"Well, who is he?" insisted Ed Meyers. "He told me everything but his name this morning. I wish I had throttled him with a bunch of Bisons' badges last night."
"His name," smiled Emma McChesney, "is Jock McChesney. He's my one and only son, and he's put through his first little business deal this morning just to show his mother that he can be a help to his folks if he wants to. Now, Ed Meyers, if you're going to have apoplexy don't you go and have it around this table. My boy is only on his second piece of pie, and I won't have his appetite spoiled."
PINK TIGHTS AND GINGHAMS
Some one—probably one of those Frenchmen whose life job it was to make epigrams—-once said that there are but two kinds of women: good women, and bad women. Ever since then problem playwrights have been putting that fiction into the mouths of wronged husbands and building their "big scene" around it. But don't you believe it. There are four kinds: good women, bad women, good bad women, and bad good women. And the worst of these is the last. This should be a story of all four kinds, and when it is finished I defy you to discover which is which.
When the red stuff in the thermometer waxes ambitious, so that fat men stand, bulging-eyed, before it and beginning with the ninety mark count up with a horrible satisfaction—ninety-one—ninety-two—ninety- three—NINETY FOUR! by gosh! and the cinders are filtering into your berth, and even the porter is wandering restlessly up and down the aisle like a black soul in purgatory and a white duck coat, then the thing to do is to don those mercifully few garments which the laxity of sleeping-car etiquette permits, slip out between the green curtains and fare forth in search of draughts, liquid and atmospheric.
At midnight Emma McChesney, inured as she was to sleepers and all their horrors, found her lower eight unbearable. With the bravery of desperation she groped about for her cinder-strewn belongings, donned slippers and kimono, waited until the tortured porter's footsteps had squeaked their way to the far end of the car, then sped up the dim aisle toward the back platform. She wrenched open the door, felt the rush of air, drew in a long, grateful, smoke-steam-dust laden lungful of it, felt the breath of it on spine and chest, sneezed, realized that she would be the victim of a summer cold next day, and, knowing, cared not.
"Great, ain't it?" said a voice in the darkness. (Nay, reader. A woman's voice.)
Emma McChesney was of the non-screaming type. But something inside of her suspended action for the fraction of a second. She peered into the darkness.
"'J' get scared?" inquired the voice. Its owner lurched forward from the corner in which she had been crouching, into the half-light cast by the vestibule night-globe.
Even as men judge one another by a Masonic emblem, an Elk pin, or the band of a cigar, so do women in sleeping-cars weigh each other according to the rules of the Ancient Order of the Kimono. Seven seconds after Emma McChesney first beheld the negligee that stood revealed in the dim light she had its wearer neatly weighed, marked, listed, docketed and placed.
It was the kind of kimono that is associated with straw-colored hair, and French-heeled shoes, and over-fed dogs at the end of a leash. The Japanese are wrongly accused of having perpetrated it. In pattern it showed bright green flowers-that-never-were sprawling on a purple background. A diamond bar fastened it not too near the throat.
It was one of Emma McChesney's boasts that she was the only living woman who could get off a sleeper at Bay City, Michigan, at 5 A.M., without looking like a Swedish immigrant just dumped at Ellis Island. Traveling had become a science with her, as witness her serviceable dark-blue silk kimono, and her hair in a schoolgirl braid down her back. The blonde woman cast upon Emma McChesney an admiring eye.
"Gawd, ain't it hot!" she said, sociably.
"I wonder," mused Emma McChesney, "if that porter could be hypnotized into making some lemonade—a pitcherful, with a lot of ice in it, and the cold sweat breaking out all over the glass?
"Lemonade!" echoed the other, wonder and amusement in her tone. "Are they still usin' it?" She leaned against the door, swaying with the motion of the car, and hugging her. plump, bare arms. "Travelin' alone?" she asked.
"Oh, yes," replied Emma McChesney, and decided it was time to go in.
"Lonesome, ain't it, without company? Goin' far?"
"I'm accustomed to it. I travel on business, not pleasure. I'm on the road, representing T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats!"
The once handsome violet eyes of the plump blonde widened with surprise. Then they narrowed to critical slits.
"On the road! Sellin' goods! And I thought you was only a kid. It's the way your hair's fixed, I suppose. Say, that must be a hard life for a woman—buttin' into a man's game like that."
"Oh, I suppose any work that takes a woman out into the world—" began Emma McChesney vaguely, her hand on the door-knob.
"Sure," agreed the other. "I ought to know. The hotels and time-tables alone are enough to kill. Who do you suppose makes up train schedules? They don't seem to think no respectable train ought to leave anywhere before eleven-fifty A.M., or arrive after six A.M. We played Ottumwa, Iowa, last night, and here we are jumpin' to Illinois."
In surprise Emma McChesney turned at the door for another look at the hair, figure, complexion and kimono.
"Oh, you're an actress! Well, if you think mine is a hard life for a woman, why—"
"Me!" said the green-gold blonde, and laughed not prettily. "I ain't a woman. I'm a queen of burlesque.
"Burlesque? You mean one of those—" Emma McChesney stopped, her usually deft tongue floundering.
"One of those 'men only' troupes? You guessed it. I'm Blanche LeHaye, of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles. We get into North Bend at six to- morrow morning, and we play there to-morrow night, Sunday." She took a step forward so that her haggard face and artificially tinted hair were very near Emma McChesney. "Know what I was thinkin' just one second before you come out here?"
"I was thinkin' what a cinch it would be to just push aside that canvas thing there by the steps and try what the newspaper accounts call 'jumping into the night.' Say, if I'd had on my other lawnjerie I'll bet I'd have done it."
Into Emma McChesney's understanding heart there swept a wave of pity. But she answered lightly: "Is that supposed to be funny?"
The plump blonde yawned. "It depends on your funny bone. Mine's got blunted. I'm the lady that the Irish comedy guy slaps in the face with a bunch of lettuce. Say, there's something about you that makes a person get gabby and tell things. You'd make a swell clairvoyant."
Beneath the comedy of the bleached hair, and the flaccid face, and the bizarre wrapper; behind the coarseness and vulgarity and ignorance, Emma McChesney's keen mental eye saw something decent and clean and beautiful. And something pitiable, and something tragic.
"I guess you'd better come in and get some sleep," said Emma McChesney; and somehow found her hand resting on the woman's shoulder. So they stood, on the swaying, jolting platform. Blanche LeHaye, of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles, looked down, askance, at the hand on her shoulder, as at some strange and interesting object.
"Ten years ago," she said, "that would have started me telling the story of my life, with all the tremolo stops on, and the orchestra in tears. Now it only makes me mad."
Emma McChesney's hand seemed to snatch itself away from the woman's shoulder.
"You can't treat me with your life's history. I'm going in."
"Wait a minute. Don't go away sore, kid. On the square, I guess I liked the feel of your hand on my arm, like that. Say, I've done the same thing myself to a strange dog that looked up at me, pitiful. You know, the way you reach down, and pat 'm on the head, and say, 'Nice doggie, nice doggie, old fellow,' even if it is a street cur, with a chawed ear, and no tail. They growl and show their teeth, but they like it. A woman—Lordy! there comes the brakeman. Let's beat it. Ain't we the nervy old hens!"
The female of the species as she is found in sleeping-car dressing- rooms had taught Emma McChesney to rise betimes that she might avoid contact with certain frowsy, shapeless beings armed with bottles of milky liquids, and boxes of rosy pastes, and pencils that made arched and inky lines; beings redolent of bitter almond, and violet toilette water; beings in doubtful corsets and green silk petticoats perfect as to accordion-plaited flounce, but showing slits and tatters farther up; beings jealously guarding their ten inches of mirror space and consenting to move for no one; ladies who had come all the way from Texas and who insisted on telling about it, despite a mouthful of hairpins; doubtful sisters who called one dearie and required to be hooked up; distracted mothers with three small children who wiped their hands on your shirt-waist.
So it was that Emma McChesney, hatted and veiled by 5:45, saw the curtains of the berth opposite rent asunder to disclose the rumpled, shapeless figure of Miss Blanche LeHaye. The queen of burlesque bore in her arms a conglomerate mass of shoes, corset, purple skirt, bag and green-plumed hat. She paused to stare at Emma McChesney's trim, cool preparedness.
"You must have started to dress as soon's you come in last night. I never slep' a wink till just about half a hour ago. I bet I ain't got more than eleven minutes to dress in. Ain't this a scorcher!"
When the train stopped at North Bend, Emma McChesney, on her way out, collided with a vision in a pongee duster, rose-colored chiffon veil, chamois gloves, and plumed hat. Miss Blanche LeHaye had made the most of her eleven minutes. Her baggage attended to, Emma McChesney climbed into a hotel 'bus. It bore no other passengers. From her corner in the vehicle she could see the queen of burlesque standing in the center of the depot platform, surrounded by her company. It was a tawdry, miserable, almost tragic group, the men undersized, be-diamonded, their skulls oddly shaped, their clothes a satire on the fashions for men, their chins unshaven, their loose lips curved contentedly over cigarettes; the women dreadfully unreal with the pitiless light of the early morning sun glaring down on their bedizened faces, their spotted, garish clothes, their run-down heels, their vivid veils, their matted hair. They were quarreling among themselves, and a flame of hate for the moment lighted up those dull, stupid, vicious faces. Blanche LeHaye appeared to be the center about which the strife waged, for suddenly she flung through the shrill group and walked swiftly over to the 'bus and climbed into it heavily. One of the women turned, her face lived beneath the paint, to scream a great oath after her. The 'bus driver climbed into his seat and took up the reins. After a moment's indecision the little group on the platform turned and trailed off down the street, the women sagging under the weight of their bags, the men, for the most part, hurrying on ahead. When the 'bus lurched past them the woman who had screamed the oath after Blanche LeHaye laughed shrilly and made a face, like a naughty child, whereupon the others laughed in falsetto chorus.
A touch of real color showed in Blanche LeHaye's flabby cheek. "I'll show'm she snarled. That hussy of a Zella Dacre thinkin' she can get my part away from me the last week or so, the lyin' sneak. I'll show'm a leadin' lady's a leadin' lady. Let 'em go to their hash hotels. I'm goin' to the real inn in this town just to let 'em know that I got my dignity to keep up, and that I don't have to mix in with scum like that. You see that there? She pointed at something in the street. Emma McChesney turned to look. The cheap lithographs of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles Company glared at one from the bill-boards.
