EMMA McCHESNEY & CO.
I. BROADWAY TO BUENOS AIRES II. THANKS TO MISS MORRISSEY III. A CLOSER CORPORATION IV. BLUE SERGE V. "HOOPS, MY DEAR!" VI. SISTERS UNDER THEIR SKIN VII. AN ETUDE FOR EMMA
EMMA McCHESNEY & CO.
BROADWAY TO BUENOS AIRES
The door marked "MRS. MCCHESNEY" was closed. T. A. Buck, president of the Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, coming gaily down the hall, stopped before it, dismayed, as one who, with a spicy bit of news at his tongue's end, is met with rebuff before the first syllable is voiced. That closed door meant: "Busy. Keep out."
"She'll be reading a letter," T. A. Buck told himself grimly. Then he turned the knob and entered his partner's office.
Mrs. Emma McChesney was reading a letter. More than that, she was poring over it so that, at the interruption, she glanced up in a maddeningly half-cocked manner which conveyed the impression that, while her physical eye beheld the intruder, her mental eye was still on the letter.
"I knew it," said T. A. Buck morosely.
Emma McChesney put down the letter and smiled.
"Sit down—now that you're in. And if you expect me to say, 'Knew what?' you're doomed to disappointment."
T. A. Buck remained standing, both gloved hands clasping his walking stick on which he leaned.
"Every time I come into this office, you're reading the latest scrawl from your son. One would think Jock's letters were deathless masterpieces. I believe you read them at half-hour intervals all week, and on Sunday get 'em all out and play solitaire with them."
Emma McChesney's smile widened frankly to a grin.
"You make me feel like a cash-girl who's been caught flirting with the elevator starter. Have I been neglecting business?"
"Business? No; you've been neglecting me!"
"Now, T. A., you've just come from the tailor's, and I suppose it didn't fit in the back."
"It isn't that," interrupted Buck, "and you know it. Look here! That day Jock went away and we came back to the office, and you said——"
"I know I said it, T. A., but don't remind me of it. That wasn't a fair test. I had just seen Jock leave me to take his own place in the world. You know that my day began and ended with him. He was my reason for everything. When I saw him off for Chicago that day, and knew he was going there to stay, it seemed a million miles from New York. I was blue and lonely and heart-sick. If the office-boy had thrown a kind word to me I'd have broken down and wept on his shoulder."
Buck, still standing, looked down between narrowed lids at his business partner.
"Emma McChesney," he said steadily, "do you mean that?"
Mrs. McChesney, the straightforward, looked up, looked down, fiddled with the letter in her hand.
"Well—practically yes—that is—I thought, now that you're going to the mountains for a month, it might give me a chance to think—to——"
"And d'you know what I'll do meanwhile, out of revenge on the sex? I've just ordered three suits of white flannel, and I shall break every feminine heart in the camp, regardless— Oh, say, that's what I came in to tell you! Guess whom I saw at the tailor's?"
"Well, Mr. Bones, whom did you, and so forth?"
"Fat Ed Meyers. I just glimpsed him in one of the fitting-rooms. And they were draping him in white."
Emma McChesney sat up with a jerk.
"Are you sure?"
"Sure? There's only one figure like that. He had the thing on and was surveying himself in the mirror—or as much of himself as could be seen in one ordinary mirror. In that white suit, with his red face above it, he looked like those pictures you see labeled, 'Sunrise on Snow-covered Mountain.'"
"Did he see——"
"He dodged when he saw me. Actually! At least, he seems to have the decency to be ashamed of the deal he gave us when he left us flat in the thick of his Middle Western trip and went back to the Sans-Silk Skirt Company. I wanted him to know I had seen him. As I passed, I said, 'You'll mow 'em down in those clothes, Meyers.'" Buck sat down in his leisurely fashion, and laughed his low, pleasant laugh. "Can't you see him, Emma, at the seashore?"
But something in Emma McChesney's eyes, and something in her set, unsmiling face, told him that she was not seeing seashores. She was staring straight at him, straight through him, miles beyond him. There was about her that tense, electric, breathless air of complete detachment, which always enveloped her when her lightning mind was leaping ahead to a goal unguessed by the slower thinking.
"What's your tailor's name?"
"Name? Trotter. Why?"
Emma McChesney had the telephone operator before he could finish.
"Get me Trotter, the tailor, T-r-o-double-t-e-r. Say I want to speak to the tailor who fits Mr. Ed Meyers, of the Sans-Silk Skirt Company."
T. A. Buck leaned forward, mouth open, eyes wide. "Well, what in the name of——"
"I'll let you know in a minute. Maybe I'm wrong. It's just one of my hunches. But for ten years I sold Featherlooms through the same territory that Ed Meyers was covering for the Sans-Silk Skirt people. It didn't take me ten years to learn that Fat Ed hadn't the decency to be ashamed of any deal he turned, no matter how raw. And let me tell you, T. A.: If he dodged when he saw you it wasn't because he was ashamed of having played us low-down. He was contemplating playing lower-down. Of course, I may be——"
She picked up the receiver in answer to the bell. Then, sweetly, her calm eyes smiling into Buck's puzzled ones:
"Hello! Is this Mr. Meyers' tailor? I'm to ask if you are sure that the grade he selected is the proper weight for the tropics. What? Oh, you say you assured him it was the weight of flannel you always advise for South America. And you said they'd be ready when? Next week? Thank you."
She hung up the receiver. The pupils of her eyes were dilated. Her cheeks were very pink as always under excitement. She stood up, her breath coming rather quickly.
