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The shrill whistle that at noon had obtruded its discord into Nance Molloy's thoughts had a very different effect on Dan Lewis, washing his hands under the hydrant in the factory yard. He had not forgotten that it was Saturday. Neither had Growler, who stood watching him with an oblique look in his old eye that said as plain as words that he knew what momentous business was brewing at five o'clock.
It was not only Saturday for Dan, but the most important Saturday that ever figured on the calendar. In his heroic efforts to conform to Mrs. Purdy's standard of perfection he had studied the advice to young men in the "Sunday Echo." There he learned that no gentleman would think of mentioning love to a young lady until he was in a position to marry her. To-day's pay envelope would hold the exact amount to bring his bank account up to the three imposing figures that he had decided on as the minimum sum to be put away.
As he was drying his hands on his handkerchief and whistling softly under his breath, he was summoned to the office.
For the past year he had been a self-constituted buffer between Mr. Clarke and the men in the furnace-room, and he wondered anxiously what new complication had arisen.
"He's got an awful grouch on," warned the stenographer as Dan passed through the outer office.
Mr. Clarke was sitting at his desk, tapping his foot impatiently.
"Well, Lewis," he said, "you've taken your time! Sit down. I want to talk to you."
Dan dropped into the chair opposite and waited.
"Is it true that you have been doing most of the new foreman's work for the past month?"
"Well, I've helped him some. You see, being here so long, I know the ropes a bit better than he does."
"That's not the point. I ought to have known sooner that he could not handle the job. I fired him this morning, and we've got to make some temporary arrangement until a new man is installed."
Dan's face grew grave.
"We can manage everything but the finishing room. Some of the girls have been threatening to quit."
"What's the grievance now?"
"Same thing--ventilation. Two more girls fainted there this morning. The air is something terrible."
"What do they think I am running?" demanded Mr. Clarke, angrily, "a health resort?"
"No, sir," said Dan, "a death trap."
Mr. Clarke set his jaw and glared at Dan, but he said nothing. The doctor's recent verdict on the death of a certain one-eyed girl, named Mag Gist, may have had something to do with his silence.
"How many girls are in that room now?" he asked after a long pause.
Dan gave the number, together with several other disturbing facts concerning the sanitary arrangements.
"Well, what's to be done?" demanded Mr. Clarke, fiercely. "We can't get out the work with fewer girls, and there is no way of enlarging that room."
"Yes, sir, there is," said Dan. "Would you mind me showing you a way?"
"Since you are so full of advice, go ahead."
With crude, but sure, pencil strokes, Dan got his ideas on paper. He had done it so often for his own satisfaction that he could have made them with his eyes shut. Ever since those early days when he had seen that room through Nance Molloy's eyes, he had persisted in his efforts to better it.
Mr. Clarke, with his fingers thrust through his scanty hair, watched him scornfully.
"Absolutely impractical," he declared. "The only feasible plan would be to take out the north partition and build an extension like this."
"That couldn't be done," said Dan, "on account of the projection."
Whereupon, such is the power of opposition, Mr. Clarke set himself to prove that it could. For over an hour they wrangled, going into the questions of cost, of time, of heating, of ventilation, scarcely looking up from the plans until a figure in a checked suit flung open the door, letting in a draught of air that scattered the papers on the desk.
"Hello, Dad," said the new-comer, with a friendly nod to Dan, "I'm sorry to disturb you, but I only have a minute."
"Which I should accept gratefully, I suppose, as my share of your busy day?" Mr. Clarke tried to look severe, but his eyes softened.
"Well, I just got up," said Mac, with an ingratiating smile, as he smoothed back his shining hair before the mirror in the hat-rack.
"Running all night, and sleeping half the day!" grumbled Mr. Clarke. "By the way, what time did you get in last night?"
Mac made a wry face.
"Et tu, Brute?" he cried gaily. "Mother's polished me off on that score. I have not come here to discuss the waywardness of your prodigal son. Mr. Clarke, I have come to talk high finance. I desire to negotiate a loan."
"As usual," growled his father. "I venture to say that Dan Lewis here, who earns about half what you waste a year, has something put away."
"But Dan's the original grinder. He always had an eye for business. Used to win my nickel every Sunday when we shot craps in the alley back of the cathedral. Say, Dan, I see you've still got that handsome thoroughbred cur of yours! By George, that dog could use his tail for a jumping rope!"
Dan smiled; he couldn't afford to be sensitive about Growler's beauty.