"That's our paper," explained Blanche LeHaye. "That's me, in the center of the bunch, with the pink reins in my hands, drivin' that four-in-hand of johnnies. Hot stuff! Just let Dacre try to get it away from me, that's all. I'll show'm."
She sank back into her corner. Her anger left her with the suddenness characteristic of her type.
"Ain't this heat fierce?" she fretted, and closed her eyes.
Now, Emma McChesney was a broad-minded woman. The scars that she had received in her ten years' battle with business reminded her to be tender at sight of the wounds of others. But now, as she studied the woman huddled there in the corner, she was conscious of a shuddering disgust of her—of the soiled blouse, of the cheap finery, of the sunken places around the jaw-bone, of the swollen places beneath the eyes, of the thin, carmined lips, of the—
Blanche LeHaye opened her eyes suddenly and caught the look on Emma McChesney's face. Caught it, and comprehended it. Her eyes narrowed, and she laughed shortly.
"Oh, I dunno," drawled Blanche LeHaye. "I wouldn't go's far's that, kid. Say, when I was your age I didn't plan to be no bum burlesquer neither. I was going to be an actress, with a farm on Long Island, like the rest of 'em. Every real actress has got a farm on Long Island, if it's only there in the mind of the press agent. It's a kind of a religion with 'em. I was goin' to build a house on mine that was goin' to be a cross between a California bungalow and the Horticultural Building at the World's Fair. Say, I ain't the worst, kid. There's others outside of my smear, understand, that I wouldn't change places with."
A dozen apologies surged to Emma McChesney's lips just as the driver drew up at the curbing outside the hotel and jumped down to open the door. She found herself hoping that the hotel clerk would not class her with her companion.
At eleven o'clock that morning Emma McChesney unlocked her door and walked down the red-carpeted hotel corridor. She had had two hours of restful sleep. She had bathed, and breakfasted, and donned clean clothes. She had brushed the cinders out of her hair, and manicured. She felt as alert, and cool and refreshed as she looked, which speaks well for her comfort.
Halfway down the hail a bedroom door stood open. Emma McChesney glanced in. What she saw made her stop. The next moment she would have hurried on, but the figure within called out to her.
Miss Blanche LeHaye had got into her kimono again. She was slumped in a dejected heap in a chair before the window. There was a tray, with a bottle and some glasses on the table by her side.
"Gawd, ain't it hot!" she whined miserably. "Come on in a minute. I left the door open to catch the breeze, but there ain't any. You look like a peach just off the ice. Got a gent friend in town?"
"No," answered Emma McChesney hurriedly, and turned to go.
"Wait a minute," said Blanche LeHaye, sharply, and rose. She slouched over to where Emma McChesney stood and looked up at her sullenly.
"Why!" gasped Emma McChesney, and involuntarily put out her hand, "why—my dear—you've been crying! Is there—"
"No, there ain't. I can bawl, can't I, if I am a bum burlesquer?" She put down the squat little glass she had in her hand and stared resentfully at Emma McChesney's cool, fragrant freshness.
"Say," she demanded suddenly, "whatja mean by lookin' at me the way you did this morning, h'm? Whatja mean? You got a nerve turnin' up your nose at me, you have. I'll just bet you ain't no better than you might be, neither. What the—"
Swiftly Emma McChesney crossed the room and closed the door. Then she came back to where Blanche LeHaye stood.
"Now listen to me," she said. "You shed that purple kimono of yours and hustle into some clothes and come along with me. I mean it. Whenever I'm anywhere near this town I make a jump and Sunday here. I've a friend here named Morrissey—Ethel Morrissey—and she's the biggest-hearted, most understanding friend that a woman ever had. She's skirt and suit buyer at Barker & Fisk's here. I have a standing invitation to spend Sunday at her house. She knows I'm coming. I help get dinner if I feel like it, and wash my hair if I want to, and sit out in the back yard, and fool with the dog, and act like a human being for one day. After you've been on the road for ten years a real Sunday dinner in a real home has got Sherry's flossiest efforts looking like a picnic collation with ants in the pie. You're coming with me, more for my sake than for yours, because the thought of you sitting here, like this, would sour the day for me."
Blanche LeHaye's fingers were picking at the pin which fastened her gown. She smiled, uncertainly.
"What's your game?" she inquired.
"I'll wait for you downstairs," said Emma McChesney, pleasantly. "Do you ever have any luck with caramel icing? Ethel's and mine always curdles."
"Do I?" yelled the queen of burlesque. "I invented it." And she was down on her knees, her fingers fumbling with the lock of her suitcase.
Only an Ethel Morrissey, inured to the weird workings of humanity by years of shrewd skirt and suit buying, could have stood the test of having a Blanche LeHaye thrust upon her, an unexpected guest, and with the woman across the street sitting on her front porch taking it all in.
At the door—"This is Miss Blanche LeHaye of the—er—Simon—"
"Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles," put in Miss LeHaye. "Pleased to meet you."
"Come in," said Miss Ethel Morrissey without batting an eye. "I just 'phoned the hotel. Thought you'd gone back on me, Emma. I'm baking a caramel cake. Don't slam the door. This your first visit here, Miss LeHaye? Excuse me for not shaking hands. I'm all flour. Lay your things in there. Ma's spending the day with Aunt Gus at Forest City and I'm the whole works around here. It's got skirts and suits beat a mile. Hot, ain't it? Say, suppose you girls slip off your waists and I'll give you each an all-over apron that's loose and let's the breeze slide around."
Blanche LeHaye, the garrulous, was strangely silent. When she stepped about it was in the manner of one who is fearful of wakening a sleeper. When she caught the eyes of either of the other women her own glance dropped.
When Ethel Morrissey came in with the blue-and-white gingham aprons Blanche LeHaye hesitated a long minute before picking hers up. Then she held it by both sleeves and looked at it long, and curiously. When she looked up again she found the eyes of the other two upon her. She slipped the apron over her head with a nervous little laugh.
"I've been a pair of pink tights so long," she said, "that I guess I've almost forgotten how to be a woman. But once I get this on I'll bet I can come back."
She proved it from the moment that she measured out the first cupful of brown sugar for the caramel icing. She shed her rings, and pinned her hair back from her forehead, and tucked up her sleeves, and as Emma McChesney watched her a resolve grew in her mind.
The cake disposed of—"Give me some potatoes to peel, will you?" said Blanche LeHaye, suddenly. "Give 'em to me in a brown crock, with a chip out of the side. There's certain things always goes hand-in-hand in your mind. You can't think of one without the other. Now, Lillian Russell and cold cream is one; and new potatoes and brown crocks is another."
She peeled potatoes, sitting hunched up on the kitchen chair with her high heels caught back of the top rung. She chopped spinach until her face was scarlet, and her hair hung in limp strands at the back of her neck. She skinned tomatoes. She scoured pans. She wiped up the white oilcloth table-top with a capable and soapy hand. The heat and bustle of the little kitchen seemed to work some miraculous change in her. Her eyes brightened. Her lips smiled. Once, Emma McChesney and Ethel Morrissey exchanged covert looks when they heard her crooning one of those tuneless chants that women hum when they wring out dishcloths in soapy water.
After dinner, in the cool of the sitting-room, with the shades drawn, and their skirts tucked halfway to their knees, things looked propitious for that first stroke in the plan which had worked itself out in Emma McChesney's alert mind. She caught Blanche LeHaye's eye, and smiled.
"This beats burlesquing, doesn't it?" she said. She leaned forward a bit in her chair. "Tell me, Miss LeHaye, haven't you ever thought of quitting that—the stage—and turning to something—something—"
"Something decent?" Blanche LeHaye finished for her. "I used to. I've got over that. Now all I ask is to get a laugh when I kick the comedian's hat off with my toe."
"But there must have been a time—" insinuated Emma McChesney, gently.
Blanche LeHaye grinned broadly at the two women who were watching her so intently.
"I think I ought to tell you," she began, "that I never was a minister's daughter, and I don't remember ever havin' been deserted by my sweetheart when I was young and trusting. If I was to draw a picture of my life it would look like one of those charts that the weather bureau gets out—one of those high and low barometer things, all uphill and downhill like a chain of mountains in a kid's geography."
She shut her eyes and lay back in the depths of the leather-cushioned chair. The three sat in silence for a moment.
"Look here," said Emma McChesney, suddenly, rising and coming over to the woman in the big chair, "that's not the life for a woman like you. I can get you a place in our office—not much, perhaps, but something decent—something to start with. If you—"
"For that matter," put in Ethel Morrissey, quickly, "I could get you something right here in our store. I've been there long enough to have some say-so, and if I recommend you they'd start you in the basement at first, and then, if you made good, they advance you right along."
Blanche LeHaye stood up and, twisting her arm around at the back, began to unbutton her gingham apron.
"I guess you think I'm a bad one, don't you? Well, maybe I am. But I'm not the worst. I've got a brother. He lives out West, and he's rich, and married, and respectable. You know the way a man can climb out of the mud, while a woman just can't wade out of it? Well, that's the way it was with us. His wife's a regular society bug. She wouldn't admit that there was any such truck as me, unless, maybe, the Municipal Protective League, or something, of her town, got to waging a war against burlesque shows. I hadn't seen Len—that's my brother—-in years and years. Then one night in Omaha, I glimmed him sitting down in the B. H. row. His face just seemed to rise up at me out of the audience. He recognized me, too. Say, men are all alike. What they see in a dingy, half-fed, ignorant bunch like us, I don't know. But the minute a man goes to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or somewhere on business he'll hunt up a burlesque show, and what's more, he'll enjoy it. Funny. Well, Len waited for me after the show, and we had a talk. He told me his troubles, and I told him some of mine, and when we got through I wouldn't have swapped with him. His wife's a wonder. She's climbed to the top of the ladder in her town. And she's pretty, and young-looking, and a regular swell. Len says their home is one of the kind where the rubberneck auto stops while the spieler tells the crowd who lives there, and how he made his money. But they haven't any kids, Len told me. He's crazy about 'em. But his wife don't want any. I wish you could have seen Len's face when he was talking about it."