"Hurray for the hunch! It holds. Fat Ed Meyers is going down to South America for the Sans-Silk Company. It's what I've been planning to do for the last six months. You remember I spoke of it. You pooh-poohed the idea. It means hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Sans-Silk people if they get it. But they won't get it."
T. A. Buck stood up suddenly.
"Look here, Emma! If you're——"
"I certainly am. Nothing can stop me. The skirt business has been—well, you know what it's been for the last two years. The South American boats sail twice a month. Fat Ed Meyers' clothes are promised for next week. That means he isn't sailing until week after next. But the next boat sails in three days." She picked up a piece of paper from her desk and tossed it into Buck's hand. "That's the letter I was reading when you came in. No; don't read it. Let me tell you instead."
Buck threw cane, hat, gloves, and letter on the broad desk, thrust his hands into his pockets, and prepared for argument. But he got only as far as: "But I won't allow it! You couldn't get away in three days, at any rate. And at the end of two weeks you'll have come to your senses, and besides——"
"T. A., I don't mean to be rude. But here are your hat and stick and gloves. It's going to take me just forty-eight hours to mobilize."
"But, Emma, even if you do get in ahead of Meyers, it's an insane idea. A woman can't go down there alone. It isn't safe. It's bad enough for a man to tackle it. Besides, we're holding our own."
"That's just it. When a doctor issues a bulletin to the effect that the patient is holding his own, you may have noticed that the relatives always begin to gather."
"It's a bubble, this South American idea. Oshkosh and Southport and Altoona money has always been good enough for us. If we can keep that trade, we ought to be thankful."
Emma McChesney pushed her hair back from her forehead with one gesture and patted it into place with another. Those two gestures, to one who knew her, meant loss of composure for one instant, followed by the quick regaining of it the next.
"Let's not argue about it now. Suppose we wait until to-morrow—when it's too late. I am thankful for the trade we've got. But I don't want to be narrow about it. My thanking capacity is such that I can stretch it out to cover some things we haven't got yet. I've been reading up on South America."
"Reading!" put in Buck hotly. "What actual first-hand information can you get about a country from books?"
"Well, then, I haven't only been reading. I've been talking to everyone I could lay my hands on who has been down there and who knows. Those South American women love dress—especially the Argentines. And do you know what they've been wearing? Petticoats made in England! You know what that means. An English woman chooses a petticoat like she does a husband—for life. It isn't only a garment. It's a shelter. It's built like a tent. If once I can introduce the T. A. Buck Featherloom petticoat and knickerbocker into sunny South America, they'll use those English and German petticoats for linoleum floor-coverings. Heaven knows they'll fit the floor better than the human form!"
But Buck was unsmiling. The muscles of his jaw were tense.
"I won't let you go. Understand that! I won't allow it!"
"Tut, tut, T. A.! What is this? Cave-man stuff?"
"Emma, I tell you it's dangerous. It isn't worth the risk, no matter what it brings us."
Emma McChesney struck an attitude, hand on heart. "'Heaven will protect the working girrul,'" she sang.
Buck grabbed his hat.
"I'm going to wire Jock."
"All right! That'll save me fifty cents. Do you know what he'll wire back? 'Go to it. Get the tango on its native tairn'—or words to that effect."
"Emma, use a little logic and common sense!"
There was a note in Buck's voice that brought a quick response from Mrs. McChesney. She dropped her little air of gayety. The pain in his voice, and the hurt in his eyes, and the pleading in his whole attitude banished the smile from her face. It had not been much of a smile, anyway. T. A. knew her genuine smiles well enough to recognize a counterfeit at sight. And Emma McChesney knew that he knew. She came over and laid a hand lightly on his arm.
"T. A., I don't know anything about logic. It is a hot-house plant. But common sense is a field flower, and I've gathered whole bunches of it in my years of business experience. I'm not going down to South America for a lark. I'm going because the time is ripe to go. I'm going because the future of our business needs it. I'm going because it's a job to be handled by the most experienced salesman on our staff. And I'm just that. I say it because it's true. Your father, T. A., used to see things straighter and farther than any business man I ever knew. Since his death made me a partner in this firm, I find myself, when I'm troubled or puzzled, trying to see a situation as he'd see it if he were alive. It's like having an expert stand back of you in a game of cards, showing you the next move. That's the way I'm playing this hand. And I think we're going to take most of the tricks away from Fat Ed Meyers."
T. A. Buck's eyes traveled from Emma McChesney's earnest, glowing face to the hand that rested on his arm. He reached over and gently covered that hand with his own.
"I suppose you must be right, little woman. You always are. Dad was the founder of this business. It was the pride of his life. That word 'founder' has two meanings. I never want to be responsible for its second meaning in connection with this concern."
"You never will be, T. A."
"Not with you at the helm." He smiled rather sadly. "I'm a good, ordinary, common seaman. But you've got imagination, and foresight, and nerve, and daring, and that's the stuff that admirals are made of."
"Bless you, T. A.! I knew you'd see the thing as I do after the first shock was over. It has always been nip and tuck between the Sans-Silk Company and us. You gave me the hint that showed me their plans. Now help me follow it up."
Buck picked up his hat, squared his shoulders and fumbled with his gloves like a bashful schoolboy.
"You—you couldn't kill two birds with one stone on this trip, could you, Mrs. Mack?"
Mrs. McChesney, back at her desk again, threw him an inquiring glance over her shoulder.
"You might make it a combination honeymoon and Featherloom expedition."
