ONE HUNDRED PER CENT
They had always had two morning papers—he his, she hers. The Times. Both. Nothing could illustrate more clearly the plan on which Mr. and Mrs. T.A. Buck conducted their married life. Theirs was the morning calm and harmony which comes to two people who are free to digest breakfast and the First Page simultaneously with no—"Just let me see the inside sheet, will you, dear?" to mar the day's beginning.
In the days when she had been Mrs. Emma McChesney, travelling saleswoman for the T.A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, New York, her perusal of the morning's news had been, perforce, a hasty process, accomplished between trains, or in a small-town hotel 'bus, jolting its way to the depot for the 7.52; or over an American-plan breakfast throughout which seven eighths of her mind was intent on the purchasing possibilities of a prospective nine o'clock skirt buyer. There was no need now of haste, but the habit of years still clung. From eight-thirty to eight thirty-five A.M. Emma McChesney Buck was always in partial eclipse behind the billowing pages of her newspaper. Only the tip of her topmost coil of bright hair was visible. She read swiftly, darting from war news to health hints, from stock market to sport page, and finding something of interest in each. For her there was nothing cryptic in a headline such as "Rudie Slams One Home"; and Do pfd followed by dotted lines and vulgar fractions were to her as easily translated as the Daily Hint From Paris. Hers was the photographic eye and the alert brain that can film a column or a page at a glance.
Across the table her husband sat turned slightly sidewise in his chair, his paper folded in a tidy oblong. He read down one column, top of the next and down that, seriously and methodically; giving to toast or coffee-cup the single-handed and groping attention of one whose interest is elsewhere. The light from the big bay window fell on the printed page and cameoed his profile. After three years of daily contact with it, Emma still caught herself occasionally gazing with appreciation at that clear-cut profile and the clean, shining line of his hair as it grew away from the temple.
"T.A.," she had announced one morning, to his mystification, "you're the Francis X. Bushman of the breakfast table. I believe you sit that way purposely."
"Francis X—?" He was not a follower of the films.
Emma elucidated. "Discoverer and world's champion exponent of the side face."
"I might punish you, Emma, by making a pun about its all being Greek to me, but I shan't." He returned to Page Two, Column Four.
Usually their conversation was comfortably monosyllabic and disjointed, as is the breakfast talk of two people who understand each other. Amicable silence was the rule, broken only by the rustle of paper, the clink of china, an occasional, "Toast, dear?" And when Buck, in a low, vibrating tone (slightly muffled by buttered corn muffin) said, "Dogs!" Emma knew he was pursuing the daily schrecklichkeit.
Upon this cozy scene Conservation cast his gaunt shadow. It was in June, the year of America's Great Step, that Emma, examining her household, pronounced it fattily degenerate, with complications, and performed upon it a severe and skilful surgical operation. Among the rest:
"One morning paper ought to be enough for any husband and wife who aren't living on a Boffin basis. There'll be one copy of the Times delivered at this house in the future, Mr. Buck. We might match pennies for it, mornings."
It lay there on the hall table that first morning, an innocent oblong, its headlines staring up at them with inky eyes.
"Paper, T.A.," she said, and handed it to him.
"You take it, dear."
"Oh, no! No."
She poured the coffee, trying to keep her gaze away from the tantalizing tail-end of the headline at whose first half she could only guess.
"By Jove, Emma! Listen to this! Pershing says if we have one m—"
"Stop right there! We've become pretty well acquainted in the last three years, T.A. But if you haven't learned that if there's one thing I can't endure, it's being fed across the table with scraps of the day's news, I shall have to consider our marriage a failure."
"Oh, very well. I merely thought you'd be—"
"I am. But there's something about having it read to you—"
On the second morning Emma, hurriedly fastening the middle button of her blouse on her way downstairs, collided with her husband, who was shrugging himself into his coat. They continued their way downstairs with considerable dignity and pronounced leisure. The paper lay on the hall table. They reached for it. There was a moment—just the fraction of a minute—when each clutched a corner of it, eying the other grimly. Then both let go suddenly, as though the paper had burned their fingers. They stared at each other, surprise and horror in their gaze. The paper fell to the floor with a little slap. Both stooped for it, apologetically. Their heads bumped. They staggered back, semi-stunned.
Emma found herself laughing, rather wildly. Buck joined in after a moment—a rueful laugh. She was the first to recover.
"That settles it. I'm willing to eat trick bread and whale meat and drink sugarless coffee, but I draw the line at hating my husband for the price of a newspaper subscription. White paper may be scarce but so are husbands. It's cheaper to get two newspapers than to set up two establishments."
They were only two among many millions who, at that time, were playing an amusing and fashionable game called Win the War. They did not realize that the game was to develop into a grim and magnificently functioning business to whose demands they would cheerfully sacrifice all that they most treasured.
