GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY
GROSSET & DUNLAP
Copyright, 1910, 1911
GEORGE BARR McCUTCHEON
Published March, 1911
CHAPTER PAGE I. Our Hero 1 II. Miss Nellie Duluth 31 III. Mr. Fairfax 71 IV. Luncheon 95 V. Christmas 124 VI. The Revolver 150 VII. The Lawyer 176 VIII. Blakeville 201
Nellie Duluth Frontispiece
Fairfax was sitting on a trunk, a satisfied smile on his lips 67
He stopped, aghast, petrified 238
Two men were standing in front of the Empire Theatre on Broadway, at the outer edge of the sidewalk, amiably discussing themselves in the first person singular. It was late in September and somewhat early in the day for actors to be abroad, a circumstance which invites speculation. Attention to their conversation, which was marked by the habitual humility, would have convinced the listener (who is always welcome) that both had enjoyed a successful season on the road, although closing somewhat prematurely on account of miserable booking, and that both had received splendid "notices" in every town visited.
These two loiterers serve a single purpose in this tale—they draw your attention to the principal character, to the person who plays the title role, so to speak, and then, having done so, sink back into an oblivion from which it is quite unnecessary to retrieve them.
The younger of the two players was in the act of lighting a cigarette, considerately tendered by the older, when his gaze fell upon the figure of the approaching hero. He hesitated for a moment, squinting his eyes reflectively as if to make sure of both vision and memory before committing himself to the declaration that was to follow.
"See that fellow there? The little chap with his hands in his pockets?"
The other permitted a vague, indifferent glance to enter the throng of pedestrians, plainly showing that he did not see the person indicated. (Please note this proof of the person's qualifications as a hero.)
"The fellow in front of Browne's," added the first speaker, so eagerly that his friend tried once more and succeeded.
"What of him?" he demanded, unimpressed.
"That is What's-His-Name, Nellie Duluth's husband."
The friend's stare was prolonged and incredulous.
"Yes. That's the fair Nellie's anchor. Isn't he a wonder?"
The object of these remarks passed slowly in front of them and soon was lost in the crowd. Now that we know who he is we will say thank you to the obliging Thespian and be off up Broadway in his wake, not precisely in the capacity of spies and eavesdroppers, but as acquaintances who would know him better.
He was not an imposing figure. You would not have looked twice at him. You could not have remembered looking once at him, for that matter. He was the type of man who ambles through life without being noticed, even by those amiably inclined persons who make it their business to see everything that is going on, no matter how trivial it is.
Somewhere in this wide and unfeeling world the husband of Nellie Duluth had an identity of his own, but New York was not the place. Back in the little Western town from which he came he had a name and a personality all his own, but it was a far cry from Broadway and its environments. For a matter of four or five years he had been known simply as "Er—What's-His-Name? Nellie Duluth's husband!" You have known men of his stripe, I am sure; men who never get anywhere for the good and sufficient reason that it isn't necessary. Men who stand still. Men who do not even shine by reflected glory. Men whose names you cannot remember. It might be Smith or Brown or Jones, or any of the names you can't forget if you try, and yet it always escapes you. You know the sort I mean.
Nellie Duluth's husband was a smallish young man, nice-looking, even kind-looking, with an habitual expression of inquiry in his face, just as if he never quite got used to seeing or being seen. The most expert tailor haberdasher could not have provided him with apparel that really belonged to him. Not that he was awkward or ill-favoured in the matter of figure, but that he lacked individuality. He always seemed to be a long way from home.
Sometimes you were sure that he affected a slight, straw-coloured moustache; then, a moment afterward, if you turned your back, you were not quite sure about it. As a matter of fact, he did possess such an adornment. The trouble came in remembering it. Then, again, his eyes were babyish blue and unseasoned; he was always looking into shop windows, getting accustomed to the sights. Trolley cars and automobiles were never-decreasing novelties to him, if you were to judge by the startled way in which he gazed at them. His respect for the crossing policeman, his courtesy to the street-car conductor, his timidity in the presence of the corner newsboy, were only surpassed by his deference to the waiter in the cheap restaurants he affected.
But, ah! You should have seen him in that little Western town! He was a "devil of a fellow" out there! He knew the policemen by their first names and had no respect for them; street-car conductors were hail-fellows well met, and the newsboys wore spectacles and said "Yes, sir," to him. As for the waiters, he knew them all by their Christian name, which usually was Annie or Mamie or Katie.
On Broadway he was quite another person. He knew his Broadway from one end to the other—that is to say, he knew that side of the "Great White Way" which stares you in the face and rebukes you for staring back—the outside of Broadway. He had been on and off Broadway for a matter of five years and yet he had never recovered from the habit of turning out for every pedestrian he met, giving the other man the right of way instead of holding to his own half of it, sometimes stepping in puddles of water to do so and not infrequently being edged off the curbstone by an accumulation of the unexpected.
Once in a while during his peregrinations some one recognised him and bowed in a hesitating manner, as if trying to place him, and at such times he responded with a beaming smile and a half-carried-out impulse to stop for a bit of a chat, but always with a subsequent acceleration of speed on discovering that the other fellow seemed to be in a hurry. They doubtless knew him for Miss Duluth's husband, but for the life of them they couldn't call him by name. Every one understood that Nellie possessed a real name, but no one thought to ask what it was.
Moreover, Nellie had a small daughter whose name was Phoebe. She unquestionably was a collaboration, but every one who knew the child spoke of her as that "darling little girl of Nellie's." The only man in New York who appeared to know Nellie's husband by name was the postman, and he got it second-hand.
At the stage door of the theatre he was known as Miss Duluth's husband, to the stage hands and the members of the chorus he was What's-His-Name, to the principals he was "old chap," to Nellie herself he was Harvey, to Phoebe he was "daddy," to the press agent he was nameless—he didn't exist.
You could see Nellie in big red letters on all the billboards. She was inevitable. Her face smiled at you from every nook and corner—and it was a pretty face, too—and you had to get your tickets of the scalpers if you wanted to see her in person any night in the week, Sundays excepted. Hats, parasols, perfumes, and face powders were named after her. It was Nellie here and Nellie there and Nellie everywhere. The town was mad about her. It goes without saying that her husband was not the only man in love with her.
As Harvey—let me see—oh, never mind—What's-His-Name—ambled up Broadway on the morning of his introduction into this homely narrative he was smiled at most bewitchingly by his wife—from a hundred windows—for Nellie's smile was never left out of the lithographs (he never missed seeing one of them, you may be sure)—but it never occurred to him to resent the fact that she was smiling in the same inviting way to every other man who looked.
He ambled on. At Forty-second Street he turned to the right, peering at the curtained windows of the Knickerbocker with a sort of fearful longing in his mild blue eyes, and kept on his way toward the Grand Central Station. Although he had been riding in and out of the city on a certain suburban train for nearly two years and a half, he always heaved a sigh of relief when the gate-tender told him he was taking the right train for Tarrytown. Once in a great while, on matinee days, he came to town to luncheon with Nellie before the performance. On Sundays she journeyed to Tarrytown to see him and Phoebe. In that way they saw quite a bit of each other. This day, however, he was taking an earlier train out, and he was secretly agitated over the possibility of getting the wrong one. Nellie had sent word to the theatre that she had a headache and could not have luncheon with him.
He was not to come up to her apartment. If he had known a human being in all New York with whom he could have had luncheon, he would have stayed in town and perhaps gone to a theatre. But, alas, there was no one! Once he had asked a low comedian, a former member of Nellie's company, but at the time out of a job and correspondingly meek, to luncheon with him at Rector's. At parting he had the satisfaction of lending the player eleven dollars. He hoped it would mean a long and pleasant acquaintance and a chance to let the world see something of him. But the low comedian fell unexpectedly into a "part" and did not remember Nellie's husband the next time he met him. He forgot something else as well. Harvey's memory was not so short. He never forgot it. It rankled.
He bought a noon extra and found a seat in the train. Then he sat up very straight to let people see that they were riding in the same car with the great Nellie Duluth's husband. Lucky dog! Every one was saying that about him, he was sure. But every one else had a noon extra, worse luck!
After a while he sagged down into the seat and allowed his baby-blue eyes to fall into a brown study. In his mind's eye he was seeing a thousand miles beyond the western bank of the Hudson, far off into the quiet streets of a town that scarcely had heard the name of Nellie Duluth and yet knew him by name and fame, even to the remotest nook of it.
They were good old days, sweet old days, those days when he was courting her—when she was one among many and he the only one. Days when he could serve customers in his shirt-sleeves and address each one familiarly. Every one was kind. If he had a toothache, they sympathised with him and advised him to have it pulled and all that sort of thing. In New York (he ground his teeth, proving that he retained them) no one cared whether he lived or died. He hated New York. He would have been friendly to New York—cheerfully, gladly—if New York had been willing to meet him halfway. It was friendly to Nellie; why couldn't it be friendly to him? He was her husband. Why, confound it all, out in Blakeville, where they came from, he was somebody while she was merely "that girl of Ted Barkley's." He had drawn soda water for her a hundred times and she had paid him in pennies! Only five years ago. Sometimes she had the soda water charged; that is to say, she had it put on her mother's bill. Ted couldn't get credit anywhere in town.
And now look at her! She was getting six hundred dollars a week and spurned soda water as if it were poison.
His chin dropped lower. The dreamy look deepened.
"Doggone it," he mused for the hundredth time, "I could have been a partner in the store by this time if I'd stuck to Mr. Davis."
He was thinking of Davis' drug store, in Main Street, and the striped blazer he wore while tending the soda fount in the summer time. A red and yellow affair, that blazer was. Before the "pharmacy law" went into effect he was permitted to put up prescriptions while Mr. Davis was at meals. Afterward he was restricted to patent medicines, perfumes, soaps, toilet articles, cigars, razor strops, and all such, besides soda water in season. Moreover, when circuses came to town the reserved-seat sale was conducted in Davis' drug store. He always had passes without asking for them.
Yes, he might have been a partner by this time. He drew a lot of trade to the store. Mr. Davis could not have afforded to let him go elsewhere.
