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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesWhat's-his-name - Chapter 5. Christmas
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What's-his-name - Chapter 5. Christmas Post by :?ric_Hamel Category :Long Stories Author :George Barr Mccutcheon Date :May 2012 Read :1339

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What's-his-name - Chapter 5. Christmas

CHAPTER V. CHRISTMAS

The weeks went slowly by and Christmas came to the little house in Tarrytown. He had become resigned but not reconciled to Nellie's continued and rather persistent absence, regarding it as the sinister proclamation of her intention to carry out the plan for separation in spite of all that he could do to avert the catastrophe. His devotion to Phoebe was more intense than ever; it had reached the stage of being pathetic.

True to his word, he wrote to Mr. Davis, who in time responded, saying that he could give him a place at the soda fountain in May, but that the wages would of necessity be quite small, owing to the fact that the Greeks had invaded Blakeville with the corner fruit stands and soft-drink fountains. He could promise him eight dollars a week, or ten dollars if he would undertake to come to the store at six A.M. and sweep up, a task now performed by the proprietor himself, who found himself approaching an age and a state of health that craved a feast of luxury and ease hitherto untasted.

Harvey was in considerable doubt as to his ability to live on ten dollars a week and support Phoebe, as well as to begin the task of reimbursing Nellie for her years of sacrifice. Still, it was better than nothing at all, so he accepted Mr. Davis' ten-dollar-a-week offer and sat back to wait for the coming of the first of May.

In the meantime he would give Nellie some return for her money by doing the work now performed by Annie--or, more advisedly speaking, a portion of it. He would conduct Phoebe to the kindergarten and call for her at the close of sessions, besides dressing her in the morning, sewing on buttons for her, undressing her at night, and all such jobs as that, with the result that Annie came down a dollar a week in her wages and took an extra afternoon out. In this way he figured he could save Nellie at least thirty dollars. He also did the janitor's work about the place and looked after the furnace, creating a salvage of three dollars and a half a month. Moreover, instead of buying a new winter suit and replacing his shabby ulster with one more comely and presentable, he decided to wear his fall suit until January and then change off to his old blue serge spring suit, which still seemed far from shiny, so far as he could see.

And so it was that Nellie's monthly check for $150 did very nicely.

Any morning at half-past eight, except Sunday, you could have seen him going down the street with Phoebe at his side, her hand in his, bound for the kindergarten. He carried her little lunch basket and whistled merrily when not engaged in telling her about Santa Claus. She startled him one day by asking:--

"Are you going to be Santy this year, daddy, or is mamma?"

He looked down at the rich little fur coat and muff Nellie had outfitted her with, at the expensive hat and the silk muffler, and sighed.

"If you ask questions, Santy won't come at all," he said, darkly. "He's a mighty cranky old chap, Santy is."

He did not take up physical culture with Professor Flaherty, partly on account of the expense, partly because he found that belabouring cannel coal and shaking down the furnace was more developing than he had expected. Raking the autumn leaves out of the front yard also was harder than he had any idea it would be. He was rather glad it was not the season for the lawn mower.

Down in his heart he hoped that Nellie would come out for Christmas, but he knew there was no chance of it. She would have two performances on that day. He refrained from telling Phoebe until the very last minute that her mother would not be out for the holiday. He hadn't the heart to do it.

He broke the news then by telling the child that her mother was snowbound and couldn't get there. An opportune fall of snow the day before Christmas gave him the inspiration.

He set up the little Christmas tree in the back parlour, assisted by Bridget and Annie, after Phoebe had gone to bed on Christmas Eve. She had urged him to read to her about Tiny Tim, but he put her off with the announcement that Santa was likely to be around early on account of the fine sleighing, and if he saw that she wasn't asleep in bed he might skip the house entirely.

The expressman, in delivering several boxes from town that afternoon, had said to his helper:--

"That little fellow that came to the door was Nellie Duluth's husband, Mr.--Mr.----Say, look on the last page there and see what his name is. He's a cheap skate. A dime! Wot do you think of that?" He held up the dime Harvey had given him and squinted at it as if it were almost too small to be seen with the naked eye.

Nellie sent "loads" of presents to Phoebe--toys, books, candies, fruits, pretty dresses, a velvet coat, a tiny pair of opera glasses, strings of beads, bracelets, rings--dozens of things calculated to set a child mad with delight. There were pocketbooks, handkerchiefs, squirrel stoles and muffs for each of the servants, a box of cigars for the postman, another for the milkman, and a five-dollar bill for the janitor.

There was nothing for Harvey.