Of late, Emma had spent less and less time in the offices of the Featherloom Company. For more than ten years that flourishing business, and the career of her son, Jock McChesney, had been the twin orbits about which her existence had revolved. But Jock McChesney was a man of family now, with a wife, two babies, and an uncanny advertising sense that threatened to put his name on the letterhead of the Raynor Advertising Company of Chicago. As for the Featherloom factory—it seemed to go of its own momentum. After her marriage to the firm's head, Emma's interest in the business was unflagging.
"Now look here, Emma," Buck would say. "You've given enough to this firm. Play a while. Cut up. Forget you're the 'And Company' in T.A. Buck & Co."
"But I'm so used to it. I'd miss it so. You know what happened that first year of our marriage when I tried to do the duchess. I don't know how to loll. If you take Featherlooms away from me I'll degenerate into a Madam Chairman. You'll see."
She might have, too, if the War had not come along and saved her.
By midsummer the workrooms were turning out strange garments, such as gray and khaki flannel shirts, flannelette one-piece pajamas, and woollen bloomers, all intended for the needs of women war workers going abroad.
Emma had dropped into the workroom one day and had picked up a half-finished gray flannel garment. She eyed it critically, her deft fingers manipulating the neckband. A little frown gathered between her eyes.
"Somehow a woman in a flannel shirt always looks as if she had quinsy. It's the collar. They cut them like a man's small-size. But a woman's neck is as different from a man's as her collarbone is."
She picked up a piece of flannel and smoothed it on the cutting-table. The head designer had looked on in disapproval while her employer's wife had experimented with scraps of cloth, and pins, and chalk, and scissors. But Emma had gone on serenely cutting and snipping and pinning. They made up samples of service shirts with the new neck-hugging collar and submitted them to Miss Nevins, the head of the woman's uniform department at Fyfe & Gordon's. That astute lady had been obliged to listen to scores of canteeners, nurses, secretaries, and motor leaguers who, standing before a long mirror in one of the many fitting-rooms, had gazed, frowned, fumbled at collar and topmost button, and said, "But it looks so—so lumpy around the neck."
Miss Kate Nevins's reply to this plaint was: "Oh, when you get your tie on—"
"Perhaps they'll let me wear a turn-down collar."
"Absolutely against regulations. The rules strictly forbid anything but the high, close-fitting collar."
The fair war worker would sigh, mutter something about supposing they'd shoot you at sunrise for wearing a becoming shirt, and order six, grumbling.
Kate Nevins had known Mrs. T.A. Buck in that lady's Emma McChesney days. At the end of the first day's trial of the new Featherloom shirt she had telephoned the Featherloom factory and had asked for Emma McChesney. People who had known her by that name never seemed able to get the trick of calling her by any other.
With every fitting-room in the Fyfe & Gordon establishment demanding her attention, Miss Nevins's conversation was necessarily brief. "Emma McChesney?... Kate Nevins.... Who's responsible for the collar on those Featherloom shirts?... I was sure of it.... No regular designer could cut a collar like that. Takes a genius.... H'm?... Well, I mean it. I'm going to write to Washington and have 'em vote you a distinguished service medal. This is the first day since last I-don't-know-when that hasn't found me in the last stages of nervous exhaustion at six o'clock.... All these women warriors are willing to bleed and die for their country, but they want to do it in a collar that fits, and I don't blame 'em. After I saw the pictures of that Russian Battalion of Death, I understood why.... Yes, I know I oughtn't to say that, but...."
By autumn Emma was wearing one of those Featherloom service shirts herself. It was inevitable that a woman of her executive ability, initiative, and detail sense should be pressed into active service. November saw Fifth Avenue a-glitter with uniforms, and one third of them seemed to be petticoated. The Featherloom factory saw little of Emma now. She bore the title of Commandant with feminine captains, lieutenants, and girl workers under her; and her blue uniform, as she herself put it, was so a-jingle with straps, buckles, belts, bars, and bolts that when she first put it on she felt like a jail.
She left the house at eight in the morning now. Dinner time rarely found her back in Sixty-third Street. Buck was devoting four evenings a week to the draft board. At the time of the second Liberty Loan drive in the autumn he had deserted Featherlooms for bonds. His success was due to the commodity he had for sale, the type of person to whom he sold it, and his own selling methods and personality. There was something about this slim, leisurely man, with the handsome eyes and the quiet voice, that convinced and impressed you.
"It's your complete lack of eagerness in the transaction, too," Emma remarked after watching him land a twenty-five-thousand-dollar bond pledge, the buyer a business rival of the Featherloom Petticoat Company. "You make it seem a privilege, not a favour. A man with your method could sell sandbags in the Sahara."
