Emma McChesney & Co. by Edna Ferber
For ten years, Mrs. Emma McChesney's home had been a wardrobe-trunk. She had taken her family life at second hand. Four nights out of the seven, her bed was "Lower Eight," and her breakfast, as many mornings, a cinder-strewn, lukewarm horror, taken tete-a-tete with a sleepy-eyed stranger and presided over by a white-coated, black-faced bandit, to whom a coffee-slopped saucer was a matter of course.
It had been her habit during those ten years on the road as traveling saleswoman for the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, to avoid the discomfort of the rapidly chilling car by slipping early into her berth. There, in kimono, if not in comfort, she would shut down the electric light with a snap, raise the shade, and, propped up on one elbow, watch the little towns go by. They had a wonderful fascination for her, those Middle Western towns, whose very names had a comfortable, home-like sound—Sandusky, Galesburg, Crawfordsville, Appleton—very real towns, with very real people in them. Peering wistfully out through the dusk, she could get little intimate glimpses of the home life of these people as the night came on. In those modest frame houses near the station they need not trouble to pull down the shades as must their cautious city cousins. As the train slowed down, there could be had a glimpse of a matronly housewife moving deftly about in the kitchen's warm-yellow glow, a man reading a paper in slippered, shirt-sleeved comfort, a pig-tailed girl at the piano, a woman with a baby in her arms, or a family group, perhaps, seated about the table, deep in an after-supper conclave. It had made her homeless as she was homesick.
Emma always liked that picture best. Her keen, imaginative mind could sense the scene, could actually follow the trend of the talk during this, the most genial, homely, soul-cheering hour of the day. The trifling events of the last twelve hours in schoolroom, in store, in office, in street, in kitchen loom up large as they are rehearsed in that magic, animated, cozy moment just before ma says, with a sigh:
"Well, folks, go on into the sitting-room. Me and Nellie've got to clear away."
Just silhouettes as the train flashed by—these small-town people—but very human, very enviable to Emma McChesney.
"They're real," she would say. "They're regular, three-meals-a-day people. I've been peeking in at their windows for ten years, and I've learned that it is in these towns that folks really live. The difference between life here and life in New York is the difference between area and depth. D'you see what I mean? In New York, they live by the mile, and here they live by the cubic foot. Well, I'd rather have one juicy, thick club-steak than a whole platterful of quarter-inch. It's the same idea."
To those of her business colleagues whose habit it was to lounge in the hotel window with sneering comment upon the small-town procession as it went by, Emma McChesney had been wont to say:
"Don't sneer at Main Street. When you come to think of it, isn't it true that Fifth Avenue, any bright winter afternoon between four and six, is only Main Street on a busy day multiplied by one thousand?"
Emma McChesney was not the sort of woman to rail at a fate that had placed her in the harness instead of in the carriage. But during all the long years of up-hill pull, from the time she started with a humble salary in the office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, through the years spent on the road, up to the very time when the crown of success came to her in the form of the secretaryship of the prosperous firm of T. A. Buck, there was a minor but fixed ambition in her heart. That same ambition is to be found deep down in the heart of every woman whose morning costume is a tailor suit, whose newspaper must be read in hurried snatches on the way downtown in crowded train or car, and to whom nine A.M. spells "Business."
"In fifteen years," Emma McChesney used to say, "I've never known what it is to loll in leisure. I've never had a chance to luxuriate. Sunday? To a working woman, Sunday is for the purpose of repairing the ravages of the other six days. By the time you've washed your brushes, mended your skirt-braid, darned your stockings and gloves, looked for gray hairs and crows'-feet, and skimmed the magazine section, it's Monday."
It was small wonder that Emma McChesney's leisure had been limited. In those busy years she had not only earned the living for herself and her boy; she had trained that boy into manhood and placed his foot on the first rung of business success. She had transformed the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company from a placidly mediocre concern to a thriving, flourishing, nationally known institution. All this might have turned another woman's head. It only served to set Emma McChesney's more splendidly on her shoulders. Not too splendidly, however; for, with her marriage to her handsome business partner, T. A. Buck, that well-set, independent head was found to fit very cozily into the comfortable hollow formed by T. A. Buck's right arm.
