Critic on the Hearth
ARTHUR T. MUNYAN
BEING WITH GINGER was in reality a mixed ecstasy. Most of the way out to the country, a drive of twenty miles, she chattered blithely about big games, new places to go, clubs, orchids and long distance calls—things that were everyday incidents to her and annual outings to Steve. And also about people who went hither and yon by plane, and wired ahead for show tickets, and knew head waiters. Quite innocently, she talked about all the things that made Steve feel like just one of the polloi.
Then, with a little shrug that was intimate and delightful, she slouched down in the seat beside him, pressing her small shoulder against his arm, and said:
“Well, I told him. About us!”
Ginger had dancing topaz eyes and a quick, gay smile. She always seemed half breathless with the excitement of doing whatever she was doing. Her voice was rather highpitched, sweet and husky in timbre, quick in tempo; and the way she used it gave the impression that she never thought before she spoke.
Steve gulped. “Told—told your father?”
“Yes. My father.”
“Did he . . . ?”
“No,” she said, “he didn’t—much. I mean, not any. He just ...”
“Well, what did he sa-ay?”
“He just said, ‘Ho.’ ”
Steve waited for her to go on from there, but she showed no further concern.
“ ‘Ho?’ ” he prompted finally.
“Yes,” she said. “Just—you know—ho. I don’t
know ...” She crinkled her nose.
It didn’t sound very explicit. He looked at her and said: "Doesn’t sound very—uh ...”
“No. I don’t think so either.”
Nor very hopeful, he thought bitterly. There were many times—and this of all days was turning out to be one of the worst of them—when the whole project of his marrying Ginger and taking her out of her background of exuberant success looked improbable and mad.
He glanced down at her for a moment of almost intolerable desire, wondering. What did she really think? How much actually did she care? Was she deadly serious, in the way he was, about those excited, half-secret plans of theirs?
And then, in another moment, his mood of defeat was gone, everything was different, life was bright, and anything was possible. Ginger did that.
He had swung into a country lane, then into a drive, and
stopped. A crucial moment had come. There before them stood Steve’s entire earthly estate. It was nothing much, heaven knew, but all happiness hung on Ginger’s spontaneous verdict. If it wasn’t good enough, his world would crack.
And Ginger cried:
“I love it! I lo-ve it! I’d forgotten. I couldn’t believe it was so nice.”
“TREES ARCHED the drive, and beyond, its white
I elevation dappled with traceries of shadow cast by the first pale foliage of spring, stood the charming small house, a cottage of the early 1800’s. It had gables and dormers and low hanging eaves, windows mullioned in twelve small panes. It looked as if some famous artist or poet had teen bom there. None had been, but it looked like that.
Ginger jumped out and ran up to the door. There she turned, a lovely and vivid picture framed by the doorway with its fanlight and tiny oblong panel lights, waiting.
“I love it,” she repeated. Her golden eyes were wide and limpid with some serious emotion. “Steve, don’t let anything, please don’t let anything—happen.”
His heart leaped, for all that implication of foreboding. A fierce, if vague, determination gripped him as he unlocked the door.
“Look inside,” he said shakily, and waited, still cold with dread.
Single-handed, he virtually had built the house. Laboring for months past, he had remodelled it from the ridgepole down; put in floors, bath, steam, hot water, wiring. He had tom out partitions, panelled rooms, fitted bookshelves, cupboards, alcoves. If Ginger didn’t care about it . . .
Ginger was perfect. She was the adorable woman of all romance. As she stepped into the big living room, she gave a cry of delight that transcended any words.
Steve! Darling! Oh, how did you, ev-er !” She grabbed his hand, dancing with impatience, her eyes alight with eagerness. “I want to see it all, this minute. I can’t wait to see it all.”
Together they explored the whole house. Steve was haunted by the wistful knowledge of flaws in his work and obstacles that had teen too much for him; Ginger saw none of these things, she was enchanted with all of it. She imagined them living there, she peopled the place with the imagined wraiths of their personalities.
There was a kitchen with sunlight streaming into it, and an degant range and an exquisite sink. And cabinets.
To put things in,” Steve explained.
“And take things out of.”