He looked for a long time at the envelope containing the five-dollar bill, an odd little smile creeping into his eyes. He was the janitor, he remembered. After a moment of indecision he slipped the bill into another envelope, which he marked "Charity" and laid aside until morning brought the mendicant who, with bare fingers and frosted lips, always came to play his mournful clarionet in front of the house.

Surreptitiously he searched the two big boxes carefully, inwardly hoping that she had not forgotten--nay, ignored--him. But there was nothing there, not even a Christmas card! It was the first Christmas she had....

The postman brought a small box addressed to Phoebe. The handwriting was strange, but he thought nothing of it. He thought it was nice of Butler to remember his little one and lamented the fact that he had not bought something for the little Butlers, of whom there were seven. He tied a red ribbon around the sealed package and hung it on the tree.

After it was all over he went upstairs and tried to read "Dombey & Son." But a mist came over his blue eyes and his vision carried him far beyond the printed page. He was not thinking of Nellie, but of his old mother, who had never forgotten to send him a Christmas present. Ah, if she were alive he would not be wondering to-night why Santa Claus had passed him by.

He rubbed his eyes with his knuckles, closed "Dombey & Son" for the night, and went to bed, turning his thoughts to the row of tiny stockings that hung from the mantelpiece downstairs--for Phoebe had put to use all that she could find--and then let them drift on through space to an apartment near Central Park, where Kris Kringle had delivered during the day a little packet containing the brooch he had purchased for his wife out of the money he had preserved from the sale of his watch some weeks before.

He was glad he had sent Nellie a present.

Bright and early the next morning he was up to have a final look at the tree before Phoebe came down. A blizzard was blowing furiously; the windows were frosted; the house was cheerless. He built the fires in the grates and sat about with his shoulders hunched up till the merry crackle of the coals put warmth into his veins. The furnace! He thought of it in time, and hurried to the basement to replenish the fires. They were out. He had forgotten them the night before. Bridget found him there later on, trying to start the kindling in the two furnaces.

"I clean forgot 'em last night," he said, sheepishly.

"I don't wonder, sor," said Bridget, quite genially for a cold morning. "Do you be after going upstairs this minute, sor. I'll have them roaring in two shakes av a lamb's tail. Mebby there's good news for yez up there. Annie's at the front door this minute, taking a telegram from the messenger bye, sor. Merry Christmas to ye, sor."

"Merry Christmas, Bridget!" cried he, gaily. His heart had leaped at the news she brought. A telegram from Nellie! Hurrah! He rushed upstairs without brushing the coal dust from his hands.

The boy was waiting for his tip. Harvey gave him a quarter and wished him a merry Christmas.

"A miserable day to be out," said he, undecided whether to ask the half-frozen lad to stay and have a bite of breakfast or to let him go out into the weather.

"It's nothin' when you gets used to it," said the blue-capped philosopher, and took his departure.

"But it's the getting used to it," said Harvey to Annie as she handed him the message. He tore open the envelope. She saw the light die out of his eyes.

The message was from Ripton, the manager, and read:--

"Please send Phoebe in with the nurse to see the matinee to-day." The invitation was explicit enough. He was not wanted.

If he had a secret inclination to ignore the command altogether, it was frustrated by his own short-sightedness. He gulped, and then read the despatch aloud for the benefit of the maid. When it was too late he wished he had not done so.

Annie beamed. "Oh, sir, I've always wanted to see Miss Duluth act. I will take good care of Phoebe."

He considered it beneath his dignity to invite her into a conspiracy against the child, so he gloomily announced that he would go in with them on the one-o'clock train and stay to bring them out.

The Christmas tree was a great success. Phoebe was in raptures. He quite forgot his own disappointment in watching her joyous antics. As the distributor of the presents that hung on the gaily trimmed and dazzling cedar, he came at last to the little package from Butler. It contained a beautiful gold chain, at the end of which hung suspended a small diamond-studded slipper--blue enamel, fairly covered with rose diamonds.

Phoebe screamed with delight. Her father's face was a study.

"Why, they are diamonds!" he murmured. "Surely Butler wouldn't be giving presents like this." A card fluttered to the floor. He picked it up and read:--"A slipper for my little Cinderella. Keep it and it will bring good luck."

There was no name, but he knew who had sent it. With a cry of rage he snatched the dainty trinket from her hand and threw it on the floor, raising his foot to stamp it out of shape with his heel. His first vicious attempt missed the slipper altogether, and before he could repeat it the child was on the floor clutching it in her fingers, whimpering strangely. The servants looked on in astonishment.