"Emma," Buck had said, just before their marriage, "what is the arrangement to be after—after——"
"Just what it is now, I suppose," Emma had replied, "except that we'll come down to the office together."
He had regarded her thoughtfully for a long minute. Then, "Emma, for three months after our marriage will you try being just Mrs. T. A. Buck?"
"You mean no factory, no Featherlooms, no dictation, no business bothers!" Her voice was a rising scale of surprise.
"Just try it for three months, with the privilege of a lifetime, if you like it. But try it. I—I'd like to see you there when I leave, Emma. I'd like to have you there when I come home. I suppose I sound like a selfish Turk, but——"
"You sound like a regular husband," Emma McChesney had interrupted, "and I love you for it. Now listen, T. A. For three whole months I'm going to be what the yellow novels used to call a doll-wife. I'm going to meet you at the door every night with a rose in my hair. I shall wear pink things with lace ruffles on 'em. Don't you know that I've been longing to do just those things for years and years? I'm going to blossom out into a beauty. Watch me! I've never had time to study myself. I'll hold shades of yellow and green and flesh-color up to my face to see which brings out the right tints. I'm going to gaze at myself through half-closed eyes to see which shade produces tawny lights in my hair. Ever since I can remember, I've been so busy that it has been a question of getting the best possible garments in the least possible time for the smallest possible sum. In that case, one gets blue serge. I've worn blue serge until it feels like a convict's uniform. I'm going to blossom out into fawn and green and mauve. I shall get evening dresses with only bead shoulder-straps. I'm going to shop. I've never really seen Fifth Avenue between eleven and one, when the real people come out. My views of it have been at nine A.M. when the office-workers are going to work, and at five-thirty when they are going home. I will now cease to observe the proletariat and mingle with the predatory. I'll probably go in for those tiffin things at the Plaza. If I do, I'll never be the same woman again."
Whereupon she paused with dramatic effect.
To all of which T. A. Buck had replied:
"Go as far as you like. Take fencing lessons, if you want to, or Sanskrit. You've been a queen bee for so many years that I think the role of drone will be a pleasant change. Let me shoulder the business worries for a while. You've borne them long enough."
"It's a bargain. For three months I shall do nothing more militant than to pick imaginary threads off your coat lapel and pout when you mention business. At the end of those three months we'll go into private session, compare notes, and determine whether the plan shall cease or become permanent. Shake hands on it."
They shook hands solemnly. As they did so, a faint shadow of doubt hovered far, far back in the depths of T. A. Buck's fine eyes. And a faint, inscrutable smile lurked in the corners of Emma's lips.
So it was that Emma McChesney, the alert, the capable, the brisk, the business-like, assumed the role of Mrs. T. A. Buck, the leisurely, the languid, the elegant. She, who formerly, at eleven in the morning, might have been seen bent on selling the best possible bill of spring Featherlooms to Joe Greenbaum, of Keokuk, Iowa, could now be found in a modiste's gray-and-raspberry salon, being draped and pinned and fitted. She, whose dynamic force once charged the entire office and factory with energy and efficiency, now distributed a tithe of that priceless vigor here, a tithe there, a tithe everywhere, and thus broke the very backbone of its power.
She had never been a woman to do things by halves. What she undertook to do she did thoroughly and whole-heartedly. This principle she applied to her new mode of life as rigidly as she had to the old.
That first month slipped magically by. Emma was too much a woman not to feel a certain exquisite pleasure in the selecting of delicate and becoming fabrics. There was a thrill of novelty in being able to spend an hour curled up with a book after lunch, to listen to music one afternoon a week, to drive through the mistily gray park; to walk up the thronged, sparkling Avenue, pausing before its Aladdin's Cave windows. Simple enough pleasures, and taken quite as a matter of course by thousands of other women who had no work-filled life behind them to use as contrast.
She plunged into her new life whole-heartedly. The first new gown was exciting. It was a velvet affair with furs, and gratifyingly becoming. Her shining blond head rose above the soft background of velvet and fur with an effect to distract the least observing.
"Like it?" she had asked Buck, turning slowly, frankly sure of herself.
