Demonstrating the age-old truth that a choked grate never butters any parsmbs
CHAIRMAN MOONEY of the internal management committee groped his way downstairs to the McCaw School basement. There Janitor Jephtha Pierson smoked his pipe, contemplated the glowing coals, and listened with his perennial mild astonishment to Mr. Mooney’s equally perennial plaint.
“No heat in Room 11? Why, Room 11 was so hot, Miss Dunlop had to open the windows to keep from suffocating. You know, Mr. Mooney, if any man can keep a school warm, I can. Only this morning I says to Mayor Sanderson, ‘If you want a real furnaceman at the city hall, Mr. Mooney’ll tell you Jephtha Pierson’s the man.’ Trouble is, the public needs eddication, and, talking about eddication,” deftly he piloted his conversational bark out of shoal water, “if I was eddicating young folks nowadays, I’d insist on a winter of furnace tending as a scenic cannon ...”
“A what?” challenged Mr. Mooney.
“A scenic cannon—sort of thing you can’t get along without.”
“Oh, a sine qua non?”
“Yep, Mr. Mooney. Trouble is,, our system of eddication waits till a man’s no good for anything else afore it sets him to teach a furnace to behave. If I could write like you can, Mr. Mooney, I’d write a good strong letter to the eddication department about it. It’s a lucky man gets a spell of furnace tending when he’s still young enough for the furnace to teach him.”
“What could a furnace teach a man?” grumbled Mr. Mooney. “Except profanity? And now all the young men have cars, they learn that quick enough.”
Jephtha Pierson’s grimy fingers thoughtfully combed his Old Testament beard.
“A furnace’ll teach a man all he needs to know if you start him young. But I was past sixty when the board picked me out of them thirty-three applicants—why?” Mr Mooney grimaced.
' “If you really want to know, it was because you showed a slight flicker of intelligence.”
“And dressed neat and talked polite . . . But I often think instead of janitor of McCaw School I’d be Prime Minister of Canada if somebody had made me tend furnace when I was a kid, like Pa Libbey made young Billy Pickton.”
DA LIBBEY, he was a natural born tightwad. You remember the time the central steam heating plant couldn’t furnish any heatnot the first time, but the last time. Pa Libbey got hold of a furnace that had been a corker when it was new, but hadn’t been new for an awful long time; and when he heard that coke cost less than coal, right away he started to burn coke. He was like that, always figgering to make one cent do the work of three; and then work it overtime.
Pa Libbey’s grocery had an old-fashioned front that shrieked, “Bring your own soap, all ye who enter here.” A gloomy survival of the sort of store that flourished in
the “Eighties,” as out of place in modern Carisford as a school teacher hiding her pretty knees and satisfied with $250 a year. Because paint cost like fury, Pa Libbey’s grocery still wore the paint his dad put on in 1889. It had old wooden counters, and a green-and-gilt coffee-mill you turned by hand when it was willing, and big tea-cans labelled “Oolong” and “Solong”; and when you went in, you got a whiff of all the foodstuffs that had gone stale in fifty years. And most of them were going stale yet.
Everybody wondered how Pa Libbey kept going. If Pa Libbey had possessed brains, he’d have wondered himself. But he inherited money his grandfather had made in trading with the Indians; and a lot of patrons who’(} bought whisky over the counter kept coming in the hope they’d sell it that way again; and Ma Libbey was trying to be something in the Eastern Star. And, too, there was Catherine.
Catherine was Pa Libbey’s one extravagance. She was his golf and his stamp collection and his trip to Europe all throwed into one. Heaven knows where she got her looks; unless her Pa and Ma were both stunners once and she cleaned out their entire stock. From a baby they’d fussed over her, dolled her and pampered her, till most folks wondered any good was left in her, and the rest knew there wasn’t.
Catherine Libbey was eighteen and showy as a new calendar that morning Billy Pickton came down Main Street with his hands—and nothing much else—in his pockets.
Billy was out of a job. In fact, he was out of most every job in Carisford. He’d worked in Hoggitt’s lumber office, got a salary boost the first week, and got fired the second. He’d clerked in Mobey’s check-front haberdashery, won high praise on Monday, and been shot off the limb and out of the store on Thursday. Selwyn had tried Billy at his bookstore.