"T. A. Buck!" exclaimed Emma McChesney. Then, as Buck dodged for the door: "Just for that, I'm going to break this to you. You know that I intended to handle the Middle Western territory for one trip, or until we could get a man to take Fat Ed Meyers' place."
"Well?" said Buck apprehensively.
"I leave in three days. Goodness knows how long I'll be gone! A business deal down there is a ceremony. And—you won't need any white-flannel clothes in Rock Island, Illinois."
Buck, aghast, faced her from the doorway.
"You mean, I——"
"Just that," smiled Emma McChesney pleasantly. And pressed the button that summoned the stenographer.
In the next forty-eight hours, Mrs. McChesney performed a series of mental and physical calisthenics that would have landed an ordinary woman in a sanatorium. She cleaned up with the thoroughness and dispatch of a housewife who, before going to the seashore, forgets not instructions to the iceman, the milkman, the janitor, and the maid. She surveyed her territory, behind and before, as a general studies troops and countryside before going into battle; she foresaw factory emergencies, dictated office policies, made sure of staff organization like the business woman she was. Out in the stock-room, under her supervision, there was scientifically packed into sample-trunks and cases a line of Featherloom skirts and knickers calculated to dazzle Brazil and entrance Argentina. And into her own personal trunk there went a wardrobe, each article of which was a garment with a purpose. Emma McChesney knew the value of a smartly tailored suit in a business argument.
T. A. Buck canceled his order at the tailor's, made up his own line for the Middle West, and prepared to storm that prosperous and important territory for the first time in his business career.
The South American boat sailed Saturday afternoon. Saturday morning found the two partners deep in one of those condensed, last-minute discussions. Mrs. McChesney opened a desk drawer, took out a leather-covered pocket notebook, and handed it to Buck. A tiny smile quivered about her lips. Buck took it, mystified.
"Your last diary?"
"Something much more important. I call it 'The Salesman's Who's Who.' Read it as you ought your Bible."
"But what?" Buck turned the pages wonderingly. He glanced at a paragraph, frowned, read it aloud, slowly.
"Des Moines, Iowa, Klein & Company. Miss Ella Sweeney, skirt buyer. Old girl. Skittish. Wants to be entertained. Take her to dinner and the theater."
He looked up, dazed. "Good Lord, what is this? A joke?"
"Wait until you see Ella; you won't think it's a joke. She'll buy only your smoothest numbers, ask sixty days' dating, and expect you to entertain her as you would your rich aunt."
Buck returned to the little book dazedly. He flipped another leaf—another. Then he read in a stunned sort of voice:
"Sam Bloom, Paris Emporium, Duluth. See Sadie."
He closed the book. "Say, see here, Emma, do you mean to——"
"Sam is the manager," interrupted Mrs. McChesney pleasantly, "and he thinks he does the buying, but the brains of that business is a little girl named Sadie Harris. She's a wonder. Five years from now, if she doesn't marry Sam, she'll be one of those ten-thousand-a-year foreign buyers. Play your samples up to Sammy, but quote your prices down to Sadie. Read the next one, T. A."
Buck read on, his tone lifeless:
"Miss Sharp. Berg Brothers, Omaha. Strictly business. Known among the trade as the human cactus. Canceled a ten-thousand-dollar order once because the grateful salesman called her 'girlie.' Stick to skirts."
Buck slapped the book smartly against the palm of his hand.
"Do you mean to tell me that you made this book out for me? Do you mean to say that I have to cram on this like a kid studying for exams? That I'll have to cater to the personality of the person I'm selling to? Why—it's—it's——"
Emma McChesney nodded calmly.
"I don't know how this trip of yours is going to affect the firm's business, T. A. But it's going to be a liberal education for you. You'll find that you'll need that little book a good many times before you're through. And while you're following its advice, do this: forget that your name is Buck, except for business purposes; forget that your family has always lived in a brownstone mausoleum in Seventy-second street; forget that you like your chops done just so, and your wine at such-and-such a temperature; get close to your trade. They're an awfully human lot, those Middle Western buyers. Don't chuck them under the chin, but smile on 'em. And you've got a lovely smile, T. A."
Buck looked up from the little leather book. And, as he gazed at Emma McChesney, the smile appeared and justified its praise.
"I'll have this to comfort me, anyway, Emma. I'll know that while I'm smirking on the sprightly Miss Sweeney, your face will be undergoing various agonizing twists in the effort to make American prices understood by an Argentine who can't speak anything but Spanish."
"Maybe I am short on Spanish, but I'm long on Featherlooms. I may not know a senora from a chili con carne, but I know Featherlooms from the waistband to the hem." She leaned forward, dimpling like fourteen instead of forty. "And you've noticed—haven't you, T. A.?—that I've got an expressive countenance."
Buck leaned forward, too. His smile was almost gone.
"I've noticed a lot of things, Emma McChesney. And if you persist in deviling me for one more minute, I'm going to mention a few."
Emma McChesney surveyed her cleared desk, locked the top drawer with a snap, and stood up.
"If you do I'll miss my boat. Just time to make Brooklyn. Suppose you write 'em."
That Ed Meyers might know nothing of her sudden plans, she had kept the trip secret. Besides Buck and the office staff, her son Jock was the only one who knew. But she found her cabin stocked like a prima donna's on a farewell tour. There were boxes of flowers, a package of books, baskets of fruit, piles of magazines, even a neat little sheaf of telegrams, one from the faithful bookkeeper, one from the workroom foreman, two from salesmen long in the firm's employ, two from Jock in Chicago. She read them, her face glowing. He and Buck had vied with each other in supplying her with luxuries that would make pleasanter the twenty-three days of her voyage.
