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When Mr. Clarke returned from luncheon, it was evident that he was in no mood to encourage a prodigal's repentance. For half an hour Nance heard his voice rising and falling in angry accusation; then a door slammed, and there was silence. She waited tensely for the next sound, but it was long in coming. Presently some one began talking over the telephone in low, guarded tones, and she could not be sure which of the two it was. Then the talking ceased; the hall door of the inner office opened and closed quietly.
Nance went to the window and saw Mac emerge from the passage below and hurry across the yard to the stables. His cap was over his eyes, and his hands were deep in his pockets. Evidently he had had it out with his father and was going to stay over and meet his difficulties. Her eyes grew tender as she watched him. What a spoiled boy he was, in spite of his five feet eleven! Always getting into scrapes and letting other people get him out! But he was going to face the music this time, and he was doing it for her! If only she hadn't let him kiss her! A wave of shame made her bury her hot cheeks in her palms.
She was startled from her reverie by a noise at the door. It was Dan Lewis, looking strangely worried and preoccupied.
"Hello, Nance," he said, without lifting his eyes. "Did Mr. Clarke leave a telegram for me?"
"Not with me. Perhaps it is on his table. Want me to see?"
"No, I'll look," Dan answered and went in and closed the door behind him.
Nance looked at the closed door in sudden apprehension. What was the matter with Dan? What had he found out? She heard him moving about in the empty room; then she heard him talking over the telephone. When he came out, he crossed over to where she was sitting.
"Nance," he began, still with that uneasy manner, "there's something I've got to speak to you about. You won't take it amiss?"
"Cut loose," said Nance, with an attempt at lightness, but her heart began to thump uncomfortably.
"You see," Dan began laboriously. "I'm sort of worried by some talk that's been going on 'round the factory lately. It hadn't come direct to me until to-day, but I got wind of it every now and then. I know it's not true, but it mustn't go on. There's one way to stop it. Do you know what it is?"
Nance shook her head, and he went on.
"You and I have been making a mess of things lately. Maybe it's been my fault, I don't know. You see a fellow gets to know a lot of things a nice girl don't know. And the carnival ball business--well--I was scared for you, Nance, and that's the plain truth."
"I know, Dan," she said impatiently. "I was a fool to go that time, but I never did it again."
Dan fingered the papers on the desk.
"I ain't going to rag about that any more. But I can't have 'em saying things about you around the factory. You know how I feel about you--how I always have felt--Nance I want you to marry me."
Nance flashed a look at him, questioning, eager, uncertain; then her eyes fell. How could she know that behind his halting sentences a paean of love was threatening to burst the very confines of his inarticulate soul? She only saw an awkward young workman in his shirt sleeves, with a smudge across his cheek and a wistful look in his eyes, who knew no more about making love than he knew about the other graces of life.
"I've saved enough money," he went on earnestly, "to buy a little house in the country somewhere. That's what you wanted, wasn't it?"
Nance's glance wandered to the tall gas-pipe that had been their unromantic trysting place. Then she closed her eyes and pressed her fingers against them to keep back the stinging tears. If Dan loved her, why didn't he say beautiful things to her, why didn't he take her in his arms as Mac had done, and kiss away all those fears of herself and of the future that crowded upon her? With her head on his shoulder she could have sobbed out her whole confession and been comforted, but now--
"You care for me, don't you, Nance?" Dan asked with a sharp note of anxiety in his voice.
"Of course I care!" she said irritably. "But I don't want to get married and settle down. I want to get out and see the world. When you talk about a quiet little house in the country, I want to smash every window in it!"
Dan slipped the worn drawing he had in his hand back into his pocket. It was no time to discuss honeysuckle porches.
"We don't have to go to the country," he said patiently. "I just thought it was what you wanted. We can stay here, or we can go to another town if you like. All I want is to make you happy, Nance."
For a moment she sat with her chin on her palms, staring straight ahead; then she turned toward him with sudden resolution.
"What's the talk you been hearing about me?" she demanded.
"There's no use going into that," he said. "It's a lie, and I mean to stamp it out if I have to lick every man in the factory to do it."
"Was it--about Mac Clarke?"
"Who dared bring it to you?" he asked fiercely.
"What are they saying, Dan?"
"That you been seen out with him on the street, that you ride with him after night, and that he comes down here every day at the noon hour to see you."
"Is that all?"
"Ain't it enough?"
"Well, it's true!" said Nance, defiantly. "Every word of it. If anybody can find any real harm in what I've done, they are welcome to it!"
"It's true?" gasped Dan, his hands gripping a chair-back. "And you never told me? Has he--has he made love to you, Nance?"