He drew back, mumbling something under his breath. In a moment he regained control of himself.

"It--it isn't meant for you, darling," he said, hoarsely. "Santy left it here by mistake. We will send it back to him. It belongs to some other poor little girl."

"But I am Cinderella!" she cried. "Mr. Fairy-fax said so. He told Santy to bring it to me. Please, daddy--please!"

He removed it gently from her fingers and dropped it into his pocket. His face was very white.

"Santy isn't that kind of a man," he said, without rhyme or reason. "Now, don't cry, dearie. Here's another present from mamma. See!"

Later in the morning, after she had quite forgotten the slipper, he put it back in the box, wrapped it carefully, and addressed the package to L. Z. Fairfax, in New York City, without explanation or comment.

(Illustration: Copyright, 1911, by Dodd, Mead & Company Phoebe)

Before the morning was half over he was playing with Phoebe and her toys quite as childishly and gleefully as she, his heart in the fun she was having, his mind almost wholly cleared of the bitterness and rancour that so recently had filled it to overflowing.

The three of them floundered through the snowdrifts to the station, laughing and shouting with a merriment that proved infectious. The long-obscured sun came out and caught the disease, for he smiled broadly, and the wind gave over snarling and smirked with an amiability that must have surprised the shivering horses standing desolate in front of certain places wherein their owners partook of Christmas cheer that was warm.

Harvey took Phoebe and the nurse to the theatre in a cab. He went up to the box-office window and asked for the two tickets. The seller was most agreeable. He handed out the little envelope with the words:--

"A packed house to-day, Mr.--Mr.--er--ah, and--sold out for to-night. Here you are, with Miss Duluth's compliments--the best seats in the house. And here is a note for--er--yes, for the nurse."

Annie read the note. It was from Nellie, instructing her to bring Phoebe to her dressing-room after the performance, where they would have supper later on.

Harvey saw them pass in to the warm theatre and then slowly wandered out to the bleak, wind-swept street. There was nothing for him to do; nowhere that he could go to seek cheerful companions. For an hour or more he wandered up and down Broadway, his shoulders hunched up, his mittened hands to his ears, water running from his nose and eyes, his face the colour of the setting sun. Half-frozen, he at last ventured into a certain cafe, a place where he had lunched no fewer than half-a-dozen times, and where he thought his identity might have remained with the clerk at the cigar stand.

There were men at the tables, smoking and chatting hilariously. At one of them sat three men, two of whom were actors he had met. Summoning his courage, he approached them with a well-assumed air of nonchalance.

"Merry Christmas," was his greeting. The trio looked at him with no sign of recognition. "How are you. Mr. Brackley? How are you, Joe?"

The two actors shook hands with him without much enthusiasm, certainly without interest.

Light dawned on one of them. "Oh," said he, cheerlessly, "how are you? I couldn't place you at first." He did not offer to introduce him to the stranger, but proceeded to enlighten the other players. "It's--oh, you know--Nellie Duluth's husband."

The other fellow nodded and resumed his conversation with the third man. At the same time the speaker leaned forward to devote his attention to the tale in hand, utterly ignoring the little man, who stood with his hand on the back of the vacant chair.

Harvey waited for a few moments. "What will you have to drink?" he asked, shyly dropping into the chair. They stared at him and shook their heads.

"That seat's engaged," said the one called "Joe," gruffly.

Harvey got up instantly. "Oh," he said, in a hesitating manner. They went on with their conversation as if he were not there. After a moment he moved away, his ears burning, his soul filled with mortification and shame. In a sort of daze he approached the cigar stand and asked for a box of cigarettes.

"What kind?" demanded the clerk, laying down his newspaper.

Harvey smiled engagingly. "Oh, the kind I usually get!" he said, feeling sure that the fellow remembered him and the quality he smoked.

"What's that?" snapped the clerk, scowling.

The purchaser hastily mentioned a certain kind of cigarette, paid for it after the box had been tossed at him, and walked away. Fixed in his determination to stay in the place until he was well thawed out, he took a seat at a little table near the stairway and ordered a hot lemonade.

He was conscious of a certain amount of attention from the tables adjacent to the trio he had accosted. Several loud guffaws came to his ears as he sipped the boiling drink. Taking an unusually copious swallow, he coughed and spluttered as the liquid scalded his tongue and palate. The tears rushed to his eyes. From past experience he knew that his tongue would be sore for at least a week. He had such a tender tongue, Nellie said.