She looked about the snug cabin, her eyes suddenly misty. Buck poked his head in at the door.
"Come on up on deck, Emma; I've only a few minutes left."
She snatched a pink rose from the box, and together they went on deck.
"Just ten minutes," said Buck. He was looking down at her. "Remember, Emma, nothing that concerns the firm's business, however big, is half as important as the things that concern you personally, however small. I realize what this trip will mean to us, if it pans, and if you can beat Meyers to it. But if anything should happen to you, why——"
"Nothing's going to happen, T. A., except that I'll probably come home with my complexion ruined. I'll feel a great deal more at home talking pidgin-English to Senor Alvarez in Buenos Aires than you will talking Featherlooms to Miss Skirt-Buyer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But remember this, T. A.: When you get to know—really to know—the Sadie Harrises and the Sammy Blochs and the Ella Sweeneys of this world, you've learned just about all there is to know about human beings. Quick—the gangplank! Goodby, T. A."
The dock reached, he gazed up at her as she leaned far over the railing. He made a megaphone of his hands.
"I feel like an old maid who's staying home with her knitting," he called.
The boat began to move. Emma McChesney passed a quick hand over her eyes.
"Don't drop any stitches, T. A." With unerring aim she flung the big pink rose straight at him.
She went about arranging her affairs on the boat like the business woman that she was. First she made her cabin shipshape. She placed nearest at hand the books on South America, and the Spanish-American pocket interpreter. She located her deck chair, and her seat in the dining-room. Then, quietly, unobtrusively, and guided by those years spent in meeting men and women face to face in business, she took thorough, conscientious mental stock of those others who were to be her fellow travelers for twenty-three days.
For the most part, the first-class passengers were men. There were American business men—salesmen, some of them, promoters others, or representatives of big syndicates shrewd, alert, well dressed, smooth shaven. Emma McChesney knew that she would gain valuable information from many of them before the trip was over. She sighed a little regretfully as she thought of those smoking-room talks—those intimate, tobacco-mellowed business talks from which she would be barred by her sex.
There were two engineers, one British, one American, both very intelligent-looking, both inclined to taciturnity, as is often the case in men of their profession. They walked a good deal, and smoked nut-brown, evil-smelling pipes, and stared unblinkingly across the water.
There were Argentines—whole families of them—Brazilians, too. The fat, bejeweled Brazilian men eyed Emma McChesney with open approval, even talked to her, leering objectionably. Emma McChesney refused to be annoyed. Her ten years on the road served her in good stead now.
But most absorbing of all to Emma McChesney, watching quietly over her book or magazine, was a tall, erect, white-bearded Argentine who, with his family, occupied chairs near hers. His name had struck her with the sound of familiarity when she read it on the passenger list. She had asked the deck-steward to point out the name's owner. "Pages," she repeated to herself, worriedly, "Pages? P——" Suddenly she knew. Pages y Hernandez, the owner of the great Buenos Aires shop—a shop finer than those of Paris. And this was Pages! All the Featherloom instinct in Emma McChesney came to the surface and stayed there, seething.
That was the morning of the second day out. By afternoon, she had bribed and maneuvered so that her deck chair was next that of the Pages-family flock of chairs. Senor Pages reminded her of one of those dashing, white-haired, distinguished-looking men whose likeness graces the cover of a box of your favorite cigars.
General Something-or-other-ending-in-z he should have been, with a revolutionary background. He dressed somberly in black, like most of the other Argentine men on board. There was Senora Pages, very fat, very indolent, very blank, much given to pink satin and diamonds at dinner. Senorita Pages, over-powdered, overfrizzed, marvelously gowned, with overplumpness just a few years away, sat quietly by Senora Pages' side, but her darting, flashing, restless eyes were never still. The son (Emma heard them call him Pepe) was barely eighteen, she thought, but quite a man of the world, with his cigarettes, his drinks, his bold eyes. She looked at his sallow, pimpled skin, his lean, brown hands, his lack-luster eyes, and she thought of Jock and was happy.
Mrs. McChesney knew that she might visit the magnificent Buenos Aires shop of Pages y Hernandez day after day for months without ever obtaining a glimpse of either Pages or Hernandez. And here was Senor Pages, so near that she could reach out and touch him from her deck chair. Here was opportunity! A caller who had never been obliged to knock twice at Emma McChesney's door.
Her methods were so simple that she herself smiled at them. She donned her choicest suit of white serge that she had been saving for shore wear. Its skirt had been cut by the very newest trick. Its coat was the kind to make you go home and get out your own white serge and gaze at it with loathing. Senorita Pages' eyes leaped to that suit as iron leaps to the magnet. Emma McChesney, passing her deck chair, detached the eyes with a neat smile. Why hadn't she spent six months neglecting Skirts for Spanish? she asked herself, groaning. As she approached her own deck chair again she risked a bright, "Good morning." Her heart bounded, stood still, bounded again, as from the lips of the assembled Pages there issued a combined, courteous, perfectly good American, "Good morning!"
"You speak English!" Emma McChesney's tone expressed flattery and surprise.
Pages pere made answer.
"Ah, yes, it is necessary. There are many English in Argentina."
A sigh—a fluttering, tremulous sigh of perfect peace and happiness—welled up from Emma McChesney's heart and escaped through her smiling lips.
By noon, Senorita Pages had tried on the fascinating coat and secured the address of its builder. By afternoon, Emma McChesney was showing the newest embroidery stitch to the slow but docile Senora Pages. Next morning she was playing shuffleboard with the elegant, indolent Pepe, and talking North American football and baseball to him. She had not been Jock McChesney's mother all those years for nothing. She could discuss sports with the best of them. Young Pages was avidly interested. Outdoor sports had become the recent fashion among the rich young Argentines.
