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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's-his-name - Chapter 3. Mr. Fairfax
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What's-his-name - Chapter 3. Mr. Fairfax Post by :?ric_Hamel Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1080

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What's-his-name - Chapter 3. Mr. Fairfax

CHAPTER III. MR. FAIRFAX

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."

"Are you--er--separated?"

"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.

"Yes, sir-ree."

"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.

"Certainly."

"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--

"No!"

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.

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