Emma McChesney & Co. by Edna Ferber
"HOOPS, MY DEAR!"
Emma McChesney Buck always vigorously disclaimed any knowledge of that dreamy-eyed damsel known as Inspiration. T. A. Buck, her husband-partner, accused her of being on intimate terms with the lady. So did the adoring office staff of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. Out in the workshop itself, the designers and cutters, those jealous artists of the pencil, shears, and yardstick, looked on in awed admiration on those rare occasions when the feminine member of the business took the scissors in her firm white hands and slashed boldly into a shimmering length of petticoat-silk. When she put down the great shears, there lay on the table the detached parts of that which the appreciative and experienced eyes of the craftsmen knew to be a new and original variation of that elastic garment known as the underskirt.
For weeks preceding one of these cutting-exhibitions, Emma was likely to be not quite her usual brisk self. A mystic glow replaced the alert brightness of her eye. Her wide-awake manner gave way to one of almost sluggish inactivity.
The outer office, noting these things, would lift its eyebrows significantly.
"Another hunch!" it would whisper. "The last time she beat the rest of the trade by six weeks with that elastic-top gusset."
"Inspiration working, Emma?" T. A. Buck would ask, noting the symptoms.
"It isn't inspiration, T. A. Nothing of the kind! It's just an attack of imagination, complicated by clothes-instinct."
"That's all that ails Poiret," Buck would retort.
Early in the autumn, when women were still walking with an absurd sidewise gait, like a duck, or a filly that is too tightly hobbled, the junior partner of the firm began to show unmistakable signs of business aberration. A blight seemed to have fallen upon her bright little office, usually humming with activity. The machinery of her day, ordinarily as noiseless and well ordered as a thing on ball bearings, now rasped, creaked, jerked, stood still, jolted on again. A bustling clerk or stenographer, entering with paper or memorandum, would find her bent over her desk, pencil in hand, absorbed in a rough drawing that seemed to bear no relation to the skirt of the day. The margin of her morning paper was filled with queer little scrawls by the time she reached the office. She drew weird lines with her fork on the table-cloth at lunch. These hieroglyphics she covered with a quick hand, like a bashful schoolgirl, when any one peeped.
"Tell a fellow what it's going to be, can't you?" pleaded Buck.
"I got one glimpse yesterday, when you didn't know I was looking over your shoulder. It seemed a pass between an overgrown Zeppelin and an apple dumpling. So I know it can't be a skirt. Come on, Emma; tell your old man!"
"Not yet," Emma would reply dreamily.
Buck would strike an attitude intended to intimidate.
"If you have no sense of what is due me as your husband, then I demand, as senior partner of this firm, to know what it is that is taking your time, which rightfully belongs to this business."
"Go away, T. A., and stop pestering me! What do you think I'm designing—a doily?"
Buck, turning to go to his own office, threw a last retort over his shoulder—a rather sobering one, this time.
"Whatever it is, it had better be good—with business what it is and skirts what they are."
Emma lifted her head to reply to that.
"It isn't what they are that interests me. It's what they're going to be."
Buck paused in the doorway.
"Going to be! Anybody can see that. Underneath that full, fool, flaring over-drape, the real skirt is as tight as ever. I don't think the spring models will show an inch of real difference. I tell you, Emma, it's serious."
Emma, apparently absorbed in her work, did not reply to this. But a vague something about the back of her head told T. A. Buck that she was laughing at him. The knowledge only gave him new confidence in this resourceful, many-sided, lovable, level-headed partner-wife of his.
Two weeks went by—four—six—eight. Emma began to look a little thin. Her bright color was there only when she was overtired or excited. The workrooms began to talk of new designs for spring, though it was scarcely mid-winter. The head designer came forward timidly with a skirt that measured a yard around the bottom. Emma looked at it, tried to keep her lower lip prisoner between her teeth, failed, and began to laugh helplessly, almost hysterically.
Amazement in the faces of Buck and Koritz, the designer, became consternation, then, in the designer, resentment.