The old staircase, restored, went up from the living room. Up there was a wide bedroom, all funny angles on account of the dormers and the eaves that sloped down to the floor. On rainy nights
you could lie in the high spool bed and hear the rain on the roof, and think . . .
Ginger, suddenly shy, hummed a song, and said:
“Look, here’s the bath. Isn’t it the loveliest, quaintest bath? I mean, I know it’s new but it’s so Old Colonial. I mean, white. And a ce-dar clos-et! I’ve always wanted one.” (As if Ginger couldn’t have always had cedar closets as big as hangars if she liked.)
Downstairs, she sank into a Sleep Hollow chair with a sigh of bliss, accustoming herself to the living room, which was shaped like a fat L and had windows looking three wayà. There was some of the original furniture there— ladder-back and fiddle-back chairs, oval braid rugs, and a trestle table which Steve had carpentered out of old lumber.
“But where’s the fireplace?” Ginger started up in dismay, looking all around her in the hope that maybe it was only mislaid. “Steve!” accusingly. “We couldn’t not have a fireplace. There’d have to be a fireplace anyway.”
HE HAD TRIED to believe otherwise, but it took only a word from her to show him his error. He pictured a crowd coming on a cold night. Voices and laughter leaving white frost plumes on the winter air. Brrr! The white shoulders of girls drawn up and narrowed in dainty shivers. Then the gay rush for the mellow radiance of hardwood logs glowing on the andirons. Of all the squalid ideas, doing without a fireplace !
He said: “I—I wanted you to say where it should be.’’ Ginger pirouetted, deciding.
There, of course. “And the chimney running up the outside of the house, don’t you think?” Because if you tried to build chimneys inside, they came up under the bathtub or some such place.
“And there’s more room for it outdoors,” she agreed. “But, darling, I don’t see how you know how to pipe-fit and all those things. Do you suppose you know how to brick-lay?”
He thought that he could. “You just sort of put one brick on top of another and so on till you get up above the roof and—”
“And then you stop, hm?” Ginger grasped it easily.
“Of course, there are fireplaces that fill the place with smoke and suffocate all the inmates—”
“Yes, but we wouldn’t want one of those. Because I know some people who had one like that. They didn’t like it.”
“Didn’t they? No. I imagine not.”
What she wanted was a big, real fireplace with a wide hearth and a chimney on the outside of the house shaped like that: and Ginger drew a picture of it in the air, moving lier thumb and first finger like two crayons—parallel, then spreading, then parallel. Somehow, Steve resolved, he’d manage it. He’d need a lot of bricks, though.
“What was it your—your father said,” he asked abruptly. “Yes, I know— ‘ho.’ But I mean how did he sound?"
Ginger tried to reproduce it. With Steve echoing her she said, “ho,” and “HO.” and “Ho,” in every intonation from an evasive murmur to a derisive snort, but she wasn’t sure that any of these ho’s was just the right one. It was funny for a minute, and then it wasn’t.
The shadow had fallen again across their afternoon. When they were driving back to town again Ginger said: “Do you know what I think? I think you’d tetter talk to him.”
“This afternoon. Or some other afternoon. Depending.” Depending, it seemed, on how pleased with himself, or otherwise, Ginger’s old man was after eighteen holes of golf with three other old guys.
“All right,” Steve agreed. “Only I don’t quite see the idea of the scene. You told him, so he knows. So why doesn’t he say something besides ‘ho’ about it?”
“That’s what I thought you could probably find out.” He lapsed into frowning thought. He and Ginger, drawn together by some strange chemistry of the blood, could be so close that their shoulders were in warm contact, yet be far apart and secret and almost hostile in their minds. The discovery disturbed him. But he couldn’t help wondering what plan, hidden from him, was in her unusual mind. “Steve. What are you going to say to him?”
“Well, I haven’t thought of exactly the words. I’ll say we’re crazy about—well, he knows that. I’ll say we’ve got a house where we can easily live on my income till I get to making more. Gosh, I wasn’t born rich. He can’t expect me to be a ball of fire one year out of college, can he?”
“No, and you can say we’re sure to have loads of money some day, because you’re so—versatile and everything.” “I’m not sure,” said Steve, “he’d see the connection.” Arriving at Ginger’s, they learned that her old man had got a ninety-nine. That was good.