Five years ago! It seemed ages. He was twenty-three when he left Blakeville. Wasted ages! Somehow he liked the ready-made garments he used to buy at the Emporium much better than those he wore nowadays—fashionable duds from Fifth Avenue at six times the price. He used to be busy from seven A.M. till ten P.M., and he was happy. Nowadays he had nothing to do but get up and shave and take Phoebe for walks, eat, read the papers, tell stories to Phoebe, and go to bed. To be sure, the food was good and plentiful, the bed was soft, and the cottage more attractive than anything Blakeville could boast of; Phoebe was a joy and Nellie a jewel, but—heigh-ho! he might have been a partner in Davis' drug store if he'd stayed in the old town.
The man in the seat behind was speaking to him. He came out of his reverie with a glad rush. It was so unusual for any one to take the initiative that he was more than ready to respond.
"I see the Giants lost again yesterday," said the volunteer conversationalist.
"Yes. Six to four," said our hero, brightly, turning in his seat. He always read the baseball news. He could tell you the batting average of every player in the big leagues for ten years back.
"Lot of bone-heads," said the other sourly. At first glance our friend thought he looked like an actor and his heart sank. But perhaps he might be a travelling salesman. He liked them. In either event, the stranger's estimate of the New York ball team pleased him. He rejoiced in every defeat it sustained, particularly at the hands of the Chicagos.
"Not in it with the Cubs," he announced, blitheness in his manner. Here was a man after his own heart.
But the stranger glared at him. "The Cubs?" he said, his voice hardening, his manner turning aggressive.
"They make the Giants look like two-spots," went on our friend, recklessly.
The stranger looked him over pityingly and then ended the conversation by deliberately hiding himself behind his newspaper. Our hero opened his lips to add further comment, but something in the way the paper crackled caused him to close them and turn back to his bitter survey of the Hudson. And the confounded fellow had invited his confidence, too!
He got down at Tarrytown and started up the hill. The station-master pointed him out to a friend.
"That's—er—What's-His-Name—Nellie Duluth's husband."
"She keeps him up here in a cottage to take care of the baby. Away from the temptations of the city," said the agent, with a broad wink.
"I didn't know she was married," said his friend, who lived in Yonkers.
"Well, she is."
Mr.—(I declare, his name escapes me, so I will call him by his Christian name, Harvey)—Harvey, utterly oblivious to the pitying scrutiny of the two men, moved slowly up the road, homeward bound. He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to light a "Sweet Cap," threw back his unimposing shoulders, and accelerated his gait a trifle in deference to his position as the master of a celebrity.
It was his habit to take a rather roundabout way up to the little cottage on the hill. The route led him past a certain drug store and a grocer's where he was on speaking terms with the clerks. They knew him. He did the marketing, but the account was in Miss Duluth's name. A livery stable, too, was on the line of progress. He occasionally stopped in to engage a pony phaeton for a drive in the afternoon with Phoebe.
To-day he passed these places by. Every one seemed to be busy. He could see that at a glance. So there wasn't any use stopping. That was what he got for coming home from town in the middle of the day. He nodded to several acquaintances—passing acquaintances in both senses of the word. They turned to look after him, half-smiles on their lips.
One woman said to another, "I wonder if he's really married to her?"
"If he wasn't, he'd be living in the city with her," was the complete rejoinder.
"He seems such a quiet little man, so utterly unlike what a husband of hers ought to be. He's from the far West—near Chicago, I believe. I never can remember his name. Can you?"
"I've never heard it."
"It's not an uncommon name."
"Why doesn't he call himself Mr. Duluth?"
"My husband says actresses are not supposed to have husbands. If they have them, they keep them in the background."
"That's true. I know I am always surprised when I see that they're trying to get divorces."
Harvey was never so far in the background as when he appeared in the foreground. One seldom took notice of him unless he was out of sight, or at least out of hearing.
He was not effeminate; he was not the puerile, shiftless creature the foregoing sentences may have led you to suspect. He was simply a weakling in the strong grasp of circumstance. He could not help himself; to save his life, he could not be anything but Nellie Duluth's husband.
Not a bad-looking chap, as men of his stamp go. Not much of a spine, perhaps, and a little saggy about the shoulders; all in all, rather a common type. He kept his thin moustache twisted, but inconsistently neglected to shave for several days—that kind of a man. His trousers, no matter how well made, were always in need of pressing and his coat was wrinkled from too much sitting on the small of his back. His shirts, collars, and neckties were clean and always "dressy." Nellie saw to that. Besides he always had gone in for gay colours when it came to ties and socks. His watch-fob was a thing of weight and pre-eminence. It was of the bell-clapper type. In the summer time he wore suspenders with his belt, and in the winter time he wore a belt with his suspenders. Of late he affected patent-leather shoes with red or green tops; he walked as if he despised the size of them.
Arriving at the snug little cottage, he was brought face to face with one of the common tragedies of a housekeeper's life. The cook and the nursemaid, who also acted as waitress and chambermaid, had indulged in one of their controversies during his absence, and the former had departed, vowing she would never return. Here it was luncheon time and no one to get it! He knew that Bridget would be back before dinner time—she always did come back—but in the meantime what were they to do? There wasn't a thing in the house.
He found himself wishing he had stayed in the city for luncheon.
Annie's story was a long one, but he gathered from it that Bridget was wholly to blame for the row. Annie was very positive as to that.
"Have we any eggs?" asked the dismayed master.
"Eggs? How should I know, sir?" demanded Annie. "It's Bridget's place to know what's in the pantry, not mine. The Lord knows I have enough to do without looking after her work."
"Excuse me," said he, apologetically. He hesitated for a moment and then came to a decision. "I guess I'd better go and see what we've got. If we've got eggs, I can fry 'em. Bridget will be back this evening."
"I'm not so sure of that," said Annie, belligerently. "I told her this was the last time, the very last."
"I'll bet you a quarter she comes back," said he, brightly.
"Gee! What a sport you are!" scoffed Annie.
He flushed. "Will you please set the table?"
"I'll help you make the toast, if you'd like," said she, a sudden feeling of pity for him coming into her niggardly soul.
"Thanks," he said, briskly. "And the tea, too?"
"I think we'd better have coffee," said she, asserting a preference for the housemaid's joy.
"Just as you say," he acquiesced, hastily. "Where is Phoebe?"
"Next door with the Butler kids—children, I mean. Maybe they'll ask her to stay to lunch."
He gave her a surprise. "Go over and tell her to come home. I don't want her staying to luncheon with those damned Butlers."
She stared, open-mouthed. "I'm sure, sir, they're quite as good as—as we are. What have you got against 'em?"
He could not tell her that Butler, who worked in a bank, never took the trouble to notice him except when Nellie was out to spend Sunday.
"Never mind. Go and get Phoebe."
He made a dash for the kitchen, and when the exasperated Annie returned a few minutes later with Phoebe—rebellious Phoebe, who at that particular moment hated her father—he was in his shirt-sleeves and aproned, breaking eggs over a skillet on the gas stove. His face was very red, as if considerable exertion had been required.
Phoebe was pouting when she came in, but the sight of her father caused her to set up a shriek of glee.
"What fun, daddy!" she cried. "Now we'll never need Bridget again. I don't like her. You will be our cook, won't you?"
Annie's sarcastic laugh annoyed him.
"I used to do all the cooking when the Owl Club went camping," he announced, entirely for Annie's benefit.
"In Blakeville?" asked Annie, with a grin.
"Yes, in Blakeville," he exploded, almost dropping the cigarette from his lips into the skillet. His blue eyes flashed ominously. Annie, unused to the turning of the worm, caught her breath.
Suddenly obsessed by the idea that he was master in his own house, he began strutting about the kitchen, taking mental note of the things that needed attention, with a view to reproving Bridget when she came back to the fold. He burnt his fingers trying to straighten the stovepipe, smelt of the dish-cloths to see if they were greasy, rattled the pans and bethought himself of the eggs just in the nick of time. In some haste and embarrassment he removed the skillet from the fire just as Annie came out of the pantry with the bread and the coffee can.
"Where's the platter?" he demanded, holding the skillet at arm's length. "They're fried."
"They'll be stone cold," said she, "waiting for the coffee to boil. You ain't got any water boiling."
"I thought, perhaps, we'd better have milk," he said, gathering his wits.
To his surprise—and to her own, for that matter—she said, "Very good, sir," and repaired to the icebox for the dairy bottles. He was still holding the skillet when she returned. She was painfully red in the face.
Phoebe eyed the subsequent preparations for the meal with an increasing look of sullenness in her quaint little face. She was rather a pretty child. You would say of her, if you saw her in the street, "What a sweet child!" just as you would say it about the next one you met.
Her father, taking note of her manner, paused in the act of removing his apron.
"What's the matter, darling?"
"Can't I go over to Mrs. Butler's for luncheon?" she complained. "They're going to have chicken."
"So are we," said he, pointing to the eggs.
"I want to go," said Phoebe, stubbornly.
He coloured. "Don't you want to stay home and eat what daddy has cooked?" he asked, rather plaintively.
"I want to go."
He could only resort to bribery. "And daddy'll take you down to see the nickel show as soon as we've finished," he offered. The child's face brightened.
Here Annie interposed.
"She can't go to see them nickel shows; Miss Duluth won't stand for it. She's give me strict orders."
"I'll take good care of her——" began Phoebe's father.
"Miss Duluth's afraid of diphtheria and scarlet fever," said Annie, resolutely, as she poured out a glass of milk for him.
"Not likely to be any diphtheria this time of year," he began again, spurred by the kick Phoebe planted on his kneecap.
"Well, orders is orders. What Miss Duluth says goes."
"Ah, come now, Annie——"
"Say, do you want her to ketch scarlet fever and die?" demanded the nurse, putting the bottle down and glaring at him with a look of mixed commiseration and scorn.
"Good Heavens, no!" he ejaculated. The very thought of it brought a gush of cold water to his mouth.
"Well, take her to see it if you must, but don't blame me. She's your kid," said Annie, meanly, with victory assured.
"Make her say 'Yes,'" urged Phoebe, in a loud whisper.
He hedged. "Do you want to have the scarlet fever?" he asked, dismally.
"Yes," said Phoebe. "And measles, too."
The sound of heavy footsteps on the back porch put an end to the matter for the time being. Even Phoebe was diverted.
Bridget had come back. A little ahead of her usual schedule, too, which was food for apprehension. Usually she took the whole day off when she left "for good and all." Never before in the history of her connection with Miss Duluth's menage had she returned so promptly. Involuntarily the master of the house glanced out of the window to see if a rain had blown up. The sun was shining brightly. It wasn't the weather.