“Gee,” said Selïvyn to me, “I never knew a clerk take hold like this chap Pickton!
He’s been with me only two days, and the whole staff are on their toes.”
That was Tuesday. Friday night,
“I just fired young Pickton,” said Selwyn.
“I thought you said he was a humdinger?” says I.
“So he was— while the fit lasted,” said Selwyn. ‘‘But after three days he collapsed like a busted balloon.
Instead of prancing out to meet customers, he’d wait for them to find him; and then he’d yawn in their faces. I had to fire him before he demoralized the entire staff.”
You see Billy
Pickton’s weak spot? Temperamental. With every new job he’d let out a whoop, take off his coat, and plunge in to his neck. He’d do a week’s work the first day, and two weeks’ work the second. The third day he’d be all burned out like a coke fire with a forced draft. Awful hot while it lasts and then nothing but chilling clinkers.
By the time Billy had got hired and fired a dozen times, had made a dozen tremendous starts and a dozen alsoran finishes, every employer in Carisford was voting the “Sorry, Mr. Pickton, but that job’s practically promised” ticket.
'"PHIS particular day Billy was chuckfull of pep and yearning to get going once more, when his eyes lit simultaneously on two things. One was a dirty, handmade card in Pa Libbey’s window, “Clerk Wanted.” The other was Catherine, sunning herself in the doorway and signalling to the law student upstairs in Clark’s office.
Billy stopped to stare. The vision smiled at Billy. Billy Did It Now. He stalked inside, grabbed the sign from the window, walked up to Pa Libbey, and said:
“Throw this superfluous card in the ash can, Mr. Libbey.”
Pa Libbey hesitated. Then he remembered that when Billy was good, he was sure good.
Pa Libbey put the “Clerk Wanted” card in a drawer.
“Hop to it!” he told Billy; and Billy sure hopped.
The things Billy sold that first day astonished Pa Libbey. The old geezer had forgotten most of them were in stock. S’pose a woman came in for a pint of dill pickles or a can of molasses, Billy sent her out with cream cheese and bacon and sago and vermicelli and French mushrooms imported in 1899 and figs; and the next delivery would take the rest of her order, including a
bag of flour, a sack of sugar, fifty cents worth of rolled oats, and, as often as not, a can of the whale steak Pa Libbey stocked while the war was on.
Billy’d laugh with folks and ask about their children by name, polite as if he was a French count instead of a nocount. Between times he dusted off the shelves and talked with Catherine and rearranged things on the counters, and talked with Catherine and figured out a new window trim to replace the one Pa Libbey put in the previous fall, and talked with Catherine and worked out a scheme for collecting back accounts, and talked with Catherine. And the hour Pa and Ma Libbey and Catherine were at dinner upstairs, Billy sold more stuff than Pa Libbey usually sold in the length of a whole working day.
“Gee, ma, he’s working too hard!” mourned Catherine; and when Ned Antrim telephoned about a dance date for that evening, she hung up so quick, Ned never recovered from the shock.
When the store closed, “I’ll touch up this woodwork, Mr. Libbey,” volunteered Billy. Pa Libbey growled about the cost of paint and haying the lights burning; but next morning the store looked 500 per cent better. And there was Billy, smiling at folks and talking with Catherine and selling people goods they didn’t want, and talking with Catherine. His enthusiasm was so catching, even Pa and Ma Libbey perked up.
The spell lasted four days. Then came the slump.
Billy slouched behind the counter.
“Oh, what’s the use trying?” he seemed to say. “The whole world’s against me !”
If a woman came in for a pint of dill pickles, she could buy them if she canvassed Billy hard enough.
“I’m going to fire the lazy good-fornothing!” snorted Pa Libbey.
“Oh, Pa,” pleaded Catherine,
“don’t do that!
You let the poor boy overwork himself and . . . and
She didn’t know .what to make of Billy in the dumps; but even though he neglected his clothes and forgot to put Slickem on his hair, she couldn’t forget the ’ time when he talked to her like a high-pressure salesman and looked like an improved model, of Ramon Novarro.