Sometimes the two dined downtown together. Sometimes they scarcely saw each other for days on end. One afternoon at 5.30, Emma, on duty bound, espied him walking home up Fifth Avenue, on the opposite side of the street. She felt a little pang as she watched the easy, graceful figure swinging its way up the brilliant, flag-decked avenue. She had given him so little time and thought; she had bestowed upon the house such scant attention in the last few weeks. She turned abruptly and crossed the street, dodging the late afternoon traffic with a sort of expert recklessness. She almost ran after the tall figure that was now a block ahead of her, and walking fast. She caught up with him, matched his stride, and touched his arm lightly.
"I beg your pardon, but aren't you Mr. T.A. Buck?"
"How do you do! I'm Mrs. Buck."
Then they had giggled together, deliciously, and he had put a firm hand on the smartly tailored blue serge sleeve.
"I thought so. That being the case, you're coming home along o' me, young 'ooman."
"Can't do it. I'm on my way to the Ritz to meet a dashing delegation from Serbia. You never saw such gorgeous creatures. All gold and green and red, with swords, and snake-work, and glittering boots. They'd make a musical-comedy soldier look like an undertaker."
There came a queer little look into his eyes. "But this isn't a musical comedy, dear. These men are—Look here, Emma. I want to talk to you. Let's walk home together and have dinner decently in our own dining room. There are things at the office—"
"S'impossible, Mr. Buck. I'm late now. And you know perfectly well there are two vice-commandants ready to snatch my shoulder-straps."
At his tone the smiling animation of her face was dimmed. "What's gone wrong?"
"Nothing. Everything. At least, nothing that I can discuss with you at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-fifth Street. When does this Serbian thing end? I'll call for you."
"There's no telling. Anyway, the Fannings will drive me home, thanks, dear."
He looked down at her. She was unbelievably girlish and distingué in the blue uniform; a straight, slim figure, topped by an impudent cocked hat. The flannel shirt of workaday service was replaced to-day by a severely smart affair of white silk, high-collared, stitched, expensively simple. And yet he frowned as he looked.
"Fisk got his exemption papers to-day." With apparent irrelevance.
"Yes?" She was glancing sharply up and down the thronged street. "Better call me a cab, dear. I'm awfully late. Oh, well, with his wife practically an invalid, and all the expense of the baby's illness, and the funeral—The Ritz, dear. And tell him to hurry." She stepped into the cab, a little nervous frown between her eyes.
But Buck, standing at the curb, seemed bent on delaying her. "Fisk told me the doctor said all she needs is a couple of months at a sanitarium, where she can be bathed and massaged and fed with milk. And if Fisk could go to a camp now he'd have a commission in no time. He's had training, you know. He spent his vacation last summer at Plattsburg."
"But he's due on his advance spring trip in two or three weeks, isn't he?... I really must hurry, T.A."
"Ritz," said Buck, shortly, to the chauffeur. "And hurry." He turned away abruptly, without a backward glance. Emma's head jerked over her shoulder in surprise. But he did not turn. The tall figure disappeared. Emma's taxi crept into the stream. But uppermost in her mind was not the thought of Serbians, uniforms, Fisk, or Ritz, but of her husband's right hand, which, as he turned away from the cab, had been folded tight into a fist.
She meant to ask an explanation of the clenched fingers; but the Serbians, despite their four tragic years, turned out to be as sprightly as their uniforms, and it was past midnight when the Fannings dropped her at her door. Her husband was rather ostentatiously asleep. As she doffed her warlike garments, her feminine canniness warned her that this was no time for explanations. Tomorrow morning would be better.
But next morning's breakfast turned out to be all Jock.
A letter from Grace, his wife. Grace McChesney had been Grace Gait, one of the youngest and cleverest women advertising writers in the profession. When Jock was a cub in the Raynor office she had been turning out compelling copy. They had been married four years. Now Jock ruled a mahogany domain of his own in the Raynor suite overlooking the lake in the great Michigan Avenue building. And Grace was saying, "Eat the crust, girlie. It's the crust that makes your hair grow curly."
Emma, uniformed for work, read hasty extracts from Grace's letter. Buck listened in silence.
"You wouldn't know Jock. He's restless, irritable, moody. And the queer part of it is he doesn't know it. He tries to be cheerful, and I could weep to see him. He has tried to cover it up with every kind of war work from Red Crossing to Liberty Loaning, and from writing free full-page national advertising copy to giving up his tobacco money to the smoke fund. And he's miserable. He wants to get into it. And he ought. But you know I haven't been really husky since Buddy came. Not ill, but the doctor says it will be another six months before I'm myself, really. If I had only myself to think of—how simple! But two kiddies need such a lot of things. I could get a job at Raynor's. They need writers. Jock says, bitterly, that all the worth-while men have left. Don't think I'm complaining. I'm just trying to see my way clear, and talking to someone who understands often clears the way."
"Well!" said Emma.
And, "Well?" said T.A.