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Continued from page 17
Old man Shillito owned a flock of trucks like red fire engines that went around sandblasting buildings. When times were good he made a pot of money, and when they were bad he made as much as ever. He himself played golf and lunched at clubs with vice-presidents; the actual work was done by robots inside of gauntlets and goggles.
He was sitting in a big chair reading a late paper when Steve went into the library. Ginger’s old man was fat, not fat enough to have triple chins on the back of his neck, but fat. He was so elegantly tailored he didn’t look fat; he looked just right, and made people like Steve look undernourished.
“Ah,” he said affably. “How are you— er—uh, m’boy, how are you?”
Steve muttered a suitable response.
“Mr. Shillito—Ginger and I—”
“Oh, yes.” The voice was pleasant but vague. “Yes, yes.” He reminded you of a banker being reminded of a not very important matter to dispose of.
“By the way,” he enquired casually, “where did you and Ginger meet each other?” He was the sort of old smoothie who would sidetrack what you had all planned to say.
Steve stopped and told him, mentioning Ginger’s stag lines.
“Ah,” sighed Ginger’s old man. “Yes. My dear boy, there you are, don’t you see?” He sounded as if it was just too bad but there you really were. A stag. Stags had uses and even minor privileges, but no actual place in the biological scheme. Was it, in fact, quite sporting, was it quite in the gentlemen’s agreement under which stags were allowed to exist, to ask for things like Ginger?
Or, look at it this way, he went on kindly. Ginger stood for an investment of thirtyfive thousand, say. The interest on that was what? Oh, a couple of thousand. Interest only, mind you. Carrying charge. Now when you came to upkeep . . .
By the time Steve got a word in, he was angry.
“Well, don’t tell me what the upkeep is,” he snapped, “I don’t want to know.”
Ginger’s old man chuckled.
“You’re right. I don’t know myself, or want to. If I knew . . . ” But he let that lie, remembering it was Morgan’s. The point was, would Steve in his present position seriously expect to negotiate a matter that ran into five or six figures? No. He wouldn’t dream of it. Well, you had to look at Ginger from the same angle . . .
And Steve said nothing. There was nothing to say. But he knew this: the whole idea was sour. The idea of marrying Ginger and taking her off in a second-hand car to live in a shack he’d fixed up—it was ludicrous.
It wasn’t what had been said or not said; it was Ginger's old man himself, and his manner, and this house, and Ginger herself and her orchids and telegrams—everything.
Ginger’s old man dropped a friendly hand on his shoulder. (He believed it is better to have the good wishes of a dog.) His voice flowed on in an amiable rumble of empty encouragement.
“Yes,” said Steve coldly. “I see. Heh. Well.” And somehow he got out of there.
Ginger was waiting for him in the hall with a question. She needn’t have asked it but she did.
“What do you think?” he returned bitterly. Then he recited what he could remember of it in a voice ribald with mockery. "Wait a few years. Ho. We’re young. In a few years—”
“Years!” she wailed.
“Years was his word, darling. In a few of them I might be a Success, who knows? He even let me in on how. All you need is an Idea. One for a lifetime. Look at Ford, Wool worth. Look at Shillito.”
He wanted to hurt her. It had been her plan, that idiotic scene with her father. And all this play of being in love and being
engaged hadn’t really meant a thing. Fun for a while, but Ginger wasn’t going to miss out on anything she might get out of life. Not for an engagement more or less !
She had put him on the spot. Well, he wouldn’t argue it. Now she acted som’ about it. Her eyes were blurred with mistiness. That didn’t mean a thing, either.
“Steve,” she said falteringly. “What are you going to do?”
He gave her a long, ironical glance.
“Dar-ling,” he said, “I haven’t—the least —idea. Your guess is as good as mine, probably better.”
“Oh,” she said, in a fine scorn.
The next thing he knew he was alone in his car, driving somewhere, without a care or a thought where. He was down among the dead men.
For weeks he had had all the strain he could take. A job, a girl, fierce elemental longings, the necessity of being seven kinds of laborer. Work had lagged behind his eager planning till his brain jammed with plans, and his dreams had been haunted by drop-ear fittings, toggle switches, wiggle nails. Now all that was for nothing. He was very near the mental state of people who commit crimes passibnels or are picked up, maundering and nameless, in strange cities.