The banging of the outer door to the kitchen caused him to jump ever so slightly and to cast a glance of inquiry at Annie, who altered her original course and moved toward the sitting-room door. In the kitchen a perfectly innocent skillet crashed into the sink with a vigour that was more than ominous.
A moment later Bridget appeared in the door. She wore her best hat and gloves and the dress she always went to mass in. The light of battle was in her eye.
"We—we thought we wouldn't wait, Bridget," said Mr.—er—What's-His-Name, quickly. "You never come back till six or seven, you know, so——"
"Who's been monkeyin' wid my kitchen?" demanded Bridget. She started to unbutton one of her gloves and the movement was so abrupt and so suggestive that he got up from his chair in such a hurry that he overturned it.
"Somebody had to get lunch," he began.
"I wasn't sp'akin' to you," said Bridget, glaring past him at Annie.
He gulped suddenly. For the second time that day his eyes blazed. Things seemed to be dancing before them.
"Well, I'm speaking to you!" he shouted, banging the table with his clenched fist.
"What!" squealed Bridget, staggering back in astonishment.
He remembered Phoebe.
"You'd better run over to the Butlers', Phoebe, and have lunch," he said, his voice trembling in spite of himself. "Run along lively now."
Bridget was still staring at him like one bereft of her senses when Phoebe scrambled down from her chair and raced out of the room. He turned upon the cook.
"What do you mean by coming in here and speaking to me in that manner?" he demanded, shrilly.
"Great God above!" gasped Bridget weakly. She dropped her glove. Her eyes were blinking.
"And why weren't you here to get lunch?" he continued, ruthlessly. "What do we pay you for?"
Bridget forgot her animosity toward Annie. "What do yez think o' that?" she muttered, addressing the nursemaid.
"Get back to the kitchen," ordered he.
Cook had recovered herself by this time. Her broad face lost its stare and a deep scowl, with fiery red background, spread over her features. She imposed her huge figure a step or two farther into the room.
"Phat's that?" she demanded.
She weighed one hundred and ninety and was nearly six feet tall. He was barely five feet five and could not have tipped the beam at one hundred and twenty-five without his winter suit and overcoat. He moved back a corresponding step or two.
"Don't argue," he said, hurriedly.
"Argue?" she snorted. "Phy, ye little shrimp, who are you to be talkin' back to me? For two cents I'd——"
"You are discharged!" he cried, hastily putting a chair in her path—but wisely retaining a grip on it.
She threw back her head and laughed, loudly, insultingly. Her broad hands, now gloveless and as red as broiled lobsters, found resting-places on her hips. He allowed his gaze to take them in with one hurried, sweeping glance. They were as big and as menacing as a prizefighter's.
"We'll discuss it when you're sober," he made haste to say, trying to wink amiably.
"So help me Mike, I haven't touched a——" she began, but caught herself in time. "So yez discharge me, do yez?" she shouted.
"I understood you had quit, anyway."
"Well, me fine little man, I'll see yez further before I'll quit now. I came back this minute to give notice, but I wouldn't do it now for twenty-five dollars."
"You don't have to give notice. You're discharged. Good-bye." He started for the sitting-room.
She slapped the dining-table with one of her big hands. The dishes bounced into the air, and so did he.
"I'll give this much notice to yez," she roared, "and ye'll bear it in mind as long as yez stay in the same house wid me. I don't take no orders from the likes of you. I was employed by Miss Duluth. I cook for her, I get me pay from her, and I'll not be fired by anybody but her. Do yez get that? I'd as soon take orders from the kid as from you, ye little pinhead. Who are yez anyhow? Ye're nobody. Begorry, I don't even know yer name. Discharge me! Phy, phy, ye couldn't discharge a firecracker. What's that?"
"I—I didn't say anything," he gasped.
"Ye'd better not."
"I shall speak to—to Miss Duluth about this," he muttered, very red in the face.
"Do!" she advised, sarcastically. "She'll tell yez to mind yer own business, the same as I do. The idee! Talkin' about firing me! Fer the love av Mike, Annie, what do yez think av the nerve? Phy Miss Duluth kapes him on the place I can't fer the life av me see. She's that tinder-hearted she——"
But he had bolted through the door, slamming it after him. As he reached the bottom of the stairs leading to his bedroom the door opened again and Annie called out to him:—
"Are you through lunch, sir?"
He was halfway up the steps before he could frame an answer. Tears of rage and humiliation were in his baby-blue eyes.
"Tell her to go to the devil," he sputtered.
As he disappeared at the bend in the stairs he distinctly heard Annie say:—
"I can see myself doing it—not."
For an hour he paced the floor of his little bed-chamber, fuming and swearing to himself in a mild, impotent fashion—and in some dread of the door. Such words and sentences as these fell from his lips:—"Nobody!" "Keeps me on the place!" "Because she's tender-hearted!" "I will fire her!" "Can't talk back to me!" "Damned Irisher!" And so on and so forth until he quite wore himself out. Then he sat down at the window and let the far-away look slip back into his troubled blue eyes. They began to smart, but he did not blink them.
Phoebe found him there at four when she came in for her nap. He promised to play croquet with her.
Dinner was served promptly that evening, and it was the best dinner Bridget had cooked in a month.
"That little talk of mine did some good," said he to himself, as he selected a toothpick and went in to read "Nicholas Nickleby" till bedtime. "They can't fool with me."
He was reading Dickens. His wife had given him a complete set for Christmas. To keep him occupied, she said.
MISS NELLIE DULUTH
Nellie Duluth had an apartment up near the Park, the upper end of the Park, in fact, and to the east of it. She went up there, she said, so that she could be as near as possible to her husband and daughter. Besides, she hated taking the train at the Grand Central on Sundays. She always went to One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street in her electric brougham. It didn't seem so far to Tarrytown from One Hundred and Twenty-fifth. In making her calculations Nellie always went through the process of subtracting forty-two from one-twenty-five, seldom correctly. She had no difficulty in taking the two from the five, but it wasn't so simple when it came to taking four from two with one to carry over. It was the one that confused her. For the life of her she couldn't see what became of it. Figures of that sort were not in her line.
Nellie's career had been meteoric. She literally had leaped from the chorus into the role of principal comedienne—one of those pranks of fortune that cannot be explained or denied. She was one of the "Jack-in-the-Box" girls in a big New York production. On the opening night, when the lid of her box flew open and she was projected into plain view, she lost her bearings and missed the tiny platform in coming down. To save herself from an ignominious tumble almost to the footlights she hopped off the edge of her box, where she had been "teetering" helplessly, and did a brief but exceedingly graceful little "toe spin," hopping back into the box an instant later with all the agility of a scared rabbit. She expected "notice" from the stage manager for her inexcusable slip.
But the spectators liked it. They thought it was in the play. She was so pretty, so sprightly, so graceful, and so astoundingly modest that they wanted more of her. After the performance no fewer than a dozen men asked the producer why he didn't give that little girl with the black hair more of a chance.
The next night she was commanded to repeat the trick. Then they permitted her to do it over in the "encore." Before the end of a fortnight she was doing a dance with the comedian, exchanging lines with him. Then a little individual song-and-dance specialty was introduced. At the close of the engagement on Broadway she announced that she would not sign for the next season unless given a "ripping" part and the promise to be featured.
That was three years ago. Now she was the feature in the big, musical comedy success, "Up in the Air" and had New York at her feet. The critics admitted that she saved the "piece" in spite of composer and librettist. Some one is always doing that very thing for the poor wretches, Heaven pity them.
Nellie was not only pretty and sprightly, but as clever as they make them. She never drew the short straw. She had a brain that was quite as active as her feet. It was not a very big brain; for that matter, her feet were tiny. She had the good sense to realise that her brain would last longer than her feet, so she got as much for them as she could while the applause lasted. She drove shrewd bargains with the managers and shrewder ones with Wall Street admirers, who experienced a slim sense of gratification in being able to give her tips on the market, with the assurance that they would see to it that she didn't lose.
She put her money into diamonds as fast as she got it. Some one in the profession had told her that diamonds were safer than banks or railroad bonds. She could get her interest by looking at them and she could always sell them for what she paid for them.
The card on the door of her cosey apartment bore the name, "Miss Nellie Duluth."
There was absolutely nothing inside or outside the flat to lead one to suspect that there was a Mr. Duluth. A husband was the remotest figure in her household. When the management concluded to put her name in the play-bill, after the memorable Jack-in-the-Box leap, she was requested to drop her married name, because it would not look well in print.
"Where were you born?" the manager had asked.
"Take Duluth for luck," said he, and Duluth it was. She changed the baptismal name Ella to Nellie. At home in Blakeville she had been called Eller or Ell.
Her apartment was an attractive one. Her housemaid was a treasure. She was English and her name was Rachel. Nellie's personal maid and dresser was French. Her name was Rebecca. When Miss Duluth and Rebecca left the apartment to go to the theatre in the former's electric brougham, Rachel put the place in order. So enormous was the task that she barely had it finished when her mistress returned, tired and sleepy, to litter it all up again with petticoats, stockings, roses, orchids, lobster shells, and cigarette stubs. More often than otherwise Nellie brought home girls from the theatre to spend the night with her. Poor things, they were chorus girls, just as she had been, and they had so far to go. Besides, they served as excuses for declining unwelcome invitations to supper. Be that as it may, Rachel had to clean up after them, finding their puffs, rats, and switches in the morning and the telephone number at their lodgings in the middle of the night. She had her instructions to say that such young ladies were spending the night with Miss Duluth.
"If you don't believe it, call up Miss Duluth's number in the telephone book," she always concluded, as if the statement needed verification.
Nellie had not been in Tarrytown for a matter of three weeks; what with rehearsals, revisions, consultations, and suppers, she just couldn't get around to it. The next day after Harvey's inglorious stand before Bridget she received a letter from him setting forth the whole affair in a peculiarly vivid light. He said that something would have to be done about Bridget and advised her to come out on the earliest day possible to talk it over with him. He confessed to a hesitancy about discharging the cook, recalling the trouble she had experienced in getting her away from a neighbour in the first place. But Bridget was drinking and quarrelling with Annie and using strong language in the presence of Phoebe. He would have discharged her long ago if it hadn't been for the fear of worrying her during rehearsals and all that. She wasn't to be bothered with trifling household squabbles at such an important time as this. No, sir! Not if he could help it. But, just the same, he thought she'd better come out and talk it over before Bridget took it into her head to poison some one.