The problem of papa Pages was not so easy. Emma McChesney approached her subject warily, skirting the bypaths of politics, war, climate, customs—to business. Business!
"But a lady as charming as you can understand nothing of business," said Senor Pages. "Business is for your militant sisters."
"But we American women do understand business. Many—many charming American women are in business."
Senor Pages turned his fine eyes upon her. She had talked most interestingly, this pretty American woman.
"Perhaps—but pardon me if I think not. A woman cannot be really charming and also capable in business."
Emma McChesney dimpled becomingly.
"But I know a woman who is as—well, as charming as you say I am. Still, she is known as a capable, successful business woman. She'll be in Buenos Aires when I am."
Senor Pages shook an unbelieving head. Emma McChesney leaned forward.
"Will you let me bring her in to meet you, just to prove my point?"
"She must be as charming as you are." His Argentine betting proclivities rose. "Here; we shall make a wager!" He took a card from his pocket, scribbled on it, handed it to Emma McChesney. "You will please present that to my secretary, who will conduct you immediately to my office. We will pretend it is a friendly call. Your friend need not know. If I lose——"
"If you lose, you must promise to let her show you her sample line."
"But, dear madam, I do no buying."
"Then you must introduce her favorably to the department buyer of her sort of goods."
"But if I win?" persisted Senor Pages.
"If she isn't as charming as—as you say I am, you may make your own terms."
Senor Pages' fine eyes opened wide.
It was on the fourteenth day of their trip that they came into quaint Bahia. The stay there was short. Brazilian business methods are long. Emma McChesney took no chances with sample-trunks or cases. She packed her three leading samples into her own personal suitcase, eluded the other tourists, secured an interpreter, and prepared to brave Bahia. She returned just in time to catch the boat, flushed, tired, and orderless. Bahia would have none of her.
In three days they would reach Rio de Janeiro, the magnificent. They would have three days there. She told herself that Bahia didn't count, anyway—sleepy little half-breed town! But the arrow rankled. It had been the first to penetrate the armor of her business success. But she had learned things from that experience at Bahia. She had learned that the South American dislikes the North American because his Northern cousin patronizes him. She learned that the North American business firm is thought by the Southern business man to be tricky and dishonest, and that, because the Northerner has not learned how to pack a case of goods scientifically, as have the English, Germans, and French, the South American rages to pay cubic-feet rates on boxes that are three-quarters empty.
So it was with a heavy heart but a knowing head that she faced Rio de Janeiro. They had entered in the evening, the sunset splashing the bay and the hills in the foreground and the Sugar-loaf Mountain with an unbelievable riot of crimson and gold and orange and blue. Suddenly the sun jerked down, as though pulled by a string, and the magic purple night came up as though pulled by another.
"Well, anyway, I've seen that," breathed Emma McChesney thankfully.
Next morning, she packed her three samples, as before, her heart heavy, her mind on Fat Ed Meyers coming up two weeks behind her. Three days in Rio! And already she had bumped her impatient, quick-thinking, quick-acting North American business head up against the stone wall of South American leisureliness and prejudice. She meant no irreverence, no impiety as she prayed, meanwhile packing Nos. 79, 65, and 48 into her personal bag:
"O Lord, let Fat Ed Meyers have Bahia; but please, please help me to land Rio and Buenos Aires!"
Then, in smart tailored suit and hat, interpreter in tow, a prayer in her heart, and excitement blazing in cheeks and eyes, she made her way to the dock, through the customs, into a cab that was to take her to her arena, the broad Avenida.
Exactly two hours later, there dashed into the customs-house a well-dressed woman whose hat was very much over one ear. She was running as only a woman runs when she's made up her mind to get there. She came hot-foot, helter-skelter, regardless of modishly crippling skirt, past officers, past customs officials, into the section where stood the one small sample-trunk that she had ordered down in case of emergency. The trunk had not gone through the customs. It had not even been opened. But Emma McChesney heeded not trifles like that. Rio de Janeiro had fallen for Featherlooms. Those three samples, Nos. 79, 65, and 48, that boasted style, cut, and workmanship never before seen in Rio, had turned the trick. They were as a taste of blood to a hungry lion. Rio wanted more!
Emma McChesney was kneeling before her trunk, had whipped out her key, unlocked it, and was swiftly selecting the numbers wanted from the trays, her breath coming quickly, her deft fingers choosing unerringly, when an indignant voice said, in Portuguese, "It is forbidden!"
Emma McChesney did not glance around. Her head was buried in the depths of the trunk. But her quick ears had caught the word, "PROHIBA!"
"Speak English," she said, and went on unpacking.
"INGLES!" shouted the official. "No!" Then, with a superhuman effort, as Emma McChesney stood up, her arms laden with Featherloom samples of rainbow hues, "PARE! Ar-r-r-rest!"
Mrs. McChesney slammed down the trunk top, locked it, clutched her samples firmly, and faced the enraged official.
"Go 'way! I haven't time to be arrested this morning. This is my busy day. Call around this evening."
Whereupon she fled to her waiting cab, leaving behind her a Brazilian official stunned and raging by turns.