She sat fingering the letter, her breakfast cooling before her. "Of course, Jock wants to get into it. I wish he could. I'd be so proud of him. He'd be beautiful in khaki. But there's work to do right here. And he ought to be willing to wait six months."
"They can't wait six months over there, Emma. They need him now."
"Oh, come, T.A.! One man—"
"Multiplied by a million. Look at Fisk. Just such another case. Look at—"
The shrill summons of the telephone cut him short. Emma's head came up alertly. She glanced at her wrist-watch and gave a little exclamation of horror.
"That's for me! I'm half an hour late! The first time, too." She was at the telephone a second later, explanatory, apologetic. Then back in the dining-room doorway, her cheeks flushed, tugging at her gloves, poised for flight. "Sorry, dear. But this morning was so important, and that letter about Jock upset me. I'm afraid I'm a rotten soldier."
"I'm afraid you are, Emma."
She stared at that. "Why—! Oh, you're still angry at something. Listen, dear—I'll call for you at the office to-night at five, and we'll walk home together. Wait for me. I may be a few minutes late—"
She was off. The front door slammed sharply. Buck sat very still for a long minute, staring down at the coffee cup whose contents he did not mean to drink. The light from the window cameoed his fine profile. And you saw that his jaw was set. His mind was a thousand miles away, in Chicago, Illinois, with the boy who wanted to fight and couldn't.
Emma, flashing down Fifth Avenue as fast as wheels and traffic rules would permit, saw nothing of the splendid street. Her mind was a thousand miles away, in Chicago, Illinois.
And a thousand miles away, in Chicago, Illinois, Jock McChesney, three hours later, was slamming down the two big windows of his office. From up the street came the sound of a bugle and of a band playing a brisk march. And his office windows looked out upon Michigan Avenue. If you know Chicago, you know the building that housed the Raynor offices—a great gray shaft, towering even above its giant neighbours, its head in the clouds, its face set toward the blue beauty of Lake Michigan. Until very recently those windows of his office had been a source of joy and inspiration to Jock McChesney. The green of Grant Park just below. The tangle of I.C. tracks beyond that, and the great, gracious lake beyond that, as far as the eye could see. He had seen the changes the year had brought. The lake dotted with sinister gray craft. Dog tents in Grant Park, sprung up overnight like brown mushrooms. Men—mere boys, most of them—awkward in their workaday clothes of office and shop, drilling, wheeling, marching at the noon hour. And parades, and parades, and parades. At first Jock, and, in fact, the entire office staff—heads of departments, writers, secretaries, stenographers, office boys—would suspend business and crowd to the windows to see the pageant pass in the street below. Stirring music, khaki columns, flags, pennants, horses, bugles. And always the Jackie band from the Great Lakes Station, its white leggings twinkling down the street in the lead of its six-foot-six contortionistic drum-major.
By October the window-gazers, watching the parades from the Raynor windows, were mostly petticoated and exclamatory. Jock stayed away from the window now. It seemed to his tortured mind that there was a fresh parade hourly, and that bugles and bands sounded a taunting note.
"Where are you! (sounded the bugle)
Where are you?
Where are YOU?!!!
He slammed down the windows, summoned a stenographer, and gave out dictation in a loud, rasping voice.
"Yours of the tenth at hand, and contents noted. In reply I wish to say—"
(Boom! Boom! And a boom-boom-boom!)
"—all copy for the Sans Scent Soap is now ready for your approval and will be mailed to you to-day under separate cover. We in the office think that this copy marks a new record in soap advertising—"
(Over there! Over there! Send the word, send the word over there!)
"Just read that last line will you, Miss Dugan?"
"Over th—I mean, 'We in the office think that this copy marks a new record in soap advertising—'"
"H'm. Yes." A moment's pause. A dreamy look on the face of the girl stenographer. Jock interpreted it. He knew that the stenographer was in the chair at the side of his desk, taking his dictation accurately and swiftly, while the spirit of the girl herself was far and away at Camp Grant at Rockford, Illinois, with an olive-drab unit in an olive-drab world.
"—and, in fact, in advertising copy of any description that has been sent out from the Raynor offices."
The girl's pencil flew over the pad. But when Jock paused for thought or breath she lifted her head and her eyes grew soft and bright, and her foot, in its absurd high-heeled gray boot, beat a smart left! Left! Left-right-left!
Something of this picture T.A. Buck saw in his untasted coffee cup. Much of it Emma visualized in her speeding motor car. All of it Grace knew by heart as she moved about the new, shining house in the Chicago suburb, thinking, planning; feeling his agony, and trying not to admit the transparency of the look about her hands and her temples. So much for Chicago.
At five o'clock Emma left the war to its own devices and dropped in at the loft building in which Featherlooms were born and grew up. Mike, the elevator man, twisted his gray head about at an unbelievable length to gaze appreciatively at the trim, uniformed figure.
"Haven't seen you around fur many the day, Mis' Buck."