She dropped the gingham apron in a circle at her feet, and stepped out of it. She walked over to where her own clothes lay in a gaudy heap.
"Exit the gingham. But it's been great." She paused before slipping her skirt over her head. The silence of the other two women seemed to anger her a little.
"I guess you think I'm a bad one, clear through, don't you? Well, I ain't. I don't hurt anybody but myself. Len's wife—that's what I call bad."
"But I don't think you're bad clear through," tried Emma McChesney. "I don't. That's why I made that proposition to you. That's why I want you to get away from all this, and start over again."
"Me?" laughed Blanche LeHaye. "Me! In a office! With ledgers, and sale bills, and accounts, and all that stuff! Why, girls, I couldn't hold down a job in a candy factory. I ain't got any intelligence. I never had. You don't find women with brains in a burlesque troupe. If they had 'em they wouldn't be there. Why, we're the dumbest, most ignorant bunch there is. Most of us are just hired girls, dressed up. That's why you find the Woman's Uplift Union having such a blamed hard time savin' souls. The souls they try to save know just enough to be wise to the fact that they couldn't hold down a five-per-week job. Don't you feel sorry for me. I'm doing the only thing I'm good for."
Emma McChesney put out her hand. "I'm sorry," she said. "I only meant it for—"
"Why, of course," agreed Blanche LeHaye, heartily. "And you, too." She turned so that her broad, good-natured smile included Ethel Morrissey. "I've had a whale of a time. My fingers are all stained up with new potatoes, and my nails is full of strawberry juice, and I hope it won't come off for a week. And I want to thank you both. I'd like to stay, but I'm going to hump over to the theater. That Dacre's got the nerve to swipe the star's dressing-room if I don't get my trunks in first."
They walked with her to the front porch, making talk as they went. Resentment and discomfiture and a sort of admiration all played across the faces of the two women, whose kindness had met with rebuff. At the foot of the steps Blanche LeHaye, prima donna of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles turned.
"Oh, say," she called. "I almost forgot. I want to tell you that if you wait until your caramel is off the stove, and then add your butter, when the stuff's hot, but not boilin', it won't lump so. H'm? Don't mention it."
They may differ on the subjects of cigars, samples, hotels, ball teams and pinochle hands, but two things there are upon which they stand united. Every member of that fraternity which is condemned to a hotel bedroom, or a sleeper berth by night, and chained to a sample case by day agrees in this, first: That it isn't what it used to be. Second: If only they could find an opening for a nice, paying gents' furnishing business in a live little town that wasn't swamped with that kind of thing already they'd buy it and settle down like a white man, by George! and quit this peddling. The missus hates it anyhow; and the kids know the iceman better than they do their own dad.
On the morning that Mrs. Emma McChesney (representing T. A. Buck, Featherloom Petticoats) finished her talk with Miss Hattie Stitch, head of Kiser & Bloch's skirt and suit department, she found herself in a rare mood. She hated her job; she loathed her yellow sample cases; she longed to call Miss Stitch a green-eyed cat; and she wished that she had chosen some easy and pleasant way of earning a living, like doing plain and fancy washing and ironing. Emma McChesney had been selling Featherloom Petticoats on the road for almost ten years, and she was famed throughout her territory for her sane sunniness, and her love of her work. Which speaks badly for Miss Hattie Stitch.
Miss Hattie Stitch hated Emma McChesney with all the hate that a flat- chested, thin-haired woman has for one who can wear a large thirty-six without one inch of alteration, and a hat that turns sharply away from the face. For forty-six weeks in the year Miss Stitch existed in Kiser & Bloch's store at River Falls. For six weeks, two in spring, two in fall, and two in mid-winter, Hattie lived in New York, with a capital L. She went there to select the season's newest models (slightly modified for River Falls), but incidentally she took a regular trousseau with her.
All day long Hattie picked skirt and suit models with unerring good taste and business judgment. At night she was a creature transformed. Every house of which Hattie bought did its duty like a soldier and a gentleman. Nightly Hattie powdered her neck and arms, performed sacred rites over her hair and nails, donned a gown so complicated that a hotel maid had to hook her up the back, and was ready for her evening's escort at eight. There wasn't a hat in a grill room from one end of the Crooked Cow-path to the other that was more wildly barbaric than Hattie's, even in these sane and simple days when the bird of paradise has become the national bird. The buyer of suits for a thriving department store in a hustling little Middle-Western town isn't to be neglected. Whenever a show came to River Falls Hattie would look bored, pass a weary hand over her glossy coiffure and say: "Oh, yes. Clever little show. Saw it two winters ago in New York. This won't be the original company, of course." The year that Hattie came back wearing a set of skunk everyone thought it was lynx until Hattie drew attention to what she called the "brown tone" in it. After that Old Lady Heinz got her old skunk furs out of the moth balls and tobacco and newspapers that had preserved them, and her daughter cut them up into bands for the bottom of her skirt, and the cuffs of her coat. When Kiser & Bloch had their fall and spring openings the town came ostensibly to see the new styles, but really to gaze at Hattie in a new confection, undulating up and down the department, talking with a heavy Eastern accent about this or that being "smart" or "good this year," or having "a world of style," and sort of trailing her toes after her to give a clinging, Grecian line, like pictures of Ethel Barrymore when she was thin. The year that Hattie confided to some one that she was wearing only scant bloomers beneath her slinky silk the floor was mobbed, and they had to call in reserves from the basement ladies-and-misses-ready-to-wear.
Miss Stitch came to New York in March. On the evening of her arrival she dined with Fat Ed Meyers, of the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company. He informed her that she looked like a kid, and that that was some classy little gown, and it wasn't every woman who could wear that kind of thing and get away with it. It took a certain style. Hattie smiled, and hummed off-key to the tune the orchestra was playing, and Ed told her it was a shame she didn't do something with that voice.
"I have something to tell you," said Hattie. "Just before I left I had a talk with old Kiser. Or rather, he had a talk with me. You know I have pretty much my own way in my department. Pity if I couldn't have. I made it. Well, Kiser wanted to know why I didn't buy Featherlooms. I said we had no call for 'em, and he came back with figures to prove we're losing a good many hundreds a year by not carrying them. He said the Strauss Sans-silk skirt isn't what it used to be. And he's right."
"Oh, say—" objected Ed Meyers.
"It's true," insisted Hattie. "But I couldn't tell him that I didn't buy Featherlooms because McChesney made me tired. Besides, she never entertains me when I'm in New York. Not that I'd go to the theater in the evening with a woman, because I wouldn't, but—Say, listen. Why don't you make a play for her job? As long as I've got to put in a heavy line of Featherlooms you may as well get the benefit of it. You could double your commissions. I'll bet that woman makes her I-don't know-how-many thousands a year."
Ed Meyers' naturally ruddy complexion took on a richer tone, and he dropped his fork hastily. As he gazed at Miss Stitch his glance was not more than half flattering. "How you women do love each other, don't you! You don't. I don't mind telling you my firm's cutting down its road force, and none of us knows who's going to be beheaded next. But—well—a guy wouldn't want to take a job away from a woman— especially a square little trick like McChesney. Of course she's played me a couple of low-down deals and I promised to get back at her, but that's business. But—"
"So's this," interrupted Miss Hattie Stitch. "And I don't know that she is so square. Let me tell you that I heard she's no better than she might be. I have it on good authority that three weeks ago, at the River House, in our town—"
Their heads came close together over the little, rose-shaded restaurant table.
At eleven o'clock next morning Fat Ed Meyers walked into the office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company and asked to see old T. A.
"He's in Europe," a stenographer informed him, "spaing, and sprudeling, and badening. Want to see T. A. Junior?"
"T. A. Junior!" almost shouted Ed Meyers. "You don't mean to tell me that fellow's taken hold—"
"Believe me. That's why Featherlooms are soaring and Sans-silks are sinking. Nobody would have believed it. T. A. Junior's got a live wire looking like a stick of licorice. When they thought old T. A. was going to die, young T. A. seemed to straighten out all of a sudden and take hold. It's about time. He must be almost forty, but he don't show it. I don't know, he ain't so good-looking, but he's got swell eyes."
Ed Meyers turned the knob of the door marked "Private," and entered, smiling. Ed Meyers had a smile so cherubic that involuntarily you armed yourself against it.
"Hel-lo Buck!" he called jovially. "I hear that at last you're taking an interest in skirts—other than on the hoof." And he offered young T. A. a large, dark cigar with a fussy-looking band encircling its middle. Young T. A. looked at it disinterestedly, and spake, saying:
"What are you after?"
"Why, I just dropped in—" began Ed Meyers lamely.
"The dropping," observed T. A. Junior, "is bad around here this morning. I have one little formula for all visitors to-day, regardless of whether they're book agents or skirt salesmen. That is, what can I do for you?"
Ed Meyers tucked his cigar neatly into the extreme right corner of his mouth, pushed his brown derby far back on his head, rested his strangely lean hands on his plump knees, and fixed T. A. Junior with a shrewd blue eye. "That suits me fine," he agreed. "I never was one to beat around the bush. Look here. I know skirts from the draw-string to the ruffle. It's a woman's garment, but a man's line. There's fifty reasons why a woman can't handle it like a man. For one thing the packing cases weigh twenty-five pounds each, and she's as dependent on a packer and a porter as a baby is on its mother. Another is that if a man has to get up to make a train at 4 A.M. he don't require twenty- five minutes to fasten down three sets of garters, and braid his hair, and hook his waist up the back, and miss his train. And he don't have neuralgic headaches. Then, the head of a skirt department in a store is a woman, ten times out of ten. And lemme tell you," he leaned forward earnestly, "a woman don't like to buy of a woman. Don't ask me why. I'm too modest. But it's the truth."
"Well?" said young T. A., with the rising inflection.
"Well," finished Ed Meyers, "I like your stuff. I think it's great. It's a seller, with the right man to push it. I'd like to handle it. And I'll guarantee I could double the returns from your Middle-Western territory." T. A. Junior had strangely translucent eyes. Their luminous quality had an odd effect upon any one on whom he happened to turn them. He had been scrawling meaningless curlycues on a piece of paper as Ed Meyers talked. Now he put down the pencil, turned, and looked Ed Meyers fairly in the eye.
"You mean you want Mrs. McChesney's territory?" he asked quietly.