"You're wonderful in it," said T. A. Buck. "Say, Emma, where's that blue thing you used to wear—the one with the white cuffs and collar, and the little blue hat with the what-cha-ma-call-ems on it?"
"T. A. Buck, you're—you're—well, you're a man, that's what you are! That blue thing was worn threadbare in the office, and I gave it to the laundress's niece weeks ago." Small wonder her cheeks took on a deeper pink.
"Oh," said Buck, unruffled, "too bad! There was something about that dress—I don't know——"
At the first sitting of the second gown, Emma revolted openly.
On the floor at Emma's feet there was knotted into a contortionistic attitude a small, wiry, impolite person named Smalley. Miss Smalley was an artist in draping and knew it. She was the least fashionable person in all that smart dressmaking establishment. She refused to notice the corset-coiffure-and-charmeuse edict that governed all other employees in the shop. In her shabby little dress, her steel-rimmed spectacles, her black-sateen apron, Smalley might have passed for a Bird Center home dressmaker. Yet, given a yard or two or three of satin and a saucer of pins, Smalley could make the dumpiest of debutantes look like a fragile flower.
At a critical moment Emma stirred. Handicapped as she was by a mouthful of nineteen pins and her bow-knot attitude, Smalley still could voice a protest.
"Don't move!" she commanded, thickly.
"Wait a minute," Emma said, and moved again, more disastrously than before. "Don't you think it's too—too young?"
She eyed herself in the mirror anxiously, then looked down at Miss Smalley's nut-cracker face that was peering up at her, its lips pursed grotesquely over the pins.
"Of course it is," mumbled Miss Smalley. "Everybody's clothes are too young for 'em nowadays. The only difference between the dresses we make for girls of sixteen and the dresses we make for their grandmothers of sixty is that the sixty-year-old ones want 'em shorter and lower, and they run more to rose-bud trimming."
Emma surveyed the acid Miss Smalley with a look that was half amused, half vexed, wholly determined.
"I shan't wear it. Heaven knows I'm not sixty, but I'm not sixteen either! I don't want to be."
Miss Smalley, doubling again to her task, flung upward a grudging compliment.
"Well, anyway, you've got the hair and the coloring and the figure for it. Goodness knows you look young enough!"
"That's because I've worked hard all my life," retorted Emma, almost viciously. "Another month of this leisure and I'll be as wrinkled as the rest of them."
Smalley's magic fingers paused in their manipulation of a soft fold of satin.
"Worked? Earned a living? Used your wits and brains every day against the wits and brains of other folks?"
Into the eyes of Miss Smalley, the artist in draping, there crept the shrewd twinkle of Miss Smalley, the successful woman in business. She had been sitting back on her knees, surveying her handiwork through narrowed lids. Now she turned her gaze on Emma, who was smiling down at her.
"Then for goodness' sake don't stop! I've found out that work is a kind of self-oiler. If you're used to it, the minute you stop you begin to get rusty, and your hinges creak and you clog up. And the next thing you know, you break down. Work that you like to do is a blessing. It keeps you young. When my mother was my age, she was crippled with rheumatism, and all gnarled up, and quavery, and all she had to look forward to was death. Now me—every time the styles in skirts change I get a new hold on life. And on a day when I can make a short, fat woman look like a tall, thin woman, just by sitting here on my knees with a handful of pins, and giving her the line she needs, I go home feeling like I'd just been born."
"I know that feeling," said Emma, in her eyes a sparkle that had long been absent. "I've had it when I've landed a thousand-dollar Featherloom order from a man who has assured me that he isn't interested in our line."
At dinner that evening, Emma's gown was so obviously not of the new crop that even her husband's inexpert eye noted it.
"That's not one of the new ones, is it?"
"This! And you a manufacturer of skirts!"
"What's the matter with the supply of new dresses? Isn't there enough to go round?"
"Enough! I've never had so many new gowns in my life. The trouble is that I shan't feel at home in them until I've had 'em all dry-cleaned at least once."