"I really, truly must go up to Tarrytown next Sunday," said Nellie to the select company supping in her apartment after the performance that night. "Harvey's going to discharge the cook."
"Who is Harvey?" inquired the big blond man who sat beside her.
"My teenty-weenty hubby," said she, airily.
There were two other men besides the big blond in the party, and the wife of one of them—a balance wheel.
The big blond man stared at his hostess. He expected her to laugh at her own joke, but she did not. The others were discussing the relative merits of the Packard and Peerless cars. He waited a moment and then leaned closer to Nellie's ear.
"Are you in earnest?" he asked, in low tones.
"About what, Mr. Fairfax?"
"Hubby. Have you got one?"
"Of course I have. Had him for six years. Why?"
He swallowed hard. A wave of red crept up over his jowl and to the very roots of his hair.
"I've known you for over a month, Nellie," he said, a hard light in his fishy grey eyes, "and you've never mentioned this husband of yours. What's the game?"
"It's a guessing game," she said, coolly. "You might guess what I'm wearing this little plain gold ring on my left hand for. It's there where everybody can see it, isn't it? You just didn't take the trouble to look, Mr. Fairfax. Women don't wear wedding rings for a joke, let me tell you that."
"I never noticed it," he said, huskily. "The truth is, it never entered my head to think you could be a married woman."
"Thought I was divorced, eh?"
"Well, divorces are not uncommon, you know. You girls seem to get rid of husbands quite as easily as you pick them up."
"Lord bless you," said Nellie, in no way offended, "I have never done anything to give Harvey cause for divorce, and I'm sure he's never done the tiniest thing out of the way. He never treats me cruelly, he never beats me, he doesn't get tight and break things up, and he never looks at other women. He's the nicest little husband ever."
She instructed Rachel to fill up Mr. Fairfax's glass and pass the ripe olives. He was watching her, an odd expression in his eyes. A big, smooth-faced man of fifty was he, fat from high living, self-indulgence, and indolence, immaculately dressed to the tips of his toes.
"Speaking of divorce," she went on, without looking at him, "your wife didn't have much trouble getting hers, I've heard."
It was a daring thing to say, but Nellie was from the West, where courage and freshness of vision are regarded as the antithesis of tact and diplomacy. Tact calls for tact. The diplomatist is powerless if you begin shooting at him. Nellie did not work this out for herself; she merely wanted to put him in a corner where he would have to stand and get it over with.
Fairfax was disconcerted. He showed it. No one ever presumed to discuss the matter with him. It was a very tender subject. His eyes wavered.
"I like your cheek," he growled.
"Don't you like to talk about it?" she inquired, innocently.
"No," he replied, curtly. "It's nobody's business, Miss Duluth."
"My, how touchy!" She shivered prettily. "I feel as if some one had thrown a pail of ice water over me."
"We were speaking of your—this husband of yours," he said, quietly. "Why have you never mentioned him to me? Is it quite fair?"
"It just slipped my mind," she said, in the most casual way. "Besides, I thought you knew. My little girl is four—or is it five?"
"Where do you keep them?"
"I've got 'em in storage up at Tarrytown. That's the Sleepy Hollow neighbourhood, isn't it? I guess that's why Harvey likes it so well."
"What is his business?"
She looked up quickly. "What is that to you, Mr. Fairfax?"
"Nothing. I am in no way interested in Mr. Duluth."
"His name isn't Duluth," she flashed, hotly. "If you are not interested in him, let's drop the subject."
"I retract what I said. I am always interested in curiosities. What's he like?"
"Well, he's like a gentleman, if you are really interested in curiosities," she said.
He laughed. "By Jove, you've got a ready wit, my dear." He looked at her reflectively, speculatively. "It's rather a facer to have you turn out to be a married woman."
"Don't you like married women?"
"Some of 'em," he answered, coolly. "But I don't like to think of you as married."
"Pooh!" she said, and there was a world of meaning in the way she said it.
"Don't you know that it means a great deal to me?" he demanded, leaning closer and speaking in a lowered voice, tense and eager.
"Pooh!" she repeated.
He flushed again. "I cannot bear the thought of you belonging——"
She interrupted him quickly. "I wouldn't say it, if I were you."
"But I must say it. I'm in love with you, Nellie, and you know it. Every drop of blood in my veins is crying out for you, and has been——"
Her face had clouded. "I've asked you not to say such things to me."
He stared in amazement. "You are dreaming! I've never uttered a word of this sort to you. What are you thinking of? This is the first time I've said——"
Nellie was dismayed. It was the first time he had spoken to her in that way. She stammered something about "general principles," but he was regarding her so fixedly that her attempt at dissembling was most unconvincing.
"Or perhaps," said he, almost savagely, but guardedly, "you are confusing me with some one else."
This was broad enough to demand instant resentment. She took refuge in the opportunity.
"Do you mean to insult me, Mr. Fairfax?" she demanded, coldly, drawing back in her chair.
He laughed harshly.
"Is there any one else?" he asked, gripping one of her small hands in his great fist.
She jerked the hand away. "I don't like that, Mr. Fairfax. Please remember it. Don't ever do it again. You have no right to ask such questions of me, either."
"I'm a fool to have asked," he said, gruffly. "You'd be a fool to answer. We'll let it go at that. So that's your wedding ring, eh? Odd that I shouldn't have noticed it before."
She was angry with herself, so she vented the displeasure on him.
"You never took much notice of your wife's wedding ring, if tales are true."
"Please, Miss Duluth, I——"
"Oh, I read all about the case," she ran on. "You must have hated the notoriety. I suppose most of the things she charged you with were lies."
He pulled his collar away from his throat.
"Is it too hot in the room?" she inquired, innocently.
His grin was a sickly one. "Do you always make it so hot?" he asked. "This is my first visit to your little paradise, you must remember. Don't make it too hot for me."
"It isn't paradise when it gets too hot," was her safe comment.
Fairfax's wife had divorced him a year or two before. The referee was not long in deciding the case in her favour. As they were leaving Chambers, Fairfax's lawyer had said to his client:—"Well, we've saved everything but honour." And Fairfax had replied:—"You would have saved that, too, if I had given you a free rein." From which it may be inferred that Fairfax was something of a man despite his lawyer.
He was one of those typical New Yorkers who were Pittsburgers or Kansas Citians in the last incarnation—which dated back eight or ten years, at the most, and which doesn't make any difference on Broadway—with more money than he was used to and a measureless capacity for spending. His wife had married him when money was an object to him. When he got all the money he wanted he went to New York and began a process of elevating the theatre by lending his presence to the stage door. The stage declined to be elevated without the aid of an automobile, so he also lent that, and went soaring. His wife further elevated the stage by getting a divorce from him.
"This is my first time here," he went on, "but it isn't to be the last, I hope. What good taste you have, Nellie! It's a corking little nest."
"I just can't go out to Tarrytown every night," she explained. "I must have a place in town."
"By the way," he said, more at ease than he had been, "you spoke of going to Tarrytown on Sunday. Let me take you out in the motor. I'd like to see this husband chap of yours and the little girl, if——"
"Nay, nay," she said, shaking her head. "I never mix my public affairs with my private ones. You are a public affair, if there ever was one. No, little Nellie will go out on the choo-choos." She laughed suddenly, as if struck by a funny thought. Then, very seriously, she said:—"I don't know what Harvey would do to you if he caught you with me."
He stiffened. "Jealous, eh?"
"He's a perfect devil," said Nellie, with the straightest face imaginable.
Fairfax smiled in a superior sort of way, flecked the ashes from his cigarette, and leaned back in his chair the better to contemplate the charming creature at his side. He thoroughly approved of jealous husbands. The fellow who isn't jealous, he argued, is the hardest to trifle with.
"I suppose you adore him," he said, with a thinly veiled sneer.
"'He's the idol of me 'art,'" she sang, in gentle mimicry.
"Lucky dog," he whispered, leering upon her. "And how trustful he is, leaving you here in town to face temptation alone while he hibernates in Tarrytown."
"He trusts me," she flashed.
"I am the original 'trust buster,'" he laughed.
Nellie arose abruptly. She stretched her arms and yawned. The trio opposite gave over disputing about automobiles, and both men looked at their watches.
"Go home," said Nellie. "I'm tired. We've got a rehearsal to-morrow."
No one took offence. They understood her ways.
Fairfax gave her his light topcoat to hold while he slipped into it. She was vaguely surprised that he did not seek to employ the old trick of slipping an arm about her during the act. Somehow she felt a little bit more of respect for him.
"Don't forget to-morrow night," he said, softly, at the door. "Just the four of us, you know. I'll come back for you after the play."
"Remember, it has to be in the main restaurant," she warned him. "I like to see the people."
He smiled. "Just as you like."
She laughed to herself while Rebecca was preparing her for bed, tickled by the thought of the "fire-eating" Harvey. In bed, however, with the lights out, she found that sleep would not come as readily as she had expected. Instead her mind was vividly awake and full of reflections. She was thinking of the two in Tarrytown asleep for hours and snugly complacent. Her thoughts suddenly leaped back to the old days in Blakeville when she was the Town Marshal's daughter and he the all-important dispenser of soft drinks at Davis'. How she had hung on his every word, quip, or jest! How she had looked forward to the nights when he was to call! How she hated the other girls who divided with her the attentions of this popular young beau! And how different everything was now in these days of affluence and adulation! She caught herself counting how many days it had been since she had seen her husband, the one-time hero of her dreams. What a home-body he was! What a change there was in him! In the old Blakeville days he was the liveliest chap in town. He was never passive for more than a minute at a stretch. Going, gadding, frivolling, flirting—that was the old Harvey. And now look at him!
Those old days were far, far away, so far that she was amazed that she was able to recall them. She had sung in the church choir and at all of the local entertainments. The praise of the Blakeville Patriot was as sweet incense to her, the placid applause of the mothers' meetings more riotous than anything she could imagine in these days when audiences stamped and clapped and whistled till people in the streets outside the theatre stopped and envied those who were inside.
And then the days of actual courtship; she tried to recall how and when they began. She married Harvey in the little church on the hill. Everybody in town was there. She could close her eyes now and see Harvey in the new checked suit he had ordered from Chicago especially for the occasion, a splendid innovation that caused more than one Lotharial eye to gleam with envy.
