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The promotion of Uncle Jed from the bed to a pair of crutches brought about two important changes in the house of Snawdor. First, a financial panic caused by the withdrawal of his insurance money, and, second, a lightening of Nance's home duties that sent her once more into the world to seek a living.
By one of those little ironies in which life seems to delight, the only opportunity that presented itself lay directly in the path of temptation. A few days after her interview with Monte Pearce, Dan came to her with an offer to do some office work at the bottle factory. The regular stenographer was off on a vacation, and a substitute was wanted for the month of September.
"Why, I thought you'd be keen about it," said Dan, surprised at her hesitation.
"Oh! I'd like it all right, but--"
"You needn't be afraid to tackle it," Dan urged. "Mr. Clarke's not as fierce as he looks; he'd let you go a bit slow at first."
"He wouldn't have to! I bet I've got as much speed now as the girl he's had. It's not the work."
"I know how you feel about the factory," said Dan, "and I wouldn't want you to go back in the finishing room. The office is different. You take my word for it; it's as nice a place as you could find."
They were standing on the doorless threshold of Number One, under the fan-shaped arch through which the light had failed to shine for twenty years. From the room on the left came the squeak of Mr. Demry's fiddle and the sound of pattering feet, synchronizing oddly with the lugubrious hymn in which Mrs. Smelts, in the room opposite, was giving vent to her melancholy.
Nance, eager for her chance, yearning for financial independence, obsessed by the desire to escape from the dirt and disorder and confusion about her, still hesitated.
"If you're afraid I'm going to worry you," said Dan, fumbling with his cap, "I can keep out of your way all right."
In an instant her impulsive hand was on his arm.
"You shut up, Dan Lewis!" she said sharply. "What makes me want to take the job most is our coming home together every night like we used to."
Dan's eyes, averted until now, lifted with sudden hope.
"But I got a good reason for not coming," she went on stubbornly. "It hasn't got anything to do with you or the work."
"Can't you tell me, Nance?"
The flicker of hope died out of his face as she shook her head. He looked down the alley for a moment; then he turned toward her with decision:
"See here, Nance," he said earnestly, "I don't know what your reason is, but I know that this is one chance in a hundred. I want you to take this job. If I come by for you to-morrow morning, will you be ready?"
Still she hesitated.
"Let me decide it for you," he insisted, "will you, Nance?"
She looked up into his earnest eyes, steadfast and serious as a collie's.
"All right!" she said recklessly, "have it your own way!"
The first day in Mr. Clarke's office was one of high tension. Added to the trepidation of putting her newly acquired business knowledge to a practical test, was the much more disturbing possibility that at any moment Mac might happen upon the scene. Just what she was going to do and say in such a contingency she did not know. Once when she heard the door open cautiously, she was afraid to lift her eyes. When she did, surprise took the place of fear.
"Why, Mrs. Smelts!" she cried. "What on earth are you doing here?"
Birdie's mother, faded and anxious, and looking unfamiliar in bonnet and cape, was evidently embarrassed by Nance's unexpected presence.
"He sent for me," she said, nervously, twitching at the fringe on her cape. "I wrote to his wife, but he sent word fer me to come here an' see him at ten o'clock. Is it ten yet?"
"Mr. Clarke sent for you?" Nance began incredulously; then remembering that a stenographer's first business is to attend to her own, she crossed the room with quite a professional manner and tapped lightly on the door of the inner office.
For half an hour the usually inaccessible president of the bottle factory and the scrub woman from Calvary Alley held mysterious conclave; then the door opened again, and Mrs. Smelts melted into the outer passage as silently as she had come.
Nance, while frankly curious, had little time to indulge in idle surmise. All her faculties were bent on mastering the big modern type-writer that presented such different problems from the ancient machine on which she had pounded out her lessons. She didn't like this sensitive, temperamental affair that went off half-cocked at her slightest touch, and did things on its own account that she was in the habit of doing herself.
Her first dictation left her numb with terror. She heard Mr. Clarke repeating with lightning rapidity phrases which she scarcely comprehended: "Enclose check for amount agreed upon." "Matter settled once and for all." "Any further annoyance to be punished to full extent of the law."
"Shall I address an envelope?" she asked, glancing at the "Dear Madam" at the top of the page.
"No," said Mr. Clarke, sharply, "I'll attend to that."
Other letters followed, and she was soon taking them with considerable speed. When mistakes occurred they could usually be attributed to the graded school which, during its brief chance at Nance, had been more concerned in teaching her the names and the lengths of the rivers of South America than in teaching her spelling.