She smiled at him, she chattered to him, she did her darnedest to cheer
Vu m nr» Q n rl
Then, suddenly, Billy Pickton got something no other employer had given him time to get . . . something he’d never got even here if Catherine hadn’t bossed Pa Libbey. He got his second wind. Once more he talked with Catherine, welcomed customers like long-lost brothers, and saw to it that women who came to price remained to pay.
“I get spells,” he told Catherine, “when everything’s blue except the sky, and that’s black. But never again ! From now on I’m here to make things hum. The world’s my oyster, and all the Johnny Glooms under the blue canopy can’t prevent me extracting the pearl of great price.” He flung her a look that was worth a million dollars. “And, girlie,” he whispered, “I owe it all to your inspiration.”
For nigh a week Catherine shone, and Billy Pickton made hay.
Then—kerplunk! Down he dropped once more into the abyss.
'“THROUGH summer and fall, things went on like that,
now up, now down. Every time I met Pa Libbey he told me all about it. Pa Libbey was the original William Tell. He’d tell everything he knew to anybody who’d listen. Ma Libbey was the same.
But I’ll never forget the look Catherine gave me when I kidded her about her sheik. There was something in it desperately unquenchable, like an Indian’s thirst.
“He is handsome, Mr. Pierson. And I do like him . . . and I can’t get it out of my head that he’ll do great things once he hits a steady stride . . . and that it’s up to me to teach him.”
She’d found her mission, or thought she had; and she went at it with the intense zeal of a Christian martyr.
Pa Libbey worried about Billy. Billy would drop into the dumps. “Out he goes!” Pa Libbey would snort. Then Catherine would weep and carry on. “Why don’t you give the poor boy some encouragement?” she’d say.
So Pa Libbey would give Billy encouragement—airy talk about a new store front, or a partnership; high praise for what he’d done; and now and then fifty cents extra—not a salary increase, but a sort of interim dividend to show the Libbey family appreciated him.
Between Pa’s encouragement and Catherine’s prodding, Billy would ginger up. Then Pa’d worry about losing him. Every time a drummer came in, as drummers do, with one eye peeled for a likely salesman, Pa’d draw the drummer aside and pour into his ear the story of how darned uncertain Billy was.
But one day when Pa Libbey was incautiously absent at the bowling green, a new drummer saw Billy Pickton
sell olives and flour and three kinds of pickles and salad dressing and rolled oats and salmon and beef that was chipped in 1892 and the last can of whale steak, all to one customer.
That drummer buttonholed Billy.
“See here, young man, I don’t know how much Libbey pays you, but for a start our firm’ll double it and give you an expense account as full of moneymaking opportunities as a Swiss cheese is of holes. All you need do is sell big stuff to retailers the way you sell small stuff to customers.”
Billy was panting to wait on a new customer. The drummer clung to him.
“Don’t say no. In two days I’ll be back with a written proposition.”
Two days? Why, over night Billy put on blue spectacles.
A new job? Weren’t new jobs uncertain? Suppose he fell sick? In a strange hotel in a strange city? Suppose the wholesale firm went broke? Suppose he got hit by a taxi? Or smashed in a train wreck? And think of leaving good, kind Mr. Libbey! To do it for double or even triple pay looked mercenary. What would Catherine think? What would life be with Catherine miles and miles away?
Pa Libbey got back just in time to hear that drummer’s farewell. He edged up to Billy, humming and hawing. Billy, right then, could have hooked Pa Libbey for double pay; but his soul was weeping salt tears at the thought of cutting loose from good, kind Mr. Libbey and venturing into the spider’s web woven by this cunning stranger.
“That man,” said he, kind of shamefaced, “wants me to travel for his firm.”
“Billy, I . . . I was just about to ...”
“Don’t worry,” snorted Billy. “Gratitude to you, Mr. Libbey, is my middle name.”
So instead of offering Billy twenty dollars a week to stay, Pa Libbey wondered if he shouldn’t charge Billy for the privilege of staying. At supper, though, he mentioned that Billy had a chance at this travelling job.
He didn’t finish because Ma Libbey began to complain that the hen masons were throwing a party and she had positively nothing to wear.
“Where’s that dress I bought you year before last?” snorted Pa Libbey.
“It’s hopelessly out of style,” groaned Ma Libbey. “Surely, Peter, you wouldn’t want me to look dowdy?” To which Peter incautiously shot back: “Did you ever look anything else?”