Then came the awakening. The popular drug clerk, for all his show of prosperity and progress, had not saved a cent in all his years of labour, nor was there any likelihood of his salary ever being large enough to supply the wants of two persons. They went to live with his mother, and it was not long before he was wearing the checked suit for "everyday use" as well as for Sunday.
She was stagestruck. For that matter, so was he. They were members of the town dramatic club and always had important parts in the plays. An instructor came from Chicago to drill the "members of the cast," as they were designated by the committee in charge. It was this instructor who advised Nellie to go to Chicago for a course in the school he represented. He assured her she would have no difficulty in getting on the stage.
Harvey procured a position in a confectioner's establishment in State Street and she went to work for a photographer, taking her lessons in dancing, singing, and elocution at odd hours. She was pretty, graceful, possessed of a lovely figure not above the medium height; dark-haired and vivacious after a fashion of her own. As her pleased husband used to say, she "got a job on the stage before you could say Jack Robinson." He tried to get into the chorus with her, but the management said, "No husbands need apply."
That was the beginning of her stage career, such a few years ago that she was amazed when she counted back. It seemed like ten years, not five.
She soared; he dropped, and, as there was no occasion for rousing himself, according to the point of view established by both of them, he settled back into his natural groove and never got beyond his soda-fountain days in retrospect.
The next night after the little supper at Nellie's a most astonishing thing happened. A smallish man with baby-blue eyes appeared at the box-office window, gave his name, and asked for a couple of good seats in Miss Duluth's name. The ticket-seller had him repeat the name and then gruffly told him to see the company manager.
"I'm Miss Duluth's husband," said the smallish man, shrinking. The tall, flashily good-looking man at his elbow straightened up and looked at him with a doubtful expression in his eyes. He was Mr. Butler, Harvey's next-door neighbour in Tarrytown. "You must be new here."
"Been here two years," said the ticket-seller, glaring at him. "See the manager."
"Where is he?"
"At his hotel, I suppose. Please move up. You're holding the line back."
At that moment the company's press representative sauntered by. Nellie's husband, very red in the face and humiliated, hailed him, and in three minutes was being conducted to a seat in the nineteenth row, three removed from the aisle, followed by his Tarrytown neighbour, on whose face there was a frozen look of disgust.
"We'll go back after the second act," said Harvey, struggling with his hat, which wouldn't go in the rack sideways. "I'll arrange everything then."
"Rotten seats," said Mr. Butler, who had expected the front row or a box.
"The scenery is always better from the back of the house," explained his host, uncomfortably.
"Damn the scenery!" said Mr. Butler. "I never look at it."
"Wait till you see the setting in the second——" began Harvey, with forced enthusiasm, when the lights went down and the curtain was whisked upward, revealing a score of pretty girls representing merry peasants, in costumes that cost a hundred dollars apiece, and glittering with diamond rings.
Mr. Butler glowered through the act. He couldn't see a thing, he swore.
"I should think the husband of the star could get the best seats in the house," he said when the act was half-over, showing where his thoughts were.
"That press agent hates me," said Harvey, showing where his had been.
"Hates you? In God's name, why?"
"I've had to call him down a couple of times," said Harvey, confidentially. "Good and hard, too."
"I suppose that's why he makes you take a back seat," said Butler, sarcastically.
"Well, what can a fellow do?" complained the other. "If I could have seen Mr.—"
A man sitting behind tapped him on the shoulder.
"Will you be good enough to stop talking while the curtain's up?" he requested, in a state of subdued belligerency.
Harvey subsided without even so much as a glance to see what the fellow was like.
After the act Butler suggested a drink, which was declined.
"I don't drink," explained Harvey.
His companion snorted. "I'd like to know what kind of a supper we're going to have if you don't drink. Be a sport!"
"Oh, don't you worry about that," said Harvey. "Ginger ale livens me up as much as anything. I used to simply pour the liquor down me. I had to give it up. It was getting the best of me. You should have seen the way I was carrying on out there in Blakeville before——"
"Well, come out and watch me take a drink," interrupted Butler, wearily. "It may brace you up."
Harvey looked helplessly at the three ladies over whom they would have to climb in order to reach the aisle and shook his head.
"We're going out after the next act. Let's wait till then."
"Give me my seat check," said Butler, shortly. "I'm going out." Receiving the check, he trampled his way out, leaving Harvey to ruminate alone.
The joint presence of these two gentlemen of Tarrytown in the city requires an explanation. You may remember that Nellie's husband resented Butler's habit of ignoring him. Well, there had come a time when Butler had thought it advisable to get down from his high horse. His wife had gone to Cleveland to visit her mother for a week or two. It was a capital time for him to get better acquainted with Miss Duluth, to whom he had been in the habit of merely doffing his hat in passing.
The morning of his wife's departure, which was no more than eight hours prior to their appearance at the box office, he made it a point to hail Harvey in a most jovial manner as he stood on his side porch, suggesting that he come over and see the playroom he had fixed up for his children and Phoebe.
"We ought to be more neighbourly," he said, as he shook hands with Harvey at the steps. Later on, as they smoked in the library, he mentioned the fact that he had not had the pleasure of seeing Miss Duluth in the new piece.
Harvey was exalted. When any one was so friendly as all this to him he quite lost his head in the clouds.
"We'll go in and see it together," said he, "and have a bit of supper afterward."
"That's very good of you," said Butler, who was gaining his point.
"When does Mrs. Butler return?" asked Harvey.
Butler was startled. "Week or ten days."
"Well, just as soon as she's back we'll have a little family party——"
His neighbour shook his head. "My wife's in mourning," he said, nervously.
"In mourning?" said Harvey, who remembered her best in rainbow colours.
"Yes. Her father."
"Certainly," said Butler, a trifle bewildered. He coughed and changed the current of conversation. It was not at all necessary to say that his wife's father had been dead eleven years. "I thought something of going in to the theatre to-night," he went on. "Just to kill time. It will be very lonely for me, now that my dear wife's away."
Harvey fell into the trap. "By jinks!" he exclaimed, "what's the matter with me going in, too? I haven't been in town at night for six weeks or more."
Butler's black eyes gleamed.
"Excellent! We'll see a good play, have a bite to eat, and no one will know what gay dogs we are." He laughed and slapped Harvey on the back.
"I'll get seats for Nellie's show if you'd like to see it," said Harvey, just as enthusiastically, except that he slapped the arm of the chair and peeled his knuckle on a knob he hadn't seen.
"And say, I'd like you to know my wife better, Mr. Butler. If you don't object I'll ask her to go out with us after the show for something to eat."
"Permit me to remind you, Mr.—Mr.—er——"
"Call me Harvey," said the owner of the name.
"——to remind you that this is my party. I will play host and be honoured if your wife will condescend to join me—and you—at any hour and place she chooses."
"You are most kind," said Harvey, who had been mentally calculating the three one-dollar bills in his pocket.
And that is how they came to be in the theatre that night.
The curtain was up when Butler returned. He had had a drink.
"Did you send a note back to your wife?" he asked as he sat down.
"To tell her we are here," hissed the other.
"No, I didn't," said Harvey, calmly. "I want to surprise her."
Butler said something under his breath and was so mad during the remainder of the act that everybody on the stage seemed to be dressed in red.
Miss Duluth did not have to make a change of costume between the second and third acts. It was then that she received visitors in her dressing-room. She had a sandwich and a glass of milk at that time, but was perfectly willing to send across the alley for bottled beer if her callers cared to take anything so commonplace as that.
She was sitting in her room, quite alone, with her feet cocked upon a trunk, nibbling a sandwich and thinking of the supper Fairfax was to give later on in the evening, when the manager of the company came tapping at her door. People had got in the habit of walking in upon her so unexpectedly that she issued an order for every one to knock and then made the injunction secure by slipping the bolt. Rebecca went to the door.
"Mr. Fairfax is here, mademoiselle," she announced a moment later. "Mr. Ripton has brought him back and he wants to come in." Except for the word "mademoiselle" Rebecca spoke perfect English.
Nellie took one foot down and then, thinking quickly, put it up again. It wouldn't hurt Fairfax, she argued, to encounter a little opposition.
"Tell Ripton I'm expecting some one else," she said, at random. "If Mr. Fairfax wants to wait in the wings, I'll see him there."
But she had not the slightest inkling of what was in store for her in the shape of visitors.
At that very moment Harvey and his friend were at the stage door, the former engaged in an attempt at familiarity with the smileless attendant.
"Hello, Bob; how goes it?" said he, strutting up to the door.
Bob's bulk blocked the passage.
"Who d'you want to see?" he demanded, gruffly.
"Who d'you suppose?" asked Harvey, gaily.
"Don't get fresh," snapped the door man, making as if to slam the iron door in his face. Suddenly he recognised the applicant. "Oh, it's you, is it?"
"You must be going blind, Bobby," said Harvey, in a fine effort at geniality. "I'm taking a friend in to show him how it's done. My friend, Mr. Butler, Bob."
Mr. Butler stepped on Harvey's toes and said something under his breath.
"Is Miss Duluth expecting you, Mr.—er—Mr.—Is she?" asked old Bob.
"No. I'm going to surprise her."
Bob looked over his shoulder hastily.
"If I was you," he said, "I'd send my card in. She's—she's nervous and a shock might upset her."
"She hasn't got a nerve in her body," said Harvey. "Come on, Butler. Mind you don't fall over the braces or get hit by the scenery."
They climbed a couple of steps and were in the midst of a small, bustling army of scene shifters and property men. Old Bob scratched his head and muttered something about "surprises."
Three times Harvey tried to lead the way across the stage. Each time they were turned back by perspiring, evil-minded stage hands who rushed at them with towering, toppling canvases. Once Harvey nearly sat down when an unobserving hand jerked a strip of carpet from under his feet. A grand staircase almost crushed Mr. Butler on its way into place, and some one who seemed to be in authority shouted to him as he dodged:—
"Don't knock that pe-des-tal over, you pie face!"
At last they got safely over, and Harvey boldly walked up to the star's dressing-room.
"We're all right now," he said to Butler, with a perceptible quaver in his voice. "Just you wait while I go in and tell her I am here."
Butler squeezed himself into a narrow place, where he seemed safe from death, mopped his brow, and looked like a lost soul.