"Well, yes, I do," confessed Ed Meyers, without a blush.
Young T. A. swung back to his desk, tore from the pad before him the piece of paper on which he had been scrawling, crushed it, and tossed it into the wastebasket with an air of finality.
"Take the second elevator down," he said. "The nearest one's out of order."
For a moment Ed Meyers stared, his fat face purpling. "Oh, very well," he said, rising. "I just made you a business proposition, that's all. I thought I was talking to a business man. Now, old T. A.—"
"That'll be about all," observed T. A. Junior, from his desk.
Ed Meyers started toward the door. Then he paused, turned, and came back to his chair. His heavy jaw jutted out threateningly.
"No, it ain't all, either. I didn't want to mention it, and if you'd treated me like a gentleman, I wouldn't have. But I want to say to you that McChesney's giving this firm a black eye. Morals don't figure with a man on the road, but when a woman breaks into this game, she's got to be on the level."
T. A. Junior rose. The blonde stenographer who had made the admiring remark anent his eyes would have appreciated those features now. They glowed luminously into Ed Meyers' pale blue ones until that gentleman dropped his eyelids in confusion. He seemed at a disadvantage in every way, as T. A. Junior's lean, graceful height towered over the fat man's bulk. "I don't know Mrs. McChesney," said T. A. Junior. "I haven't even seen her in six years. My interest in the business is very recent. I do know that my father swears she's the best salesman he has on the road. Before you go any further I want to tell you that you'll have to prove what you just implied, so definitely, and conclusively, and convincingly that when you finish you'll have an ordinary engineering blue-print looking like a Turner landscape. Begin."
Ed Meyers, still standing, clutched his derby tightly and began.
"She's a looker, Emma is. And smooth! As the top of your desk. But she's getting careless. Now a decent, hard-working, straight girl like Miss Hattie Stitch, of Kiser & Bloch's, River Falls, won't buy of her. You'll find you don't sell that firm. And they buy big, too. Why, last summer I had it from the clerk of the hotel in that town that she ran around all day with a woman named LeHaye—Blanche LeHaye, of an aggregation of bum burlesquers called the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles. And say, for a whole month there, she had a tough young kid traveling with her that she called her son. Oh, she's queering your line, all right. The days are past when it used to be a signal for a loud, merry laugh if you mentioned you were selling goods on the road. It's a fine art, and a science these days, and the name of T. A. Buck has always stood for—"
Downstairs a trim, well-dressed, attractive woman stepped into the elevator and smiled radiantly upon the elevator man, who had smiled first.
"Hello, Jake," she said. "What's old in New York? I haven't been here in three months. It's good to be back."
"Seems grand t' see you, Mis' McChesney," returned Jake." Well, nothin' much stirrin'. Whatcha think of the Grand Central? I understand they're going to have a contrivance so you can stand on a mat in the waiting-room and wish yourself down to the track an' train that you're leavin' on. The G'ints have picked a bunch of shines this season. T. A. Junior's got a new sixty-power auto. Genevieve—that yella-headed steno—was married last month to Henry, the shipping clerk. My wife presented me with twin girls Monday. Well, thank you, Mrs. McChesney. I guess that'll help some."
Emma McChesney swung down the hall and into the big, bright office. She paused at the head bookkeeper's desk. The head bookkeeper was a woman. Old Man Buck had learned something about the faithfulness of women employees. The head bookkeeper looked up and said some convincing things.
"Thanks," said Emma, in return. "It's mighty good to be here. Is it true that skirts are going to be full in the back? How's business? T. A. in?"
"Young T. A. is. But I think he's busy just now. You know T. A. Senior isn't back yet. He had a tight squeeze, I guess. Everybody's talking about the way young T. A. took hold. You know he spent years running around Europe, and he made a specialty of first nights, and first editions, and French cars when he did show up here. But now! He's changed the advertising, and designing, and cutting departments around here until there's as much difference between this place now and the place it was three months ago as there is between a hoop-skirt and a hobble. He designed one skirt—Here, Miss Kelly! Just go in and get one of those embroidery flounce models for Mrs. McChesney. How's that? Honestly, I'd wear it myself."
Emma McChesney held the garment in her two hands and looked it over critically. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. She looked up to reply when the door of T. A. Buck's private office opened, and Ed Meyers walked briskly out. Emma McChesney put down the skirt and crossed the office so that she and he met just in front of the little gate that formed an entrance along the railing.
Ed Meyers' mouth twisted itself into a smile. He put out a welcoming hand.
"Why, hello, stranger! When did you drive in? How's every little thing? I'm darned if you don't grow prettier and younger every day of your sweet life."
"Quit Sans-silks?" inquired Mrs. McChesney briefly.
"Why—no. But I was just telling young T. A. in there that if I could only find a nice, paying little gents' furnishing business in a live little town that wasn't swamped with that kind of thing already I'd buy it, by George! I'm tired of this peddling."
"Sing that," said Emma McChesney. "It might sound better," and marched into the office marked "Private."
T. A. Junior's good-looking back and semi-bald head were toward her as she entered. She noted, approvingly, woman-fashion, that his neck would never lap over the edge of his collar in the back. Then Young T. A. turned about. He gazed at Emma McChesney, his eyebrows raised inquiringly. Emma McChesney's honest blue eyes, with no translucent nonsense about them, gazed straight back at T. A. Junior.
"I'm Mrs. McChesney. I got in half an hour ago. It's been a good little trip, considering business, and politics, and all that. I'm sorry to hear your father's still ill. He and I always talked over things after my long trip."
Young T. A.'s expert eye did not miss a single point, from the tip of Mrs. McChesney's smart spring hat to the toes of her well-shod feet, with full stops for the fit of her tailored suit, the freshness of her gloves, the clearness of her healthy pink skin, the wave of her soft, bright hair.
"How do you do, Mrs. McChesney," said Young T. A. emphatically. "Please sit down. It's a good idea—this talking over your trip. There are several little things—now Kiser & Bloch, of River Falls, for instance. We ought to be selling them. The head of their skirt and suit department is named Stitch, isn't she? Now, what would you say of Miss Stitch?"
"Say?" repeated Emma McChesney quickly. "As a woman, or a buyer?"
T. A. Junior thought a minute. "As a woman."
Mrs. McChesney thoughtfully regarded the tips of her neatly gloved hands. Then she looked up. "The kindest and gentlest thing I can say about her is that if she'd let her hair grow out gray maybe her face wouldn't look so hard."
T. A. Junior flung himself back in his chair and threw back his head and laughed at the ceiling.
Then, "How old is your son?" with disconcerting suddenness.
"Jock's scandalously near eighteen." In her quick mind Emma McChesney was piecing odds and ends together, and shaping the whole to fit Fat Ed Meyers. A little righteous anger was rising within her.
T. A. Junior searched her face with his glowing eyes.
"Does my father know that you have a young man son? Queer you never mentioned it.
"Queer? Maybe. Also, I don't remember ever having mentioned what church my folks belonged to, or where I was born, or whether I like my steak rare or medium, or what my maiden name was, or the size of my shoes, or whether I take my coffee with or without. That's because I don't believe in dragging private and family affairs into the business relation. I think I ought to tell you that on the way in I met Ed Meyers, of the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company, coming out. So anything you say won't surprise me."
"You wouldn't be surprised," asked T. A. Junior smoothly, "if I were to say that I'm considering giving a man your territory?" Emma McChesney's eyes—those eyes that had seen so much of the world and its ways, and that still could return your gaze so clearly and honestly—widened until they looked so much like those of a hurt child, or a dumb animal that has received a death wound, that young T. A. dropped his gaze in confusion.
Emma McChesney stood up. Her breath came a little quickly. But when she spoke, her voice was low and almost steady.
"If you expect me to beg you for my job, you're mistaken. T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats have been my existence for almost ten years. I've sold Featherlooms six days in the week, and seven when I had a Sunday customer. They've not only been my business and my means of earning a livelihood, they've been my religion, my diversion, my life, my pet pastime. I've lived petticoats, I've talked petticoats, I've sold petticoats, I've dreamed petticoats—why, I've even worn the darned things! And that's more than any man will ever do for you."
Young T. A. rose. He laughed a little laugh of sheer admiration. Admiration shone, too, in those eyes of his which so many women found irresistible. He took a step forward and laid one well-shaped hand on Emma McChesney's arm. She did not shrink, so he let his hand slip down the neat blue serge sleeve until it reached her snugly gloved hand.
"You're all right!" he said. His voice was very low, and there was a new note in it. "Listen, girlie. I've just bought a new sixty-power machine. Have dinner with me to-night, will you? And we'll take a run out in the country somewhere. It's warm, even for March. I'll bring along a fur coat for you. H'm?"
Mrs. McChesney stood thoughtfully regarding the hand that covered her own. The blue of her eyes and the pink of her cheeks were a marvel to behold.
"It's a shame," she began slowly, "that you're not twenty-five years younger, so that your father could give you the licking you deserve when he comes home. I shouldn't be surprised if he'd do it anyway. The Lord preserve me from these quiet, deep devils with temperamental hands and luminous eyes. Give me one of the bull-necked, red-faced, hoarse-voiced, fresh kind every time. You know what they're going to say, at least, and you're prepared for them. If I were to tell you how the hand you're holding is tingling to box your ears you'd marvel that any human being could have that much repression and live. I've heard of this kind of thing, but I didn't know it happened often off the stage and outside of novels. Let's get down to cases. If I let you make love to me, I keep my job. Is that it?"
"Why—no—I—to tell the truth I was only—"
"Don't embarrass yourself. I just want to tell you that before I'd accept your auto ride I'd open a little fancy art goods and needlework store in Menominee, Michigan, and get out the newest things in Hardanger work and Egyptian embroidery. And that's my notion of zero in occupation. Besides, no plain, everyday workingwoman could enjoy herself in your car because her conscience wouldn't let her. She'd be thinking all the time how she was depriving some poor, hard-working chorus girl of her legitimate pastime, and that would spoil everything. The elevator man told me that you had a new motor car, but the news didn't interest me half as much as that of his having new twin girls. Anything with five thousand dollars can have a sixty-power machine, but only an elevator man on eight dollars a week can afford the luxury of twins."
