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For two hours Nance was closeted with Dr. Adair in his private office, and when she came out she had the look of one who has been following false trails and suddenly discovers the right one.
"Don't make a hasty decision," warned Dr. Adair in parting. "The trip with the Clarkes will be a wonderful experience; they may be gone a year or more, and they'll do everything and see everything in the approved way. What I am proposing offers no romance. It will be hard work and plenty of it. You'd better think it over and give me your answer to-morrow."
"I'll give it to you now," said Nance. "It's yes."
He scrutinized her quizzically; then he held out his hand with its short, thick, surgeon's fingers.
"It's a wise decision, my dear," he said. "Say nothing about it at present. I will make it all right with the Clarkes."
During the weeks that followed, Nance was too busy to think of herself or her own affairs. She superintended the shopping and packing for Mrs. Clarke; she acted as private secretary for Mr. Clarke; she went on endless errands, and looked after the innumerable details that a family migration entails.
Mac, sulking on the couch, feeling grossly abused and neglected, spent most of his time inveighing against Dr. Adair. "He's got to let you come out by the end of next month." he threatened Nance, "or I'll take the first train home. What's he got up his sleeve anyhow?"
"Ask him," advised Nance, over her shoulder, as she vanished into the hall.
Toward the end of November the Clarkes took their departure; father, mother, and son, two servants, and the despised, but efficient Miss Hanna. Nance went down to see them off, hovering over the unsuspecting Mac with feelings of mingled relief and contrition.
"I wish you'd let me tell him," she implored Mrs. Clarke. "He's bound to know soon. Why not get it over with now?"
Mrs. Clarke was in instant panic.
"Not a word, I implore you! We will break the news to him when he is better. Be good to him now, let him go away happy. Please, dear, for my sake!" With the strength of the weak, she carried her point.
For the quarter of an hour before the train started, Nance resolutely kept the situation in hand, not giving Mac a chance to speak to her alone, and keeping up a running fire of nonsense that provoked even Mr. Clarke to laughter. When the "All Aboard!" sounded from without, there was scant time for good-bys. She hurried out, and when on the platform, turned eagerly to scan the windows above her. A gust of smoke swept between her and the slow-moving train; then as it cleared she caught her last glimpse of a gay irresponsible face propped about with pillows and a thin hand that threw her kisses as far as she could see.
It was with a curious feeling of elation mingled with depression, that she tramped back to the hospital through the gloom of that November day. Until a month ago she had scarcely had a thought beyond Mac and the progress of his case; even now she missed his constant demands upon her, and her heart ached for the disappointment that awaited him. But under these disturbing thoughts something new and strange and beautiful was calling her.
Half mechanically she spent the rest of the afternoon reestablishing herself in the nurses' quarters at the hospital which she had left nearly four months before. At six o'clock she put on the gray cape and small gray bonnet that constituted her uniform, and leaving word that she would report for duty at nine o'clock, went to the corner and boarded a street car. It was a warm evening for November, and the car with its throng of home-going workers was close and uncomfortable. But Nance, clinging to a strap, and jostled on every side, was superbly indifferent to her surroundings. With lifted chin and preoccupied eyes, she held counsel with herself, sometimes moving her lips slightly as if rehearsing a part. At Butternut Lane she got out and made her way to the old white house midway of the square.
A little boy was perched on the gate post, swinging a pair of fat legs and trying to whistle. There was no lack of effort on his part, but the whistle for some reason refused to come. He tried hooking a small finger inside the corners of his mouth; he tried it with teeth together and teeth apart.
Nance, sympathizing with his thwarted ambition, smiled as she approached; then she caught her breath. The large brown eyes that the child turned upon her were disconcertingly familiar.
"Is this Ted?" she asked.
He nodded mistrustfully; then after surveying her gravely, evidently thought better of her and volunteered the information that he was waiting for his daddy.
"Where is Mrs. Purdy?" Nance asked.
"Her's making me a gingerbread man."
"I know a story about a gingerbread man; want to hear it?"
"Is it scareful?" asked Ted.
"No, just funny," Nance assured. Then while he sat very still on the gate post, with round eyes full of wonder, Nance stood in front of him with his chubby fists in her hands and told him one of Mr. Demry's old fairy tales. So absorbed were they both that neither of them heard an approaching step until it was quite near.
"Daddy!" cried Ted, in sudden rapture, scrambling down from the post and hurling himself against the new-comer.
But for once his daddy's first greeting was not for him. Dan seized Nance's outstretched hand and studied her face with hungry, inquiring eyes.
"I've come to say good-by, Dan," she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
His face hardened.
