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The Dan Lewis who came back to Clarke's Bottle Factory was a very different man from the one who had walked out of it five years before. He had gone out a stern, unforgiving, young ascetic, accepting no compromise, demanding perfection of himself and of his fellow-men. The very sublimity of his dream doomed it to failure. Out of the crumbling ideals of his boyhood he had struggled to a foothold on life that had never been his in the old days. His marriage to Birdie Smelts had been the fiery furnace in which his soul had been softened to receive the final stamp of manhood.
For his hour of indiscretion he had paid to the last ounce of his strength and courage. After that night in the lodging-house, there seemed to him but one right course, and he took it with unflinching promptness. Even when Birdie, secure in the protection of his name and his support, lapsed into her old vain, querulous self, he valiantly bore his burden, taking any menial work that he could find to do, and getting a sort of grim satisfaction out of what he regarded as expiation for his sin.
But when he became aware of Birdie's condition and realized the use she had made of him, the tragedy broke upon him in all of its horror. Then he, too, lost sight of the shore lights, and went plunging desperately into the stream of life with no visible and sustaining ideal to guide his course, but only the fighting necessity to get across as decently as possible.
After a long struggle he secured a place in the Ohio Glass Works, where his abilities soon began to be recognized. Instead of working now with tingling enthusiasm for Nance and the honeysuckle cottage, he worked doggedly and furiously to meet the increasing expense of Birdie's wastefulness and the maintenance of her child.
Year by year he forged ahead, gaining a reputation for sound judgment and fair dealing that made him an invaluable spokesman between the employer and the employed. He set himself seriously to work to get at the real conditions that were causing the ferment of unrest among the working classes. He made himself familiar with socialistic and labor newspapers; he attended mass meetings; he laid awake nights reading and wrestling with the problems of organized industrialism. His honest resentment against the injustice shown the laboring man was always nicely balanced by his intolerance of the haste and ignorance and misrepresentation of the labor agitators. He was one of the few men who could be called upon to arbitrate differences, whom both factions invariably pronounced "square." When pressure was brought to bear upon him to return to Clarke's, he was in a position to dictate his own terms.
It was the second week after his reinstatement that he came up to the office one day and unexpectedly encountered Nance Molloy. At first he did not recognize the tall young lady in the well-cut brown suit with the bit of fur at the neck and wrists and the jaunty brown hat with its dash of gold. Then she looked up, and it was Nance's old smile that flashed out at him, and Nance's old impulsive self that turned to greet him.
For one radiant moment all that had happened since they last stood there was swept out of the memory of each; then it came back; and they shook hands awkwardly and could find little to say to each other in the presence of the strange stenographer who occupied Nance's old place at the desk by the window.
"They told me you weren't working here," said Dan at length.
"I'm not. I've just come on an errand for Mrs. Clarke."
Dan's eyes searched hers in swift inquiry.
"I'm a trained nurse now," she said, determined to take the situation lightly. "You remember how crazy I used to be about doping people?"
He did not answer, and she hurried on as if afraid of any silence that might fall between them.
"It all started with the smallpox in Calvary Alley. Been back there, Dan?"
"Lots of changes since the old days. Mr. Snawdor and Fidy and Mrs. Smelts and Mr. Demry all gone. Have you heard about Mr. Demry?"
Dan shook his head. He was not listening to her, but he was looking at her searchingly, broodingly, with growing insistence.
The hammering of the type-writer was the only sound that broke the ensuing pause.
"Tell me your news, Dan," said Nance in desperation. "Where you living now?"
"At Mrs. Purdy's. She's going to take care of Ted for me."
"Ted? Oh! I forgot. How old is he now?"
For the first time Dan's face lit up with his fine, rare smile.
"He's four, Nance, and the smartest kid that ever lived! You'd be crazy about him, I know. I wonder if you couldn't go out there some day and see him?"
Nance showed no enthusiasm over the suggestion; instead she gathered up her muff and gloves and, leaving a message for Mr. Clarke with the stenographer, prepared to depart.
"I am thinking about going away," she said. "I may go out to California next week."
The brief enthusiasm died out of Dan's face.
"What's taking you to California?" he asked dully, as he followed her into the hall.
"I may go with a patient. Have you heard of the trouble they're in at the Clarkes'?"
"It's Mr. Mac. He's got tuberculosis, and they are taking him out to the coast for a year. They want me to go along."
Dan's face hardened.
"So it's Mac Clarke still?" he asked bitterly.
His tone stung Nance to the quick, and she wheeled on him indignantly.
"See here, Dan! I've got to put you straight on a thing or two. Where can we go to have this business out?"