"Been too busy, Mike."
Mike turned back to face the door. "Well, 'tis a great responsibility, runnin' this war, an' all." He stopped at the Featherloom floor and opened the door with his grandest flourish. Emma glanced at him quickly. His face was impassive. She passed into the reception room with a little jingling of buckles and strap hooks.
The work day was almost ended. The display room was empty of buyers. She could see the back of her husband's head in his office. He was busy at his desk. A stock girl was clearing away the piles of garments that littered tables and chairs. At the window near the door Fisk, the Western territory man, stood talking with O'Brien, city salesman. The two looked around at her approach. O'Brien's face lighted up with admiration. Into Fisk's face there flashed a look so nearly resembling resentment that Emma, curious to know its origin, stopped to chat a moment with the two.
Said O'Brien, the gallant Irishman, "I'm more resigned to war this minute, Mrs. Buck, than I've been since it began."
Emma dimpled, turned to Fisk, stood at attention. Fisk said nothing. His face was unsmiling. "Like my uniform?" Emma asked; and wished, somehow, that she hadn't.
Fisk stared. His eyes had none of the softness of admiration. They were hard, resentful. Suddenly, "Like it! God! I wish I could wear one!" He turned away, abruptly. O'Brien threw him a sharp look. Then he cleared his throat, apologetically.
Emma glanced down at her own trim self—at her stitched seams, her tailored lengths, her shining belt and buckles, her gloved hands—and suddenly and unaccountably her pride in them vanished. Something—something—
She wheeled and made for Buck's office, her colour high. He looked up, rose, offered her a chair. She felt strangely ill at ease there in the office to which she had given years of service. The bookkeeper in the glass-enclosed cubby-hole across the little hall smiled and nodded and called through the open door: "My, you're a stranger, Mrs. Buck."
"Be with you in a minute, Emma," said T.A. And turned to his desk again. She rose and strolled toward the door, restlessly. "Don't hurry." Out in the showroom again she saw Fisk standing before a long table. He was ticketing and folding samples of petticoats, pajamas, blouses, and night-gowns. His cigar was gripped savagely between his teeth and his eyes squinted, half closed through the smoke.
She strolled over to him and fingered the cotton flannel of a garment that lay under her hand. "Spring samples?"
"It ought to be a good trip. They say the West is dripping money, war or no war."
"Don't get me started, Mrs. Buck. That girl!—say, I knew what she was when I married her, and so did you. She was head stenographer here long enough. But I never really knew that kid until now, and we've been married two years. You know what the last year has been for her; the baby and all. And then losing him. And do you know what she says! That if there was somebody who knew the Western territory and could cover it, she'd get a job and send me to war. Yessir! That's Gert. We've been married two years, and she says herself it's the first really happy time she's ever known. You know what she had at home. Why, even when I was away on my long spring trip she used to say it wasn't so bad being alone, because there was always my home-coming to count on. How's that for a wife!"
"Gertie's splendid," agreed Emma. And wondered why it sounded so lame.
"You don't know her. Why, when it comes to patriotism, she makes T.R. look like a pacifist. She says if she could sell my line on the road, she'd make you give her the job so she could send her man to war. Gert says a travelling man's wife ought to make an ideal soldier's wife, anyway; and that if I went it would only be like my long Western trip, multiplied by about ten, maybe. That's Gertie."
Emma was fingering the cotton-flannel garment on the table.
Buck crossed the room and stood beside her. "Sorry I kept you waiting. Three of the boys were called to-day. It crippled us pretty badly in the shipping room. Ready?"
"Yes. Good-night, Charley. Give my love to Gertie."
"Thanks, Mrs. Buck." He picked up his cigar, took an apprehensive puff and went on ticketing and folding. There was a grin behind the cigar now.
Into the late afternoon glitter of Fifth Avenue. Five o'clock Fifth Avenue. Flags of every nation, save one. Uniforms of every blue from French to navy; of almost any shade save field green. Pongee-coloured Englishmen, seeming seven feet high, to a man; aviators slim and elegant, with walking sticks made of the propeller of their shattered planes, with a notch for every Hun plane bagged. Slim girls, exotic as the orchids they wore, gazing limpid-eyed at these warrior élégants. Women uniformed to the last degree of tailored exquisiteness. Girls, war accoutred, who brought arms up in sharp salute as they passed Emma. Buck eyed them gravely, hat and arm describing parabolas with increasing frequency as they approached Fiftieth Street, slackening as the colourful pageant grew less brilliant, thinned, and faded into the park mists.
Emma's cheeks were a glorious rose-pink. Head high, shoulders back, she matched her husband's long stride every step of the way. Her eyes were bright and very blue.
"There's a beautiful one, T.A.! The Canadian officer with the limp. They've all been gassed, and shot five times in the thigh and seven in the shoulder, and yet look at 'em! What do you suppose they were when they were new if they can look like that, damaged!"