"Is that all, Mr. Clarke?" he asked of his employer.
"Yes. I'll see what can be done with these plans. In the meanwhile you try to keep the girls satisfied until the new foreman comes. By the way I expect you'd better stay on here to-night."
Dan paused with his hand on the door-knob. "Yes, sir," he said in evident embarrassment, "but if you don't mind--I 'd like to get off for a couple of hours this afternoon."
"Who's the girl, Dan?" asked Mac, but Dan did not stop to answer.
As he hurried down the hall, a boy appeared from around the corner and beckoned to him with a mysterious grin.
"Somebody's waiting for you down in the yard."
"Who is he?"
"'T ain't a he. It's the prettiest girl you ever seen!"
Dan, whose thoughts for weeks had been completely filled with one feminine image, sprang to the window. But the tall, stylish person enveloped in a white veil, who was waiting below, in no remote way suggested Nance Molloy.
A call from a lady was a new experience, and a lively curiosity seized him as he descended the steps, turning down his shirt sleeves as he went. As he stepped into the yard, the girl turned toward him with a quick, nervous movement.
"Hello, Daniel!" she said, her full red lips curving into a smile. "Don't remember me, do you?"
"Sure, I do. It's Birdie Smelts."
"Good boy! Only now it's Birdie La Rue. That's my stage name, you know. I blew into town Thursday with 'The Rag Time Follies.' Say, Dan, you used to be a good friend of mine, didn't you?"
Dan had no recollection of ever having been noticed by Birdie, except on that one occasion when he had taken her and Nance to the skating-rink. She was older than he by a couple of years, and infinitely wiser in the ways of the world. But it was beyond masculine human nature not to be flattered by her manner, and he hastened to assure her that he had been and was her friend.
"Well, I wonder if you don't want to do me a favor?" she coaxed. "Find out if Mac Clarke's been here, or is going to be here. I got to see him on particular business."
"He's up in the office now," said Dan; then he added bluntly "Where did you ever know Mac Clarke?"
Birdie's large, white lids fluttered a moment.
"I come to see him for a friend of mine," she said.
A silence fell between them which she tried to break with a rather shame faced explanation.
"This girl and Mac have had a quarrel. I'm trying to patch it up. Wish you'd get him down here a minute."
"It would be a lot better for the girl," said Dan, slowly, "if you didn't patch it up."
"What do you mean?"
Dan looked troubled.
"Clarke's a nice fellow all right," he said, "but when it comes to girls--" he broke off abruptly. "Do you know him?"
"I've seen him round the theater," she said.
"Then you ought to know what I mean."
Birdie looked absently across the barren yard.
"Men are all rotten," she said bitterly, then added with feminine inconsistency, "Go on, Dan, be a darling. Fix it so I can speak to him without the old man catching on."
Strategic manoeuvers were not in Dan's line, and he might have refused outright had not Birdie laid a white hand on his and lifted a pair of effectively pleading eyes. Being unused to feminine blandishments, he succumbed.
Half an hour later a white veil fluttered intimately across a broad, checked shoulder as two stealthy young people slipped under the window of Mr. Clarke's private office and made their way to the street.
Dan gave the incident little further thought. He went mechanically about his work, only pausing occasionally at his high desk behind the door to pore over a sheet of paper. Had his employer glanced casually over his shoulder, he might have thought he was still figuring on the plans of the new finishing room; but a second glance would have puzzled him. Instead of one large room there were several small ones, and across the front was a porch with wriggly lines on a trellis, minutely labeled, "honeysuckle."
At a quarter of five Dan made as elaborate a toilet as the washroom permitted. He consumed both time and soap on the fractious forelock, and spent precious moments trying to induce a limp string tie to assume the same correct set that distinguished Mac Clarke's four-in-hand.
Once on his way, with Growler at his heels, he gave no more thought to his looks. He walked very straight, his lips twitching now and then into a smile, and his gaze soaring over the heads of the ordinary people whom he passed. For twenty-one years the book of life had proved grim reading, but to-day he had come to that magic page whereon is written in words grown dim to the eyes of age and experience, but perennially shining to the eyes of youth: "And then they were married and lived happily ever after."
"Take care there! Look where you are going!" exclaimed an indignant pedestrian as he turned the corner into Cemetery Street.
"Why, hello, Bean!" he said in surprise, bringing his gaze down to a stout man on crutches. "Glad to see you out again!"
"I ain't out," said the ex-foreman. "I'm all in. I've got rheumatism in every corner of me. This is what your old bottle factory did for me."