Koritz, dark, undersized, with the eyes of an Oriental and the lean, sensitive fingers of one who creates, shivered a little, like a plant that is swept by an icy blast. Buck came over and laid one hand on his wife's shaking shoulder.
"Emma, you're overtired! This—this thing you've been slaving over has been too much for you."
With one hand, Emma reached up and patted the fingers that rested protectingly on her shoulder. With the other, she wiped her eyes, then, all contrition, grasped the slender brown hand of the offended Koritz.
"Bennie, please forgive me! I—I didn't mean to laugh. I wasn't laughing at your new skirt."
"You think it's too wide, maybe, huh?" Bennie Koritz said, and held it up doubtfully.
"Too wide!" For a moment Emma seemed threatened with another attack of that inexplicable laughter. She choked it back resolutely.
"No, Bennie; not too wide. I'll tell you to-morrow why I laughed. Then, perhaps, you'll laugh with me."
Bennie, draping his despised skirt-model over one arm, had the courage to smile even now, though grimly.
"I laugh—sure," he said, showing his white teeth now. "But the laugh will be, I bet you, on me—like it was when you designed that knickerbocker before the trade knew such a thing could be."
Impulsively Emma grasped his hand and shook it, as though she found a certain needed encouragement in the loyalty of this sallow little Russian.
"Bennie, you're a true artist—because you're big enough to praise the work of a fellow craftsman when you recognize its value." And Koritz, the dull red showing under the olive of his cheeks, went back to his cutting-table happy.
Buck bent forward, eagerly.
"You're going to tell me now, Emma? It's finished?"
"To-night—at home. I want to be the first to try it on. I'll play model. A private exhibition, just for you. It's not only finished; it is patented."
"Patented! But why? What is it, anyway? A new fastener? I thought it was a skirt."
"Wait until you see it. You'll think I should have had it copyrighted as well, not to say passed by the national board of censors."
"Do you mean to say that I'm to be the entire audience at the premiere of this new model?"
"You are to be audience, critic, orchestra, box-holder, patron, and 'Diamond Jim' Brady. Now run along into your own office—won't you, dear? I want to get out these letters." And she pressed the button that summoned a stenographer.
T. A. Buck, resigned, admiring, and anticipatory, went.
Annie, the cook, was justified that evening in her bitter complaint. Her excellent dinner received scant enough attention from these two. They hurried through it like eager, bright-eyed school-children who have been promised a treat. Two scarlet spots glowed in Emma's cheeks. Buck's eyes, through the haze of his after-dinner cigar, were luminous.
"No; not yet. I want you to smoke your cigar and digest your dinner and read your paper. I want you to twiddle your thumbs a little and look at your watch. First-night curtains are always late in rising, aren't they? Well!"
She turned on the full glare of the chandelier, turned it off, went about flicking on the soft-shaded wall lights and the lamps.
"Turn your chair so that your back will be toward the door."
He turned it obediently.
From the direction of her bedroom there presently came the sounds of dresser drawers hurriedly opened and shut with a bang, of a slipper dropped on the hard-wood floor, a tune hummed in an absent-minded absorption under the breath, an excited little laugh nervously stifled. Buck, in his role of audience, began to clap impatiently and to stamp with his feet on the floor.
"No gallery!" Emma called in from the hall. "Remember the temperamental family on the floor below!" A silence—then: "I'm coming. Shut your eyes and prepare to be jarred by the Buck balloon-petticoat!"
There was a rustling of silks, a little rush to the center of the big room, a breathless pause, a sharp snap of finger and thumb. Buck opened his eyes.
He opened his eyes. Then he closed them and opened them again, quickly, as we do, sometimes, when we are unwilling to believe that which we see. What he beheld was this: A very pretty, very flushed, very bright-eyed woman, her blond hair dressed quaintly after the fashion of the early 'Sixties, her arms and shoulders bare, a pink-slip with shoulder-straps in lieu of a bodice, and—he passed a bewildered hand over his eyes a skirt that billowed and flared and flounced and spread in a great, graceful circle—a skirt strangely light for all its fulness—a skirt like, and yet, somehow, unlike those garments seen in ancient copies of Godey's Lady Book.