At the noon hour Mr. Clarke departed, and she stood by the window eating her lunch and watching the men at work on the new wing. The old finishing room was a thing of the past, and Dan's dream of a light, well-ventilated workroom for the girls was already taking definite form. She could see him now in the yard below, a blue-print in his hand, explaining to a group of workmen some detail of the new building. One old glass-blower, peering at the plan through heavy, steel-rimmed spectacles, had his arm across Dan's shoulder. Nance smiled tenderly. Dear Dan! Everybody liked him--even those older men from the furnace-room who had seen him promoted over their heads. She leaned forward impulsively and called to him.
"Danny!" she cried, "here's an apple. Catch!"
He caught it dexterously in his left hand, gave her a casual nod, then went gravely on with the business in hand. Nance sighed and turned away from the window.
In the afternoon the work went much easier. She was getting used to Mr. Clarke's quick, nervous speech and abrupt manner. She was beginning to think in sentences instead of words. All was going famously when a quick step sounded in the passage without, followed by a gaily whistled tune, and the next instant the door behind her was flung open.
Mr. Clarke went steadily on with his dictation, but the new stenographer ceased to follow. With bent head and lips caught between her teeth, she made futile efforts to catch up, but she only succeeded in making matters worse.
"That will do for this afternoon," said Mr. Clarke, seeing her confusion. "Make a clear copy of that last letter and put it on my desk." Then he turned in his chair and glared over his shoulder. "Well, Mac!" he said, "I've waited for you just one hour and thirty-five minutes."
"Dead sorry, Dad. Didn't know it was so late," said the new-comer, blithely. "How long before you are going home?"
"Ten minutes. I've got to go over to the new building first. Don't go until I return. There's something I want to see you about."
Nance heard the door close as Mr. Clarke went out; then she waited in a tremor, half trepidation, half glee, for Mac to recognize her. He was moving about restlessly, first in one office, then in the other, and she could feel his bright inquisitive eyes upon her from different angles. But she kept her face averted, changing her position as he changed his. Presently he came to a halt near her and began softly to whistle the little-bear dance from the "Rag-Time Follies." She smiled before she knew it, and the next instant he was perched on the corner of her desk, demanding rapturously to know what she was doing there, and swearing that he had recognized her the moment he entered the room.
"Let go my hand, Mr. Mac!" she implored in laughing confusion.
"I'm afraid to! You might give me the slip again. I've been scouring the town for you and to think I should find you here!"
"Look out!" warned Nance. "You're upsetting the ink-bottle!"
"What do I care? Gee, this is luck! You ought to see my new racer, a regular peach! Will you come out with me sometime?"
"Will you let me run it?"
"I'll let you do anything you like with anything I've got," he declared with such ardor that she laughed and regretted it the next moment.
"Now look here, Mr. Mac!" she said, severely, "you touch me again, and I quit to-night. See?"
"I'll be good. I'll do anything you say if you'll just stay and play with me."
"Play nothing! I've got work to do."
"Work be hanged! Do you suppose when I haven't seen you for four months that I'm not going to claim my inning?"
"Well, I want to tell you right here," she said, shaking a warning pencil in his face, "that I mean what I say about your behaving yourself."
Mac caught the end of the pencil and held it while their eyes challenged each other.
"So be it!" he said. "I promise to be a model of discretion. Nance, I've been mad about you! Did Monte tell you--"
"Mr. Monte didn't tell me anything I wanted to hear," she said in her cool, keen way, as she got the imperiled ink-well to a place of safety, and straightened the other articles on the desk.
"You wouldn't be so down on a fellow if you knew how hard hit I am," persisted Mac. "Besides, I'm in for an awful row with the governor. You may see my scalp fly past the window in less than ten minutes."
"What's the row about?"
"Same old thing. I am the original devil for getting found out." For the space of a minute he gloomily contemplated a spot in the carpet; then he shrugged his shoulders, rammed his hands in his pockets, and began to whistle.
"The governor'll fork out," he said. "He always does. Say, Nance, you haven't said a word about my moustache."
"Let's see it," said Nance in giggling derision. "Looks like a baby's eyebrow. Does it wash off?"
A step in the hall sent them flying in opposite directions, Nance back to her desk, and Mac into the inner office, where his father found him a moment later, apparently absorbed in a pamphlet on factory inspection.
When Nance started home at six o'clock, she found Dan waiting at his old post beside the gas-pipe.
"It's like old times," he said happily, as he piloted her through the out-pouring throng. "I remember the first night we walked home together. You weren't much more than a kid. You had on a red cap with a tassel to it. Three years ago the tenth of last May. Wouldn't think it, would you?"
"Think what?" she asked absently.
"Tired?" he asked anxiously. "Is the work going to be too heavy?"
She shook her head impatiently.
"No, the work's all right. But--but I wish you hadn't made me come back, Dan."
"Stick it out for a week," he urged, "and then if you want to stop, I won't say a word."
She looked up at him quizzically and gave a short enigmatic laugh.
"That's my trouble," she said, "if I stick it out for a week, I won't be wanting to quit!"
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