"Tough luck," said Dan sympathetically, with what attention he could spare from a certain doorway half up the square. "First time you've been out?"
"No; I've been to the park once or twice. Last night I went to a show." He was about to limp on when he paused. "By the way, Lewis, I saw an old friend of yours there. You remember that Molloy girl you used to run with up at the factory?"
Dan's mouth closed sharply. Bean's attitude toward the factory girls was an old grievance with him and had caused words between them on more than one occasion.
"Well, I'll be hanged," went on Bean, undaunted, "if she ain't doing a turn up at the Gaiety! She's a little corker all right, had the whole house going."
"You got another guess coming your way," said Dan, coldly, "the young lady you're talking about's not on the stage. She's working up here in Cemetery Street. I happen to be waiting for her now."
"Well, the drinks are on me. That girl at the Gaiety is a dead ringer to her. Same classy way of handling herself, same--" Something in Dan's eyes made him stop. "I got to be going," he said. "So long."
Dan waited patiently for ten minutes; then he looked at his watch. What could be keeping Nance? He whistled to Growler, who was making life miserable for a cat in a neighboring yard, and strolled past Miss Bobinet's door; then he returned to the corner. Bean's words had fallen into his dream like a pebble into a tranquil pool. What business had Bean to be remembering the way Nance walked or talked. Restlessly, Dan paced up and down the narrow sidewalk. When he looked at his watch again, it was five-thirty.
Only thirty more minutes in which to transact the most important business of his life! With a gesture of impatience he strode up to Miss Bobinet's door and rang the bell.
A wrinkled old woman, with one hand behind her ear, opened the door grudgingly.
"Nance Molloy?" she quavered in answer to his query. "What you want with her?"
"I'd like to speak with her a minute," said Dan.
"Are you her brother?"
The old woman peered at him curiously.
"Who be you?" she asked.
"My name's Lewis."
"No, Lewis!" shouted Dan, with a restraining hand on Growler, who was sniffing at the strange musty odors that issued from the half-open door.
"Well, she ain't here," said the old woman. "Took herself off last Wednesday, without a word to anybody."
"Last Wednesday!" said Dan, incredulously. "Didn't she send any word?"
"Sent for her money and said she wouldn't be back. You dog, you!" This to Growler who had insinuated his head inside the door with the fixed determination to run down that queer smell if possible.
Dan went slowly down the steps, and Growler, either offended at having had the door slammed in his face, or else sensing, dog-fashion, the sudden change in his master's mood, trotted soberly at his heels. There was no time now to go to Calvary Alley to find out what the trouble was. Nothing to do but go back to the factory and worry through the night, with all sorts of disturbing thoughts swarming in his brain. Nance had been all right the Saturday before, a little restless and discontented perhaps, but scarcely more so than usual. He remembered how he had counseled patience, and how hard it had been for him to keep from telling her then and there what was in his heart. He began to wonder uneasily if he had done right in keeping all his plans and dreams to himself. Perhaps if he had taken her into his confidence and told her what he was striving and saving for, she would have understood better and been happy in waiting and working with him. For the first time he began to entertain dark doubts concerning those columns of advice to young men in the "Sunday Echo."
Once back at the factory, he plunged into his work with characteristic thoroughness. It was strangely hot and still, and somewhere out on the horizon was a grumbling discontent. It was raining hard at eleven o'clock when he boarded a car for Butternut Lane, and by the time he reached the Purdy's corner, the lightning was playing sharply in the northwest.
He let himself in the empty house and felt his way up to his room, but he did not go to bed. Instead, he sat at his table and with stiff awkward fingers wrote letter after letter, each of which he tossed impatiently into the waste-basket. They were all to Nance, and they all tried in vain to express the pent-up emotion that had filled his heart for years. Somewhere down-stairs a clock struck one, but he kept doggedly at his task. Four o'clock found him still seated at the table, but his tired head had dropped on his folded arms, and he slept.
Outside the wind rose higher and higher, and the lightning split the heavens in blinding flashes. Suddenly a deafening crash of thunder shook the house, and Dan started to his feet. A moment later the telephone bell rang.
Half dazed, he stumbled down-stairs and took up the receiver.
"Hello, hello! Yes, this is Dan Lewis. What? I can't hear you. Who?" Then his back stiffened suddenly, and his voice grew tense, "Nance! Where are you? Is he dead? Who's with you? Don't be scared, I'm coming!" and, leaving the receiver dangling on the cord, he made one leap for the door.
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