"That can't be—you don't mean—what—what IS it?" stammered Buck, dismayed.
Emma, her arms curved above her head like a ballet-dancer's, pirouetted, curtsied very low so that the skirt spread all about her on the floor, like the petals of a flower.
"Hoops, my dear!"
"Hoops!" echoed Buck, in weak protest. "Hoops, my DEAR!"
Emma stroked one silken fold with approving fingers.
"Our new leader for spring."
"But, Emma, you're joking!"
She stared, suddenly serious.
"You mean—you don't like it!"
"Like it! For a fancy-dress costume, yes; but as a petticoat for every-day wear, to be made up by us for our customers! But of course you're playing a trick on me." He laughed a little weakly and came toward her. "You can't catch me that way, old girl! It's darned becoming, Emma—I'll say that." He bent down, smiling. "I'll allow you to kiss me. And then try me with the real surprise, will you?"
Her coquetry vanished. Her smile fled with it. Her pretty pose was abandoned. Mrs. T. A. Buck, wife, gave way to Emma McChesney Buck, business woman. She stiffened a little, as though bracing herself for a verbal encounter.
"You'll get used to it. I expected you to be jolted at the first shock of it. I was, myself—when the idea came to me."
Buck passed a frenzied forefinger under his collar, as though it had suddenly grown too tight for him.
"Used to it! I don't want to get used to it! It's preposterous! You can't be serious! No woman would wear a garment like that! For five years skirts have been tighter and tighter——"
"Until this summer they became tightest," interrupted Emma. "They could go no farther. I knew that meant, 'About face!' I knew it meant not a slightly wider skirt but a wildly wider skirt. A skirt as bouffant as the other had been scant. I was sure it wouldn't be a gradual process at all but a mushroom growth—hobbles to-day, hoops to-morrow. Study the history of women's clothes, and you'll find that has always been true."
"Look here, Emma," began Buck, desperately; "you're wrong, all wrong! Here, let me throw this scarf over your shoulders. Now we'll sit down and talk this thing over sensibly."
"I'll agree to the scarf"—she drew a soft, silken, fringed shawl about her and immediately one thought of a certain vivid, brilliant portrait of a hoop-skirted dancer—"but don't ask me to sit down. I'd rebound like a toy balloon. I've got to convince you of this thing. I'll have to do it standing."
Buck sank into his chair and dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief.
"You'll never convince me, sitting or standing. Emma, I know I fought the knickerbocker when you originated it, and I know that it turned out to be a magnificent success. But this is different. The knicker was practical; this thing's absurd—it's impossible! This is an age of activity. In Civil War days women minced daintily along when they walked at all. They stitched on samplers by way of diversion."
"What has all that to do with it?" inquired Emma sweetly.
"Everything. Use a little logic."
"Logic! In a discussion about women's dress! T. A., I'm surprised."
"But, Emma, be reasonable. Good Lord! You're usually clear-sighted enough. Our mode of living has changed in the last fifty years—our methods of transit, our pastimes, customs, everything. Imagine a woman trying to climb a Fifth Avenue 'bus in one of those things. Fancy her in a hot set of tennis. Women use street-cars, automobiles, airships. Can you see a subway train full of hoop-skirted clerks, stenographers, and models? Street-car steps aren't built for it. Office-building elevators can't stand for it. Six-room apartments won't accommodate 'em. They're fantastic, wild, improbable. You're wrong, Emma—all wrong!"
She had listened patiently enough, never once attempting to interrupt. But on her lips was the maddening half-smile of one whose rebuttal is ready. Now she perched for a moment at the extreme edge of the arm of a chair. Her skirt subsided decorously. Buck noticed that, with surprise, even in the midst of his heated protest.
