it harder. Why don't you go away somewhere and find something else to do, you great big ninny?"

He reached out to cuff the dog, but Dopey, his tongue lolling foolishly out, pranced just beyond reach and stood in an attitude of sportive attention. At that moment Tim thoroughly despised this dog with its silly face and ungainly paws. Rising wearily from the box he set about to collect some sticks of kindling wood, an action that sent Dopey into ecstasies of excitement. With wild eyes and teeth bared the dog snapped and lunged at the sticks, several of which he succeeded in snatching from his master's hands. Then strange noises were heard in the basement of that house. They issued from the distorted lips of Mr. Willows. That gentleman was chattering to himself with exasperation. He was in no fit condition to be allowed at large. Finally he picked up the dog bodily, staggered with him to the far end of the basement, dropped the perplexed creature, then rushing back to the furnace, seized some sticks and hurled them into the firebox. It had been an elaborate but successful manoeuvre. Mr Willows was breathing heavily both from emotion and fatigue. Sweat ran down his face and cut paths across patches of soot and coal dust. His hands were the hands of a man who has toiled long in grimy places. At last he started a blaze, then once more seated himself on the box and thought up horrible tortures for Dopey. That stout fellow, muzzle pressed to the floor, rump outrageously elevated, front paws spraddled, was uttering deep-throated growls of mock ferocity.

"Shut up, you," said Mr. Willows, flinging a stick of kindling at the dog.

Dopey dodged adroitly, seized the stick in his powerful jaws and crushed it. Realising he was entertaining rather than injuring the animal, Tim pretended to ignore it.

The business of putting coal on the fire proved even more trying. Every time the man attempted to swing the shovel the beast flung himself upon it, thus diverting its aim and spraying the floor with lumps of coal. This, thought Dopey, was the best game they had played so far. Mr. Willows made even more peculiar noises. He experienced a strong desire to break down completely and to abandon himself to waves of maniacal hysteria. Presently he took hold of himself and faced the situation squarely. He realised that nothing short of brutality would be effective in dealing with that dog. But at that moment Tim was too exhausted to employ such methods. Therefore he was forced to resort to subterfuge. It was an example of mind over matter.

Taking up the shovel he filled it with coal and placed it within easy reach. Then, squatting down, he lured the unsuspicious dog over to him. Suddenly he rose, delivered a kick of some force on the rump of the astounded Dopey, seized the shovel and hurled its contents into the furnace before the dog had time to recover from his surprise and indignation. Mr. Willows was elated. He hurled insults at the baffled dog.

"Got you that time, you reptile," he grated, and then proceeded to tell the discomfited creature just what he was a son of. The information left Dopey cold. Nor did he appear to be any the worse from the punishment he had received. Not so Mr. Willows. That gentleman's right foot, encased in a soft slipper, was throbbing with acute pain. He hobbled to the box and sat down. Perhaps he had broken a toe, one of those toes against which Sally was so unreasonably prejudiced. Tim Willows felt the return of his former depression, which had been momentarily dispelled by his triumph over the dog. He realised now that it had been a hollow victory, Dopey's mental capacity being what it was. Anyone with the merest suggestion of a brain could outwit that dog. And then there was the toe. Surely it had been one hell of an unpleasant evening.... Sally? That dear young thing was probably asleep by now. What a wife! Well, he would go up, grab off a consoling drink, and do a little reading. It was cold as the grave in that basement unless one kept moving. No place for a man clad only in a French shirt. Unconscious of the fact that he was still carrying the shovel, he made his way wearily up the steps, with Dopey panting hotly, but happily, on his heels. At the head of the stairs he stopped and looked down at the dog. In the presence of that great dumb beast words seemed inadequate.

"This is the end," he told the dog. "Tomorrow you go. If I wasn't so tired now I'd cut you into tiny little bits. I'd make you sweat. Don't even look at me."

Dopey did not take the trouble to listen. He fawned upon his master and waited for something new to turn up. Why not make a night of it?

In a low, monotonous voice Tim continued to scold his dog as he passed through the box of a serving pantry and crossed the dining room. It was not until he had reached the portières separating this room from the lounge that he became aware he was an object of intense interest to five pairs of seemingly fascinated eyes. He looked up and to his disgust discovered that the room had been invaded by five persons, all of whom he disliked. At that moment their faces were registering a disconcerting blending of amusement and surprise. Tim stopped cursing and, with admirable presence of mind, reached out and drew the nearest portière to him. This he draped picturesquely over the lower half of his body. The remainder of him went unimproved. From a soot-streaked face his dim eyes peered out malevolently at the silent group facing him. Close by his side Dopey crouched and indulged in a few inhospitable growls. The dog was extremely nervous. It had all been so sudden. Sudden changes were unsettling. Dopey was frightened.

Then the rich, lazy voice of Carl Bentley made itself heard. It would. The man had a way of making his voice heard. Not that it ever said anything. It was just that sort of voice.

"Well," said Mr. Bentley, beaming down from a great height on a strangely diminished-looking Mr. Willows, "if it isn't Tiny Tim himself—Tiny Tim in all his glory."