During the second month, there came a sudden, sharp change in skirt modes. For four years women had been mincing along in garments so absurdly narrow that each step was a thing to be considered, each curbing or car-step demanding careful negotiation. Now, Fashion, in her freakiest mood, commanded a bewildering width of skirt that was just one remove from the flaring hoops of Civil War days. Emma knew what that meant for the Featherloom workrooms and selling staff. New designs, new models, a shift in prices, a boom for petticoats, for four years a garment despised.
A hundred questions were on the tip of Emma's tongue; a hundred suggestions flashed into her keen mind; there occurred to her a wonderful design for a new model which should be full and flaring without being bulky and uncomfortable as were the wide petticoats of the old days.
But a bargain was a bargain. Still, Emma Buck was as human as Emma McChesney had been. She could not resist a timid,
"T. A., are you—that is—I was just wondering—you're making 'em wide, I suppose, for the spring trade."
A queer look flashed into T. A. Buck's eyes—a relieved look that was as quickly replaced by an expression both baffled and anxious.
"Why—a—mmmm—yes—oh, yes, we're making 'em up wide, but——"
"But what?" Emma leaned forward, tense.
During the second month there came calling on Emma, those solid and heavy New Yorkers, with whom the Buck family had been on friendly terms for many years. They came at the correct hour, in their correct motor or conservative broughams, wearing their quietly correct clothes, and Emma gave them tea, and they talked on every subject from suffrage to salad dressings, and from war to weather, but never once was mention made of business. And Emma McChesney's life had been interwoven with business for more than fifteen years.
There were dinners—long, heavy, correct dinners. Emma, very well dressed, bright-eyed, alert, intelligent, vital, became very popular at these affairs, and her husband very proud of her popularity. And if any one as thoroughly alive as Mrs. T. A. Buck could have been bored to extinction by anything, then those dinners would have accomplished the deadly work.
"T. A.," she said one evening, after a particularly large affair of this sort, "T. A., have you ever noticed anything about me that is different from other women?"
"Have I? Well, I should say I——"
"Oh, I don't mean what you mean, dear—thanks just the same. I mean those women tonight. They all seem to 'go in' for something—votes or charity or dancing or social service, or something—even the girls. And they all sounded so amateurish, so untrained, so unprepared, yet they seemed to be dreadfully in earnest."
"This is the difference," said T. A. Buck. "You've rubbed up against life, and you know. They've always been sheltered, but now they want to know. Well, naturally they're going to bungle and bump their heads a good many times before they really find out."
"Anyway," retorted Emma, "they want to know. That's something. It's better to have bumped your head, even though you never see what's on the other side of the wall, than never to have tried to climb it."
It was in the third week of the third month that Emma encountered Hortense. Hortense, before her marriage to Henry, the shipping-clerk, had been a very pretty, very pert, very devoted little stenographer in the office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. She had married just a month after her employers, and Emma, from the fulness of her own brimming cup of happiness, had made Hortense happy with a gift of linens and lingerie and lace of a fineness that Hortense's beauty-loving, feminine heart could never have hoped for.
They met in the busy aisle of a downtown department store and shook hands as do those who have a common bond.
Hortense, as pretty as ever and as pert, spoke first.
"I wouldn't have known you, Mrs. Mc— Buck!"
"No? Why not?"
"You look—no one would think you'd ever worked in your life. I was down at the office the other day for a minute—the first time since I was married. They told me you weren't there any more."
"No; I haven't been down since my marriage either. I'm like you—an elegant lady of leisure."
Hortense's bright-blue eyes dwelt searchingly on the face of her former employer.
"The bunch in the office said they missed you something awful." Then, in haste: "Oh, I don't mean that Mr. Buck don't make things go all right. They're awful fond of him. But—I don't know—Miss Kelly said she never has got over waiting for the sound of your step down the hall at nine—sort of light and quick and sharp and busy, as if you couldn't wait till you waded into the day's work. Do you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean," said Emma.
There was a little pause. The two women so far apart, yet so near; so different, yet so like, gazed far down into each other's soul.
"Miss it, don't you?" said Hortense.
"Yes; don't you?"