He led her across the hall to his own small office and closed the door.
"I'm going to tell you something," she said, facing him with blazing eyes, "and I don't care a hang whether you believe it or not. I never was in love with Mac Clarke. From the day you left this factory I never saw or wrote to him until he was brought to the hospital last July, and I was put on the case. I didn't have anything more to do with him than I did with you. I guess you know how much that was!"
"What about now? Are you going west with him?"
Dan confronted her with the same stern inquiry in his eyes that had shone there the day they parted, in this very place, five years ago.
"I don't know whether I am or not!" cried Nance, firing up. "They've done everything for me, the Clarkes have. They think his getting well depends on me. Of course that's rot, but that's what they think. As for Mr. Mac himself--"
"Is he still in love with you?"
At this moment a boy thrust his head in the door to say that Dr. Adair had telephoned for Miss Molloy to come by the hospital before she returned to Hillcrest.
Nance pulled on her gloves and, with chin in the air, was departing without a word, when Dan stopped her.
"I'm sorry I spoke to you like that, Nance," he said, scowling at the floor. "I've got no right to be asking you questions, or criticizing what you do, or where you go. I hope you'll excuse me."
"You have got the right!" declared Nance, with one of her quick changes of mood. "You can ask me anything you like. I guess we can always be friends, can't we?"
"No," said Dan, slowly, "I don't think we can. I didn't count on seeing you like this, just us two together, alone. I thought you'd be married maybe or moved away some place."
It was Nance's time to be silent, and she listened with wide eyes and parted lips.
"I mustn't see you--alone--any more, Nance," Dan went on haltingly. "But while we are here I want to tell you about it. Just this once, Nance, if you don't mind."
He crossed over and stood before her, his hands gripping a chair back.
"When I went away from here," he began, "I thought you had passed me up for Mac Clarke. It just put me out of business, Nance. I didn't care where I went or what I did. Then one night in Cincinnati I met Birdie, and she was up against it, too--and--"
After all he couldn't make a clean breast of it! Whatever he might say would reflect on Birdie, and he gave the explanation up in despair. But Nance came to his rescue.
"I know, Dan," she said. "Mrs. Smelts told me everything. I don't know another fellow in the world that would have stood by a girl like you did Birdie. She oughtn't have let you marry her without telling you."
"I think she meant to give me my freedom when the baby came," said Dan. "At least that was what she promised. I couldn't have lived through those first months of hell if I hadn't thought there was some way out. But when the baby came, it was too late. Her mind was affected, and by the law of the State I'm bound to her for the rest of her life."
"Do you know--who--who the baby's father is, Dan?"
"No. She refused from the first to tell me, and now I'm glad I don't know. She said the baby was like him, and that made her hate it. That was the way her trouble started. She wouldn't wash the little chap, or feed him, or look after him when he was sick. I had to do everything. For a year she kept getting worse and worse, until one night I caught her trying to set fire to his crib. Of course after that she had to be sent to the asylum, and from that time on, Ted and I fought it out together. One of the neighbors took charge of him in the day, and I wrestled with him at night."
"Couldn't you put him in an orphan asylum?"
Dan shook his head.
"No, I couldn't go back on him when he was up against a deal like that. I made up my mind that I'd never let him get lonesome like I used to be, with nobody to care a hang what became of him. He's got my name now, and he'll never know the difference if I can help it."
"And Birdie? Does she know you when you go to see her?"
"Not for two years now. It's easier than when she did."
There was silence between them; then Nance said:
"I'm glad you told me all this, Dan. I--I wish I could help you."
"You can't," said Dan, sharply. "Don't you see I've got no right to be with you? Do you suppose there's been a week, or a day in all these years that I haven't wanted you with every breath I drew? The rest was just a nightmare I was living through in order to wake up and find you. Nance--I love you! With my heart and soul and body! You've been the one beautiful thing in my whole life, and I wasn't worthy of you. I can't let you go! I--Oh, God! what am I saying? What right have I--Don't let me see you again like this, Nance, don't let me talk to you--"
He stumbled to a chair by the desk and buried his head in his arms. His breath came in short, hard gasps, with a long agonizing quiver between, and his broad shoulders heaved. It was the first time he had wept since that night, so long ago, when he had sat in the gutter in front of Slap Jack's saloon and broken his heart over an erring mother.
For one tremulous second Nance hovered over him, her face aflame with sympathy and almost maternal pity; then she pulled herself together and said brusquely:
"It's all right, Danny. I understand. I'm going. Good-by."
And without looking back, she fled into the hall and down the steps to the waiting motor.
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