"T. A., you've probably forgotten, but those are the very arguments used when the hobble was introduced. Preposterous, people said—impossible! Women couldn't walk in 'em. Wouldn't, couldn't sit down in 'em. Women couldn't run, play tennis, skate in them. The car steps were too high for them. Well, what happened? Women had to walk in them, and a new gait became the fashion. Women took lessons in how to sit down in them. They slashed them for tennis and skating. And street-car companies all over the country lowered the car steps to accommodate them. What's true for the hobble holds good for the hoop. Women will cease to single-foot and learn to undulate when they walk. They'll widen the car platforms. They'll sit on top the Fifth Avenue 'buses, and you'll never give them a second thought."
"The things don't stay where they belong. I've seen 'em misbehave in musical comedies," argued Buck miserably.
"That's where my patent comes in. The old hoop was cumbersome, unwieldy, clumsy. The new skirt, by my patent featherboning process, is made light, graceful, easily managed. T. A., I predict that by midsummer a tight skirt will be as rare a sight as a full one was a year ago."
"We're not quarreling, are we?"
"Quarreling! I rather think not! A man can have his own opinion, can't he?"
It appeared, however, that he could not. For when they had threshed it out, inch by inch, as might two partners whose only bond was business, it was Emma who won.
"Remember, I'm not convinced," Buck warned her; "I'm only beaten by superior force. But I do believe in your woman's intuition—I'll say that. It has never gone wrong. I'm banking on it.
"It's woman's intuition when we win," Emma observed, thoughtfully. "When we lose it's a foolish, feminine notion."
There were to be no half-way measures. The skirt was to be the feature of the spring line. Cutters and designers were one with Buck in thinking it a freak garment. Emma reminded them that the same thing had been said of the hobble on its appearance.
In February, Billy Spalding, veteran skirt-salesman, led a flying wedge of six on a test-trip that included the Middle West and the Coast. Their sample-trunks had to be rebuilt to accommodate the new model. Spalding, shirt-sleeved, whistling dolorously, eyed each garment with a look of bristling antagonism. Spalding sold skirts on commission.
Emma, surveying his labors, lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
"If you're going to sell that skirt as enthusiastically as you pack it, you'd better stay here in New York and save the house traveling expenses."
Spalding ceased to whistle. He held up a billowy sample and gazed at it.
"Honestly, Mrs. Buck, you know I'd try to sell pretzels in London if you asked me to. But do you really think any woman alive would be caught wearing a garment like this in these days?"
"Not only do I think it, Billy; I'm certain of it. This new petticoat makes me the Lincoln of the skirt trade. I'm literally freeing my sisters from the shackles that have bound their ankles for five years."
Spalding, unimpressed, folded another skirt.
"Um, maybe! But what's that line about slaves hugging their chains?"
The day following, Spalding and his flying squad scattered to spread the light among the skirt trade. And things went wrong from the start.
The first week showed an ominous lack of those cheering epistles beginning, "Enclosed please find," etc. The second was worse. The third was equally bad. The fourth was final. The second week in March, Spalding returned from a territory which had always been known as firmly wedded to the T. A. Buck Featherloom petticoat. The Middle West would have none of him.
They held the post-mortem in Emma's bright little office, and that lady herself seemed to be strangely sunny and undaunted, considering the completeness of her defeat. She sat at her desk now, very interested, very bright-eyed, very calm. Buck, in a chair at the side of her desk, was interested, too, but not so calm. Spalding, who was accustomed to talk while standing, leaned against the desk, feet crossed, brows furrowed. As he talked, he emphasized his remarks by jabbing the air with his pencil.
"Well," said Emma quietly, "it didn't go."
"It didn't even start," corrected Spalding.
"But why?" demanded Buck. "Why?"
Spalding leaned forward a little, eagerly.
"I'll tell you something: When I started out with that little garment, I thought it was a joke. Before I'd been out with it a week, I began to like it. In ten days, I was crazy about it, and I believed in it from the waistband to the hem. On the level, Mrs. Buck, I think it's a wonder. Now, can you explain that?"
"Yes," said Emma; "you didn't like it at first because it was a shock to you. It outraged all your ideas of what a skirt ought to be. Then you grew accustomed to it. Then you began to see its good points. Why couldn't you make the trade get your viewpoint?"