Buck cut a vicious little semi-circle in the air with his walking stick.
"I know now how the father of the Gracchi felt, and why you never hear him mentioned."
"Nonsense, T.A. You're doing a lot." She did not intend her tone to be smug; but if she had glanced sidewise at her husband, she might have seen the pained red mount from chin to brow. She did not seem to sense his hurt. They went on, past the plaza now. Only a few blocks lay between them and their home; the old brownstone house that had been New York's definition of architectural elegance in the time of T.A. Buck, Sr.
"Tell me, Emma. Does this satisfy you—the work you're doing, I mean? Do you think you're giving the best you've got?"
"Well, of course I'd like to go to France—"
"I didn't ask you what you'd like."
"Yes, sir. Very good, sir. I don't know what you call giving the best one has got. But you know I work from eight in the morning until midnight, often and often. Oh, I don't say that someone else couldn't do my work just as well. And I don't say, either, that it doesn't include a lot of dashing up and down Fifth Avenue, and teaing at the Ritz, and meeting magnificent Missions, and being cooed over by Lady Millionaires. But if you'd like a few statistics as to the number of hundreds of thousands of soldiers we've canteened since last June, I'd be pleased to oblige." She tugged at a capacious pocket and brought forth a smart leather-bound notebook.
"Spare me! I've had all the statistics I can stand for one day at the office. I know you're working hard. I just wondered if you didn't realize—"
They turned into their own street. "Realize what?"
Emma sighed a mock sigh and glanced up at the windows of her own house. "Oh, well, everybody's difficult these days, T.A., including husbands. That second window shade is crooked. Isn't it queer how maids never do.... I'll tell you what I can realize, though. I realize that we're going to have dinner at home, reg'lar old-fashioned befo'-de-war. And I can bathe before dinner. There's richness."
But when she appeared at dinner, glowing, radiant, her hair shiningly re-coifed, she again wore the blue uniform, with the service cap atop her head. Buck surveyed her, unsmiling. She seated herself at table with a little clinking of buckles and buttons. She flung her motor gloves on a near-by chair, ran an inquiring finger along belt and collar with a little gesture that was absurdly feminine in its imitation of masculinity. Buck did not sit down. He stood at the opposite side of the table, one hand on his chair, the knuckles showing white where he gripped it.
"It seems to me, Emma, that you might manage to wear something a little less military when you're dining at home. War is war, but I don't see why you should make me feel like your orderly. It's like being married to a policewoman. Surely you can neglect your country for the length of time it takes to dine with your husband."
It was the bitterest speech he had made to her in the years of their married life. She flushed a little. "I thought you knew that I was going out again immediately after dinner. I left at five with the understanding that I'd be on duty again at 8.30."
He said nothing. He stood looking down at his own hand that gripped the chair back so tightly. Emma sat back and surveyed her trim and tailored self with a placidity that had in it, perhaps, a dash of malice. His last speech had cut. Then she reached forward, helped herself to an olive, and nibbled it, head on one side.
"D'you know, T.A., what I think? H'm? I think you're jealous of your wife's uniform."
She had touched the match to the dynamite.
He looked up. At the blaze in his eyes she shrank back a little. His face was white. He was breathing quickly.
"You're right! I am. I am jealous. I'm jealous of every buck private in the army! I'm jealous of the mule drivers! Of the veterinarians. Of the stokers in the transports. Men!" He doubled his hand into a fist. His fine eyes glowed. "Men!"
And suddenly he sat down, heavily, and covered his eyes with his hands.
Emma sat staring at him for a dull, sickening moment. Then she looked down at herself, horror in her eyes. Then up again at him. She got up and came over to him.
"Why, dear—dearest—I didn't know. I thought you were satisfied. I thought you were happy. You—"
"Honey, the only man who's happy is the man in khaki. The rest of us are gritting our teeth and pretending."
She put a hand on his shoulder. "But what do you want—what can you do that—"
He reached back over his shoulder and found her hand. He straightened. His head came up. "They've offered me a job in Bordeaux. It isn't a fancy job. It has to do with merchandising. But I think you know they're having a devil of a time with all the millions of bales of goods. They need men who know materials. I ought to. I've handled cloth and clothes enough. I know values. It would mean hard work—manual work lots of times. No pay. And happiness. For me." There was a silence. It seemed to fill the room, that silence. It filled the house. It roared and thundered about Emma's ears, that silence. When finally she broke it:
"Blind!" she said. "Blind! Deaf! Dumb! And crazy." She laughed, and two tears sped down her cheeks and dropped on the unblemished blue serge uniform. "Oh, T.A.! Where have I been? How you must have despised me. Me, in my uniform. In my uniform that was costing the Government three strapping men. My uniform, that was keeping three man-size soldiers out of khaki. You, Jock, and Fisk. Why didn't you tell me, dear! Why didn't you tell me!"