For half an hour he sat there dreaming and brooding. It was much better than tramping the streets. A clock on the opposite wall pointed to four o'clock. The matinee would be over at a quarter to five. Presently he looked again. It was five minutes past four. Really it wasn't so bad waiting after all; not half so bad as he had thought it would be.

Some one tapped him on the shoulder. He looked up with a start. The manager of the place stood at his elbow.

"This isn't a railway station, young feller," he said, harshly. "You'll have to move on. These tables are for customers."

"But I've bought----"

"Now, don't argue about it. You heard what I said. Move along."

The man's tone was peremptory. Poor Harvey looked around as if in search of a single benevolent face, and then, without a word of protest, arose and moved quickly toward the door. His eyes were fixed in a glassy stare on the dancing, elusive doorway. He wondered if he could reach it before he sank through the floor. Somehow he had the horrible feeling that just as he opened it to go out some one would kick him from behind. He could almost feel the impact of the boot and involuntarily accelerated his speed as he opened the door to pass into the biting air of the now darkening street.

"I hate this damned town," said he to himself over and over again as he flung himself against the gale that almost blew him off his feet. When he stopped to take his bearings, he was far above Longacre Square and still going in the wrong direction. He was befuddled. A policeman told him in hoarse, muffled tones to go back ten blocks or so if he wanted to find the theatre where Nellie Duluth was playing.

A clock in an apothecary's shop urged him to hurry. When he came to the theatre, the newsboys were waiting for the audience to appear. He was surrounded by a mob of boys and men shouting the extras.

"Is the show out?" he asked one of them.

"No, sir!" shouted the boy, eagerly. "Shall I call up your automobile, mister!"

"No, thank you," said Harvey through his chattering teeth. For a moment he felt distinctly proud and important. So shrewd a judge of humanity as a New York "newsy" had taken him to be a man of parts. For awhile he had been distressed by the fear, almost the conviction, that he was regarded by all New York as a "jay."

Belying his suddenly acquired air of importance, he hunched himself up against the side of the building, partly sheltered from the wind, and waited for the crowd to pour forth. With the appearance of the first of those home-goers he would repair to the stage door, and, once behind the scenes, was quite certain that he would receive an invitation from Nellie to join the gay little family supper party in her dressing-room.

When the time came, however, he approached the doorman with considerable trepidation. He had a presentiment that there would be "no admittance." Sure enough, the grizzled doorman, poking his head out, gruffly informed him that no one was allowed "back" without an order from the manager. Harvey explained who he was, taking it for granted that the man did not know him with his coat-collar turned up.

"I know you, all right," said the man, not unkindly. "I'd like to let you in, but--you see----" He coughed and looked about rather helplessly, avoiding the pleading look in the visitor's eyes.

"It's all right," Nellie's husband assured him, but an arm barred the way.

"I've got strict orders not to admit you," blurted out the doorman, hating himself.

"Not to admit me!" said Harvey, slowly.

"I'm sorry, sir. Orders is orders."

"But my little girl is there."

"Yes, sir, I understand. The orders are for you, sir, not for the kid." Struck by the look in the little man's eyes he hastened to say, "Maybe if you saw Mr. Ripton out front and sent a note in to Miss Duluth, she'd change her mind and----"

"Good Lord!" fell from Harvey's lips as he abruptly turned away to look for a spot where he could hide himself from every one.

Two hours later, from his position at the mouth of the alley, he saw a man come out of the stage door and blow a whistle thrice. He was almost perishing with cold; he was sure that his ears were frozen. A sharp snap at the top of each of them and a subsequent warmth urged him to press quantities of snow against them, obeying the old rule that like cures like. From the kitchens of a big restaurant came the odours of cooking foodstuffs. He was hungry on this Merry Christmas night, but he would not leave his post. He had promised to wait for Phoebe and take her out home with him in the train.

With the three blasts of the whistle he stirred his numb feet and edged nearer to the stage door. A big limousine came rumbling up the alley from behind, almost running him down. The fur-coated chauffeur called him unspeakable names as he passed him with the emergency brakes released.

Before he could reach the entrance, the door flew open and a small figure in fur coat and a well known white hat was bundled into the machine by a burly stage hand. A moment later Annie clambered in, the door was slammed and the machine started ahead.

He shouted as he ran, but his cry was not heard. As the car careened down the narrow lane, throwing snow in all directions, he dropped into a dejected, beaten walk. Slowly he made his way in the trail of the big car--it was too dark for him to detect the colour, but he felt it was green--and came at last to the mouth of the alley, desolate, bewildered, hurt beyond all understanding.