Two men, sitting off to the left, saw Harvey try the locked door and then pound rather imperatively.
"Good Lord!" exclaimed one of them, staring. "It's—it's—er—What's-His-Name, Nellie's husband! Well, of all the infernal——"
"That?" gasped Fairfax.
"What in thunder is he doing here this time o' night! Great Scott, he'll spoil everything," groaned Ripton, the manager.
Harvey pounded again with no response. Nellie was sitting inside, mentally picturing the eagerness that caused Fairfax to come a-pounding like that. She had decided not to answer.
Ripton called a stage hand.
"Tell him that Nellie isn't seeing anybody to-night," he whispered. "Do it quick. Get him out of here."
"Shall I throw him out, sir?" demanded the man, with a wry face. "Poor little chap!"
"Just tell him that Nellie will see him for a few minutes after the play." Then, as the man moved away:—"They've got no business having husbands, Mr. Fairfax. Damned nuisances."
Fairfax had his hand to his lips. He was thinking of Nellie's "perfect devil."
"I fancy he doesn't cut much of a figure in her life," said he, in a tone of relief.
In the meantime the stage hand had accosted Harvey, who had been joined by the anxious Mr. Butler.
"Miss Duluth ain't seeing any one to-night, sir," he said. "She gave strict orders. No one, sir."
Harvey's blue eyes were like delft saucers. "She'll see me," he said. "I'm her husband, you know."
"I know that, sir. But the order goes, just the same."
"Is she ill?"
"Yes, sir. Very ill," said the man, quickly.
Butler was gnawing his moustache.
"Rubbish!" he said, sharply. "Come away, you. She's got a visitor in there. Can't you see the lay of the land?"
The little husband turned cold, then hot.
"A—a man visitor?"
"Certainly," snapped the aggrieved Mr. Butler. "What else?"
Without another word, Harvey brushed past the stage hand and began rattling the door violently.
"Nellie!" he shouted, his lips close to the paint.
In a second the door flew open and the astonished actress stood there staring at him as if he were a ghost. He pushed the door wide open and strode into the dressing-room, Nellie falling back before him. The room was empty save for the dismayed Rebecca.
"There!" he exclaimed, turning to address Butler in the doorway, but Butler was not there. The stage hand had got in his way.
"Wha—what, in the name of Heaven, are you doing here, Harvey?" gasped Nellie.
"How are you, Nell? Nothing serious, I hope."
"Serious?" she murmured, swallowing hard, her wits in the wind.
"Ain't you ill?"
"Never was better in my life," she cried, seeing what she thought was light. "Who brought you to town with such a tale as that? I'm fine. You've been fooled. If I were you, I'd take the first train out and try to find out who——"
"It's all right, Butler," he called out. "Come right in. Hello! Where are you?" He stepped to the door and looked out. Mr. Butler was being conducted toward the stage door by the burly stage hand. He was trying to expostulate. "Hi! What you doing?" shouted Harvey, darting after them. "Let my friend alone!"
Up came Ripton in haste.
"O'Brien, what do you mean? Take your hand off that gentleman's shoulder at once. He is a friend of Mr.—Mr.—ahem! A terrible mistake, sir."
Then followed a moment of explanation, apology, and introduction, after which Harvey fairly dragged his exasperated friend back to Nellie's room.
She was still standing in the middle of the room trying to collect her wits.
"You remember Mr. Butler, deary," panted Harvey, waving his hand. Nellie gasped in the affirmative.
At that instant Fairfax's big frame appeared in the door. He was grinning amiably. She glared at him helplessly for a moment.
"Won't you introduce me to your husband?" he said, suavely.
Nellie found her tongue and the little man shook hands with the big one.
"Glad to meet you," said Harvey.
"I am glad to see you," said Fairfax, warmly.
"My friend Butler," introduced Harvey.
Mr. Butler was standing very stiff and pallid, with one knee propped against a chair. There was a glaze over his eyes. Fairfax grinned broadly.
"Oh, Butler and I are old acquaintances," said he. "Wife out of town, Butler?"
"Sure," said Harvey, before Butler could reply. "And we're in town to see the sights. Eh, Butler?"
Butler muttered something that sounded uncommonly like "confounded ass," and began fanning himself with his derby hat and gloves and walking-stick, all of which happened to be in the same hand.
"We're going to take Nellie—I mean Miss Duluth—out for supper after the play," went on Harvey, glibly. "We'll be waiting for you, dearie. Mr. Butler is doing the honours. By the way, Butler, I think it would be nicer if Nellie could suggest an odd lady for us. We ought to have four. Do you know of any one, Nell? By George, we've got to have a pretty one, though. We insist on that, eh, Butler?" He jabbed Butler in the ribs and winked.
"Don't do that!" said the unhappy Mr. Butler, dropping his stick. It rolled under a table and he seized the opportunity thus providentially presented. He went down after it and was lost to view for a considerable length, of time, hiding himself as the ostrich does when it buries its head in the sand and imagines it is completely out of sight.
Nellie's wits were returning. She was obliged to do some rapid and clever thinking. Fairfax was watching her with a sardonic smile on his lips. Ripton, the manager, peered over his shoulder and winked violently.
"Oh, Harvey dear," she cried, plaintively, "how disappointed I am. I have had strict orders from the doctor to go straight home to bed after every performance. I really can't go with you and Mr. Butler to-night. I wish you had telephoned or something. I could have told you."
Harvey looked distressed. "What does the doctor say it is?"
"My heart," she said, solemnly.
"Don't you think you could go out for a—just a sandwich and a bottle of beer?" he pleaded, feeling that he had wantonly betrayed his friendly neighbour.
"Couldn't think of it," she said. "The nurse will be here at eleven. I'll just have to go home. He insists on absolute quiet for me and I'm on a dreadful diet." A bright thought struck her. "Do you know, I have to keep my door locked so as not to be startled by——"
The sharp, insistent voice of the callboy broke in on her flow of excuses.
"There! I'll have to go on in a second. The curtain's going up. Good-night, gentlemen. Good-night, Harvey dear. Give me a kiss."
She pecked at his cheek with her carmine lips.
"Just half an hour at some quiet little restaurant," he was saying when she fled past him toward the stage.
"Sorry, dear," she called, then stopped to speak to Mr. Butler. "Thank you so much, Mr. Butler. Won't you repeat the invitation some time later on? So good of you to bring Harvey in. Bring Mrs. Butler in some night, and if I'm better we will have a jolly little spree, just the four of us. Will you do it?"
She beamed on him. Butler bowed very low and said:—
"It will give me great pleasure, Miss Duluth."
When she returned to her dressing-room later on, she found Fairfax there, sitting on a trunk, a satisfied smile on his lips. She left the door open.
Mr. Ripton conducted the two men across to the stage door, leading them through the narrow space back of the big drop. Chorus girls threw kisses at Harvey; they all knew him. He winked blandly at Butler, who was staring straight before him.
"A great life, eh?" said Harvey, meaning that which surrounded them. They were in the alley outside the stage door.
"I'm going to catch the ten-twenty," said Butler, jamming his hat down firmly.
"Ain't you going to see the last act?" demanded the other, dismayed.
Butler lifted his right hand to heaven, and, shaking it the better to express the intensity of his declaration, remarked:—
"I hope somebody will kick me all over town if I'm ever caught being such a damned fool as this again. I honestly hope it! I've been made ridiculous—a blithering fool! Why, you—you——" He paused in his rage, a sudden wave of pity assailing him. "By George, I can't help feeling sorry for you! Good-night."
Harvey hurried after him.
"I guess I'll take it, too. That gets us out at eleven-thirty. We can get a bite to eat in the station, I guess."
He had to almost trot to keep pace with Butler crossing to the Grand Central. Seated side by side in the train, and after he had recovered his breath a bit, he said:—
"Confound it, I forgot to ask Nellie if it will be wise for her to come out on Sunday. The heart's a mighty bad thing, Butler."
"It certainly is," said Butler, with unction.
At the station in Tarrytown he said "Good-night" very gruffly and hurried off to jump into the only cab at the platform. He had heard all about Blakeville and the wild life Harvey had led there, and he was mad enough to fight.
"Good-night, Mr. Butler," said Harvey, as the hack drove off.
He walked up the hill.
He found the nursemaid up and waiting for him. Phoebe had a "dreadful throat" and a high temperature. It had come on very suddenly, it seems, and if Annie's memory served her right it was just the way diphtheria began. The little girl had been thrashing about in the bed and whimpering for "daddy" since eight o'clock. His heart sank like lead, to a far deeper level than it had dropped with the base desertion of Butler. Filled with remorse, he ran upstairs without taking off his hat or overcoat. The feeling of resentment toward Butler was lost in this new, overpowering sense of dread; the discovery of his own lamentable unfitness for "high life" expeditions faded into nothingness in the face of this possible catastrophe. What if Phoebe were to die? He would be to blame. He remembered feeling that he should not have left her that evening. It had been a premonition, and this was to be the price of his folly.
At three in the morning he went over to rouse the doctor, all the time thinking that, even if he were capable of forgiving himself for Phoebe's death, Nellie would always hold him responsible. The doctor refused to come before eight o'clock, and slammed the door in the disturber's face.
"If she dies," he said to himself over and over again as he trudged homeward, "I'll kill that beast of a doctor. I'll tear his heart out."
The doctor did not come till nine-thirty. They never do. He at once said it was a bad attack of tonsilitis, and began treatment on the stomach. He took a culture and said he would let Mr.—Mr. What's-His-Name know whether there was anything diphtheritic. In the meantime, "Take good care of her."
Saturday morning a loving note came from Nellie, deploring the fact that she couldn't come out on Sunday after all. The doctor said she must save her strength. She instructed Harvey to dismiss Bridget and get another cook at once. But Harvey's heart had melted toward Bridget. The big Irishwoman was the soul of kindness now that her employer was in distress.
About nine o'clock that morning a man came up and tacked a placard on the door and informed the household that it was in quarantine. Harvey went out and looked at the card. Then he slunk back into Phoebe's room and sat down, very white and scared.
"Do you think she'll die?" he asked of the doctor when that gentleman called soon afterward. He was shivering like a leaf.
"Not necessarily," said the man of medicine, calmly. "Diphtheria isn't what it used to be."
"If she dies I'll jump in the river," said the little father, bleakly.