"This is why: Out in Manistee and Oshkosh and Terre Haute, the girls have just really learned the trick of walking in tight skirts. It's as impossible to convince a Middle West buyer that the exaggerated full skirt is going to be worn next summer as it would be to prove to him that men are going to wear sunbonnets. They thought I was trying to sell 'em masquerade costumes. I may believe in it, and you may believe in it, and T. A.; but the girls from Joplin—well, they're from Joplin. And they're waiting to hear from headquarters."
T. A. Buck crossed one leg over the other and sat up with a little sigh.
"Well, that settles it, doesn't it?" he said.
"It does not," replied Emma McChesney Buck crisply. "If they want to hear from headquarters, they won't have long to wait."
"Now, Emma, don't try to push this thing if it——"
"T. A., please don't look so forgiving. I'd much rather have you reproach me."
"It's you I'm thinking of, not the skirt."
"But I want you to think of the skirt, too. We've gone into this thing, and it has cost us thousands. Don't think I'm going to sit quietly by and watch those thousands trickle out of our hands. We've played our first card. It didn't take a trick. Here's another."
Buck and Spalding were leaning forward, interested, attentive. There was that in Emma's vivid, glowing face which did not mean defeat.
"March fifteenth, at Madison Square Garden, there is to be held the first annual exhibition of the Society for the Promotion of American Styles for American Women. For one hundred years we've taken our fashions as Paris dictated, regardless of whether they outraged our sense of humor or decency or of fitness. This year the American designer is going to have a chance. Am I an American designer, T. A., Billy?"
"Yes!" in chorus.
"Then I shall exhibit that skirt on a live model at the First Annual American Fashion Show next month. Every skirt-buyer in the country will be there. If it takes hold there, it's made—and so are we."
March came, and with it an army of men and women buyers, dependent, for the first time in their business careers, on the ingenuity of the American brain. The keen-eyed legions that had advanced on Europe early, armed with letters of credit—the vast horde that returned each spring and autumn laden with their spoils—hats, gowns, laces, linens, silks, embroideries—were obliged to content themselves with what was to be found in their own camp.
Clever manager that she was, Emma took as much pains with her model as with the skirt itself. She chose a girl whose demure prettiness and quiet charm would enhance the possibilities of the skirt's practicability in the eye of the shrewd buyer. Gertrude, the model, developed a real interest in the success of the petticoat. Emma knew enough about the psychology of crowds to realize how this increased her chances for success.
The much heralded fashion show was to open at one o'clock on the afternoon of March fifteenth. At ten o'clock that morning, there breezed in from Chicago a tall, slim, alert young man, who made straight for the offices of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, walked into the junior partner's private office, and took that astonished lady in his two strong arms.
"Jock McChesney!" gasped his rumpled mother, emerging from the hug. "I've been hungry for a sight of you!" She was submerged in a second hug. "Come here to the window where I can get a real look at you! Why didn't you wire me? What are you doing away from your own job? How's business? And why come to-day, of all days, when I can't make a fuss over you?"
Jock McChesney, bright-eyed, clear-skinned, steady of hand, stood up well under the satisfied scrutiny of his adoring mother. He smiled down at her.
"Wanted to surprise you. Here for three reasons—the Abbott Grape-juice advertising contract, you, and Grace. And why can't you make a fuss over me, I'd like to know?"
Emma told him. His keen, quick mind required little in the way of explanation.
"But why didn't you let me in on it sooner?"
"Because, son, nothing explains harder than embryo success. I always prefer to wait until it's grown up and let it do its own explaining."
"But the thing ought to have national advertising," Jock insisted, with the advertising expert's lightning grasp of its possibilities. "What that skirt needs is publicity. Why didn't you let me handle——"
"Yes, I know, dear; but you haven't seen the skirt. It won't do to ram it down their throats. I want to ease it to them first. I want them to get used to it. It failed utterly on the road, because it jarred their notion of what a petticoat ought to be. That's due to five years of sheath skirts."
"But suppose—just for the sake of argument—that it doesn't strike them right this afternoon?"
"Then it's gone, that's all. Six months from now, every skirt-factory in the country will be manufacturing a similar garment. People will be ready for it then. I've just tried to cut in ahead of the rest. Perhaps I shouldn't have tried to do it."