"Do I! Say——" She turned and indicated the women surging up and down the store aisles, and her glance and gesture were replete with contempt. "Say; look at 'em! Wandering around here, aimless as a lot of chickens in a barnyard. Half of 'em are here because they haven't got anything else to do. Think of it! I've watched 'em lots of times. They go pawing over silks and laces and trimmings just for the pleasure of feeling 'em. They stand in front of a glass case with a figure in it all dressed up in satin and furs and jewels, and you'd think they were worshiping an idol like they used to in the olden days. They don't seem to have anything to do. Nothing to occupy their—their heads. Say, if I thought I was going to be like them in time, I——"
"Hortense, my dear child, you're—you're happy, aren't you? Henry——"
"Well, I should say we are! I'm crazy about Henry, and he thinks I'm perfect. Honestly, ain't they a scream! They think they're so big and manly and all, and they're just like kids; ain't it so? We're living in a four-room apartment in Harlem. We've got it fixed up too cozy for anything."
"I'd like to come and see you," said Emma. Hortense opened her eyes wide.
"Honestly; if you would——"
"Let's go up now. I've the car outside."
"Now! Why I—I'd love it!"
They chattered like schoolgirls on the way uptown—these two who had found so much in common. The little apartment reached, Hortense threw open the door with the confident gesture of the housekeeper who is not afraid to have her household taken by surprise—whose housekeeping is an index of character.
Hortense had been a clean-cut little stenographer. Her correspondence had always been free from erasures, thumb-marks, errors. Her four-room flat was as spotless as her typewritten letters had been. The kitchen shone in its blue and white and nickel. A canary chirped in the tiny dining-room. There were books and magazines on the sitting-room table. The bedroom was brave in its snowy spread and the toilet silver that had been Henry's gift to her the Christmas they became engaged.
Emma examined everything, exclaimed over everything, admired everything. Hortense glowed like a rose.
"Do you really like it? I like the green velours in the sitting-room, don't you? It's always so kind and cheerful. We're not all settled yet. I don't suppose we ever will be. Sundays, Henry putters around, putting up shelves, and fooling around with a can of paint. I always tell him he ought to have lived on a farm, where he'd have elbow-room."
"No wonder you're so happy and busy," Emma exclaimed, and patted the girl's fresh, young cheek.
Hortense was silent a moment.
"I'm happy," she said, at last, "but I ain't busy. And—well, if you're not busy, you can't be happy very long, can you?"
"No," said Emma, "idleness, when you're not used to it, is misery."
"There! You've said it! It's like running on half-time when you're used to a day-and-night shift. Something's lacking. It isn't that Henry isn't grand to me, because he is. Evenings, we're so happy that we just sit and grin at each other and half the time we forget to go to a 'movie.' After Henry leaves in the morning, I get to work. I suppose, in the old days, when women used to have to chop the kindling, and catch the water for washing in a rain-barrel, and keep up a fire in the kitchen stove and do their own bread baking and all, it used to keep 'em hustling. But, my goodness! A four-room flat for two isn't any work. By eleven, I'm through. I've straightened everything, from the bed to the refrigerator; the marketing's done, and the dinner vegetables are sitting around in cold water. The mending for two is a joke. Henry says it's a wonder I don't sew double-breasted buttons on his undershirts."
Emma was not smiling. But, then, neither was Hortense. She was talking lightly, seemingly, but her pretty face was quite serious.
"The big noise in my day is when Henry comes home at six. That was all right and natural, I suppose, in those times when a quilting-bee was a wild afternoon's work, and teaching school was the most advanced job a woman could hold down."
Emma was gazing fascinated at the girl's sparkling face. Her own eyes were very bright, and her lips were parted.
"Tell me, Hortense," she said now; "what does Henry say to all this? Have you told him how you feel?"
"Well, I—I talked to him about it once or twice. I told him that I've got about twenty-four solid hours a week that I might be getting fifty cents an hour for. You know, I worked for a manuscript-typewriting concern before I came over to Buck's—plays and stories and that kind of thing. They used to like my work because I never queered their speeches by leaving out punctuation or mixing up the characters. The manager there said I could have work any time I wanted it. I've got my own typewriter. I got it second hand when I first started in. Henry picks around on it sometimes, evenings. I hardly ever touch it. It's getting rusty—and so am I."