"Nonsense!" said the doctor. "Can you swim?" he added, whimsically.
"No," said Harvey, his face lighting up.
The doctor patted him on the back. "Brace up, sir. Has the child a mother?"
Harvey stared at him. "Of course," he said. "Don't you know whose child you are 'tending?"
"I confess I—er—I——"
"She is the daughter of Nellie Duluth."
"Oh!" fell from the doctor's lips. "And you—you are Miss Duluth's husband? I didn't quite connect the names."
"Well, I'm her husband, name or no name," explained the other. "I suppose I ought to send for her. She ought to know."
"Not at all," said Harvey. "I maintain two establishments, that's all. One here, one in the city."
"Oh, I see," said the doctor, who didn't in the least see. "Of course, she would be subject to quarantine rules if she came here, Mr.—Mr.—ahem!"
"They couldn't get along without her at the theatre," groaned the husband.
"I'd suggest waiting a day or two. Believe me, my dear sir, the child will pull through. I will do all that can be done, sir. Rest easy." His manner was quite different, now that he knew the importance of his patient. He readjusted his glasses and cleared his throat. "I hope to have the pleasure of seeing Mrs.—er—your wife, sir."
"She has a regular physician in town," said Harvey, politely.
For two weeks he nursed Phoebe, day and night, announcing to the doctor in the beginning that his early training made him quite capable. There were moments when he thought she was dying, but they passed so quickly that his faith in the physician's assurances rose above his fears. Acting on the purely unselfish motive that Nellie would be upset by the news, he kept the truth from her, and she went on singing and dancing without so much as a word to distress her. Two Sundays passed; her own lamentable illness kept her away from the little house in Tarrytown.
"If we tell her about Phoebe," said Harvey to Bridget and Annie, "she'll go all to pieces. Her heart may stop, like as not. Besides, she'd insist on coming out and taking care of her, and that would be fatal to the show. She's never had diphtheria. She'd be sure to catch it. It goes very hard with grown people."
"Have you ever had it, sir?" asked Annie, anxiously.
"Three times," said Harvey, who hadn't thought of it up to that moment.
When the child was able to sit up he put in his time reading "David Copperfield" to her.
Later on he played "jacks" with her and cut pictures out of the comic supplements. By the end of the month he was thinner and more "peaked," if anything, than she. Unshaven, unshorn, unpressed was he, but he was too full of joy to give heed to his own personal comforts or requirements.
His mind was beginning to be sorely troubled over one thing. Now that Phoebe was well and getting strong he realised that Nellie would be furious when she found out how ill the child had been and how she had been deceived. He considered the advisability of keeping it from her altogether, swearing every one to secrecy, but there was the doctor's bill to be paid. When it came to paying that Nellie would demand an explanation. It was utterly impossible for him to pay it himself. Thinking over his unhappy position, he declared, with a great amount of zeal, but no vigour, that he was going to get a job and be independent once more. More than that, when he got fairly well established in his position (he rather leaned toward the drug or the restaurant business) he would insist on Nellie giving up her arduous stage work and settling down to enjoy a life of comfort and ease—even luxury, if things went as he meant them to go.
One afternoon late in October, when the scarlet leaves were blowing across his little front yard and the screens had been taken from the windows, a big green automobile stopped at his gate and a tall man got out and came briskly up the walk. Harvey was sitting in the library helping Phoebe with her ABC's when he caught sight of the visitor crossing the porch.
"Gentleman to see you," said Annie, a moment later.
"Is it the butcher's man? I declare, I must get in and attend to that little account. Tell him I'll be in, Annie."
"It ain't the butcher. It's a swell."
Harvey got up, felt of the four days' growth of beard on his chin, and pondered.
"Did he give his name?"
"Mr. Fairfax, he said."
He remembered Fairfax. His hand ran over his chin once more.
"Tell him to come in. I'll be down in fifteen minutes."
He went upstairs on the jump and got his razor out. He was nervous. Only that morning he had written to Nellie telling her of Phoebe's expensive illness and of her joyous recovery. The doctor's bill was ninety dollars. He cut himself in three places.
Fairfax was sitting near the window talking with Phoebe when he clattered downstairs ten minutes later, deploring the cuts but pleased with himself for having broken all records at shaving. The big New Yorker had a way with him; he could interest children as well as their mothers and grown sisters. Phoebe was telling him about "Jack the Giant Killer" when her father popped into the room.
"Phoebe!" he cried, stopping short in horror.
Fairfax arose languidly.
"How do you do, Mr.—ah—ahem! The little girl has been playing hostess. The fifteen minutes have flown."
"Ten minutes by my watch," said Harvey, promptly. "Phoebe, dear, where did you get that awful dress—and, oh, my! those dirty hands? Where's Annie? Annie's the nurse, Mr. Fairfax. Run right away and tell her to change that dress and wash your hands. How do you do, Mr. Fairfax? Glad to see you. How are you?"
He advanced to shake the big man's hand. Fairfax towered over him.
"I was afraid you would not remember me," said Fairfax.
"Run along, Phoebe. She's been very ill, you see. We don't make life any harder for her than we have to. Washing gets on a child's nerves, don't you think? It used to on mine, I know. Of course I remember you. Won't you sit down? Annie! Oh, Annie!"
He called into the stair hallway and Annie appeared from the dining-room.
"Ann—Oh, here you are! How many times must I tell you to put a clean dress on Phoebe every day? What are her dresses for, I'd like to know?" He winked violently at Annie from the security of the portiere, which he held at arm's length as a shield. Annie arose to the occasion and winked back.
"May I put on my Sunday dress?" cried Phoebe, gleefully.
"Only one of 'em," said he, in haste. "Annie will pick out one for you."
Considerably bewildered, Phoebe was led away by the nurse.
"She's a pretty child," said Fairfax. If his manner was a trifle strained Harvey failed to make note of it. "Looks like her mother."
"I'm glad you think so," said the father, radiantly. "I'd hate to have her look like me."
Fairfax looked him over and suppressed a smile.
"She is quite happy here with you, I suppose," he said, taking a chair.
"Does she never long to be with her mother?"
"Well, you see," said Harvey, apologising for Nellie, "she doesn't see much of Miss—of her mother these days. I guess she's got kind of used to being with me. Kids are funny things, you know."
"She seems to have all the comforts and necessities of life," said the big man, looking about him with an affectation of approval.
"Everything that I can afford, sir," said Harvey, blandly.
"Have you ever thought of putting her in a nice school for——"
"She enters kindergarten before the holidays," interrupted the father.
"I mean a—er—sort of boarding school," put in the big man, uneasily. "Where she could be brought up under proper influences, polished up, so to speak. You know what I mean. Miss Duluth has often spoken of such an arrangement. In fact, her heart seems to be set on it."
"You mean she—she wants to send her away to school?" asked Harvey, blankly.
"It is a very common and excellent practice nowadays," said the other, lamely.
The little man was staring at him, his blue eyes full of dismay.
"Why—why, I don't believe I'd like that," he said, grasping the arms of his chair with tense fingers. "She's doing all right here. It's healthy here, and I am sure the schools are good enough. Nellie has never said anything to me about boarding school. Why—why, Mr. Fairfax, Phoebe's only five—not quite that, and I—I think it would be cruel to put her off among strangers. When she's fifteen or sixteen, maybe, but not now. Nellie don't mean that, I'm sure."
"There is a splendid school for little girls up in Montreal—a sort of convent, you know. They get the best of training, moral, spiritual, and physical. It is an ideal life for a child. Nellie has been thinking a great deal of sending her there. In fact, she has practically decided to——"
Harvey came to his feet slowly, dizzily.
"I can't believe it. She wouldn't send the poor little thing up there all alone; no, sir! I—I wouldn't let her do it." He was pacing the floor. His forehead was moist.
"Miss Duluth appreciates one condition that you don't seem able to grasp," said Fairfax, bluntly. "She wants to keep the child as far removed from stage life and its environments as possible. She wants her to have every advantage, every opportunity to grow up entirely out of reach of the—er—influences which now threaten to surround her."
Harvey stopped in front of him. "Is this what you came out here for, Mr. Fairfax? Did Nellie tell you to do this?"
"I will be perfectly frank with you. She asked me to come out and talk it over with you."
"Why didn't she come herself?"
"She evidently was afraid that you would overrule her in the matter."
"I never overruled her in my life," cried Harvey. "She isn't afraid of me. There's something else."
"I can only say, sir, that she intends to put the child in the convent before Christmas. She goes on the road after the holidays," said Fairfax, setting his huge jaw.
Harvey sat down suddenly, limp as a rag. His mouth filled with water—a cold, sickening moisture that rendered him speechless for a moment. He swallowed painfully. His eyes swept the little room as if in search of something to prove that this was the place for Phoebe—this quiet, happy little cottage of theirs.
"Before Christmas?" he murmured.
"See here, Mr.—ah—Mr., here is the situation in a nutshell:—Nellie doesn't see why she should be keeping up two establishments. It's expensive. The child will be comfortable and happy in the convent and this house will be off her hands. She——"
"Why don't she give up her flat in town?" demanded Harvey, miserably. "That's where the money goes."
"She expects to give it up the first of the year," said Fairfax. "The road tour lasts till May. She is going to Europe for the summer."
"To Europe?" gasped Harvey, feeling the floor sink under his feet.
He did not think to inquire what was to become of him in the new arrangement.
"She needs a sea voyage, travel—a long vacation, in fact. It is fully decided. So, you see, the convent is the place for Phoebe."
"But where do I come in?" cried the unhappy father. "Does she think for a minute that I will put my child in a convent so that we may be free to go to Europe and do things like that? No, sir! Dammit, I won't go to Europe and leave Phoebe in a——"
Fairfax was getting tired of the argument. Moreover, he was uncomfortable and decidedly impatient to have it over with. He cut in rather harshly on the other's lamentations.
"If you think she's going to take you to Europe, you're very much mistaken. Why, man, have you no pride? Can't you understand what a damned useless bit of dead weight you are, hanging to her neck?"
It was out at last. Harvey sat there staring at him, very still; such a pathetic figure that it seemed like rank cowardice to strike again. And yet Fairfax, now that he had begun, was eager to go on striking this helpless, inoffensive creature with all the frenzy of the brutal victor who stamps out the life of his vanquished foe.
