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Helen, Margery, and I had our breakfast next morning of coffee and rolls served in the sunny window of the sitting-room by Mrs. Gavin, our caretaker. During the preceding evening, while Jack had been with us, we had thought of nothing but the hideous gap his pending departure for France would make in our family circle; but now that he had gone back to camp we had time to face the concrete problems the war had evolved for us.
It had been the first night we had spent in our own home for nearly a year, and this was the dawn of a new sort of existence. Heretofore we had taken no thought of the morrow or, for that matter, of to-day. When we opened the house in the autumn we simply telegraphed to a firm of professional house-cleaners to come with their vacuum tubes, their rotary sweepers, their acids and varnishes, and get the place readyusually at a cost of about three hundred dollars. Then we sent on ahead five or six servants, including the cook, to prepare the way, and arrived, in due course, in a perfectly ordered and well-running establishment.
When we returned from six weeks in Paris or London our motor met us at the dock, I found my dress clothes laid out in their customary place, and dinner was served by the butler and the second man just as if we had not been away at all. But now there was to be no butler and no second man. Our resolution taken the afternoon before was to be put to the test. Would Helen be able to manage it? Or, if she could manage it, could she stand it? However, I saw no weakening in her face as I lit my cigarette and glanced at her across the table.
"You had better send for René," she said, smiling. "The sooner you tell him he must go the better. I'm going down-town to engage a cook."
In spite of Helen's cheerfulness I realized what giving up her motor would mean to her; how physically dependent upon it she had become. I hated the idea of my wife hanging on to a strap in the street-cars while the boors in the neighboring seats ignored her sex. Besides, how could Margery, with her many social engagements, possibly manage to get along without it? And if we lost the peerless René, could we ever find another treasure like him? No; I would find some other and less drastic economy!
"Helen," I said, "I've been thinking it over, and I feel that it would be bad business for us to give up René. We couldn't replace him. Probably we can cut down on something else that"
But Helen had risen to her feet with a gesture of finality.
"No, John," she interrupted; "that has been decided, once and for all. It's a matter of conscience. I shall not keep the car this winter."
"Anyhow," I urged feebly, "you might as well run it for a few days while you are getting settled—say, for a week. It seems foolish not to, you know, when it's standing right there round the corner in the garage." She shook her head.
"I don't want to begin using the motor. I don't trust myself. If I once started I mightn't want to give it up. Let me have ten cents for the bus, please!" "You're a brave woman, Helen!" I answered. "Well, here's your dime!"
"You'll need a chore man, daddy," volunteered my daughter as my wife drew on her gloves. "The house is like an ice-chest."
"Didn't we have one-an Italian?" I inquired.
"Yes," answered Helen. "I think Mrs. Gavin can find him for you. If you can't get hold of him you might start a fire in the furnace yourself."
I said nothing. Why not? If Helen could go downtown in the bus, surely I ought to be able to start a fire! But my heart was filled with more than mere misgivings.
"Well, what is Margery going to do?" I inquired lightly. "What's her particular bit?"
"I think Margery had better go over the linen and china and see if there is any of it left," replied her mother. "After that she can collaborate with Mrs. Gavin in getting lunch."
I bade my wife farewell at the front door and, having turned Margery loose among the china, sought the whereabouts of our chore man. But Mrs. Gavin had not seen Angelo that morning and was ignorant of his place of abode.
We had occupied our house for nearly twenty years, but only once before did I recall having descended to the lower regions presided over by that being so singularly misnamed the useful man. At any rate, I had always looked upon him as anything but usefula fiction, a frill, a foolish concession to the unwillingness of the modern domestic to do any real work.
"Now," said I to myself, with a growing sense of virtue, of mastery of my own soul, "we'll begin to go at things in the right way-thoroughly, from the ground up."
The cellar stairs were dark and I had to reascend to the kitchen to procure a candle.
"You'll spoil yer beautiful clothes," warned the solicitous Mrs. Gavin. "You'll get ashes all over yerself!"
"You don't know me!" I retorted. "It's no trick to make a fire! Why, when I was a boy I always—"
But she had vanished into the mysterious distances of the laundry.
Our cellar seemed curiously unfamiliar as I stood with the candle elevated above my head, and muffled noises from the street outside gave me the feeling of being immersed in an Egyptian tomb-like a helpless Rhadames without his Aïda. A multitude of pipes of every size and crookedness writhed round a complicated apparatus which I felt reasonably confident was the furnace. Dust lay thick everywhere and scattered pieces of coal endangered my equilibrium at every step.
Timidly I opened one of the doors. It was choked with ashes and cinders. Curse the dago! I must clean out the grate before I could start the fire. I shall not describe the agonizing scene that followed, but at the end of a gruelling half-hour, reeking with sweat, and my hair, mouth, and eyes filled with dust, I exultantly laid in the furnace a lot of newspapers and kindling and put on a shovel or two of coal as a starter. I then discovered that I had no matches; and as it did not occur to me to make use of the candle, which I had stuck on the coal-bin, I was obliged to ascend to the kitchen again.
Mrs. Gavin controlled her features with difficulty. "Have you turned on the water, Mr. Stanton?" she asked innocently. "You know it's a hot-water furnace. I've fixed the radiators up-stairs, already, for you."