When she returned, happy, triumphant, order-laden, he was standing there, stunned no longer but raging still. Emma McChesney had forgotten all about him. The gold-braided official advanced, mustachios bristling. A volley of Portuguese burst from his long-pent lips. Emma McChesney glanced behind her. Her interpreter threw up helpless hands, replying with a still more terrifying burst of vowels. Bewildered, a little frightened, Mrs. McChesney stood helplessly by. The official laid a none too gentle hand on her shoulder. A little group of lesser officials stood, comic-opera fashion, in the background. And then Emma McChesney's New York training came to her aid. She ignored the voluble interpreter. She remained coolly unruffled by the fusillade of Portuguese. Quietly she opened her hand bag and plunged her fingers deep, deep therein. Her blue eyes gazed confidingly up into the Brazilian's snapping black ones, and as she withdrew her hand from the depths of her purse, there passed from her white fingers to his brown ones that which is the Esperanto of the nations, the universal language understood from Broadway to Brazil. The hand on her shoulder relaxed and fell away.
On deck once more, she encountered the suave Senor Pages. He stood at the rail surveying Rio's shores with that lip-curling contempt of the Argentine for everything Brazilian. He regarded Emma McChesney's radiant face.
"You are pleased with this—this Indian Rio?"
Mrs. McChesney paused to gaze with him at the receding shores.
"Like it! I'm afraid I haven't seen it. From here it looks like Coney. But it buys like Seattle. Like it! Well, I should say I do!"
"Ah, senora," exclaimed Pages, distressed, "wait! In six days you will behold Buenos Aires. Your New York, Londres, Paris—bah! You shall drive with my wife and daughter through Palermo. You shall see jewels, motors, toilettes as never before. And you will visit my establishment?" He raised an emphatic forefinger. "But surely!"
Emma McChesney regarded him solemnly.
"I promise to do that. You may rely on me."
Six days later they swept up the muddy and majestic Plata, whose color should have won it the name of River of Gold instead of River of Silver. From the boat's upper deck, Emma McChesney beheld a sky line which was so like the sky line of her own New York that it gave her a shock. She was due for still another shock when, an hour later, she found herself in a maelstrom of motors, cabs, street cars, newsboys, skyscrapers, pedestrians, policemen, subway stations. Where was the South American languor? Where the Argentine inertia? The rush and roar of it, the bustle and the bang of it made the twenty-three-day voyage seem a myth.
"I'm going to shut my eyes," she told herself, "and then open them quickly. If that little brown traffic-policeman turns out to be a big, red-faced traffic-policeman, then I'm right, and this IS Broadway and Forty-second."
Shock number three came upon her entrance at the Grande Hotel. It had been Emma McChesney's boast that her ten years on the road had familiarized her with every type, grade, style, shape, cut, and mold of hotel clerk. She knew him from the Knickerbocker to the Eagle House at Waterloo, Iowa. At the moment she entered the Grande Hotel, she knew she had overlooked one. Accustomed though she was to the sartorial splendors of the man behind the desk, she might easily have mistaken this one for the president of the republic. In his glittering uniform, he looked a pass between the supreme chancellor of the K.P.'s in full regalia and a prince of India during the Durbar. He was regal. He was overwhelming. He would have made the most splendid specimen of North American hotel clerk look like a scullery boy. Mrs. McChesney spent two whole days in Buenos Aires before she discovered that she could paralyze this personage with a peso. A peso is forty-three cents.
Her experience at Bahia and at Rio de Janeiro had taught her things. So for two days, haunted, as she was, by visions of Fat Ed Meyers coming up close behind her, she possessed her soul in patience and waited. On the great firm of Pages y Hernandez rested the success of this expedition. When she thought of her little trick on Senor Pages, her blithe spirits sank. Suppose, after all, that this powerful South American should resent her little Yankee joke!
Her trunks went through the customs. She secured an interpreter. She arranged her samples with loving care. Style, cut, workmanship—she ran over their strong points in her mind. She looked at them as a mother's eyes rest fondly on the shining faces, the well-brushed hair, the clean pinafores of her brood. And her heart swelled with pride. They lay on their tables, the artful knickerbockers, the gleaming petticoats, the pink and blue pajamas, the bifurcated skirts. Emma McChesney ran one hand lightly over the navy blue satin folds of a sample.
"Pages or no Pages, you're a credit to your mother," she said, whimsically.
Up in her room once more, she selected her smartest tailor costume, her most modish hat, the freshest of gloves and blouses.
She chose the hours between four and six, when wheel traffic was suspended in the Calle Florida and throughout the shopping-district, the narrow streets of which are congested to the point of suffocation at other times.
As she swung down the street they turned to gaze after her—these Argentines. The fat senoras turned, and the smartly costumed, sallow senoritas, and the men—all of them. They spoke to her, these last, but she had expected that, and marched on with her free, swinging stride, her chin high, her color very bright. Into the great shop of Pages y Hernandez at last, up to the private offices, her breath coming a little quickly, into the presence of the shiny secretary—shiny teeth, shiny hair, shiny skin, shiny nails. He gazed upon Emma McChesney, the shine gleaming brighter. He took in his slim, brown fingers the card on which Senor Pages had scribbled that day on board ship. The shine became dazzling. He bowed low and backed his way into the office of Senor Pages.
A successful man is most impressive when in those surroundings which have been built up by his success. On shipboard, Senor Pages had been a genial, charming, distinguished fellow passenger. In his luxurious business office he still was genial, charming, but his environment seemed to lend him a certain austerity.
("How awful that sounds!" Emma McChesney told herself.)
"We spoke of you but last night. And now you come to win the wager, yes?" He smiled, but shook his head.
"Yes," replied Emma McChesney. And tried to smile, too.
Senor Pages waved a hand toward the outer office.
