His rising impatience may account for his response to the sight of a man and woman stepping through the door. FitzRobert, the works’ head clerk, shows a young woman the presses, declaiming what she herself can see with his usual whiny bluster. She clings to his arm in the wilt of a climbing vine that has just had the trellis cut from under it and is about to fall. Salton wonders if she’d rather be elsewhere; if she’s pretending to be polite and interested because she’s an employee and is expected to act with enthusiasm. He’s seen her on a more natural, humiliating occasion: at the office in the city, when her husband tried to buy a copy of the paper only to find he had nothing but LeFoss’s company scrip in his wallet. She’s Mrs. Silas Clarke, and she writes the women’s column.
FitzRobert escorts her as if he’s showing off a marvelous prize and she, not the press building, is the prize. That’s tasteless but not incorrect. She is a prize, when you stop to think of it. As a writer, she’s the sigil of excellence risen above the iron works’ other chattel. Still, FitzRobert’s airs are indigestible. A man of his stature ought to act with dignity, not like a schoolboy crowing for having bested his peers in a race for the girl.
She’s a Christian, else she wouldn’t be working here, and Salton has no regard for the sect, but he cannot resist giving FitzRobert a metaphorical slap in the face. He accosts the pair with the insouciance of a wasp blown into a parlor. “Mrs. Clarke! Delighted to meet you again. I still owe you a tour of the newspaper. If I may—” He shakes her hand but nimbly pulls her away from FitzRobert and ushers her from press to press and worker to worker, with snippets of introduction like “Bayley here selects and sets the type. And Howarth, over there with the hammer, usually applies the ink with those fat leather things that look like an inflated cow’s udder.” On and on he goes, ignoring FitzRobert, who follows with his hands clasped behind his back, a broad smile fixed on his face. Since the head clerk is not taking part in the conversation, it’s impossible to tell what he’s smiling at. He looks silly. Salton is satisfied.
The girl, meanwhile, smiles or nods or says “Pleased to meet you,” depending on the speed of Salton’s soliloquy. He can’t tell if she’s glad to be relieved of FitzRobert, but he’s certain FitzRobert would like to have her back. He will. Soon. The tour is about to end; Salton has work to do. “Please give my regards to Mr. Clarke,” he says as he hands the girl back to FitzRobert, gracefully, as if dancing a reel. “I’m glad you both had the opportunity to visit The Herald that day. It’s good for contributors to experience a newsroom while the paper is in production.”
What he really wants is to remind FitzRobert that Mrs. Clarke may be a Christian, but she’s still another man’s wife, and he had better mind how he behaves with her. That stiff, silly smile is still on the face of the dandified ass, but his eyes betray vocabulary that no gentleman would say to another, especially in public.
“Thank you so much,” says Mrs. Clarke as her original escort turns her toward the door.
Salton is surprised. He never expected the girl to thank him. There is no need for thanks. He didn’t show her around because it was the sociable thing to do. She was the means by which he could embarrass a fool. But he can’t dismiss her gratitude as a customary mark of a female raised to know her place among the lower reaches of society. She has carried herself amid the noise and roughness of the worksite with a peace and purity that no amount of discipline can instill in a girl. With those four words and the soft, utterly innocent expression of her face, her presence has become as cool water spilling over a burn, carrying away the sting. The desire to harass FitzRobert is gone.
“You’re welcome,” Salton says.
But she is out the door, beyond the reach of his voice.