"It isn't just the money you want, Hortense? Are you sure?"
"Of course I'd like the money. That extra coming in would mean books—I'm crazy about reading, and so is Henry—and theaters and lots of things we can't afford now. But that isn't all. Henry don't want to be a shipping-clerk all his life. He's crazy about mechanics and that kind of stuff. But the books that he needs cost a lot. Don't you suppose I'd be proud to feel that the extra money I'd earned would lift him up where he could have a chance to be something! But Henry is dead set against it. He says he is the one that's going to earn the money around here. I try to tell him that I'm used to using my mind. He laughs and pinches my cheek and tells me to use it thinking about him." She stopped suddenly and regarded Emma with conscience-stricken eyes. "You don't think I'm running down Henry, do you? My goodness, I don't want you to think that I'd change back again for a million dollars, because I wouldn't." She looked up at Emma, conscience-stricken.
Emma came swiftly over and put one hand on the girl's shoulder.
"I don't think it. Not for a minute. I know that the world is full of Henrys, and that the number of Hortenses is growing larger and larger. I don't know if the four-room flats are to blame, or whether it's just a natural development. But the Henry-Hortense situation seems to be spreading to the nine-room-and-three-baths apartments, too."
Hortense nodded a knowing head.
"I kind of thought so, from the way you were listening."
The two, standing there gazing at each other almost shyly, suddenly began to laugh. The laugh was a safety-valve. Then, quite as suddenly, both became serious. That seriousness had been the under-current throughout.
"I wonder," said Emma very gently, "if a small Henry, some day, won't provide you with an outlet for all that stored-up energy."
Hortense looked up very bravely.
"Maybe. You—you must have been about my age when your boy was born. Did he make you feel—different?"
The shade of sadness that always came at the mention of those unhappy years of her early marriage crept into Emma's face now.
"That was not the same, dear," she explained. "I hadn't your sort of Henry. You see, my boy was my only excuse for living. You'll never know what that means. And when things grew altogether impossible, and I knew that I must earn a living for Jock and myself, I just did it—that's all. I had to."
Hortense thought that over for one deliberate moment. Her brows were drawn in a frown.
"I'll tell you what I think," she announced, at last, "though I don't know that I can just exactly put it into words. I mean this: Some people are just bound to—to give, to build up things, to—well, to manufacture, because they just can't help it. It's in 'em, and it's got to come out. Dynamos—that's what Henry's technical books would call them. You're one—a great big one. I'm one. Just a little tiny one. But it's sparking away there all the time, and it might as well be put to some use, mightn't it?"
Emma bent down and kissed the troubled forehead, and then, very tenderly, the pretty, puckered lips.
"Little Hortense," she said, "you're asking a great big question. I can answer it for myself, but I can't answer it for you. It's too dangerous. I wouldn't if I could."
Emma, waiting in the hall for the lift, looked back at the slim little figure in the doorway. There was a droop to the shoulders. Emma's heart smote her.
"Don't bother your head about all this, little girl," she called back to her. "Just forget to be ambitious and remember to be happy. That's much the better way."
Hortense, from the doorway, grinned a rather wicked little grin.
"When are you going back to the office, Mrs. Buck?" she asked, quietly enough.
"What makes you think I'm going back at all?" demanded Emma, stepping into the shaky little elevator.
"I don't think it," retorted Hortense, once more the pert. "I know it."
Emma knew it, too. She had known it from the moment that she shook hands in her compact. There was still one week remaining of the stipulated three months. It seemed to Emma that that one week was longer than the combined eleven. But she went through with colors flying. Whatever Emma McChesney Buck did, she did well. But, then, T. A. Buck had done his part well, too—so well that, on the final day, Emma felt a sinking at her heart. He seemed so satisfied with affairs as they were. He was, apparently, so content to drop all thought of business when he left the office for his home.
Emma had planned a very special little dinner that evening. She wore a very special gown, too—one of the new ones. T. A. noticed it at once, and the dinner as well, being that kind of husband. Still, Annie, the cook, complained later, to the parlor-maid, about the thanklessness of cooking dinners for folks who didn't eat more'n a mouthful, anyway.
"Well, Emma?" said T. A. Buck.