"I've tried. I couldn't. You've always seen things first. I couldn't ask you to go back to the factory."
"Factory! Factory nothing! I'm going back on the road. I'm taking Fisk's Western territory. I know the Middle West better than Fisk himself. I ought to. I covered it for ten years. I'll pay Gertie Fisk's salary until she's able to come back to us as stenographer. We've never had one so good. Grace can give the office a few hours a week. And we can promote O'Brien to manager while I'm on the road."
Buck was staring at her, dully. "Grace? Now wait a minute. You're travelling too fast for a mere man." His hand was gripping hers, tight, tight.
Their dinner was cooling on the table. They ignored it. She pulled a chair around to his. They sat shoulder to shoulder, elbows on the cloth.
"It took me long enough to wake up, didn't it? I've got to make up for lost time. The whole thing's clear in my mind. Now get this: Jock gets a commission. Grace and the babies pack up and come to New York, and live right here, with me, in this house. Fisk goes to war. Gertie gets well and comes back to work for Featherlooms. Mr. T.A. Buck goes to Bordeaux. Old Emmer takes off her uniform and begins to serve her country—on the road."
At that he got up and began pacing the room. "I can't have you do that, dear. Why, you left all that behind when you married me."
"Yes, but our marriage certificate didn't carry a war guarantee."
"Gad, Emma, you're glorious!"
"Glorious nothing! I'm going to earn the living for three families for a few months, until things get going. And there's nothing glorious about that, old dear. I haven't any illusions about what taking a line on the road means these days. It isn't travelling. It's exploring. You never know where you're going to land, or when, unless you're travelling in a freight train. They're cock o' the walk now. I think I'll check myself through as first-class freight. Or send my pack ahead, with natives on foot, like an African explorer. But it'll be awfully good for me character. And when I'm eating that criminal corn bread they serve on dining cars on a train that's seven hours late into Duluth I'll remember when I had my picture, in uniform, in the Sunday supplements, with my hand on the steering wheel along o' the nobility and gentry."
"Listen, dear, I can't have you—"
"Too late. Got a pencil? Let's send fifty words to Jock and Grace. They'll wire back 'No!' but another fifty'll fetch 'em. After all, it takes more than one night letter to explain a move that is going to change eight lives. Now let's have dinner, dear. It'll be cold, but filling."
Perhaps in the whirlwind ten days that followed a woman of less energy, less determination, less courage and magnificent vitality might have faltered and failed in an undertaking of such magnitude. But Emma was alert and forceful enough to keep just one jump ahead of the swift-moving times. In a less cataclysmic age the changes she wrought within a period of two weeks would have seemed herculean. But in this time of stress and change, when every household in every street in every town in all the country was feeling the tremor of upheaval, the readjustment of this little family and business group was so unremarkable as to pass unnoticed. Even the members of the group itself, seeing themselves scattered to camp, to France, to New York, to the Middle West, shuffled like pawns that the Great Game might the better be won, felt strangely unconcerned and unruffled.
It was little more than two weeks after the night of Emma's awakening that she was talking fast to keep from crying hard, as she stuffed plain, practical blue serge garments (unmilitary) into a bellows suitcase ("Can't count on trunks these days," she had said. "I'm not taking any chances on a clean shirtwaist"). Buck, standing in the doorway, tried hard to keep his gaze from the contemplation of his khaki-clad self reflected in the long mirror. At intervals he said: "Can't I help, dear?" Or, "Talk about the early Pilgrim mothers, and the Revolutionary mothers, and the Civil War mothers! I'd like to know what they had on you, Emma."
And from Emma: "Yeh, ain't I noble!" Then, after a little pause: "This house is going to be so full of wimmin folks it'll look like a Home for Decayed Gentlewomen. Buddy McChesney, aged six months, is going to be the only male protector around the place. We'll make him captain of the home guard."
"Gertie was in to-day. She says I'm a shrimp in my uniform compared to Charley. You know she always was the nerviest little stenographer we ever had about the place, but she knows more about Featherlooms than any woman in the shop except you. She's down to ninety-eight pounds, poor little girl, but every ounce of it's pure pluck, and she says she'll be as good as new in a month or two, and I honestly believe she will."
Emma was counting a neat stack of folded handkerchiefs. "Seventeen—eighteen—When she comes back we'll have to pay her twice the salary she got when she left. But, then, you have to pay an errand boy what you used to pay a shipping clerk, and a stock girl demands money that an operator used to brag about—nineteen—"
Buck came over to her and put a hand on the bright hair that was rumpled, now, from much diving into bags and suitcases and clothes closets.
"All except you, Emma. You'll be working without a salary—working like a man—like three men—"
"Working for three men, T.A. Three fighting men. I've got two service buttons already," she glanced down at her blouse, "and Charley Fisk said I had the right to wear one for him. I'll look like a mosaic, but I'm going to put 'em all on."
