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The Coal Scuttle

A STUDY IN DOMESTIC ĂSTHETICS


Euphemia, who loves to have home dainty and delightful, would have no
coals if she could dispense with them, much less a coal-scuttle. Indeed,
it would seem she would have no fireplace at all, if she had her will.
All the summer she is happy, and the fireplace is anything but the place
for a fire; the fender has vanished, the fireirons are gone, it is
draped and decorated and disguised. So would dear Euphemia drape and
disguise the whole iron framework of the world, with that decorative and
decent mind of hers, had she but the scope. There are exotic ferns
there, spreading their fanlike fronds, and majolica glows and gleams;
and fabrics, of which Morris is the actual or spiritual begetter,
delight the eye. In summer-time our fireplace is indeed a thing of
beauty, but, alas for the solar system! it is not a joy for ever. The
sun at last recedes beyond the equinoxes, and the black bogey who has
slept awakens again. Euphemia restores the fender kerb and the brazen
dogs and the fireirons that will clatter; and then all the winter,
whenever she sits before the fire, her trouble is with her. Even when
the red glow of the fire lights up her features most becomingly, and
flattery is in her ear, every now and then a sidelong glance at her ugly
foe shows that the thought of it is in her mind, and that the crumpled
roseleaf, if such a phrase may be used for a coal-scuttle, insists on
being felt. And she has even been discovered alone, sitting elbows on
knees, and chin on her small clenched fist, frowning at it, puzzling how
to circumvent the one enemy of her peace.

"_It_" is what Euphemia always calls this utensil, when she can bring
herself to give the indescribable an imperfect vent in speech. But
commonly the feeling is too deep for words. Her war with this foeman in
her household, this coarse rebel in her realm of soft prettiness, is one
of those silent ones, those grim struggles without outcry or threat or
appeal for quarter that can never end in any compromise, never find a
rest in any truce, except the utter defeat of her antagonist. And how
she has tried--the happy thoughts, the faint hopes, the new departures
and outflanking movements! And even to-day there the thing defies her--a
coal-box, with a broad smile that shows its black teeth, thick and
squat, filling a snug corner and swaggering in unmanly triumph over the
outrage upon her delicacy that it commits.

One of Euphemia's brightest ideas was to burn wood. Logs make even a
picturesque pile in a corner--look "uncommon." But there are objections
to wood. Wood finely divided burns with gay quirks and jets of flame,
and making cheerful crackling noises the while; but its warmth and
brightness are as evanescent as love's young dream. And your solid log
has a certain irritating inertness. It is an absentee fuel, spending its
fire up the chimney, and after its youthful clouds of glory turns but a
cheerless side of black and white char towards the room. And, above all,
the marital mind is strangely exasperated by the log. Smite it with the
poker, and you get but a sullen resonance, a flight of red sparks, a
sense of an unconquerable toughness. It is worse than coke. The crisp
fracture of coal, the spitting flames suddenly leaping into existence
from the shiny new fissures, are altogether wanting. Old-seasoned timber
burns indeed most delightfully, but then it is as ugly as coal, and
withal very dear. So Euphemia went back to coal again with a sigh.
Possibly if Euphemia had been surrounded by the wealth she deserves this
trouble would not have arisen. A silent servant, bearing the due dose of
fresh fuel, would have come gliding from a mysterious Beneath, restored
the waning animation of the grate, and vanished noiselessly again. But
this was beyond the range of Euphemia's possibilities. And so we are
face to face with this problem of the scuttle again.

At first she would feign there was no such thing as coal. It was too
horrible. Only a Zola would admit it. It was the epoch of concealment.
The thing purchased was like a little cupboard on four legs; it might
have held any convenient trifle; and there was a shelf upon the top and
a book of poetry and a piece of crackled Satsuma. You took a little
brass handle and pulled it down, and the front of the little cupboard
came forward, and there you found your coal. But a dainty little
cupboard can no more entertain black coal and inelegant firewood and
keep its daintiness than a mind can entertain black thoughts and yet be
sweet. This cabinet became demoralised with amazing quickness; it became
incontinent with its corruptions, a hinge got twisted, and after a time
it acquired the habit of suddenly, and with an unpleasant oscillatory
laughing noise, opening of its own accord and proclaiming its horrid
secret to Euphemia's best visitors. An air of wickedness, at once
precocious and senile, came upon it; it gaped and leered at Euphemia as
the partner of her secret with such a familiar air of "I and you" that
she could stand it no longer, and this depraved piece of furniture was
banished at last from her presence, and relegated to its proper sphere
of sham gentility below stairs, where it easily passed itself upon the
cook as an exquisite. Euphemia tried to be sensible then, and
determined, since she must have coal in her room, to let no false
modesty intervene, but to openly proclaim its presence to all the world.

The next thing, therefore, was a cylinder of brass, broadly open above,
saying to the world, as it were, "Look! I contain coal." And there were
brass tongs like sugar tongs wherewith Euphemia would regale the fire
and brighten it up, handing it a lump at a time in the prettiest way.
But brass dints. The brazen thing was quiet and respectable enough
upstairs, but ever and again it went away to be filled. What happened on
these holiday jaunts Euphemia has never ascertained. But a chance blow
or worse cause ran a crease athwart the forehead of the thing, and
below an almost imperceptible bulging hinted at a future corpulency. And
there was complaint of the quantity of polishing it needed, and an
increasing difficulty in keeping it bright. And except when it was full
to the brim, the lining was unsightly; and this became more so. One day
Ithuriel must have visited Euphemia's apartment, and the tarnished
brilliancy of the thing stood confessed. For some days there was an
interregnum, and a coal-scuttle from downstairs--a black unstable thing
on flat foot and with a vast foolish nether lip--did its duty with
inelegant faithfulness.

Then Euphemia had a really pretty fancy. She procured one of those big
open garden baskets and painted it a pleasant brown, and instead of a
garden fork she had a little half horticultural scoop. In this basket
she kept her coals, and she tied a pink ribbon on the handle. One might
fancy she had been in some dewy garden and had dug a few coals as one
might dig up bulbs, and brought them in and put them down. It attracted
attention from all her visitors, and set a kind of fashion in the
neighbourhood. For a time Euphemia was almost contented. But one day a
malignant woman called, and looked at this device through her gilt
eye-glasses, while she secretly groped in the dark of her mind for an
unpleasant thing to say. Then suddenly she remarked, "Why not put your
coal in a bassinette? Or keep it _all_ on the floor?" Euphemia's face
fell. The thing was undeniably very like a cradle, in the light of this
suggestion; the coal certainly did seem a little out of place there; and
besides, if there were more than three or four lumps they had a way of
tumbling over the edge upon the carpet when the fire was replenished.
The tender shoot of Euphemia's satisfaction suddenly withered and died.

So the struggle has gone on. Sometimes it has been a wrought iron tripod
with a subtle tendency to upset in certain directions; sometimes a
coal-box; once even the noisy old coal-box of japanned tin, making more
noise than a Salvation Army service, and strangely decorated with "art"
enamels, had a turn. At present Euphemia is enduring a walnut "casket,"
that since its first week of office has displayed an increasing
indisposition to shut. But things cannot stay like this. The worry and
anxiety and vexation, Euphemia declares, are making her old before her
time. A delicate woman should not be left alone to struggle against
brazen monsters. A closed gas stove is happily impossible, but the
husband of the household is threatened with one of those beastly sham
fires, wherein gas jets flare among firebrick--a mechanical fire without
vitality or variety, that never dances nor crackles nor blazes, a
monotonous horror, a fire you cannot poke. That is what it will
certainly come to if the problem remains unsolved.

H.G. Wells