Dim nihilistic thoughts milled in his head. Thoughts of Ginger. A million dollars. Seven million, and grim reprisals. He grew white hot and trembling over an imaginary scene with Ginger’s old man.
HE CAME OUT of the doldrums with one fixed idea. It was completely senseless. What good was a fireplace, or the whole silly house, without Ginger? Well, he would build a fireplace anyway. It was all visualized in his mind, and he’d never have a second’s rest till he got to work on it. Work was an anaesthetic. Anyhow, he would build the thing just for stubbornness. So he did—with bricks from an ancient carpet factory. A fireplace and a chimney, and no two-by-two thing, either. It had a lined flue and firebrick back, throat and damper, pitch, bevel, hearth, lintel, a coldair intake, and gosh knows what all else, all in correct ratio. Steve laid 3,000 bricks by twilight, moonlight, lantern light, and it would be pleasanter not to know how lie did it.
It was a good job, but he felt no joy. nothing but mortification. Those carpetfactory bricks! He’d hoped they’d give a nice effect of mellow age, but they just looked like second-hand bricks. The sight was sickening.
Steve had a streak of the artist in him. If the work had been a canvas he would have slashed it with a knife; but he couldn’t do anything violent and hasty about several tons of masonry.
He was standing there eyeing it all with dull disgust, when the roadster stopped in front. The door slammed expensively, not with a tinny clank like the one on his old car. Ginger came and stood beside him, gazing dolefully at the mess.
“It’s nice and big . . . ” she said. “And straight and square. And I’ll bet it draws.” “And so, what?”
“And so I think it’s a shame the bricks are so—”
"Yes,” he said. “I know. Did you ever see anything quite so foul?”
“I cried when I first saw it,” she confessed.
“I know. Everybody does. They come down the lane this far, and burst into tears and turn back.”
“But, Steve! You could whitewash it. White to match the house.”
“Or green. To match the blinds.”
“You needn’t be sarcastic,” she said plaintively. “There are whitewashed chimneys. They’re pretty.”
“Well, I don’t like whitewash. I’m funny that way.”
“My father saw it, too,” Ginger disclosed. “And he—”
“Did he break down and cry, too?” “No-o. No, but he offered to have a crew stmt out here to sandblast it all clean for you. With the compliments of the firm, he said.”
“My compliments to him, and I’d rather tear it down. I’ll dean it up, myself.”
"But how could you, Steve?”
“Steve, I don’t believe art gum would do it at all. Because art gum is just a sort of eraser for erasing a spot or something.” He took no notice of that.
“Steve!” She raised her voice. He did not even hear her. Steve was in that trancelike state that marked the dawning of an idea.
“Steve!” she cried with a sob in her Voice, and flung herself into his arms. "Anyway,” she told him, “I won’t give you up. Fiver. I won’t! I don’t care what happens.”
And there, in justice to Ginger, ends the story of how she came to marry Steve and go away with him to live in the small house with the big hearth, the dormers, and the low-hanging eaves.
UT WHAT about Ginger’s old man?
In the first place, to go back a moment, Steve cleaned up the chimney-brick by a way he thought out himself. He gave it a
coat of acid—or maybe caustic—and then he fired up the steam heating plant till the safety valve stuttered, took a hose, and gave the whole chimney a blast of steam. Every individual brick came out clean and ruddy.
Steve’s idea was one of those ideas in a lifetime; it was one with a vengeance, a spiked tail. Because from the moment of its dawn, to all intents, old man Shillito’s clumsy process of cleaning buildings with a man-made sandstorm was a washout; it was obsolete, null and void. And Ginger’s old man was in a swivet.
But was Ginger’s old man flattened? Not that old smoothie ! When he saw what the situation was, he acted pleased to death. He said, “ho!” and dapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder. He acted proud and delighted with the way the boy had taken his advice and had an Idea. And then he talked.
When he got through talking it appeared that somebody or other would have so much Class B common stock of no par, and Ginger would have Steve, and Steve would have Ginger. And Ginger’s old man would have the idea and the process.
You can check up on the whole matter the next time you notice a building having its face washed. There won’t be any sandblast going on, getting sand under foot and in your eyes and in your teeth. They’re using steam.