Jock hugged her again at that, to the edification of the office windows across the way.
"Gad, you're a wiz, mother! Now listen: I 'phoned Grace when I got in. She's going to meet me here at one. I'll chase over to the office now on this grape-juice thing and come back here in time for lunch. Is T. A. in? I'll look in on him a minute. We'll all lunch together, and then——"
"Can't do it, son. The show opens at one. Gertrude, my model, comes on at three. She's going to have the stage to herself for ten minutes, during which she'll make four changes of costume to demonstrate the usefulness of the skirt for every sort of gown from chiffon to velvet. Come back here at one, if you like. If I'm not here, come over to the show. But—lunch! I'd choke."
At twelve-thirty, there scampered into Emma's office a very white-faced, round-eyed little stock-girl. Emma, deep in a last-minute discussion with Buck, had a premonition of trouble before the girl gasped out her message.
"Oh, Mrs. Buck, Gertie's awful sick!"
"Sick!" echoed Emma and Buck, in duet. Then Emma:
"But she can't be! It's impossible! She was all right a half hour ago." She was hurrying down the hall as she spoke. "Where is she?"
"They've got her on one of the tables in the workroom. She's moaning awful."
Gertie's appendix, with that innate sense of the dramatic so often found in temperamental appendices, had indeed chosen this moment to call attention to itself. Gertie, the demurely pretty and quietly charming, was rolled in a very tight ball on the workroom cutting-table. At one o'clock, she was on her way home in a cab, under the care of a doctor, Miss Kelly, the bookkeeper, and Jock, who, coming in gaily at one, had been pressed into service, bewildered but willing.
Three rather tragic figures stared at one another in the junior partner's office. They were Emma, Buck, and Grace Galt, Jock's wife-to-be. Grace Galt, slim, lovely, girlish, was known, at twenty-four, as one of the most expert copy writers in the advertising world. In her clear-headed, capable manner, she tried to suggest a way out of the difficulty now.
"But surely the world's full of girls," she said. "It's late, I know; but any theatrical agency will send a girl over."
"That's just what I tried to avoid," Emma replied. "I wanted to show this skirt on a sweet, pretty, refined sort of girl who looks and acts like a lady. One of those blond show girls would kill it."
Gloom settled down again over the three. Emma broke the silence with a rueful little laugh.
"I think," she said, "that perhaps you're right, T. A., and this is the Lord's way of showing me that the world is not quite ready for this skirt."
"You're not beaten yet, Emma," Buck assured her vigorously. "How about this new girl—what's her name?—Myrtle. She's one of those thin, limp ones, isn't she? Try her."
"I will," said Emma. "You're right. I'm not beaten yet. I've had to fight for everything worth while in my life. I'm superstitious about it now. When things come easy I'm afraid of them." Then, to the stock-girl, "Annie, tell Myrtle I want to see her."
Silence fell again upon the three. Myrtle, very limp, very thin, very languid indeed, roused them at her entrance. The hopeful look in Emma's eyes faded as she beheld her. Myrtle was so obviously limp, so hopelessly new.
"Annie says you want me to take Gertie's place," drawled Myrtle, striking a magazine-cover attitude.
"I don't know that you are just the—er—type; but perhaps, if you're willing——"
"Of course I didn't come here as a model," said Myrtle, and sagged on the other hip. "But, as a special favor to you I'm willing to try it—at special model's rates."
Emma ran a somewhat frenzied hand through her hair.
"Then, as a special favor to me, will you begin by trying to stand up straight, please? That debutante slouch would kill a queen's coronation costume."
Myrtle straightened, slumped again.
"I can't help it if I am willowy"—listlessly.
"Your hair!" Myrtle's hand went vaguely to her head. "I can't have you wear it that way."
"Why, this is the French roll!" protested Myrtle, offended.
"Then do it in a German bun!" snapped Emma. "Any way but that. Will you walk, please?"
"Yes, walk; I want to see how you——"
Myrtle walked across the room. A groan came from Emma.