Tim offered the group a wan smile, such a smile as might distort the lips of a man gamely but unsuccessfully fighting off an attack of sea sickness.

"Yes," he replied. "Yes, indeed. So it is."

Silence greeted this lame effort. The company continued to gaze. Mr. Willows began to grow a trifle uncomfortable. He hated being looked at as if he were some particularly noxious specimen of bug life.

"Indeed, yes," he continued, for lack of anything better to say. "Here I am. Been making a bit of a fire in the furnace." At this point he displayed the shovel as if to forestall any attempt at contradiction. "The other one went out," he added feebly. "There wasn't any fire at all."

Were these people either dumb or dead? Were they deliberately trying to upset him even more than he already was? The silence continued unbroken. The eyes continued to stare. Were parts of him sticking out, perhaps? He looked down at himself. Yes, lots of him was sticking out. Redraping himself furtively he essayed another smile and swallowed hard. How oppressive it was in that room ... the silence and those eyes. Once more he sought cowardly refuge in the sound of his own voice.

"It was too bad," he went on, his thin words trailing away into infinity. "I mean about that fire. The first one. The one that went out." What the devil did he mean, anyway? Taking a fresh grip on himself he continued, "There should be a law about fires going out at this time of night." Here he laughed meaninglessly. "Ha ha! Not a bad idea, what?"

No one else laughed. Obviously the idea was not so good. The graven images remained unimpressed. They refrained from committing themselves either for or against it. Tim had feared as much. Then, suddenly, the spell was broken—snapped. Blake Watson had done it. Blake was the slave of a furnace of which he was inordinately proud. At the mention of the word "furnace" life always took on a new interest for him. He became a changed man—changed for the worse. Snappily stroking his military moustache he glared at Tim severely.

"Can't understand that, Willows," he said accusingly.

"And that's not all you can't understand," Tim shot back. "Do you think I put the damned thing out on purpose just for the fun of making a new one?"

"Come, come!" admonished Mr. Watson. "Don't trifle. Now, I have a furnace and the fire never goes out. Does it, my dear?"

My dear, being his wife, Helen, an exhausted blonde with attractively bad eyes, languidly agreed with her husband in a voice that proclaimed she wished to God it would go out occasionally, thus relieving her of the unexciting company of the military moustache for a short time at least.

"You're a regular vestal virgin, Blake," Tim retorted. "And I don't intend to become one. No, not for any furnace."

"Good!" put in Helen briskly. "Don't become a vestal virgin. But tell us. What are you trying to become, Tim? From your attractive little costume I take it you've joined something pretty snappy."

"I'd like to take a look at that furnace of yours," cut in her husband in an executive voice he carried somewhere in the neighbourhood of his boots.

"Go right ahead," said Tim. "Take a look at it, but I won't accompany you. If I see the miserable thing again I'll slit its throat from ear to ear."

"You know, old boy," Carl Bentley observed, still being his whimsical self, "we had no idea you were building a fire. You looked as if you'd just been picking lilies."

Nobody laughed much at this, and Bentley looked wistfully at the door leading to the hall. His stuff needed the right sort of audience, people who appreciated subtleness. Tim's voice recalled him to the room.

"No," he was saying quite seriously, "I really was building a fire. When I pick lilies it will be for a much more welcome occasion than this, but you won't be alive to enjoy it."

"Bur-r-r-r," muttered the irrepressible Bentley, turning up his coat collar and going through an elaborate pantomime of a shivering man. "That ought to hold me for a while."

Mr. Willows looked at him coldly, then turned to the others.

"And now," he continued, "if you don't mind I'd like to know how in hell you all got in here."

"Oh, we don't mind in the least," drawled Vera Hutchens. "We were barging by like a bunch of lost scows and we thought we'd just drop in. Make a night of it. Break out the flasks, boys."

"That was a no-good thought, Vera," observed Tim slowly. "In fact it was just too bad. And that little part about making a night of it is all wet. It's a washout. Don't trouble about taking off your things. If you want to make a night of it why don't you go out and build yourself a great, big snow man?"

"Oh, I say," complained Carl Bentley. "This is no go. We've just dropped in, you know."

"Yes, I know," said Tim, grinning, "and you can just drop out again. And I don't quite understand how you managed to drop in, to begin with. You must have damn well broken in. I locked the door myself."

"Wrong again," retorted Bentley in a gloating voice. "We were invited in most cordially."

"And who was so ill advised as to do a mad thing like that?" demanded Tim.

"Sally," trumped Bentley.

Tim was momentarily stunned.

"Where do you get off calling my wife Sally?" he got out. "So far as I know you've only met her twice in your life."

"You never can tell," insinuated Vera. "It's a small world, you know. Small and wicked, Tim."

Tim cast the speaker a mean look.

"Viper!" he said. "You'd be writing poison-pen letters if you knew how to write."

"Listen, Tim," chimed in Helen. "Don't be such a crab. We all live in the same town, don't we?"