"Then you are going with the Clarkes? You've decided?"
"I've decided. Can't we go over to the summer-house for a few minutes. I want to talk to you."
They crossed the yard to the sheltered bower in its cluster of bare trees, while Ted trudged behind them kicking up clouds of dead leaves with his small square-toed boots.
"You run in to Mother Purdy, Teddykins," said Dan, but Nance caught the child's hand.
"Better keep him here," she said with an unsteady laugh. "I got to get something off my chest once and for all; then I'll skidoo."
But Ted had already spied a squirrel and gone in pursuit, and Nance's eyes followed him absently.
"When I met you in the office the other day," she said, "I thought I could bluff it through. But when I saw you all knocked up like that; and knew that you cared--" Her eyes came back to his. "Dan we might as well face the truth."
"I mean I'm going to wait for you if I have to wait forever. You're not free now, but when you are, I'll come to you."
He made one stride toward her and swept her into his arms.
"Do you mean it, girl?" he asked, his voice breaking with the unexpected joy. "You are going to stand by me? You are going to wait?"
"Let me go, Dan!" she implored. "Where's Ted? I mustn't stay--I--"
But Dan held her as if he never meant to let her go, and suddenly she ceased to struggle or to consider right or wrong or consequences. She lifted her head and her lips met his in complete surrender. For the first time in her short and stormy career she had found exactly what she wanted.
For a long time they stood thus; then Dan recovered himself with a start.
He pushed her away from him almost roughly. "Nance, I didn't mean to! I won't again! Only I've wanted you so long, I've been so unhappy. I can't let you leave me now! I can't let you go with the Clarkes!"
"You don't have to. They've gone without me."
"But you said you'd come to say good-by. I thought you were starting to California."
"Well, I'm not. I am going to stay right here. Dr. Adair has asked me to take charge of the clinic--the new one they are going to open in Calvary Alley."
"And we're going to be near each other, able to see each other every day--"
But she stopped him resolutely.
"No, Dan, no. I knew we couldn't do that before I came to-night. Now I know it more than ever. Don't you see we got to cut it all out? Got to keep away from each other just the same as if I was in California and you were here?"
Dan's big strong hands again seized hers.
"It won't be wrong for us just to see each other," he urged hotly. "I promise never to say a word of love or to touch you, Nance. What's happened to-night need never happen again. We can hold on to ourselves; we can be just good friends until--"
But Nance pulled her hands away impatiently.
"You might. I couldn't. I tell you I got to keep away from you, Dan. Can't you see? Can't you understand? I counted on you to see the right of it. I thought you was going to help me!" And with an almost angry sob, she sat down suddenly on the leaf-strewn bench and, locking her arms across the railing, dropped her flaming face upon them.
For a long time he stood watching her, while, his face reflected the conflicting emotions that were fighting within him for mastery. Then into his eyes crept a look of dumb compassion, the same look he had once bent on a passion-tossed little girl lying on the seat of a patrol-wagon in the chill dusk of a Christmas night.
He straightened his shoulders and laid a firm hand on her bowed head.
"You must stop crying, Nance," he commanded with the stern tenderness he would have used toward Ted. "Perhaps you are right; God knows. At any rate we are going to do whatever you say in this matter. I promise to keep out of your way until you say I can come."
Nance drew a quivering breath, and smiled up at him through her tears.
"That's not enough, Dan; you got to keep away whether I say to come or not. You're stronger and better than what I am. You got to promise that whatever happens you'll make me be good."
And Dan with trembling lips and steady eyes made her the solemn promise.
Then, sitting there in the twilight, with only the dropping of a leaf to break the silence, they poured out their confidences, eager to reach a complete understanding in the brief time they had allotted themselves. In minute detail they pieced together the tangled pattern of the past; they poured out their present aims and ambitions, coming back again and again to the miracle of their new-found love. Of their personal future, they dared not speak. It was locked to them, and death alone held the key.
Darkness had closed in when the side door of the house across the yard was flung open, and a small figure came plunging toward them through the crackling leaves.
"It's done, Daddy!" cried an excited voice. "It's the cutest little gingerbread man. And supper's ready, and he's standing up by my plate."
"All right!" said Dan, holding out one hand to him and one to Nance. "We'll all go in together to see the gingerbread man."
"Just this once; it's our good-by night, you know."
Nance hesitated, then straightening the prim little gray bonnet that would assume a jaunty tilt, she followed the tall figure and the short one into the halo of light that circled the open door.