"I thought so." She took a long breath.
"Myrtle, listen: That Australian crawl was necessary when our skirts were so narrow we had to negotiate a curbing before we could take it. But the skirt you're going to demonstrate is wide. Like that! You're practically a free woman in it. Step out! Stride! Swing! Walk!"
Myrtle tried it, stumbled, sulked.
Emma, half smiling, half woeful, patted the girl's shoulder.
"Oh, I see; you're wearing a tight one. Well, run in and get into the skirt. Miss Loeb will help you. Then come back here—and quickly, please."
The three looked at each other in silence. It was a silence brimming with eloquent meaning. Each sought encouragement in the eyes of the other—and failed to find it. Failing, they broke into helpless laughter. It proved a safety-valve.
"She may do, Emma—when she has her hair done differently, and if she'll only stand up."
But Emma shook her head.
"T. A., something tells me you're going to have a wonderful chance to say, 'I told you so!' at three o'clock this afternoon."
"You know I wouldn't say it, Emma."
"Yes; I do know it, dear. But what's the difference, if the chance is there?"
Suspense settled down on the little office. Billy Spalding entered, smiling. After five minutes of waiting, even his buoyant spirits sank.
"Don't you think—if you were to go in and—and sort of help adjust things——" suggested Buck vaguely.
"No; I don't want to prop her up. She'll have to stand alone when she gets there. She'll either do, or not. When she enters that door, I'll know."
When Myrtle entered, wearing the fascinatingly fashioned new model, they all knew.
Emma spoke decisively.
"That settles it."
"What's the matter? Don't it look all right?" demanded Myrtle.
"Take it off, Myrtle."
Then, to the others, as Myrtle, sulking, left the room:
"I can stand to see that skirt die if necessary. But I won't help murder it."
"But, Mrs. Buck," protested Spalding, almost tearfully, "you've got to exhibit that skirt. You've got to!"
Emma shook a sorrowing head.
"That wouldn't be an exhibition, Billy. It would be an expose."
Spalding clapped a desperate hand to his bald head.
"If only I had Julian Eltinge's shape, I'd wear it to the show for you myself."
"That's all it needs now," retorted Emma grimly.
Whereupon, Grace Galt spoke up in her clear, decisive voice.
"Wait a minute," she said quietly. "I'm going to wear that skirt at the fashion show."
"You!" cried the three, like a trained trio.
"Why not?" demanded Grace Galt, coolly. Then: "No; don't tell me why not. I won't listen."
But Emma, equally cool, would have none of it.
"It's impossible, dear. You're an angel to want to help me. But you must know it's quite out of the question."
"It's nothing of the kind. This skirt isn't merely a fad. It has a fortune in it. I'm business woman enough to know that. You've got to let me do it. It isn't only for yourself. It's for T. A. and for the future of the firm."
"Do you suppose I'd allow you to stand up before all those people?"
"Why not? I don't know them. They don't know me. I can make them get the idea in that skirt. And I'm going to do it. You don't object to me on the same grounds that you did to Myrtle, do you?"
"You!" burst from the admiring Spalding. "Say, you'd make a red-flannel petticoat look like crepe de Chine and lace."
"There!" said Grace, triumphant. "That settles it!" And she was off down the hall. They stood a moment in stunned silence. Then:
"But Jock!" protested Emma, following her. "What will Jock say? Grace! Grace dear! I can't let you do it! I can't!"
"Just unhook this for me, will you?" replied Grace Galt sweetly.
At two o'clock, Jock McChesney, returned from his errand of mercy, burst into the office to find mother, step-father, and fiancee all flown.
"Where? What?" he demanded of the outer office.
"Fashion show!" chorused the office staff
"Might have waited for me," Jock said to himself, much injured. And hurled himself into a taxi.
There was a crush of motors and carriages for a block on all sides of Madison Square Garden. He had to wait for what seemed an interminable time at the box-office. Then he began the task of worming his way through the close-packed throng in the great auditorium. It was a crowd such as the great place had not seen since the palmy days of the horse show. It was a crowd that sparkled and shone in silks and feathers and furs and jewels.