"My dear Mrs. McChesney—"
"Don't," said Emma McChesney sharply. "I couldn't stand much more. I joke, you know, when other women cry. It isn't so wearing."
She turned abruptly and walked toward the door. T. A. Junior overtook her in three long strides, and placed himself directly before her.
"My cue," said Emma McChesney, with a weary brightness, "to say, 'Let me pass, sir!'"
"Please don't," pleaded T. A. Junior. "I'll remember this the rest of my life. I thought I was a statue of modern business methods, but after to-day I'm going to ask the office boy to help me run this thing. If I could only think of some special way to apologize to you— "
"Oh, it's all right," said Emma McChesney indifferently.
"But it isn't! It isn't! You don't understand. That human jellyfish of a Meyers said some things, and I thought I'd be clever and prove them. I can't ask your pardon. There aren't words enough in the language. Why, you're the finest little woman—you're—you'd restore the faith of a cynic who had chronic indigestion. I wish I—Say, let me relieve you of a couple of those small towns that you hate to make, and give you Cleveland and Cincinnati. And let me—Why say, Mrs. McChesney! Please! Don't! This isn't the time to—"
"I can't help it," sobbed Emma McChesney, her two hands before her face. "I'll stop in a minute. There; I'm stopping now. For Heaven's sake, stop patting me on the head!"
"Please don't be so decent to me," entreated T. A. Junior, his fine eyes more luminous than ever." If only you'd try to get back at me I wouldn't feel so cut up about it." Emma McChesney looked up at him, a smile shining radiantly through the tears. "Very well. I'll do it. Just before I came in they showed me that new embroidery flounced model you just designed. Maybe you don't know it, but women wear only one limp petticoat nowadays. And buttoned shoes. The eyelets in that embroidery are just big enough to catch on the top button of a woman's shoe, and tear, and trip her. I ought to have let you make up a couple of million of them, and then watch them come back on your hands. I was going to tell you, anyway, for T. A. Senior's sake. Now I'm doing it for your own."
"For—" began T. A. Junior excitedly. And found himself addressing the backs of the letters on the door marked "Private," as it slammed after the trim, erect figure in blue.
UNDERNEATH THE HIGH-CUT VEST
We all carry with us into the one-night-stand country called Sleepland, a practical working nightmare that we use again and again, no matter how varied the theme or setting of our dream-drama. Your surgeon, tossing uneasily on his bed, sees himself cutting to remove an appendix, only to discover that that unpopular portion of his patient's anatomy already bobs in alcoholic glee in a bottle on the top shelf of the laboratory of a more alert professional brother. Your civil engineer constructs imaginary bridges which slump and fall as quickly as they are completed. Your stage favorite, in the throes of a post-lobster nightmare, has a horrid vision of herself "resting" in January. But when he who sells goods on the road groans and tosses in the clutches of a dreadful dream, it is, strangely enough, never of canceled orders, maniacal train schedules, lumpy mattresses, or vilely cooked food. These everyday things he accepts with a philosopher's cheerfulness. No—his nightmare is always a vision of himself, sick on the road, at a country hotel in the middle of a Spring season.
On the third day that she looked with more than ordinary indifference upon hotel and dining-car food Mrs. Emma McChesney, representing the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, wondered if, perhaps, she did not need a bottle of bitter tonic. On the fifth day she noticed that there were chills chasing up and down her spine, and back and forth from legs to shoulder-blades when other people were wiping their chins and foreheads with bedraggled-looking handkerchiefs, and demanding to know how long this heat was going to last, anyway. On the sixth day she lost all interest in T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats. And then she knew that something was seriously wrong. On the seventh day, when the blonde and nasal waitress approached her in the dining-room of the little hotel at Glen Rock, Minnesota, Emma McChesney's mind somehow failed to grasp the meaning of the all too obvious string of questions which were put to her—questions ending in the inevitable "Tea, coffee 'r milk?" At that juncture Emma McChesney had looked up into the girl's face in a puzzled, uncomprehending way, had passed one hand dazedly over her hot forehead, and replied, with great earnestness:
"Yours of the twelfth at hand and contents noted ... the greatest little skirt on the market ... he's going to be a son to be proud of, God bless him ... Want to leave a call for seven sharp—"
The lank waitress's face took on an added blankness. One of the two traveling men at the same table started to laugh, but the other put out his hand quickly, rose, and said, "Shut up, you blamed fool! Can't you see the lady's sick?" And started in the direction of her chair.
Even then there came into Emma McChesney's ordinarily well-ordered, alert mind the uncomfortable thought that she was talking nonsense. She made a last effort to order her brain into its usual sane clearness, failed, and saw the coarse white table-cloth rising swiftly and slantingly to meet her head.
It speaks well for Emma McChesney's balance that when she found herself in bed, two strange women, and one strange man, and an all- too-familiar bell-boy in the room, she did not say, "Where am I? What happened?" Instead she told herself that the amazingly and unbelievably handsome young man bending over her with a stethoscope was a doctor; that the plump, bleached blonde in the white shirtwaist was the hotel housekeeper; that the lank ditto was a waitress; and that the expression on the face of each was that of apprehension, tinged with a pleasurable excitement. So she sat up, dislodging the stethoscope, and ignoring the purpose of the thermometer which had reposed under her tongue.
"Look here!" she said, addressing the doctor in a high, queer voice. "I can't be sick, young man. Haven't time. Not just now. Put it off until August and I'll be as sick as you like. Why, man, this is the middle of June, and I'm due in Minneapolis now."
"Lie down, please," said the handsome young doctor, "and don't dare remove this thermometer again until I tell you to. This can't be put off until August. You're sick right now."
Mrs. McChesney shut her lips over the little glass tube, and watched the young doctor's impassive face (it takes them no time to learn that trick) and, woman-wise, jumped to her own conclusion.
"How sick?" she demanded, the thermometer read.
"Oh, it won't be so bad," said the very young doctor, with a professionally cheerful smile.
Emma McChesney sat up in bed with a jerk. "You mean—sick! Not ill, or grippy, or run down, but sick! Trained-nurse sick! Hospital sick! Doctor-twice-a-day sick! Table-by-the-bedside-with-bottles-on-it sick!"
"Well—a—" hesitated the doctor, and then took shelter behind a bristling hedge of Latin phrases. Emma McChesney hurdled it at a leap.
"Never mind," she said. "I know." She looked at the faces of those four strangers. Sympathy—real, human sympathy—was uppermost in each. She smiled a faint and friendly little smile at the group. And at that the housekeeper began tucking in the covers at the foot of the bed, and the lank waitress walked to the window and pulled down the shade, and the bell-boy muttered something about ice-water. The doctor patted her wrist lightly and reassuringly.
"You're all awfully good," said Emma McChesney, her eyes glowing with something other than fever. "I've something to say. It's just this. If I'm going to be sick I'd prefer to be sick right here, unless it's something catching. No hospital. Don't ask me why. I don't know. We people on the road are all alike. Wire T. A. Buck, Junior, of the Featherloom Petticoat Company, New York. You'll find plenty of clean nightgowns in the left-hand tray of my trunk, covered with white tissue paper. Get a nurse that doesn't sniffle, or talk about the palace she nursed in last, where they treated her like a queen and waited on her hand and foot. For goodness' sake, put my switch where nothing will happen to it, and if I die and they run my picture in the Dry Goods Review under the caption, 'Veteran Traveling Saleswoman Succumbs at Glen Rock,' I'll haunt the editor." She paused a moment.
"Everything will be all right," said the housekeeper, soothingly. "You'll think you're right at home, it'll be so comfortable. Was there anything else, now?"
"Yes," said Emma McChesney. "The most important of all. My son, Jock McChesney, is fishing up in the Canadian woods. A telegram may not reach him for three weeks. They're shifting about from camp to camp. Try to get him, but don't scare him too much. You'll find the address under J. in my address book in my handbag. Poor kid. Perhaps it's just as well he doesn't know."
Perhaps it was. At any rate it was true that had the tribe of McChesney been as the leaves of the trees, and had it held a family reunion in Emma McChesney's little hotel bedroom, it would have mattered not at all to her. For she was sick—doctor-three-times-a- day-trained-nurse-bottles-by-the-bedside sick, her head, with its bright hair rumpled and dry with the fever, tossing from side to side on the lumpy hotel pillow, or lying terribly silent and inert against the gray-white of the bed linen. She never quite knew how narrowly she escaped that picture in the Dry Goods Review.
Then one day the fever began to recede, slowly, whence fevers come, and the indefinable air of suspense and repression that lingers about a sick-room at such a crisis began to lift imperceptibly. There came a time when Emma McChesney asked in a weak but sane voice:
"Did Jock come? Did they cut off my hair?"
"Not yet, dear," the nurse had answered to the first, "but we'll hear in a day or so, I'm sure." And, "Your lovely hair! Well, not if I know it!" to the second.
The spirit of small-town kindliness took Emma McChesney in its arms. The dingy little hotel room glowed with flowers. The story of the sick woman fighting there alone in the terrors of delirium had gone up and down about the town. Housewives with a fine contempt for hotel soups sent broths of chicken and beef. The local members of the U. C. T. sent roses enough to tax every vase and wash-pitcher that the hotel could muster, and asked their wives to call at the hotel and see what they could do. The wives came, obediently, but with suspicion and distrust in their eyes, and remained to pat Emma McChesney's arm, ask to read aloud to her, and to indulge generally in that process known as "cheering her up." Every traveling man who stopped at the little hotel on his way to Minneapolis added to the heaped-up offerings at Emma McChesney's shrine. Books and magazines assumed the proportions of a library. One could see the hand of T. A. Buck, Junior, in the cases of mineral water, quarts of wine, cunning cordials and tiny bottles of liqueur that stood in convivial rows on the closet shelf and floor. There came letters, too, and telegrams with such phrases as "let nothing be left undone" and "spare no expense" under T. A. Buck, Junior's, signature.
So Emma McChesney climbed the long, weary hill of illness and pain, reached the top, panting and almost spent, rested there, and began the easy descent on the other side that led to recovery and strength. But something was lacking. That sunny optimism that had been Emma McChesney's most valuable asset was absent. The blue eyes had lost their brave laughter. A despondent droop lingered in the corners of the mouth that had been such a rare mixture of firmness and tenderness. Even the advent of Fat Ed Meyers, her keenest competitor, and representative of the Strauss Sans-silk Company, failed to awaken in her the proper spirit of antagonism. Fat Ed Meyers sent a bunch of violets that devastated the violet beds at the local greenhouse. Emma McChesney regarded them listlessly when the nurse lifted them out of their tissue wrappings. But the name on the card brought a tiny smile to her lips.