"Why, he makes love to everybody. He makes love to his mother when he wants to get something out of her. What he says goes in one ear and out the other with me. But I like him and I ain't ashamed to say so. He's give me the best time I ever had in my life, and you bet I don't forget it."
"Will you answer me one thing more?" demanded Dan, sternly.
"Yes; I ain't afraid to answer any question you can ask."
"Was it Clarke that took you to the carnival ball?"
"Him and a fellow named Monte Pearce."
"Just you three?"
"No; Birdie Smelts was along."
Dan brushed his hand across his brow as if trying to recall something.
"Birdie come here that day," he said slowly. "She wanted to see Clarke for a friend of hers. Nance did he--did he ever ask you to kiss him?"
"Why didn't you tell me all this before, Nance? Why didn't you give me a chance to put you on your guard?"
"I was on my guard!" she cried, with rising anger. "I don't need anybody to take care of me!"
But Dan was too absorbed in his own thoughts to heed her.
"It's a good thing he's going away in a couple of days," he said grimly. "If ever the blackguard writes to you, or dares to speak to you again--"
Nance had risen and was facing him.
"Who's to stop him?" she asked furiously. "I'm the one to say the word, and not you!"
"And you won't let me take it up with him?"
"And you mean to see him again, and to write to him?"
Nance had a blurred vision of an unhappy prodigal crossing the factory yard. He had kept his part of their compact; she must keep hers.
"I will if I want to," she said rather weakly.
Dan's face flushed crimson.
"All right," he said, "keep it up if you like. But I tell you now, I ain't going to stay here to see it. I'm going to clear out!"
He turned toward the door, and she called after him anxiously:
"Dan, come back here this minute. Where are you going?"
He paused in the doorway, his jaw set and a steady light in his eyes.
"I am going now," he said, "to apologize to the man I hit yesterday for telling the truth about you!"
That night Nance shed more tears than she had ever shed in the whole course of her life before; but whether she wept for Mac, or Dan, or for herself, she could not have said. She heard the sounds die out of the alley one by one, the clanging cars at the end of the street became less frequent; only the drip, drip, drip from a broken gutter outside her window, and the rats in the wall kept her company. All day Sunday she stayed in-doors, and came to the office on Monday pale and a bit listless.
Early as it was, Mr. Clarke was there before her, pacing the floor in evident perturbation.
"Come in here a moment, Miss Molloy," he said, before she had taken off her hat. "I want a word with you."
Nance followed him into the inner room with a quaking heart.
"I want you to tell me," he said, waiving all preliminaries, "just who was in this room Saturday afternoon after I left."
"Dan Lewis. And of course, Mr. Mac. You left him here."
"But there must have been," insisted Mr. Clarke, vehemently. "A man, giving my name, called up our retail store between two and two-thirty o'clock, and asked if they could cash a check for several hundred dollars. He said it was too late to go to the bank, and he wanted the money right away. Later a messenger brought my individual check, torn out of this check-book, which evidently hasn't been off my desk, and received the money. The cashier thought the signature looked queer and called me up yesterday. I intend to leave no stone unturned until I get at the truth of the matter. You were the only person here all afternoon. Tell me, in detail, exactly what happened."
Nance recalled as nearly as she could, the incidents of the afternoon, with careful circuits around her own interviews with Mac and Dan.
"Could any one have entered the inner office between their visits, without your knowing it?" asked Mr. Clarke, who was following her closely.
"Oh, yes, sir; only there wasn't time. You see Mr. Mac was just going out the factory yard as Dan come in here."
"Did either of them use my telephone?"
"Both of them used it."
"Could you hear what was said?"
"No; the door was shut both times."
"Did Lewis enter through the other room, or through the hall?"
"He come through the other room and asked me if you had left a telegram for him."
"Then he came in here?"
Mr. Clarke's brows were knitted in perplexity. He took up the telephone.
"Send Lewis up here to my office," he directed. "What? Hasn't come in yet?" he repeated incredulously. "That's strange," he said grimly, half to himself. "The first time I ever knew him to be late."
Something seemed to tighten suddenly about Nance's heart. Could it be possible that Mr. Clarke was suspecting Dan of signing that check? She watched his nervous hands as they ran over the morning mail. He had singled out one letter and, as he finished reading it, he handed it to her.
It was from Dan, a brief business-like resignation, expressing appreciation of Mr. Clarke's kindness, regret at the suddenness of his departure, and giving as his reason private affairs that took him permanently to another city.
When Nance lifted her startled eyes from the signature, she saw that Mr. Clarke was closely scrutinizing the writing on the envelope.