"Jove, if mother has half a chance at this gang!" Jock told himself. "If only she has grabbed some one who can really show that skirt!"
He was swept with the crowd toward a high platform at the extreme end of the auditorium. All about that platform stood hundreds, close packed, faces raised eagerly, the better to see the slight, graceful, girlish figure occupying the center of the stage—a figure strangely familiar to Jock's eyes in spite of its quaintly billowing, ante-bellum garb. She was speaking. Jock, mouth agape, eyes protruding, ears straining, heard, as in a daze, the sweet, clear, charmingly modulated voice:
"The feature of the skirt, ladies and gentlemen, is that it gives a fulness without weight, something which the skirt-maker has never before been able to achieve. This is due to the patent featherboning process invented by Mrs. T. A. Buck, of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, New York. Note, please, that it has all the advantages of our grandmother's hoop-skirt, but none of its awkward features. It is graceful"—she turned slowly, lightly—"it is bouffant" she twirled on her toes—"it is practical, serviceable, elegant. It can be made up in any shade, in any material—silk, lace, crepe de Chine, charmeuse, taffeta. The T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company is prepared to fill orders for immediate——"
"Well, I'll be darned!" said Jock McChesney aloud. And, again, heedless of the protesting "Sh-sh-sh-sh!" that his neighbors turned upon him, "Well, I'll—be—darned!"
A hand twitched his coat sleeve. He turned, still dazed. His mother, very pink-cheeked, very bright-eyed, pulled him through the throng. As they reached the edge of the crowd, there came a great burst of applause, a buzz of conversation, the turning, shifting, nodding, staccato movements which mean approval in a mass of people.
"What the dickens! How!" stammered Jock. "When—did she—did she——"
Emma, half smiling, half tearful, raised a protesting hand.
"I don't know. Don't ask me, dear. And don't hate me for it. I tried to tell her not to, but she insisted. And, Jock, she's done it, I tell you! She's done it! They love the skirt! Listen to 'em!"
"Don't want to," said Jock. "Lead me to her."
"Me? No! I'm—I'm proud of her! She hasn't only brains and looks, that little girl; she's got nerve—the real kind! Gee, how did I ever have the gall to ask her to marry me!"
Together they sped toward the door that led to the dressing-rooms. Buck, his fine eyes more luminous than ever as he looked at this wonder-wife of his, met them at the entrance.
"She's waiting for you, Jock," he said, smiling. Jock took the steps in one leap.
"Well, T. A.?" said Emma.
"Well, Emma?" said T. A.
Which burst of eloquence was interrupted abruptly by a short, squat, dark man, who seized Emma's hand in his left and Buck's in his right, and pumped them up and down vigorously. It was that volatile, voluble person known to the skirt trade as Abel I. Fromkin, of the "Fromkin Form-fit Skirt. It Clings!"
"I'm looking everywhere for you!" he panted. Then, his shrewd little eyes narrowing, "You want to talk business?"
"Not here," said Buck abruptly.
"Sure—here," insisted Fromkin. "Say, that's me. When I got a thing on my mind, I like to settle it. How much you take for the rights to that skirt?"
"Take for it!" exclaimed Emma, in the tone a mother would use to one who has suggested taking a beloved child from her.
"Now wait a minute. Don't get mad. You ain't started that skirt right. It should have been advertised. It's too much of a shock. You'll see. They won't buy. They're afraid of it. I'll take it off your hands and push it right, see? I offer you forty thousand for the rights to make that skirt and advertise it as the 'Fromkin Full-flounce Skirt. It Flares!'"
"How much?" she asked quizzically.
Abel I. Fromkin gulped.
"Fifty thousand," he said.
"Fifty thousand," repeated Emma quietly, and looked at Buck. "Thanks, Mr. Fromkin! I know, now, that if it's worth fifty thousand to you to-day as the 'Fromkin Full-flounce Skirt. It Flares!' then it's worth one hundred and fifty thousand to us as the 'T. A. Buck Balloon-Petticoat. It Billows!'"
And it was.