"Light your cigar, T. A.," said Emma. "You'll need it."
T. A. lighted it with admirable leisureliness, sent out a great puff of fragrant smoke, and surveyed his wife through half-closed lids. Beneath his air of ease there was a tension.
"Well, Emma?" he said again, gently.
Emma looked at him a moment appreciatively. She had too much poise and balance and control herself not to recognize and admire those qualities in others.
"T. A., if I had been what they call a homebody, we wouldn't be married to-day, would we?"
"You knew plenty of home-women that you could have married, didn't you?"
"I didn't ask them, Emma, but——"
"You know what I mean. Now listen, T. A.: I've loafed for three months. I've lolled and lazied and languished. And I've never been so tired in my life—not even when we were taking January inventory. Another month of this, and I'd be an old, old woman. I understand, now, what it is that brings that hard, tired, stony look into the faces of the idle women. They have to work so hard to try to keep happy. I suppose if I had been a homebody all my life, I might be hardened to this kind of thing. But it's too late now. And I'm thankful for it. Those women who want to shop and dress and drive and play are welcome to my share of it. If I am to be punished in the next world for my wickedness in this, I know what form my torture will take. I shall have to go from shop to shop with a piece of lace in my hand, matching a sample of insertion. Fifteen years of being in the thick of it spoil one for tatting and tea. The world is full of homebodies, I suppose. And they're happy. I suppose I might have been one, too, if I hadn't been obliged to get out and hustle. But it's too late to learn now. Besides, I don't want to. If I do try, I'll be destroying the very thing that attracted you to me in the first place. Remember what you said about the Fifth Avenue girl?"
"But, Emma," interrupted Buck very quietly, "I don't want you to try."
Emma, with a rush of words at her very lips, paused, eyed him for a doubtful moment, asked a faltering question.
"But it was your plan—you said you wanted me to be here when you came home and when you left, didn't you? Do you mean you——"
"I mean that I've missed my business partner every minute for three months. All the time we've been going to those fool dinners and all that kind of thing, I've been bursting to talk skirts to you. I—say, Emma, Adler's designed a new model—a full one, of course, but there's something wrong with it. I can't put my finger on the flaw, but——"
Emma came swiftly over to his chair.
"Make a sketch of it, can't you?" she said. From his pocket Buck drew a pencil, an envelope, and fell to sketching rapidly, squinting down through his cigar smoke as he worked.
"It's like this," he began, absorbed and happy; "you see, where the fulness begins at the knee——"
"Yes!" prompted Emma, breathlessly.
Two hours later they were still bent over the much marked bit of paper. But their interest in it was not that of those who would solve a perplexing problem. It was the lingering, satisfied contemplation of a task accomplished.
Emma straightened, leaned back, sighed—a victorious, happy sigh.
"And to think," she said, marveling, "to think that I once envied the women who had nothing to do but the things I've done in the last three months!"
Buck had risen, stretched luxuriously, yawned. Now he came over to his wife and took her head in his two hands, cozily, and stood a moment looking into her shining eyes.
"Emma, I may have mentioned this once or twice before, but perhaps you'll still be interested to know that I think you're a wonder. A wonder! You're the——"
"Oh, well, we won't quarrel about that," smiled Emma brazenly. "But I wonder if Adler will agree with us when he sees what we've done to his newest skirt design."
Suddenly a new thought seemed to strike her. She was off down the hall. Buck, following in a leisurely manner, hands in pockets, stood in the bedroom door and watched her plunge into the innermost depths of the clothes-closet.
"What's the idea, Emma?"
"Looking for something," came back his wife's muffled tones.
A long wait.
"Can I help?"
"I've got it!" cried Emma, and emerged triumphant, flushed, smiling, holding a garment at arm's length, aloft.
Emma shook it smartly, turned it this way and that, held it up under her chin by the sleeves.
"Why, girl!" exclaimed Buck, all a-grin, "it's the——"
"The blue serge," Emma finished for him, "with the white collars and cuffs. And what's more, young man, it's the little blue hat with the what-cha-ma-call-ems on it. And praise be! I'm wearing 'em both down-town to-morrow morning."