"He says he'd like to see you, if you feel able," said Miss Haney, the nurse, when she came up from dinner.
Emma McChesney thought a minute. "Better tell him it's catching," she said.
"He knows it isn't," returned Miss Haney. "But if you don't want him, why—"
"Tell him to come up," interrupted Emma McChesney, suddenly.
A faint gleam of the old humor lighted up her face when Fat Ed Meyers painfully tip-toed in, brown derby in hand, his red face properly doleful, brown shoes squeaking. His figure loomed mountainous in a light-brown summer suit.
"Ain't you ashamed of yourself?" he began, heavily humorous. "Couldn't you find anything better to do in the middle of the season? Say, on the square, girlie, I'm dead sorry. Hard luck, by gosh! Young T. A. himself went out with a line in your territory, didn't he? I didn't think that guy had it in him, darned if I did."
"It was sweet of you to send all those violets, Mr. Meyers. I hope you're not disappointed that they couldn't have been worked in the form of a pillow, with 'At Rest' done in white curlycues."
"Mrs. McChesney!" Ed Meyers' round face expressed righteous reproof, pain, and surprise. "You and I may have had a word, now and then, and I will say that you dealt me a couple of low-down tricks on the road, but that's all in the game. I never held it up against you. Say, nobody ever admired you or appreciated you more than I did—"
"Look out!" said Emma McChesney. "You're speaking in the past tense. Please don't. It makes me nervous."
Ed Meyers laughed, uncomfortably, and glanced yearningly toward the door. He seemed at a loss to account for something he failed to find in the manner and conversation of Mrs. McChesney.
"Son here with you, I suppose," he asked, cheerily, sure that he was on safe ground at last.
Emma McChesney closed her eyes. The little room became very still. In a panic Ed Meyers looked helplessly from the white face, with its hollow cheeks and closed eyelids to the nurse who sat at the window. That discreet damsel put her finger swiftly to her lips, and shook her head. Ed Meyers rose, hastily, his face a shade redder than usual.
"Well, I guess I gotta be running along. I'm tickled to death to find you looking so fat and sassy. I got an idea you were just stalling for a rest, that's all. Say, Mrs. McChesney, there's a swell little dame in the house named Riordon. She's on the road, too. I don't know what her line is, but she's a friendly kid, with a bunch of talk. A woman always likes to have another woman fussin' around when she's sick. I told her about you, and how I'd bet you'd be crazy to get a chance to talk shop and Featherlooms again. I guess you ain't lost your interest in Featherlooms, eh, what?"
Emma McChesney's face indicated not the faintest knowledge of Featherloom Petticoats. Ed Meyers stared, aghast. And as he stared there came a little knock at the door—a series of staccato raps, with feminine knuckles back of them. The nurse went to the door, disapproval on her face. At the turning of the knob there bounced into the room a vision in an Alice-blue suit, plumes to match, pearl earrings, elaborate coiffure of reddish-gold and a complexion that showed an unbelievable trust in the credulity of mankind.
"How-do, dearie!" exclaimed the vision. "You poor kid, you! I heard you was sick, and I says, 'I'm going up to cheer her up if I have to miss my train out to do it.' Say, I was laid up two years ago in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and believe me, I'll never forget it. I don't know how sick I was, but I don't even want to remember how lonesome I was. I just clung to the chamber-maid like she was my own sister. If your nurse wants to go out for an airing I'll sit with you. Glad to."
"That's a grand little idea," agreed Ed Meyers. "I told 'em you'd brighten things up. Well, I'll be going. You'll be as good as new in a week, Mrs. McChesney, don't you worry. So long." And he closed the door after himself with apparent relief.
Miss Haney, the nurse, was already preparing to go out. It was her regular hour for exercise. Mrs. McChesney watched her go with a sinking heart.
"Now!" said Miss Riordon, comfortably, "we girls can have a real, old- fashioned talk. A nurse isn't human. The one I had in Idaho Falls was strictly prophylactic, and antiseptic, and she certainly could give the swell alcohol rubs, but you can't get chummy with a human disinfectant. Your line's skirts, isn't it?"
"Land, I've heard an awful lot about you. The boys on the road certainly speak something grand of you. I'm really jealous. Say, I'd love to show you some of my samples for this season. They're just great. I'll just run down the hall to my room—"
She was gone. Emma McChesney shut her eyes, wearily. Her nerves were twitching. Her thoughts were far, far away from samples and sample cases. So he had turned out to be his worthless father's son after all! He must have got some news of her by now. And he ignored it. He was content to amuse himself up there in the Canadian woods, while his mother—
Miss Riordon, flushed, and panting a little, burst into the room again, sample-case in hand.
"Lordy, that's heavy! It's a wonder I haven't killed myself before now, wrestling with those blamed things."
Mrs. McChesney sat up on one elbow as Miss Riordon tugged at the sample-case cover. Then she leaned forward, interested in spite of herself at sight of the pile of sheer, white, exquisitely embroidered and lacy garments that lay disclosed as the cover fell back.
"Oh, lingerie! That's an ideal line for a woman. Let's see the yoke in that first nightgown. It's a really wonderful design."
Miss Riordon laughed and shook out the folds of the topmost garment. "Nightgown!" she said, and laughed again. "Take another look."
"Why, what—" began Emma McChesney.
"Shrouds!" announced Miss Riordon complacently.
"Shrouds!" shrieked Mrs. McChesney, and her elbow gave way. She fell back on the pillow.
"Beautiful, ain't they?" Miss Riordon twirled the white garment in her hand. "They're the very newest thing. You'll notice they're made up slightly hobble, with a French back, and high waist-line in the front. Last season kimono sleeves was all the go, but they're not used this season. This one—"
"Take them away!" screamed Emma McChesney hysterically. "Take them away! Take them away!" And buried her face in her trembling white hands.
Miss Riordon stared. Then she slammed the cover of the case, rose, and started toward the door. But before she reached it, and while the sick woman's sobs were still sounding hysterically the door flew open to admit a tall, slim, miraculously well-dressed young man. The next instant Emma McChesney's lace nightgown was crushed against the top of a correctly high-cut vest, and her tears coursed, unmolested, down the folds of an exquisitely shaded lavender silk necktie.
"Jock!" cried Emma McChesney; and then, "Oh, my son, my son, my beautiful boy!" like a woman in a play.
Jock was holding her tight, and patting her shoulder, and pressing his healthy, glowing cheek close to hers that was so gaunt and pale.
"I got seven wires, all at the same time. They'd been chasing me for days, up there in the woods. I thought I'd never get here."
And at that a wonderful thing happened to Emma McChesney. She lifted her face, and showed dimples where lines had been, smiles where tears had coursed, a glow where there had been a grayish pallor. She leaned back a bit to survey this son of hers.
"Ugh! how black you are!" It was the old Emma McChesney that spoke. "You young devil, you're actually growing a mustache! There's something hard in your left-hand vest pocket. If it's your fountain pen you'd better rescue it, because I'm going to hug you again."
But Jock McChesney was not smiling. He glanced around the stuffy little hotel room. It looked stuffier and drearier than ever in contrast with his radiant youth, his glowing freshness, his outdoor tan, his immaculate attire. He looked at the astonished Miss Riordon. At his gaze that lady muttered something, and fled, sample-case banging at her knees. At the look in his eyes his mother hastened, woman-wise, to reassure him.
"It wasn't so bad, Jock. Now that you're here, it's all right. Jock, I didn't realize just what you meant to me until you didn't come. I didn't realize—"
Jock sat down at the edge of the bed, and slid one arm under his mother's head. There was a grim line about his mouth.
"And I've been fishing," he said. "I've been sprawling under a tree in front of a darned fool stream and wondering whether to fry 'em for lunch now, or to put my hat over my eyes and fall asleep."
His mother reached up and patted his shoulder. But the line around Jock's jaw did not soften. He turned his head to gaze down at his mother.
"Two of those telegrams, and one letter, were from T. A. Buck, Junior," he said. "He met me at Detroit. I never thought I'd stand from a total stranger what I stood from that man."
"Why, what do you mean?" Alarm, dismay, astonishment were in her eyes.
"He said things. And he meant 'em. He showed me, in a perfectly well- bred, cleancut, and most convincing way just what a miserable, selfish, low-down, worthless young hound I am."
"You bet he dared. And then some. And I hadn't an argument to come back with. I don't know just where he got all his information from, but it was straight."
He got up, strode to the window, and came back to the bed. Both hands thrust deep in his pockets, he announced his life plans, thus:
"I'm eighteen years old. And I look twenty-three, and act twenty-five —when I'm with twenty-five-year-olds. I've been as much help and comfort to you as a pet alligator. You've always said that I was to go to college, and I've sort of trained myself to believe I was. Well, I'm not. I want to get into business, with a capital B. And I want to jump in now. This minute. I've started out to be a first-class slob, with you keeping me in pocket money, and clothes, and the Lord knows what all. Why, I—"
"Jock McChesney," said that young man's bewildered mother, "just what did T. A. Buck, Junior, say to you anyway?"
"Plenty. Enough to make me see things. I used to think that I wanted to get into one of the professions. Professions! You talk about the romance of a civil engineer's life! Why, to be a successful business man these days you've got to be a buccaneer, and a diplomat, and a detective, and a clairvoyant, and an expert mathematician, and a wizard. Business—just plain everyday business—is the gamiest, chanciest, most thrilling line there is to-day, and I'm for it. Let the other guy hang out his shingle and wait for 'em. I'm going out and get mine."
"Any particular line, or just planning to corner the business market generally?" came a cool, not too amused voice from the bed.
"Advertising," replied Jock crisply. "Magazine advertising, to start with. I met a fellow up in the woods—named O'Rourke. He was a star football man at Yale. He's bucking the advertising line now for the Mastodon Magazine. He's crazy about it, and says it's the greatest game ever. I want to get into it now—not four years from now."