For an instant he steadied himself against the icy wall of a building, trying to make up his mind what to do next. Suddenly it occurred to him that if he ran hard and fast he could catch the train--the seven-thirty--and secure a bit of triumph in spite of circumstances.

He went racing up the street toward Sixth Avenue, dodging head-lowered pedestrians with the skill of an Indian, and managed to reach Forty-second Street without mishap or delay. Above the library he was stopped by a policeman, into whose arms he went full tilt, almost bowling him over. The impact dazed him. He saw many stars on the officer's breast. As he looked they dwindled into one bright and shining planet and a savage voice was bellowing:--

"Hold still or I'll bat you over the head!"

"I'm--I'm trying to make the seven-thirty," he panted, wincing under the grip on his arm.

"We'll see about that," growled the policeman.

"For Heaven's sake, Mr. Policeman, I haven't done anything. Honest, I'm in a hurry. My little girl's on that train. We live in Tarrytown. She'll cry her eyes out if I----"

"What was you running for?"

"For it," said Harvey, at the end of a deep breath.

"It's only seven-five now," said the officer, suspiciously.

"Well, it's the seven-ten I want, then," said Harvey, hastily.

"I guess I'll hold you here and see if anybody comes chasin' up after you. Not a word, now. Close your trap."

As no one came up to accuse the prisoner of murder, theft, or intoxication, the intelligent policeman released him at the expiration of fifteen minutes. A crowd had collected despite the cold. Harvey was always to remember that crowd of curious people; he never ceased wondering where they came from and why they were content to stand there shivering in the zero weather when there were stoves and steam radiators everywhere to be found. To add to his humiliation at least a dozen men and boys, not satisfied with the free show as far as it had gone, pursued him to the very gates in the concourse.

"Darned loafers!" said Harvey, hotly, but under his breath, as he showed his ticket and his teeth at the same time. Then he rushed for the last coach and swung on as it moved out.

Now, if I were inclined to be facetious or untruthful I might easily add to his troubles by saying that he got the wrong train, or something of the sort, but it is not my purpose to be harder on him than I have to be.

It was the right train, and, better still, Annie and Phoebe were in the very last seat of the very last coach. With a vast sigh he dropped into a vacant seat ahead of them and began fanning himself with his hat, to the utter amazement of onlookers, who had been disturbed by his turbulent entrance.

The newspaper Annie was reading fell from her hands.

"My goodness, sir! Where did you come from?" she managed to inquire.

"I've been--dining--at--Sherry's," he wheezed. "Annie, will you look and see if my ears are frozen?"

"They are, sir. Good gracious!"

He realised that he had been indiscreet.

"I--I sat in a draught," he hastened to explain. "Did you have a nice time, Phoebe?"

The child was sleepy. "No," she said, almost sullenly. His heart gave a bound. "Mamma wouldn't let me eat anything. She said I'd get fat."

"You had quite enough to eat, Phoebe," said Annie.

"I didn't," said Phoebe.

"Never mind," said her father, "I'll take you to Sherry's some day."

"When, daddy?" she cried, wide awake at once. "I like to go to places with you."

He faltered. "Some day after mamma has gone off on the road. We'll be terribly gay, while she's away, see if we ain't."

Annie picked up the paper and handed it to him.

"Miss Duluth ain't going on the road, sir," she said. "It's in the paper."

He read the amazing news. Annie, suddenly voluble, gave it to him by word of mouth while he read. It was all there, she said, to prove what she was telling him. "Just as if I couldn't read!" said Harvey, as he began the article all over again after perusing the first few lines in a perfectly blank state of mind.

"Yes, sir, the doctor says she can't stand it on the road. She's got nervous prosperity and she's got to have a long rest. That Miss Brown is going to take her place in the play after this week and Miss Duluth is going away out West to live for awhile to get strong again. She----What is the name of the town, Phoebe?"

"Reno," said Phoebe, promptly.

"But the name of the town isn't in the paper, sir," Annie informed him. "It's a place where people with complications go to get rid of them, Miss Nellie says. The show won't be any good without her, sir. I wouldn't give two cents to see it."

He sagged down in the seat, a cold perspiration starting out all over his body.

"When does she go--out there!" he asked, as in a dream.

"First of next week. She goes to Chicago with the company and then right on out to--to--er--to----"

"Reno," said he, lifelessly.

"Yes, sir."

He did not know how long afterward it was that he heard Phoebe saying to him, her tired voice barely audible above the clacking of the wheels:--

"I want a drink of water, daddy."

His voice seemed to come back to him from some far-away place. He blinked his eyes several times and said, very wanly:--

"You mustn't drink water, dearie. It will make you fat."

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