"It's incredible!" he said, "and yet the circumstances are most suspicious. He gives no real reason for leaving."
"I can," said Nance, resolutely. "He wanted me to marry him, and I wouldn't promise. He asked me Saturday afternoon, after he come out of here. We had a quarrel, and he said he was going away; but I didn't believe it."
"Did he ask you to go away with him? Out of town anywhere?"
"Yes; he said he would go anywhere I said."
A flash of anger burnt out the look of fear that had been lurking in Mr. Clarke's face.
"He's the last man I would have suspected! Of course I knew he had been in a reformatory at one time, but--"
The band that had been tightening around Nance's heart seemed suddenly to burst. She sprang to her feet and stood confronting him with blazing eyes.
"What right have you got to think Dan did it? There were two of them in this room. Why don't you send for Mr. Mac and ask him questions?"
"Well, for one reason he's in New York, and for another, my son doesn't have to resort to such means to get what money he wants."
"Neither does Dan Lewis! He was a street kid; he was had up in court three times before he was fourteen; he was a month at the reformatory; and he's knocked elbows with more crooks than you ever heard of; but you know as well as me that there ain't anybody living more honest than Dan!"
"All he's got to do is to prove it," said Mr. Clarke, grimly.
Nance looked at the relentless face of the man before her and thought of the money at his command to prove whatever he wanted to prove.
"See here, Mr. Clarke!" she said desperately, "you said a while ago that all the facts were against Dan. Will you tell me one thing?"
"What is it?"
"Did you give Mr. Mac the money to pay that note last Saturday?"
"The one the Meyers fellow was after him about?"
"Mac asked for no money, and I gave him none. In fact he told me that aside from his debts at the club and at the garage, he owed no bills. So you see your friend Meyers misinformed you."
Here was Nance's chance to escape; she had spoken in Dan's defense; she had told of the Meyers incident. To take one more step would be to convict Mac and compromise herself. For one miserable moment conflicting desires beat in her brain; then she heard herself saying quite calmly:
"No, sir, it wasn't Meyers that told me; it was Mr. Mac himself."
Mr. Clarke wheeled on her sharply.
"How did my son happen to be discussing his private affairs with you?"
"Mr. Mac and me are friends," she said. "He's been awful nice to me; he's given me more good times than I ever had in my whole life before. But I didn't know the money wasn't his or I wouldn't have gone with him."
"And I suppose you thought it was all right for a young man in Mac's position to be paying attention to a young woman in yours?"
Mr. Clarke studied her face intently, but her fearless eyes did not falter under his scrutiny.
"Are you trying to implicate Mac in this matter to spare Lewis, is that it?"
"No, sir. I don't say it was Mr. Mac. I only say it wasn't Dan. There are some people you just know are straight, and Dan's one of them."
Mr. Clarke got up and took a turn about the room, his hands locked behind him. Her last shot had evidently taken effect.
"Tell me exactly what Mac told you about this Meyers note," he demanded.
Nance recounted the facts in the case, ending with the promise Mac had made her to tell his father everything and begin anew.
"I wish I had known this Saturday!" Mr. Clarke said, sinking heavily into his chair. "I came down on the boy pretty severely on another score and gave him little chance to say anything. Did he happen to mention the exact amount of his indebtedness to Meyers?"
"He said it was five hundred and sixty dollars."
A sigh that was very like a groan escaped from Mr. Clarke; then he pulled himself together with an effort.
"You understand, Miss Molloy," he said, "that it is quite a different thing for my son to have done this, and for Lewis to have done it. Mac knows that what is mine will be his eventually. If he signed that check, he was signing his own name as well as mine. Of course, he ought to have spoken to me about it. I am not excusing him. He has been indiscreet in this as well as in other ways. I shall probably get a letter from him in a few days explaining the whole business. In the meanwhile the matter must go no further. I insist upon absolute silence. You understand?"
"And one thing more," Mr. Clarke added. "I forbid any further communication between you and Mac. He is not coming home at Christmas, and we are thinking of sending him abroad in June. I propose to keep him away from here for the next two or three years."
Nance fingered the blotter on the table absently. It was all very well for them to plan what they were going to do with Mac, but she knew in her heart that a line from her would set at naught all their calculations. Then her mind flew back to Dan.
"If he comes back--Dan, I mean,--are you going to take him on again?"
Mr. Clarke saw his chance and seized it.
"On one condition," he said. "Will you give me your word of honor not to communicate with Mac in any way?"
They were both standing now, facing each other, and Nance saw no compromise in the stern eyes of her employer.
"I'll promise if I've got to," she said.
"Very well," said Mr. Clarke. "That's settled."
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