Then he was glad to compromise on the new dress.
Ma Libbey, chipper as a lark, went into the next room and found Catherine on her bed, sobbing because Billy Pickton was going away.
“But,” said Ma Libbey, “Pa just said Billy had an offer.”
Catherine sat up, fighting mad.
“Why, Ma, surely even Billy can’t be dumb enough to pass up such a chance!”
She dried her eyes, dabbed on some powder and some lipstick, and went rustling down to the store. And Billy, his face glowing, his eyes beaming, his whole soul gurgling gratitude to the Libbeys like an up-ended molasses jug, told Catherine in his own fool words just how hopelessly dumb he’d been.
Catherine sat right down and wrote to the ‘‘What’s Your Problem’’ lady. “Show your young brave he can’t have his squaw unless he brings the price in scalps,” was the advice that came back. And Catherine, intense as ever, set out to show Billy.
(CATHERINE was mad clear through. She’d pictured herself getting letters from Billy here, there and everywhere, and showing the envelopes to Ned Antrim; and Billy blowing into Carisford with a high-powered roadster and plenty of money and giving her a good time.
If she couldn’t encourage him into embracing opportunities she’d sting him into it.
So she started going to dances again with Ned Antrim; and the more Billy writhed, the meaner she used him. And Pa and Ma Libbey rode Billy harder than ever.
Away back in the summer Pa Libbey had promised to boost Billy’s salary to $9.50 at New Year, so when Christmas came, Billy spread himself on a box of prime cigars and a necktie for Pa Libbey, and a gold-tipped comb that made Ma Libbey look like the Queen of Sheba; and a gorgeous jewel-case for Catherine.
Pa Libbey took stock of those Christmas presents. A man so free with his money and so fond of the Libbeys was, he decided, getting plenty. So instead of boosting Billy’s salary fifty cents, he fired old man Hebner and set Billy to tending furnace.
Billy Pickton didn’t know the first thing about a furnace. Pa Libbey’d have saved coke and heat and money if he’d hired me. But all he could see was, first, the saving if he set Billy Pickton to do his furnacing; and, second, that Billy made a danged poor fist of it.
Billy spent his days running upstairs and downstairs to keep that fire going. Mornings, the old store was full of a deathly chill that froze even the ancient smells; and by the time Billy got the place decently warm it was time to close.
“See here,” yells Pa Libbey, “you’re a darned poor furnaceman!”
“Trouble is, Mr. Libbey,” said Billy, “I’m not a furnaceman at all.”
“Well,” says Pa Libbey, “you get Jephtha Pierson to tell you how to run that furnace.”
It was a tight-wad way of getting the benefit of all my experience without paying a cent; but all I could think of was this poor young chap making a mess of a furnace a child could operate. I asked Billy a lot of questions. He didn’t know any of the answers. So down I went into Libbey’s basement to find out for myself.
My gosh—clinkers ! That basement
was nothing but. Huge piles of clinkers Billy had patiently raked out of the firepot; and a fresh accumulation of clinkers waiting to be raked.
“And the worst of it is, Mr. Pierson,” said Billy, “I can’t get any heat. I start a fire, pile on the coke and open the draughts. First thing I know, the fire’s all burned out. Then I’ve got to clean everything out and start all over again. It’s the coke, I suppose?”
“Coke?” says I. “Coke’ll give you lots of heat. Yes, and it’ll hold a fire, too; that is, if you know how to run it. Which you don’t. I might imagine a man who knew less about firing with coke than you do, but I’ll swear I never seen him.”
So when he’d raked out the clinkers I put in some paper. Then I piled on kindling; then some bigger wood. When the fire got going good, I put on a little coke, and presently a little more. Then I closed the draughts down to almost nothing and heaped on the coke.
“Now,” says I, “don’t try to rush that fire. Let it take its time. Run a deep fire always and control it with the draughts— and remember, the main control is, keep them draughts nigh shut. If you want clinkers—clinkers, mind you !—open them draughts wide. But if you want steady heat . . .”
Right then I caught a look in his eyes as though he .was thinking of Palestine or Armageddon or Egypt or Bacteria or some of those far-off places.
“Clinkers?” says he.
He opens the fuel door. The fire’s burning pretty. From force of habit he goes to open the draughts.