The evening that followed was one of those rare times, insignificant in itself, every detail of which was to stand out in after life, charged with significance. For Nance, the warmth and glow of the homely little house, with its flowered carpets and gay curtains, the beaming face of old Mrs. Purdy in its frame of silver curls, the laughter of the happy child, and above all the strong, tender presence of Dan, were things never to be forgotten.
At eight o'clock she rose reluctantly, saying that she had to go by the Snawdors' before she reported at the hospital at nine o'clock.
"Do you mind if I go that far with you?" asked Dan, wistfully.
On their long walk across the city they said little. Their way led them past many familiar places, the school house, the old armory, Cemetery Street, Post-Office Square, where they used to sit and watch the electric signs. Of the objects they passed, Dan was superbly unaware. He saw only Nance. But she was keenly aware of every old association that bound them together. Everything seemed strangely beautiful to her, the glamorous shop-lights cutting through the violet gloom, the subtle messages of lighted windows, the passing faces of her fellow-men. In that gray world her soul burned like a brilliant flame lighting up everything around her.
As they turned into Calvary Alley the windows of the cathedral glowed softly above them.
"I never thought how pretty it was before!" said Nance, rapturously. "Say, Dan, do you know what 'Evol si dog' means?"
"No; is it Latin?"
She squeezed his arm between her two hands and laughed gleefully.
"You're as bad as me," she said, "I'm not going to tell you; you got to go inside and find out for yourself."
On the threshold of Number One they paused again. Even the almost deserted old tenement, blushing under a fresh coat of red paint, took on a hue of romance.
"You wait 'til we get it fixed up," said Nance. "They're taking out all the partitions in the Smelts' flat, and making a big consulting room of it. And over here in Mr. Demry's room I'm going to have the baby clinic. I'm going to have boxes of growing flowers in every window; and storybooks and--"
"Yes," cried Dan, fiercely, "you are going to be so taken up with all this that you won't need me; you'll forget about to-night!"
But her look silenced him.
"Dan," she said very earnestly, "I always have needed you, and I always will. I love you better than anything in the world, and I'm trying to prove it."
A wavering light on the upper landing warned them that they might be overheard. A moment later some one demanded to know who was there.
"Come down and see!" called Nance.
Mrs. Snawdor, lamp in hand, cautiously descended.
"Is that you, Nance?" she cried. "It's about time you was comin' to see to the movin' an' help tend to things. Who's that there with you?"
"Don't you know?"
"Well, if it ain't Dan Lewis!" And to Dan's great embarrassment the effusive lady enveloped him in a warm and unexpected embrace. She even held him at arm's length and commented upon his appearance with frank admiration. "I never seen any one improve so much an' yet go on favorin' theirselves."
Nance declined to go up-stairs on the score of time, promising to come on the following Sunday and take entire charge of the moving.
"Ain't it like her to go git mixed up in this here fool clinic business?" Mrs. Snawdor asked of Dan. "Just when she'd got a job with rich swells that would 'a' took her anywhere? Here she was for about ten years stewin' an' fumin' to git outen the alley, an' here she is comin' back again! She's tried about ever'thin' now, but gittin' married."
Dan scenting danger, changed the direction of the conversation by asking her where they were moving to.
"That's some more of her doin's," said Mrs. Snawdor. "She's gittin' her way at las' 'bout movin' us to the country. Lobelia an' Rosy V. is goin' to keep house, an' me an' William Jennings is going to board with 'em. You'd orter see that boy of mine, Dan. Nance got him into the 'lectric business an' he's doin' somethin' wonderful. He's got my brains an' his pa's manners. You can say what you please, Mr. Snawdor was a perfect gentleman!"
It was evident from the pride in her voice that since Mr. Snawdor's demise he had been canonized, becoming the third member of the ghostly firm of Molloy, Yager, and Snawdor.
"What about Uncle Jed?" asked Nance. "Where's he going?"
Mrs. Snawdor laughed consciously and, in doing so, exhibited to full advantage the dazzling new teeth that were the pride of her life.
"Oh, Mr. Burks is goin' with us," she said. "It's too soon to talk about it yet,--but--er--Oh, you know me, Nance!" And with blushing confusion the thrice-bereaved widow hid her face in her apron.
The clock in the cathedral tower was nearing nine when Nance and Dan emerged from Number One. They did not speak as they walked up to the corner and stood waiting for the car. Their hands were clasped hard, and she could feel his heart thumping under her wrist as he pressed it to his side.
Passers-by jostled them on every side, and an importunate newsboy implored patronage, but they seemed oblivious to their surroundings. The car turned a far corner and came toward them relentlessly.
"God bless you, Dan," whispered Nance as he helped her on the platform; then turning, she called back to him with one of her old flashing smiles. "And me too, a little bit!"
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