"She is with you, this business friend who is also so charming?"
"Oh, yes," said Emma McChesney, "she's—she's with me." Then, as he made a motion toward the push-button, which would summon the secretary: "No, don't do that! Wait a minute!" From her bag she drew her business card, presented it. "Read that first."
Senor Pages read it. He looked up. Then he read it again. He gazed again at Emma McChesney. Emma McChesney looked straight at him and tried in vain to remember ever having heard of the South American's sense of humor. A moment passed. Her heart sank. Then Senor Pages threw back his fine head and laughed—laughed as the Latin laughs, emphasizing his mirth with many ejaculations and gestures.
"Ah, you Northerners! You are too quick for us. Come; I myself must see this garment which you honor by selling." His glance rested approvingly on Emma McChesney's trim, smart figure. "That which you sell, it must be quite right."
"I not only sell it," said Emma McChesney; "I wear it."
"That—how is it you Northerners say?—ah, yes—that settles it!"
Six weeks later, in his hotel room in Columbus, Ohio, T. A. Buck sat reading a letter forwarded from New York and postmarked Argentina. As he read he chuckled, grew serious, chuckled again and allowed his cigar to grow cold.
For the seventh time:
DEAR T. A.:
They've fallen for Featherlooms the way an Eskimo takes to gum-drops. My letter of credit is all shot to pieces, but it was worth it. They make you pay a separate license fee in each province, and South America is just one darn province after another. If they'd lump a peddler's license for $5,000 and tell you to go ahead, it would be cheaper.
I landed Pages y Hernandez by a trick. The best of it is the man I played it on saw the point and laughed with me. We North Americans brag too much about our sense of humor.
I thought ten years on the road had hardened me to the most fiendish efforts of a hotel chef. But the food at the Grande here makes a quarter-inch round steak with German fried look like Sherry's latest triumph. You know I'm not fussy. I'm the kind of woman who, given her choice of ice cream or cheese for dessert, will take cheese. Here, given my choice, I play safe and take neither. I've reached the point where I make a meal of radishes. They kill their beef in the morning and serve it for lunch. It looks and tastes like an Ethiop's ear. But I don't care, because I'm getting gorgeously thin.
If the radishes hold out I'll invade Central America and Panama. I've one eye on Valparaiso already. I know it sounds wild, but it means a future and a fortune for Featherlooms. I find I don't even have to talk skirts. They're self-sellers. But I have to talk honesty and packing.
How did you hit it off with Ella Sweeney? Haven't seen a sign of Fat Ed Meyers. I'm getting nervous. Do you think he may have exploded at the equator?
But kind fortune saw fit to add a last sweet drop to Emma McChesney's already brimming cup. As she reached the docks on the day of her departure, clad in cool, crisp white from hat to shoes, her quick eye spied a red-faced, rotund, familiar figure disembarking from the New York boat, just arrived. The fates, grinning, had planned this moment like a stage-manager. Fat Ed Meyers came heavily down the gangplank. His hat was off. He was mopping the top of his head with a large, damp handkerchief. His gaze swept over the busy landing-docks, darted hither and thither, alighted on Emma McChesney with a shock, and rested there. A distinct little shock went through that lady, too. But she waited at the foot of her boat's gangway until the unbelievably nimble Meyers reached her.
He was a fiery spectacle. His cheeks were distended, his eyes protuberant. He wasted no words. They understood each other, those two.
"Coming or going?"
"Going," replied Emma McChesney.
"Clean up this—this Bonez Areez, too?"
Meyers stood a moment panting, his little eyes glaring into her calm ones.
"Well, I beat you in Bahia, anyway." he boasted.
Emma McChesney snapped her fingers blithely.
"Bah, for Bahia!" She took a step or two up the gangplank, and turned. "Good-by, Ed. And good luck. I can recommend the radishes, but pass up the beef. Dangerous."
Fat Ed Meyers, still staring, began to stutter unintelligibly, his lips moving while no words came. Emma McChesney held up a warning hand.
"Don't do that, Ed! Not in this climate! A man of your build, too! I'm surprised. Consider the feelings of your firm!"
Fat Ed Meyers glared up at the white-clad, smiling, gracious figure. His hands unclenched. The words came.
"Oh, if only you were a man for just ten minutes!" he moaned.
THANKS TO MISS MORRISSEY
It was Fat Ed Meyers, of the Sans-Silk Skirt Company, who first said that Mrs. Emma McChesney was the Maude Adams of the business world. It was on the occasion of his being called to the carpet for his failure to make Sans-silks as popular as Emma McChesney's famed Featherlooms. He spoke in self-defense, heatedly.
"It isn't Featherlooms. It's McChesney. Her line is no better than ours. It's her personality, not her petticoats. She's got a following that swears by her. If Maude Adams was to open on Broadway in 'East Lynne,' they'd flock to see her, wouldn't they? Well, Emma McChesney could sell hoop-skirts, I'm telling you. She could sell bustles. She could sell red-woolen mittens on Fifth Avenue!"
The title stuck.
It was late in September when Mrs. McChesney, sunburned, decidedly under weight, but gloriously triumphant, returned from a four months' tour of South America. Against the earnest protests of her business partner, T. A. Buck, president of the Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, she had invaded the southern continent and left it abloom with Featherlooms from the Plata to the Canal.
Success was no stranger to Mrs. McChesney. This last business victory had not turned her head. But it had come perilously near to tilting that extraordinarily well-balanced part. A certain light in her eyes, a certain set of her chin, an added briskness of bearing, a cocky slant of the eyebrow revealed the fact that, though Mrs. McChesney's feet were still on the ground, she might be said to be standing on tiptoe.