“Don’t,” says I. “Slow and steady wins the race. A forced fire don’t get you nowhere with coke.”
“Or with life,” says he.
And he sat staring at that ugly old furnace and never came out of his trance sufficient to thank me.
Six weeks after that, right in the middle of winter, Pa Libbey fired Billy Pickton. When Billy left, and the old man came pelting to get me to tend furnace, he dumped the whole ashpit of that story on me, even to the last clinker.
TT SEEMS after what the newspaper
lady wrote, Catherine rode Billy hard. Billy passing up the drummer’s job was enough; but when Pa made Billy his janitor, it was ten times worse.
In her room upstairs, early morning and late at night, Catherine could hear Billy shovelling coke and emptying ashes and shaking down the grates; and every little sound reminded her how dumb Billy was. She’d begun by wanting to prod some ambition into him; but she ended by just prodding to show her contempt.
Things got worse when Billy, instead of snatching a bite at the provision counter, got into the habit of eating his lunch in the basement. Catherine tiptoed down there and saw him staring into the open fire door. He looked up, eyes glowing at her like twin coals.
“Catherine,” he exclaimed, “it’s like life!”
“It may be life for a fellow that’s lost
all ambition,” she snapped, “but '. . .”
“You don’t understand, Catherine,” he told her. “This furnace talks to me. Its talk thrills me.”
“That,” she shot back, “is because you’re a born janitor. Dust and ashes and cobwebs and clinkers are your native element.”
Billy Pickton just sat staring into the fire.
“Well?” snapped Catherine.
She stamped her foot. She went on stamping all the way upstairs.
About then, Pa Libbey began to notice the change in Billy Pickton. No longer did his enthusiasm send him soaring through the chimney. Neither did he burn his way clear through the grates of his being into the ashpit of despondence.
Pa Libbey, though, didn’t know what a spell of furnace tending could do for a man. Pa Libbey’s old eyes were set on those profitable high spots of enthusiasm.
/CATHERINE provided the spark that set the whole kindling pile ablaze.
She, too, noticed the difference in Billy Pickton. Not in anything he did to her; but in the things he didn’t do that he’d done before At first, when she treated him rough, he hung around her, like the lamb after Mary. But now when she talked loud to Ma Libbey about Ned Antrim or flirted with the law student in Clark’s office, Billy just went on measuring dill pickles and weighing cheese and coffee.
She tried making fun of him.
“Poor ittie Billy! Is oo hurted? Did oo’s ittie heart bweak?”
Billy checked over an account: “Pound and a half of cheese, .67; pound of coffee, .61; half pound b. bacon, .27; total, $1.55.” He jammed the bill on a hook and picked up the next.
Catherine raged upstairs, her cheeks as red as good anthracite when it’s going strong.
“Billy insulted me,” she told Ma Libbey.
“What did he do? What did he say?” demanded Ma Libbey.
“He didn’t say a thing. He treats me as if . . . as if I w-was . . . n-nothing.” She stamped her foot. “Pa’s got to make Billy apologize.”
She kept after Ma Libbey. Ma Libbey started after Pa Libbey. Pa Libbey stood it through suppertime, but when he found a green worm chopped up in his lettuce salad he busted loose:
“See here, what’s Billy done?”
“I tell you,” screeched Ma Libbey, “he’s insulted Catherine. And if you was half a man . . .”
“Half a man, my eye!” Pa Libbey spat. “Just you come down and see me tend to the fellow.”
Downstairs he went, the two of them at his heels; and told Billy Pickton he could apologize to Catherine or dump his grates.
“Apologize?” said Billy, exceedingly mild.
“Or get out?” snorted Pa Libbey.
“Very well, Mr. Libbey.” Billy undid his apron. “I’m accepting your invitation.”
“Huh? What d’you think you’re going to do?”
“First,” said Billy, “I’m going to bank the fires. Then I’m going on the road till it gets financially warmer. When I’ve drummed enough to know how real grocers do things, I’ll come back to Carisford and show you how to run a grocery.”
Pa Libbey came pelting to me. I found Billy banking the furnace. “Got a cinder in my eye,” he mumbled; then gurgled a bit, went upstairs, put on his coat, and I could hear him:
“Good-by, Mr. Libbey. Good-by, Mrs. Libbey. Good-by, Miss Libbey.”