The day before Emma's departure for the West Grace arrived, with bags, bundles, and babies. A wan and tired Grace, but proud, too, and with the spirit of the times in her eyes.
"Jock!" she repeated, in answer to their questions. "My dears, he doesn't know I'm alive. I visited him at camp the day before I left. He thinks he'll be transferred East, as we hoped. Wouldn't that be glorious! Well, I had all sorts of intimate and vital things to discuss with him, and he didn't hear what I was saying. He wasn't even listening. He couldn't wait until I had finished a sentence so that he could cut in with something about his work. I murmured to him in the moonlight that there was something I had long meant to tell him and he answered that dammit he forgot to report that rifle that exploded. And when I said, 'Dearest, isn't this hotel a little like the place we spent our honeymoon in—that porch, and all?' he said, 'See this feller coming, Gracie? The big guy with the moustache. Now mash him, Gracie. He's my Captain. I'm going to introduce you. He was a senior at college when I was a fresh.'"
But the peace and the pride in her eyes belied her words.
Emma's trip, already delayed, was begun ten days before her husband's date for sailing. She bore that, too, with smiling equanimity. "When I went to school," she said, "I thought I hated the Second Peloponnesian War worse than any war I'd ever heard of. But I hate this one so that I want everyone to get into it one hundred per cent., so that it'll be over sooner; and because we've won."
They said little on their way to the train. She stood on the rear platform just before the train pulled out. They had tried frantically to get a lower berth, but unsuccessfully. "Don't look so tragic about it," she laughed. "It's like old times. These last three years have been a dream—a delusion."
He looked up at her, as she stood there in her blue suit, and white blouse, and trim blue hat and crisp veil. "Gad, Emma, it's uncanny. I believe you're right. You look exactly as you did when I first saw you, when you came in off the road after father died and I had just taken hold of the business."
For answer she hummed a few plaintive bars. He grinned as he recognized "Silver Threads Among the Gold." The train moved away, gathered speed. He followed it. They were not smiling now. She was leaning over the railing, as though to be as near to him as the fast-moving train would allow. He was walking swiftly along with the train, as though hypnotized. Their eyes held. The brave figure in blue on the train platform. The brave figure in khaki outside. The blue suddenly swam in a haze before his eyes; the khaki a mist before hers. The crisp little veil was a limp little rag when finally she went in to search for Upper Eleven.
The white-coated figure that had passed up and down the aisle unnoticed and unnoticing as she sat hidden behind the kindly folds of her newspaper suddenly became a very human being as Emma regained self-control, decided on dinner as a panacea, and informed the white coat that she desired Upper Eleven made up early.
The White Coat had said, "Yas'm," and glanced up at her. Whereupon she had said:
And he, "Well, fo' de lan'! 'F 'tain't Mis' McChesney! Well, mah sakes alive, Mis' McChesney! Ah ain't seen yo' since yo' married. Ah done heah yo' married yo' boss an' got a swell brownstone house, an' ev'thing gran'—"
"I've got everything, William, but a lower berth to Chicago. They swore they couldn't give me anything but an upper."
A speculative look crept into William's rolling eye. Emma recognized it. Her hand reached toward her bag. Then it stopped. She smiled. "No. No, William. Time was. But not these days. Four years ago I'd have slipped you fifty cents right now, and you'd have produced a lower berth from somewhere. But I'm going to fool you. My boss has gone to war, William, and so has my son. And I'm going to take that fifty cents and buy thrift stamps for Miss Emma McChesney, aged three, and Mr. Buddy McChesney, aged six months. And I'll dispose my old bones in Upper Eleven."
She went in to dinner.
At eight-thirty a soft and deferential voice sounded in her ear.
"Ah got yo' made up, Mis' McChesney."
"But this is my—"
He beckoned. He padded down the aisle with that walk which is a peculiar result of flat feet and twenty years of swaying car. Emma followed. He stopped before Lower Six and drew aside the curtain. It was that lower which can always be produced, magically, though ticket sellers, Pullman agents, porters, and train conductors swear that it does not exist. The key to it is silver, but to-night Emma McChesney Buck had unlocked it with finer metal. Gold. Pure gold. For William drew aside the curtain with a gesture such as one of his slave ancestors might have used before a queen of Egypt. He carefully brushed a cinder from the sheet with one gray-black hand. Then he bowed like any courtier.
Emma sank down on the edge of the couch with a little sigh of weariness. Gratefulness was in it, too. She looked up at him—at the wrinkled, kindly, ape-like face, and he looked down at her.
"William," she said, "war is a filthy, evil, vile thing, but it bears wonderful white flowers."
"Yas'm!" agreed William, genially, and smiled all over his rubbery, gray-black countenance. "Yas'm!"
And who shall say he did not understand?