He stopped abruptly. Emma McChesney regarded him, eyes glowing. Then she gave a happy little laugh, reached for her kimono at the foot of the bed, and prepared to kick off the bedclothes.
"Just run into the hall a second, son," she announced. "I'm going to get up."
"Up! No, you're not!" shouted Jock, making a rush at her. Then, in the exuberance of his splendid young strength, he picked her up, swathed snugly in a roll of sheeting and light blanket, carried her to the big chair by the window, and seated himself, with his surprised and laughing mother in his arms.
But Mrs. McChesney was serious again in a moment. She lay with her head against her boy's breast for a while. Then she spoke what was in her sane, far-seeing mind.
"Jock, if I've ever wished you were a girl, I take it all back now. I'd rather have heard what you just said than any piece of unbelievable good fortune in the world. God bless you for it, dear. But, Jock, you're going to college. No—wait a minute. You'll have a chance to prove the things you just said by getting through in three years instead of the usual four. If you're in earnest you can do it. I want my boy to start into this business war equipped with every means of defense. You called it a game. It's more than that—it's a battle. Compared to the successful business man of to-day the Revolutionary Minute Men were as keen and alert as the Seven Sleepers. I know that there are more non-college men driving street-cars than there are college men. But that doesn't influence me. You could get a job now. Not much of a position, perhaps, but something self-respecting and fairly well-paying. It would teach you many things. You might get a knowledge of human nature that no college could give you. But there's something—poise—self-confidence—assurance—that nothing but college can give you. You will find yourself in those three years. After you finish college you'll have difficulty in fitting into your proper niche, perhaps, and you'll want to curse the day on which you heeded my advice. It'll look as though you had simply wasted those three precious years. But in five or six years after, when your character has jelled, and you've hit your pace, you'll bless me for it. As for a knowledge of humanity, and of business tricks—well, your mother is fairly familiar with the busy marts of trade. If you want to learn folks you can spend your summers selling Featherlooms with me."
"But, mother, you don't understand just why—"
"Yes, dear 'un, I do. After all, remember you're only eighteen. You'll probably spend part of your time rushing around at class proms with a red ribbon in your coat lapel to show you're on the floor committee. And you'll be girl-fussing, too. But you'd be attracted to girls, in or out of college, and I'd rather, just now, that it would be some pretty, nice-thinking college girl in a white sweater and a blue serge skirt, whose worst thought was wondering if you could be cajoled into taking her to the Freshman-Sophomore basketball game, than some red- lipped, black-jet-earringed siren gazing at you across the table in some basement cafe. And, goodness knows, Jock, you wear your clothes so beautifully that even the haberdashers' salesmen eye you with respect. I've seen 'em. That's one course you needn't take at college."
Jock sat silent, his face grave with thought. "But when I'm earning money—real money—it's off the road for you," he said, at last. "I don't want this to sound like a scene from East Lynne, but, mother—"
"Um-m-m-m—ye-ee-es," assented Emma McChesney, with no alarming enthusiasm. "Jock dear, carry me back to bed again, will you? And then open the closet door and pull out that big sample-case to the side of my bed. The newest Fall Featherlooms are in it, and somehow, I've just a whimsy notion that I'd like to look 'em over."
CATCHING UP WITH CHRISTMAS
Temptation himself is not much of a spieler. Raucous-voiced, red- faced, greasy, he stands outside his gaudy tent, dilating on the wonders within. One or two, perhaps, straggle in. But the crowd, made wary by bitter experience of the sham and cheap fraud behind the tawdry canvas flap, stops a moment, laughs, and passes on. Then Temptation, in a panic, seeing his audience drifting away, summons from inside the tent his bespangled and bewitching partner, Mlle. Psychological Moment, the Hypnotic Charmer. She leaps to the platform, bows, pirouettes. The crowd surges toward the ticket-window, nickel in hand.
Six months of bad luck had dogged the footsteps of Mrs. Emma McChesney, traveling saleswoman for the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, New York. It had started with a six-weeks' illness endured in the discomfort of a stuffy little hotel bedroom at Glen Rock, Minnesota. By August she was back in New York, attending to out- of-town buyers.
Those friendly Middle-Western persona showed dismay at her pale, hollow-eyed appearance. They spoke to her of teaspoonfuls of olive-oil taken thrice a day, of mountain air, of cold baths, and, above all, of the advisability of leaving the road and taking an inside position. At that Emma McChesney always showed signs of unmistakable irritation.
In September her son, Jock McChesney, just turned eighteen, went blithely off to college, disguised as a millionaire's son in a blue Norfolk, silk hose, flat-heeled shoes, correctly mounted walrus bag, and next-week's style in fall hats. As the train glided out of the great shed Emma McChesney had waved her handkerchief, smiling like fury and seeing nothing but an indistinct blur as the observation platform slipped around the curve. She had not felt that same clutching, desolate sense of loss since the time, thirteen years before, when she had cut off his curls and watched him march sturdily off to kindergarten.
In October it was plain that spring skirts, instead of being full as predicted, were as scant and plaitless as ever. That spelled gloom for the petticoat business. It was necessary to sell three of the present absurd style to make the profit that had come from the sale of one skirt five years before.
The last week in November, tragedy stalked upon the scene in the death at Marienbad of old T. A. Buck, Mrs. McChesney's stanch friend and beloved employer. Emma McChesney had wept for him as one weeps at the loss of a father.
They had understood each other, those two, from the time that Emma McChesney, divorced, penniless, refusing support from the man she had married eight years before, had found work in the office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company.
Old Buck had watched her rise from stenographer to head stenographer, from head stenographer to inside saleswoman, from that to a minor road territory, and finally to the position of traveling representative through the coveted Middle-Western territory.
Old T. A. Buck, gruff, grim, direct, far-seeing, kindly, shrewd—he had known Emma McChesney for what she was worth. Once, when she had been disclosing to him a clever business scheme which might be turned into good advertising material, old Buck had slapped his knee with one broad, thick palm and had said:
"Emma McChesney, you ought to have been a man. With that head on a man's shoulders, you could put us out of business."
"I could do it anyway," Mrs. McChesney had retorted.
Old Buck had regarded her a moment over his tortoise-shell rimmed glasses. Then, "I believe you could," he had said, quietly and thoughtfully.
That brings her up to December. To some few millions of people D-e-c- e-m-b-e-r spells Christmas. But to Emma McChesney it spelled the dreaded spring trip. It spelled trains stalled in snowdrifts, baggage delayed, cold hotel bedrooms, harassed, irritable buyers.
It was just six o'clock on the evening of December ninth when Mrs. Emma McChesney swung off the train at Columbus, Ohio, five hours late. As she walked down the broad platform her eyes unconsciously searched the loaded trucks for her own trunks. She'd have recognized them in the hold of a Nile steamer—those grim, travel-scarred sample-trunks. They had a human look to her. She had a way of examining them after each trip, as a fond mother examines her child for stray scratches and bruises when she puts it to bed for the night. She knew each nook and corner of the great trunks as another woman knows her linen-closet or her preserve-shelves.
Columbus, Ohio, was a Featherloom town. Emma McChesney had a fondness for it, with its half rustic, half metropolitan air. Sometimes she likened it to a country girl in a velvet gown, and sometimes to a city girl in white muslin and blue sash. Singer & French always had a Featherloom window twice a year.
The hotel lobby wore a strangely deserted look. December is a slack month for actors and traveling men. Mrs. McChesney registered automatically, received her mail, exchanged greetings with the affable clerk.
"Send my trunks up to my sample-room as soon as they get in. Three of 'em—two sample-trunks and my personal trunk. And I want to see a porter about putting up some extra tables. You see, I'm two days late now. I expect two buyers to-morrow morning.
"Send 'em right up, Mrs. McChesney," the clerk assured her. "Jo'll attend to those tables. Too bad about old Buck. How's the skirt business?"
"Skirts? There is no such thing," corrected Emma McChesney gently." Sausage-casing business, you mean."
"Guess you're right, at that. By the way, how's that handsome youngster of yours? He's not traveling with you this trip?"
There came a wonderful glow into Emma McChesney's tired face.
"Jock's at college. Coming home for the holidays. We're going to have a dizzy week in New York. I'm wild to see if those three months of college have done anything to him, bless his heart! Oh, kind sir, forgive a mother's fond ravings! Where'd that youngster go with my bag?"
Up at last in the stuffy, unfriendly, steam-smelling hotel bedroom Emma McChesney prepared to make herself comfortable. A cocky bell-boy switched on the lights, adjusted a shade, straightened a curtain. Mrs. McChesney reached for her pocket-book.
"Just open that window, will you?"
"Pretty cold," remonstrated the bell-boy. "Beginning to snow, too."
"Can't help it. I'll shut it in a minute. The last man that had this room left a dead cigar around somewhere. Send up a waiter, please. I'm going to treat myself to dinner in my room."
The boy gone, she unfastened her collar, loosened a shoe that had pressed a bit too tightly over the instep, took a kimono and toilette articles out of her bag.
"I'll run through my mail," she told herself. "Then I'll get into something loose, see to my trunks, have dinner, and turn in early. Wish Jock were here. We'd have a steak, and some French fried, and a salad, and I'd let the kid make the dressing, even if he does always get in too much vinegar—"
She was glancing through her mail. Two from the firm—one from Mary Cutting—one from the Sure-White Laundry at Dayton (hope they found that corset-cover)—one from—why, from Jock! From Jock! And he'd written only two days before. Well!
Sitting there on the edge of the bed she regarded the dear scrawl lovingly, savoring it, as is the way of a woman. Then she took a hairpin from the knot of bright hair (also as is the way of woman) and slit the envelope with a quick, sure rip. M-m-m—it wasn't much as to length. Just a scrawled page. Emma McChesney's eye plunged into it hungrily, a smile of anticipation dimpling her lips, lighting up her face.
"Dearest Blonde," it began.
("The nerve of the young imp!")
He hoped the letter would reach her in time. Knew how this weather mussed up her schedule. He wanted her honest opinion about something— straight, now! One of the frat fellows was giving a Christmas house- party. Awful swells, by the way. He was lucky even to be asked. He'd never remembered a real Christmas—in a home, you know, with a tree, and skating, and regular high jinks, and a dinner that left you feeling like a stuffed gooseberry. Old Wells says his grandmother wears lace caps with lavender ribbons. Can you beat it! Of course he felt like a hog, even thinking of wanting to stay away from her at Christmas. Still, Christmas in a New York hotel—! But the fellows had nagged him to write. Said they'd do it if he didn't. Of course he hated to think of her spending Christmas alone—felt like a bloody villain—
Little by little the smile that had wreathed her lips faded and was gone. The lips still were parted, but by one of those miracles with which the face expresses what is within the heart their expression had changed from pleasure to bitter pain.
