More than that, Bert was at a sensible age for matrimony, twenty-five, and Nancy, like all southern girls, had ripened early, and at twenty-two had several years of dancing and flirting behind her. There was nothing impulsive about the affair. The two had trotted about their adopted city for perhaps two years before Bert brought Nancy the enormous diamond that his mother had given him years ago for just this wonderful time. Circumstances had helped them to know each other well. Nancy knew the sort of play that made Bert stutter with enthusiasm as they walked home, and Bert knew that Nancy made adorable little faces when she tried on hats, and that her salary was fifteen dollars a week. At this time, and for some years later, Bert was only one of several renting agents employed by the firm of Pearsall and Pearsall, City Real Estate. He moved his office from one new office-building downtown to another, sometimes warmed by clanking new radiators, sometimes carrying a gasoline stove with him into the region of new plaster and paint. His name was not important enough to be included in the list of tenants in the vestibule, he was merely “Renting Office, Tenth Floor.” And Nancy knew that when he had been a few months longer with Pearsall and Pearsall, they would pay him exactly thirteen hundred dollars a year.
That was the objection, money. Mother and Uncle Tom thought that that was not enough; Nancy and Bert worked it all out on paper, and thought it more than sufficient. They always had a splendid balance, on paper. Meanwhile, Mrs. Terhune went on refusing Nancy’s board now and then, and slipping bank-notes into Nancy’s purse now and then, and Bert continued to board with the southern gentlewomen to whom he had paid ten dollars a week for three years. He felt like a son in the Venables’ house, by this time.
It was at the Venables’ boarding-house, indeed, that he first had met the dark-eyed and vivacious Nancy, who was intimate with the faded daughters of the family, Miss Augusta and Miss Sally Anne. When Nancy’s Uncle Thomas came to the city for one of his infrequent visits, she always placed him in Mrs. Venable’s care.
Bert’s first impression of her was of a supernaturally clever person, hopelessly surrounded by “beaux.” She had so many admirers that even Miss Augusta, who had had a disappointment, warmed into half-forgotten coquetries while she amused Bert, for whom Miss Nancy had no time. They seemed to Bert, whose youth had known responsibility and hardship, a marvellously happy and light-hearted crowd. They laughed continuously, and they extracted from the chameleon city pleasures that were wonderfully innocent and fresh. It was as if these young exiles had brought from their southern homes something of leisure, something of spaciousness and pure sweetness that the more sophisticated youth of the city lacked. Their very speech, softly slurred and lazy, held a charm for Bert, used to his mother’s and his aunts’ crisp consonants. He called Nancy “my little southern girl” in his heart, from the hour he met her, and long afterward he told her that he had loved her all that time.