Nancy was working as a shop girl in an elegant store. She earned only eight dollars per week. In contrast, her friend Lou earned considerably more by ironing clothes at a laundry. Her wages were $18.50 per week.
Lou and Nancy often argued about the advantages of their respective jobs. In the early years of the nineteenth century, $18.50 a week was good pay, and Lou was always bragging about it when she conversed with her friend. In reply, Nancy pointed out that she was surrounded by nice things and swell people at her job. Moreover, many elegant men shopped at her store, so she had a better opportunity to meet and marry a good man. She believed that it did not really matter how much her salary was, since she would not be working after she married.
Lou disagreed with Nancy. She claimed that marriage prospects also visited her laundry. In fact, she had met Dan, her boy friend, while working at the laundry. Dan had proved to be a good boy friend. He was faithful and trustworthy.
Their argument extended to clothes. Lou’s clothes were a little more expensive than Nancy’s, but Nancy thought that the clothes of her friend were not in good taste. Nancy’s clothes were tidy and tasteful, but Lou considered them cheap.
One day, as the two friends were expressing their divergent points of view, Dan joined them. Since Dan had never seen her friend before, Lou introduced them to one another. Nancy shook hands with Dan in an elegant fashion.
The handshake became a subject of further altercation between the two friends. Nancy was imitating an elegant lady, and she suggested that Lou should practice it. Lou replied that she could not use such a handshake at present. That kind of handshake was designed to set off diamond rings, so she would wait till she had such adornments before she started using it.
Dan interrupted the argument by offering to take the two girls to vaudeville.
The elegant handshake was only the tip of the iceberg. At work, Nancy was surrounded by sophisticated people, and she consciously patterned herself after them. She not only imitated their gestures, but also the way they walked and the way they talked. Her shop proved to an excellent school for good manners, and she learned her lessons well.
Nancy also profited by listening to the talk of her fellow shop girls who had more experience with men. In particular, she learned how to defend herself against the impudence of insincere suitors who wanted to take advantage of her.
Since the music room was near the place where she worked, she had the opportunity of becoming somewhat acquainted with the best composers. She also absorbed the educating influence of art wares, dainty fabrics, and elegant adornments.
Men began to notice her elegant style and often came to chat with her. Eventually Nancy learned to distinguish between real millionaires and false imitations.
Her fellow workers knew what Nancy wanted. Sometimes when a well-to-do man approached, they would say to her: “Here comes your millionaire.”
Nancy had high standards. Two workers in the store occasionally dined with rich gentlemen friends, and one day Nancy was invited to join them. One of the gentlemen was so impressed with her manners that he came to the store the next day and proposed to her. She did not accept. When her fellow workers called her foolish, she pointed out that his family allowed him only $20,000 per year.
This drew a strong rebuke from her friends. The rebuke prompted Nancy to explain her real reason for rejecting the proposal. While they were dining the previous night, her suitor was caught telling a lie. Nancy could not stand liars.
Nancy hunted men just as a hunter would hunt deer. She frequently aimed her rifle at a promising prospect, but some unerring instinct always kept her from firing the shot.
She was always prepared to meet the man of her dreams. She kept her lamp trimmed and burning to receive the bridegroom when he should come.
In the meantime, Lou’s higher salary enabled her to buy more expensive clothes, but her tastes did not improve.
Unlike Nancy, Lou was not mentally prepared for marriage. More and more, she became addicted to money. She liked the independence she enjoyed as a result of her salary. Although Dan wanted to marry her soon, she dragged her feet because she knew that she would have to give up her job after she married.
In spite of their different attitudes, Lou and Nancy remained close friends. Lou even invited Nancy to go along whenever Dan took her on a date.
As time went on, Nancy’s focus began to change. Instead of focusing on millionaires, she looked for a truthful and honorable man.
The folly of her friend provided her with the very type of man that she wanted. Lou disappeared without giving Dan or Nancy any word of explanation. Lou had gone to Europe with a millionaire. The honest and dependable Dan had been deserted.
Three months later, Lou and Nancy happened to meet on the street. Lou was wearing costly furs and flashing gems. In contrast, Nancy’s apparel had not changed, but she seemed to be transfigured by happiness.
When Lou criticized Nancy for continuing to work at her low-paying job, Nancy told her that she would be leaving her job the following week. Then she said: “I’ve made my catch – the biggest catch in the world. You won’t mind now, Lou, will you? I’m going to be married to Dan. He’s my Dan now.”
A little later, a policeman noticed a richly clad woman crouching down against an iron park fence and sobbing disconsolately. He wisely passed by without comment, for he knew that he could not help her.
Archive: Selected Stories from O. Henry