I peeked from the head of the stair. Pa Libbey looked like an earthquake had hit him. Ma Libbey couldn’t of looked more dazed if the Eastern Star had elected her Worthy Matron. But Catherine stuck her pretty nose in the air and refused to even see Billy’s hand. As he stalked out, she gave a funny laugh:
“It won’t last, Pa. In the morning the high-and-mighty Mr. Pickton will come back to his janitor’s job.”
They all thought so. Even I thought so. But we were all wrong. I was still tending furnace for Pa Libbey when spring warmed up enough for me to dump the grates.
CO PÂ LIBBEY’S grocery went on ^ accumulating stale smells and unpaid drafts, and hiring and firing unsatisfactory and dissatisfied clerks. When I kidded Catherine about her far-flung sheik, she’d drop mysterious hints about wonderful jobs Billy was holding down and letters he wrote her from most everywhere. From her talk I judged he was having his ups and downs, and she, just like a woman, was putting up a stiff front.
Two—three years went by. Folks still told Pa Libbey what a wonderful polite salesman Billy had been, and how Carisford couldn’t hold a good man very long.
One day Hal Hughson started redecorating the big vacant store across from Pa Libbey’s grocery, and put up a gold-and-white sign:
SPOTLESS STORES, LIMITED
Trucks unloaded all-white fixtures; so white and clean, they fair glistened.
“Huh?” snorted Pa Libbey. “Just wait till that white woodwork gets stained and smoked and spotted!”
Young Ab Grant took charge. He was clean and neat as a pin, and polite as a prince; and he had a staff of slick, quick girls whc knew groceries from soap to dessicated cod and figured correct change quicker than greased lightning. Spotless Stores used full-page ads that brought a rush of «trade.
“It won’t last,” said Pa Libbey. “Ab Grant can’t stand that pace. I ran an ad once at Christmas, Jephtha, and I tell you, the merchant who advertises is just working for the newspapers.”
I didn’t see Pa Libbey so frequent after that; for I went in to buy something from Ab Gj^nt and I kept on going. The Spotless Store had Pa Libbey beaten at every turn. Stuff folks wanted cheap, he sold a c£nt or two cheaper; and stuff that had to be good Pa Libbey couldn’t touch. And when a customer came in, there was Ab shaking hands, and saying, “Delighted, Mrs. Smith !” as pleased as if she was the Prince of Wales.
Pa Libbey started to grumble next about Billy Pickton missing his big chance, throwing up a good job and the certainty of a partnership just because he was a bit touchy.
Then he reasoned that what must be good for his competitor was good for him. He had the inside of the old store done over in white. But he was too tight-
fisted to hire a good decorator; so the store looked a worse mess than ever. Then he tried to undersell the Spotless Store with the cheapest stuff he could get; and Ab Grant met his prices with better stuff.
Pa Libbey hunted me up. He looked desperate.
“Where’s Billy Pickton?” he demanded.
“Why?” I asked.
His explanation limped like a flivver had run into it. He guessed Billy’d got his bumps . . . learned his lesson . . . would settle down and work steady . . . might consider that partnership he’d refused . . .
“You mean,” said I, “you’re up against it, and you reckon Billy can save the business? Why don’t you ask Catherine where he is?”
“Catherine?” blurted Pa Libbey. “Why, Catherine doesn’t know . . .”
I shut up like a clam. It wasn’t for me to jam Catherine’s game, whatever it might be, just to derrick a wreck like Pa Libbey’s grocery out of the abyss where it belonged.
Pa Libbey was sweating blood. He had some bonds salted away. To keep going he had to buy fresh stock; to buy fresh stock he had to sell those bonds; and then he’d have to sell the fresh stock at a loss to meet Ab Grant’s prices. He was in a tight hole if ever a man was.
And right then, just like a woman, Ma Libbey hit him up for a new dress.
“New dress . . . my eye!” snorted Pa Libbey. “You see that young fellow across the street taking away all my business! Well, if you meddlesome women had kept out of things, young Pickton and I would be running a better store than that. And if you want any new dresses, either of you, you’d better find him for me, p.d.q. He’s our only chance.”
Catherine told me about it inside the next few minutes.