She sat there, at the edge of the bed, staring dully until the black scrawls danced on the white page. With the letter before her she raised her hand slowly and wiped away a hot, blinding mist of tears with her open palm. Then she read it again, dully, as though every selfish word of it had not already stamped itself on her brain and heart.
After the second reading she still sat there, her eyes staring down at her lap. Once she brushed an imaginary fleck of lint from the lap of her blue serge skirt—brushed, and brushed and brushed, with a mechanical, pathetic little gesture that showed how completely absent her mind was from the room in which she sat. Then her hand fell idle, and she became very still, a crumpled, tragic, hopeless look rounding the shoulders that were wont to hold themselves so erect and confident.
A tentative knock at the door. The figure on the bed did not stir. Another knock, louder this time. Emma McChesney sat up with a start. She shivered as she became conscious of the icy December air pouring into the little room. She rose, walked to the window, closed it with a bang, and opened the door in time to intercept the third knock.
A waiter proffered her a long card. "Dinner, Madame?"
"Oh!" She shook her head. "Sorry I've changed my mind. I—I shan't want any dinner."
She shut the door again and stood with her back against it, eying the bed. In her mind's eye she had already thrown herself upon it, buried her face in the nest of pillows, and given vent to the flood of tears that was beating at her throat. She took a quick step toward the bed, stopped, turned abruptly, and walked toward the mirror.
"Emma McChesney," she said aloud to the woman in the glass, "buck up, old girl! Bad luck comes in bunches of threes. It's like breaking the first cup in a new Haviland set. You can always count on smashing two more. This is your third. So pick up the pieces and throw 'em in the ash-can."
Then she fastened her collar, buttoned her shoe, pulled down her shirtwaist all around, smeared her face with cold cream, wiped it with a towel, smoothed her hair, donned her hat. The next instant the little room was dark, and Emma McChesney was marching down the long, red-carpeted hallway to the elevator, her head high, her face set.
Down-stairs in the lobby—"How about my trunks?" she inquired of a porter.
That blue-shirted individual rubbed a hard brown hand over his cheek worriedly.
"They ain't come."
"Ain't come!"—surprise disregarded grammar.
Nope. No signs of 'em. I'll tell you what: I think prob'ly they was overlooked in the rush, the train being late from Dayton when you started. Likely they'll be in on the ten-thirteen. I'll send 'em up the minute they get in."
"I wish you would. I've got to get my stuff out early. I can't keep customers waiting for me. Late, as it is."
She approached the clerk once more. "Anything at the theaters?"
"Well, nothing much, Mrs. McChesney. Christmas coming on kind of puts a crimp in the show business. Nice little bill on at the Majestic, if you like vaudeville."
"Crazy about it. Always get so excited watching to see if the next act is going to be as rotten as the last one. It always is."
From eight-fifteen until ten-thirty Mrs. McChesney sat absolutely expressionless while a shrill blonde lady and a nasal dark gentleman went through what the program ironically called a "comedy sketch," followed by a chummy person who came out in evening dress to sing a sentimental ditty, shed the evening dress to reappear in an ankle- length fluffy pink affair; shucked the fluffy pink affair for a child's pinafore, sash, and bare knees; discarded the kiddie frock, disclosing a bathing-suit; left the bathing-suit behind the wings in favor of satin knee-breeches and tight jacket—and very discreetly stopped there, probably for no reason except to give way to the next act, consisting of two miraculously thin young men in lavender dress suits and white silk hats, who sang and clogged in unison, like two things hung on a single wire.
The night air was grateful to her hot forehead as she walked from the theater to the hotel.
"Trunks in?" to the porter.
"No sign of 'em, lady. They didn't come in on the ten. Think they'd better wire back to Dayton."
But the next morning Mrs. McChesney was in the depot baggage-room when Dayton wired back:
"Trunks not here. Try Columbus, Nebraska."
"Crash!" said Emma McChesney to the surprised baggage-master. "There goes my Haviland vegetable-dish."
"Were you selling china?" he inquired.
"No, I wasn't," replied Emma McChesney viciously. "And if you don't let me stand here and give my frank, unbiased opinion of this road, its president, board of directors, stockholders, baggage-men, Pullman porters, and other things thereto appertaining, I'll probably have hysterics."
"Give it," said the baggage-master." You'll feel better. And we're used to it."
She gave it. When she had finished:
"Did you say you was selling goods on the road? Say, that's a hell of a job for a woman! Excuse me, lady. I didn't mean—"
"I think perhaps you're right," said Emma McChesney slowly. "It is just that."
"Well, anyway, we'll do our best to trace it. Guess you're in for a wait."
Emma McChesney waited. She made the rounds of her customers, and waited. She wired her firm, and waited. She wrote Jock to run along and enjoy himself, and waited. She cut and fitted a shirt-waist, took her hat apart and retrimmed it, made the rounds of her impatient customers again, threatened to sue the road, visited the baggage-room daily—and waited.
Four weary, nerve-racking days passed. It was late afternoon of the fourth day when Mrs. McChesney entered the elevator to go to her room. She had come from another fruitless visit to the baggage-room. She sank into a leather-cushioned seat in a corner of the lift. Two men entered briskly, followed by a bellboy. Mrs. McChesney did not look up.
"Well, I'll be dinged!" boomed a throaty voice. "Mrs. McChesney, by the Great Horn Spoon! H'are you? Talking about you this minute to my friend here."
Emma McChesney, with the knowledge of her lost sample-trunks striking her afresh, looked up and smiled bravely into the plump pink face of Fat Ed Meyers, traveling representative for her firm's bitterest rival, the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company.
"Talking about me, Mr. Meyers? Sufficient grounds for libel, right there."
The little sallow, dark man just at Meyers' elbow was gazing at her unguardedly. She felt that he had appraised her from hat to heels. Ed Meyers placed a plump hand on the little man's shoulder.
"Abe, you tell the lady what I was saying. This is Mr. Abel Fromkin, maker of the Fromkin Form-Fit Skirt. Abe, this is the wonderful Mrs. McChesney."
"Sorry I can't wait to hear what you've said of me. This is my floor." Mrs. McChesney was already leaving the elevator.
"Here! Wait a minute!" Fat Ed Meyers was out and standing beside her, his movements unbelievably nimble. "Will you have dinner with us, Mrs. McChesney?"
"Thanks. Not to-night."
Meyers turned to the waiting elevator. "Fromkin, you go on up with the boy; I'll talk to the lady a minute."
A little displeased frown appeared on Emma McChesney's face.
"You'll have to excuse me, Mr. Meyers, I—"
"Heigh-ho for that haughty stuff, Mrs. McChesney," grinned Ed Meyers. "Don't turn up your nose at that little Kike friend of mine till you've heard what I have to say. Now just let me talk a minute. Fromkin's heard all about you. He's got a proposition to make. And it isn't one to sniff at."
He lowered his voice mysteriously in the silence of the dim hotel corridor.
"Fromkin started in a little one-room hole-in-the-wall over on the East Side. Lived on a herring and a hunk of rye bread. Wife used to help him sew. That was seven years ago. In three years, or less, she'll have the regulation uniform—full length seal coat, bunch of paradise, five-drop diamond La Valliere set in platinum, electric brougham. Abe has got a business head, take it from me. But he's wise enough to know that business isn't the rough-and-tumble game it used to be. He realizes that he'll do for the workrooms, but not for the front shop. He knows that if he wants to keep on growing he's got to have what they call a steerer. Somebody smooth, and polished, and politic, and what the highbrows call suave. Do you pronounce that with a long a, or two dots over? Anyway, you get me. You're all those things and considerable few besides. He's wise to the fact that a business man's got to have poise these days, and balance. And when it comes to poise and balance, Mrs. McChesney, you make a Fairbanks scale look like a raft at sea."
"While I don't want to seem to hurry you," drawled Mrs. McChesney, "might I suggest that you shorten the overture and begin on the first act?"
"Well, you know how I feel about your business genius."
"Yes, I know," enigmatically.
Ed Meyers grinned. "Can't forget those two little business misunderstandings we had, can you?"
"Business understandings," corrected Emma McChesney.
"Call 'em anything your little heart dictates, but listen. Fromkin knows all about you. Knows you've got a million friends in the trade, that you know skirts from the belt to the hem. I don't know just what his proposition is, but I'll bet he'll give you half interest in the livest, come-upest little skirt factory in the country, just for a few thousands capital, maybe, and your business head at the executive end. Now just let that sink in before you speak."
"And why," inquired Emma McChesney, "don't you grab this matchless business opportunity yourself?"
"Because, fair lady, Fromkin wouldn't let me get in with a crowbar. He'll never be able to pronounce his t's right, and when he's dressed up he looks like a 'bus-boy at Mouquin's, but he can see a bluff farther than I can throw one—and that's somewhere beyond the horizon, as you'll admit. Talk it over with us after dinner then?"
Emma McChesney was regarding the plump, pink, eager face before her with keen, level, searching eyes.
"Yes," she said slowly, "I will."
"Cafe? We'll have a bottle—"
Mrs. McChesney smiled. "I won't ask you to make yourself that miserable. You can't smoke in the parlor. We'll find a quiet corner in the writing-room, where you men can light up. I don't want to take advantage of you."
Down in the writing-room at eight they formed a strange little group. Ed Meyers, flushed and eager, his pink face glowing like a peony, talking, arguing, smoking, reasoning, coaxing, with the spur of a fat commission to urge him on; Abel Fromkin, with his peculiarly pallid skin made paler in contrast to the purplish-black line where the razor had passed, showing no hint of excitement except in the restless little black eyes and in the work-scarred hands that rolled cigarette after cigarette, each glowing for one brief instant, only to die down to a blackened ash the next; Emma McChesney, half fascinated, half distrustful, listening in spite of herself, and trying to still a small inner voice—a voice that had never advised her ill.