"She supports you. You haven't earned a dollar in four years. I have it from her, and from others. It is commonly understood that you won't work, you won't do a stroke toward supporting the child. You are a leech, a barnacle, a—a—well, a loafer. If you had a drop of real man's blood in you, you'd get out and earn enough to buy clothes for yourself, at least, and the money for a hair cut or a shoe shine. She has been too good to you, my little man. You can't blame her for getting tired of it. The great wonder is that she has stood for it so long."
Words struggled from Harvey's pallid lips.
"But she loves me," he said. "It's all understood between us. I gave her the start in life. She will tell you so. I——"
"You never did a thing for her in your life," broke in the big man, harshly. He was consumed by an ungovernable hatred for this little man who was the husband of the woman he coveted.
"I've always wanted to get a job. She wouldn't let me," protested Harvey, a red spot coming into each of his cheeks. "I don't want to take the money she earns. I never have wanted to. But she says my place is here at home, with Phoebe. Somebody's got to look after the child. We've talked it over a——"
"I don't want to hear about it," snapped Fairfax, hitting the arm of his chair with his fist. "You're no good, that's all there is to it. You are a joke, a laughing stock. Do you suppose that she can possibly love a man like you? A woman wants a man about her, not the caricature of one."
"I intend to get a job as soon as——" began Harvey, as if he had not heard a word his visitor was saying.
"Now, see here," exclaimed Fairfax, coming to his feet. "I'm a man of few words. I came out here to make you a proposition. It is between you and me, and no one need be the wiser. I'm not such a fool as to intrust a thing of this kind to an outsider. Is there any likelihood of any one hearing us?"
Nellie's husband shrank lower into his chair and shook his head. He seemed to have lost the power of speech. Fairfax drew a chair up closer, however, and lowered his voice.
"You've got a price. Men of your type always have. I told Nellie I would see you to-day. I'll be plain with you. She's tired of you, of this miserable attachment. You are impossible. That's settled. We won't go into that. Now I'm here, man to man, to find out how much you will take and agree to a separation."
Harvey stiffened. He thought for a moment that his heart had stopped beating.
"I don't believe I understand," he muttered.
"Don't you understand the word 'separation'?"
"Agree to a separation from what? Great God, you don't mean a separation from Phoebe?"
"Don't be a fool! Use your brain, if you've got one."
"Do—you—mean—Nellie?" fell slowly, painfully from the dry lips of the little man in the Morris chair.
"Does she want to—to leave me?" The tears started in his big blue eyes. He blinked violently.
"It has come to that. She can't go on as she has been going. It's ridiculous. You are anxious to go back to Blakeville, she says. Well, that's where you belong. Somebody's drug store out there you'd like to own, I believe. Now, I am prepared to see that you get that drug store and a matter of ten or twenty thousand dollars besides. Money means nothing to me. All you have to do is to make no answer to the charges she will bring——"
Harvey leaped to his feet with a cry of abject pain.
"Did she send you here to say this to me?" he cried, shrilly, his figure shaking with suppressed fury.
"No," said Fairfax, involuntarily drawing back. "This is between you and me. She doesn't know——"
"Then, damn you!" shrieked Harvey, shaking his fist in the big man's face, "what do you mean by coming here like this? What do you think I am? Get out of here! I'm a joke, am I? Well, I'll show you and her and everybody else that I'm a hell of a joke, let me tell you that! I was good enough for her once. I won her away from every fellow in Blakeville. I can do it again. I'll show you, you big bluffer! Now, get out! Don't you ever come here again, and—don't you ever go near my wife again!"
Fairfax had arisen. He was smiling, despite his astonishment.
"I fancy you will find you can't go so far as that," he sneered.
"Get out, or I'll throw you out!"
"Better think it over. Twenty-five thousand and no questions asked. Take a day or two to think——"
With a shriek of rage Harvey threw himself at the big man, striking out with all his might. Taken by surprise, Fairfax fell away before the attack, which, though seemingly impotent, was as fierce as that of a wildcat.
The New Yorker was in no danger. He warded off the blows with ease, all the time imploring the infuriated Harvey to be sensible, to be calm. But with a heroism born of shame and despair the little man swung his arms like windmills, clawing, scratching, until the air seemed full of them. Fairfax's huge head was out of reach. In his blind fury Harvey did not take that into account. He struck at it with all the power in his thin little arms, always falling so far short that the efforts were ludicrous.
Fairfax began to look about in alarm. The noise of the conflict was sure to attract the attention of the servants. He began backing toward the doorway. Suddenly Harvey changed his fruitless tactics. He drove the toe of his shoe squarely against the shinbone of the big man. With a roar of rage Fairfax hurled himself upon the panting foe.
"I'll smash your head, you little devil," he roared, and struck out viciously with one of his huge fists.
The blow landed squarely on Harvey's eye. He fell in a heap several feet away. Half-dazed, he tried to get to his feet. The big man, all the brute in him aroused, sprang forward and drove another savage blow into the bleak, white face of the little one. Again he struck. Then he lifted Harvey bodily from the floor and held him up against the wall, his big hand on his throat.
"How do you like it?" he snarled, slapping the helpless, half-conscious man in the face with his open hand—loud, stinging blows that almost knocked the head off the shoulders. "Will you agree to my proposition now?"
From Harvey's broken lips oozed a strangled—
Fairfax struck again and then let him slide to the floor.
"You damned little coward!" he grated. "To kick a man like that!"
He rushed from the room, grabbed his hat and coat in the hall, and was out of the house like a whirlwind.
The whir of a motor came vaguely, indistinctly to Harvey's ears. He was lying close to the window. As if in a dream he lifted himself feebly to his knees and looked out of the window, not knowing exactly what he did nor why he did it.
A big green car was leaving his front gate. He was a long time in recalling who came up in it.
His breath was coming slowly. He tried to speak, but a strange, unnatural wheeze came from his lips. A fit of coughing followed. At last he got upon his feet, steadying himself against the window casing. For a long time he stood there, working it all out in his dizzy, thumping brain.
He put his hand to his lips and then stared dully at the stains that covered it when he took it away. Then it all came back to him with a rush. Like a guilty, hunted thing he slunk upstairs to his room, carefully avoiding the room in which Phoebe was being bedecked in her Sunday frock. Her high, shrill voice came to his ears. He was weeping bitterly, sobbing like a whipped child.
He almost fainted when he first peered into the mirror on his bureau. His eyes were beginning to puff out like great knobs, his face and shirt front were saturated with his own plucky blood. Plucky! The word occurred to him as he looked. Yes, he had been plucky. He didn't know it was in him to be so plucky. A sort of pride in himself arose to offset the pain and mortification. Yes, he had defended his honour and Nellie's. She should hear of it! He would tell her what he had done and how Fairfax had struck him down with a chair. She would then deny to him that she had said those awful things about him. She would be proud of him!
Carefully he washed his hands and face. With trembling fingers he applied court-plaster to his lips, acting with speed because his eyes were closing. Some one had told him that raw beefsteak was good for black eyes. He wondered if bacon would do as well. There was no beefsteak in the house.
His legs faltered as he made his way to the back stairs. Bridget was coming up. She started back with a howl.
"Come here, Bridget," he whispered. "Into my room. Be quick!" He retreated. He would employ her aid and swear her to secrecy. The Irish know a great deal about fighting, he reflected.
"In the name av Hivvin, sor, what has happened to yez?" whispered Bridget, aghast in the doorway.
"Come in and I'll tell you," said he, with a groan.
Presently a childish voice came clamouring at the locked door. He heard it as from afar. Bridget paused in her ministrations. He had just said:—
"I will take boxing lessons and physical culture of your brother, Bridget. You think he can build me up? I know I'm a bit run down. No exercise, you know. Still, I believe I would have thrashed him to a frazzle if I hadn't stumbled. That was when he kicked me here. I got this falling against the table."
"Yis, sor," said Bridget, dutifully.
In response to the pounding on the door, he called out, bravely:—
"You can't come in now, Phoebe. Papa has hurt himself a little bit. I'll come out soon."
"I got my Sunday dress on, daddy," cried the childish voice. "And I'm all spruced up. Has the nice gentleman gone away?"
His head sank into his hands.
"Yes, dearie, he's gone," he replied, in muffled tones.
For several days, he moped about the house, not even venturing upon the porch, his face a sight to behold. His spirits were lower than they had been in all his life. The unmerciful beating he had sustained at the hands of Fairfax was not the sole cause of his depression. As the consequences of that pummelling subsided, the conditions which led up to it forced themselves upon him with such horrifying immensity that he fairly staggered under them.
It slowly dawned on him that there was something very sinister in Fairfax's visit, something terrible. Nellie's protracted stay in town, her strange neglect of Phoebe, to say nothing of himself, the presence of Fairfax in her dressing-room that night, and a great many circumstances which came plainly to mind, now that he considered them worth while noticing, all went a long way toward justifying Fairfax in coming to him with the base proposition that had resulted so seriously to his countenance.
Nellie was tired of him! He did not belong to her world. That was the sum and substance of it. As he dropped out of her world, some one else quite naturally rose to fill the void. That person was Fairfax. The big man had said that she wanted a separation, she wanted to provide a safe haven for Phoebe. The inference was plain. She wanted to get rid of him in order to marry Fairfax. Fairfax had been honest enough to confess that he was acting on his own initiative in proposing the bribe, but there must have been something behind it all.
He had spoken of "charges." What charge could Nellie bring against him? He was two days in arriving at the only one—failure to provide. Yes, that was it. "Failure to provide." How he hated the words. How he despised men who did not provide for their wives. He had never thought of himself in that light before. But it was true, all true. And Nellie was slipping away from him as the result. Not only Nellie but Phoebe. She would be taken from him.
"I don't drink," he argued with himself, "and I've never treated her cruelly. Other women don't interest me. I never swear at her. I've never beaten her. I've always loved her. So it must be that I'm 'no good,' just as that scoundrel says. 'No good!' Why, she knows better than that. There never was a fellow who worked harder than I did for Mr. Davis. I drew trade to his store. Anybody in Blakeville will swear to that. Haven't I tried my best to get a job in the same shows with her? Wasn't I the best comedian they had in the dramatic club? I've never had the chance to show what I could do, and Nellie knows it. But I'll show them all! I'll make that big brute wish he'd never been born. I'll—I'll assert myself. He shan't take her away from me."