“Mr. Pierson,” she begged. “Can’t you . . . please . . . tell me where Billy is?”
I stared at her; and she burst into a Niagara of tears. “He never wrote me,” she sobbed. N-never. I ... I was just b-bluffing. Oh, Mr. P-Pierson, I c-can’t see why he d-didn’t write . . .”
“No,” says I, “and if you kicked a dog constant, you couldn’t see why he’d run when he saw you coming.”
She never even got huffy. It struck me she was a different Catherine, a nicer Catherine. “He said he’d come back,” I reminded her.
“But,” she said, drearily, “you know, Mr. Pierson, how Billy is.”
I thought of Billy, sitting in front of that old furnace; and I had an idea, even then, how a furnace could teach a man . . . the uselessness of forced draughts and too hot fires and clinkers, and the power of steady heat.
We talked a bit till Catherine perked up. She had good stuff in her, had Catherine; and though she’d often enough found fault with him, Pa Libbey was the only father she had; and, Ma Libbey being such a tartar, she’d not likely get another.
“We’re losing money every day,” she burst forth. “We must do something. I . . . I’ve got to do it myself. Maybe Ah Grant . . .”
Then and there she telephoned Ab.
“You’ve struck me at exactly the right moment,” Ab told her cheerily. “I’ll see . . . tonight, after closing . . . just leave the door unlatched . . .”
So Catherine quietly unlatched that door after Pa Libbey locked up for the night. She knew just what she meant to do ... to coax Ab Grant into buying that stock at a rate on the dollar. But Pa Libbey and Ma Libbey were still firing ' hot and heavy over who was to blame for losing Billy Pickton, and she had to listen to it all, and watch her chance to slip downstairs again. While she listened she rehearsed the talk she meant to give Ab about the stock, and the talk she meant to give her dad after the thing was done about quitting while the quitting was good . . . and every time they lugged Billy Pickton’s name into their scrap, she thought how different things would have been if Billy Pickton had come back as he promised and showed them how to run a grocery.
She heard someone moving about downstairs, yet she couldn’t seem to get away. Then everything grew quiet. She slipped downstairs at last. No one was in the store. The basement door was open.
The minute she turned the corner of the basement stair, looking to see Ab Grant, she gave a little cry. For there in front of the furnace sat Billy Pickton, staring into the black firepot.
“Billy!” she whispered.
He got to his feet, unsmiling.
“It’s -too late, Billy,” she told him. “You can’t help us now. I telephoned Ab Grant . .
“And I happened to be here inspecting my Number 7 Spotless Store and Ab told me you wanted to clean out this stock.” He shook his head. “You’re right, Miss Libbey. I can’t help you. I’ve set certain standards for my stores ...”
“Your stores!” she cried, and stood staring at him, as the whole thing came clear to her. So this was what he had meant when he promised to come back! Then she rallied, and tried desperately to salvage something for her poor old dad.
“Surely,” she begged, “there’s something . . .”
“Yes, Miss Libbey. There is.”
“What is it, Billy?” she demanded, hopefully.
He looked straight at her. “You may think it’s an odd whim, Miss Libbey, but ... I’d like to own this furnace. It made me what I am. It taught me the needless futility of forced draughts and
hot fires and . . . clinkers. It’s been my inspiration.”
She burst out crying.
“You’re cruel, Billy Pickton . . .
cruel! C-calling this old wreck a junk man wouldn’t look at, your inspiration. When I . . .”
And then it all came out . . . her ambitions for him, and her desperation when he fumbled his chance and the advice she’d got. And Billy . . . after all his grimness, he hadn’t forgotten. He just grabbed her and . . . but a furnace has more brains than a lot of folks I know. It don’t tell things it shouldn’t.
"K/TR. MOONEY, chairman of the internal management committee, got up, stretched himself, and told Jephtha Pierson to see that Room 11 had some heat next day if he had to burn the grates out. Then he sortied into the chill night.
At the next corner he encountered Sam Scarr, of the Carisford Meteor, stale from a city council meeting.
“Plague take those aldermen!’’ grumbled Scarr. “They sit up all night wrangling about a furnaceman for the city hall . . . and then, to cap the climax of idiocy, they appoint that old imbecile, Pete Libbey.”
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