"Unfortunately we do," snapped Tim. "Wish we didn't. If we all lived on the same street, I suppose, according to your way of thinking, we'd be entitled to sleep with each other as a sort of neighbourly gesture?"

"Something like that," said Helen.

"How do you mean, something like that?" demanded Tim. "It must be that or nothing."

"Oh," replied Helen. "Is that the type of man you are? No half measures for you."

"You can see that for yourself, my dear," put in Vera. "Look how he's dressed. Always ready for something to turn up."

"Come, come!" exclaimed her husband, a thick-set, well-dressed gentleman, solid, successful, and sly. Ted Hutchens felt that he had at least one valid claim on local immortality. He had played polo at the Westchester-Biltmore once and only once. "Come, come!" he repeated, as if rebuking a child, as he looked heavily at Tim Willows. The look and the admonition infuriated Tim.

"Go, go!" he shouted. "Everybody go. Get out. Beat it. Do you think I'm going to hide behind this curtain the whole damn night?"

"That was your own idea," drawled Vera. "For my part I think you looked sweeter in your simple little shift."

"Vera!" cried Mr. Hutchens.

"Sally!" exclaimed Carl Bentley. "At last."

"Why are your voices raised in unseemly dissent?" asked Sally with easy good nature as she came gracefully into the room. "Oh, I see. It's only Tim," she continued, looking curiously at her husband. "You do look brisk, dear. I thought you'd died in that basement ages ago."

Tim was bereft of words. He clutched at the curtain and stared at his wife. She was clad in a flaring pair of pyjamas and was wearing a short, silly-looking little jacket that did not seem to mean anything. He recalled having seen such outfits featured in newspaper advertisements.

"Sally!" he called in a hoarse voice. "Are you walking in your sleep? Look at yourself."

"What do you mean?" she retorted, sidling up close to the statuesque Mr. Bentley, who was looking at her with glowing eyes. "Why don't you look at yourself?"

"I mean those things you're wearing," said Tim. "They're not decent for public display. Go up immediately and put something on."

"Don't be dull, Tim," his wife replied. "These are hostess pyjamas. They are supposed to be worn on informal occasions. Just such occasions as this—among friends."

"You're putting it mildly," replied Tim. "They don't encourage friendship. They invite ruin."

"Perhaps you're right," said Sally, smiling up slowly into Mr. Bentley's eyes. "I've a remote idea myself that one seldom sleeps in them."

Mr. Bentley favoured his audience with a laugh not unlike a neigh, a significant sort of a neigh.

"All right!" cried Tim, thoroughly aroused by this little exchange. "I can play, too." With this he stepped out from behind the portières and stood revealed to the company in his dishevelled shirt. "This garment, ladies and gentlemen," he announced, turning slowly round with his arms extended, "is what is known as a host's slip-on. It may not look so good, but it's a damn sight franker and more practical than my wife's costume."

Taking advantage of the small panic created by his sudden unveiling, Tim limped to a nearby table, from which he snatched a hip flask and helped himself to a powerful drink, a gesture which gave to his shirt an amusing frontal elevation. Amid the appreciative giggles of the women and the subdued expostulations of the men he turned his back on the company and, with as much dignity as he could command, limped painfully from the room, the shovel still in his hand and Dopey at his heels. In the hall he placed the shovel in the cane rack, to the everlasting humiliation of several snooty walking sticks, then slowly mounted the stairs, his modesty becoming more assailable the higher he proceeded. Even the violent slamming of the bedroom door failed to shut off from his ears the pent-up frenzy of a jazz orchestra avalanching from the radio. For a moment he stood looking irresolutely at the door, then, opening it a little, he listened, Dopey doing likewise.

"Whoopee!" came the hearty voice of Carl Bentley. "Come on, gang. Let's go."

"I wish to God you would," muttered Mr. Willows. "You big, inane bastard. Having a real nice time, aren't you? Seeing life in the suburbs. Wildfire! Aw, go to hell."

Once more he closed the door, this time quietly, and, hobbling over to a cabinet, took from it a glass and a bottle of whisky. Thus equipped he sought a chair and sat staring vacantly at Dopey sprawled out at his feet.

"It's a good thing, stupid, you don't drink," he observed. "You're sufficient of a damn fool just as you are."

Dopey tried, but failed to understand. It didn't matter. Everything was all right. He was comfortable.

"Listen," continued his master, choking over his drink. "I've a good idea to get drunk and beat you up ... within an inch of your useless life ... to a pulp ... a regular jelly."

The dog's snakelike tail thumped against the rug. His master was being funny. He was such a nice man. Dopey felt himself moved to kiss him, but was too comfortable to make the effort. Some other time. Wearily his eyes closed. He sighed. Things always worked out for the best.

Tim Willows arranged himself another drink and sat listening to the radio. Gradually his feet began to tap time with the music. He had forgotten about his toe. Too bad he was such an indifferent dancer. He'd like to take a fling himself occasionally.

"Obsolete," he muttered gloomily. "Should be scrapped."

Mr. Ram looked thoughtfully down on man and beast. He felt that he would like to do a little something also about this dog. There was too much of it.

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