When she had sailed from Brooklyn pier that June afternoon, four months before, she had cast her ordinary load of business responsibilities on the unaccustomed shoulders of T. A. Buck. That elegant person, although president of the company which his father had founded, had never been its real head. When trouble threatened in the workroom, it was to Mrs. McChesney that the forewoman came. When an irascible customer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, waxed impatient over the delayed shipment of a Featherloom order, it was to Emma McChesney that his typewritten protest was addressed. When the office machinery needed mental oiling, when a new hand demanded to be put on silk-work instead of mercerized, when a consignment of skirt-material turned out to be more than usually metallic, it was in Mrs. Emma McChesney's little private office that the tangle was unsnarled.
She walked into that little office, now, at nine o'clock of a brilliant September morning. It was a reassuring room, bright, orderly, workmanlike, reflecting the personality of its owner. She stood in the center of it now and looked about her, eyes glowing, lips parted. She raised her hands high above her head, then brought them down to her sides again with an unconsciously dramatic gesture that expressed triumph, peace, content, relief, accomplishment, and a great and deep satisfaction. T. A. Buck, in the doorway, saw the gesture—and understood.
"Not so bad to get back to it, is it?"
"Bad! It's like a drink of cool spring water after too much champagne. In those miserable South American hotels, how I used to long for the orderliness and quiet of this!"
She took off hat and coat. In a vase on the desk, a cluster of yellow chrysanthemums shook their shaggy heads in welcome. Emma McChesney's quick eye jumped to them, then to Buck, who had come in and was surveying the scene appreciatively.
"You—of course." She indicated the flowers with a nod and a radiant smile.
"Sorry—no. The office staff did that. There's a card of welcome, I believe."
"Oh," said Emma McChesney. The smile was still there, but the radiance was gone.
She seated herself at her desk. Buck took the chair near by. She unlocked a drawer, opened it, rummaged, closed it again, unlocked another. She patted the flat top of her desk with loving fingers.
"I can't help it," she said, with a little shamed laugh; "I'm so glad to be back. I'll probably hug the forewoman and bite a piece out of the first Featherloom I lay hands on. I had to use all my self-control to keep from kissing Jake, the elevator-man, coming up."
Out of the corner of her eye, Emma McChesney had been glancing at her handsome business partner. She had found herself doing the same thing from the time he had met her at the dock late in the afternoon of the day before. Those four months had wrought some subtle change. But what? Where? She frowned a moment in thought.
"Is that a new suit, T. A.?"
"This? Lord, no! Last summer's. Put it on because of this July hangover in September. Why?"
"Oh, I don't know"—vaguely—"I just—wondered."
There was nothing vague about T. A. Buck, however. His old air of leisureliness was gone. His very attitude as he sat there, erect, brisk, confident, was in direct contrast to his old, graceful indolence.
"I'd like to go over the home grounds with you this morning," he said. "Of course, in our talk last night, we didn't cover the South American situation thoroughly. But your letters and the orders told the story. You carried the thing through to success. It's marvelous! But we stay-at-homes haven't been marking time during your absence."
The puzzled frown still sat on Emma McChesney's brow. As though thinking aloud, she said,
"Have you grown thinner, or fatter or—something?"
"Not an ounce. Weighed at the club yesterday."
He leaned forward a little, his face suddenly very sober.
"Emma, I want to tell you now that—that mother—she—I lost her just a few weeks after you sailed."
Emma McChesney gave a little cry. She came quickly over to him, and one hand went to his shoulder as she stood looking down at him, her face all sympathy and contrition and sorrow.
"And you didn't write me! You didn't even tell me, last night!"
"I didn't want to distress you. I knew you were having a hard-enough pull down there without additional worries. It happened very suddenly while I was out on the road. I got the wire in Peoria. She died very suddenly and quite painlessly. Her companion, Miss Tate, was with her. She had never been herself since Dad's death."
"I could only do what was to be done. Then I went back on the road. I closed up the house, and now I've leased it. Of course it's big enough for a regiment. But we stayed on because mother was used to it. I sold some of the furniture, but stored the things she had loved. She left some to you."
"You know she used to enjoy your visits so much, partly because of the way in which you always talked of Dad. She left you some jewelry that she was fond of, and that colossal old mahogany buffet that you used to rave over whenever you came up. Heaven knows what you'll do with it! It's a white elephant. If you add another story to it, you could rent it out as an apartment."
"Indeed I shall take it, and cherish it, and polish it up myself every week—the beauty!"
She came back to her chair. They sat a moment in silence. Then Emma McChesney spoke musingly.
"So that was it." Buck looked up. "I sensed something—different. I didn't know. I couldn't explain it."
Buck passed a quick hand over his eyes, shook himself, sat up, erect and brisk again, and plunged, with a directness that was as startling as it was new in him, into the details of Middle Western business.
"Good!" exclaimed Emma McChesney.
"It's all very well to know that Featherlooms are safe in South America. But the important thing is to know how they're going in the corn country."
Buck stood up.
"Suppose we transfer this talk to my office. All the papers are there, all the correspondence—all the orders, everything. You can get the whole situation in half an hour. What's the use of talking when figures will tell you."
He walked swiftly over to the door and stood there waiting. Emma McChesney rose. The puzzled look was there again.
"No, that wasn't it, after all," she said.
"Eh?" said Buck. "Wasn't what?"
"Nothing," replied Emma McChesney.
"I'm wool-gathering this morning. I'm afraid it's going to take me a day or two to get back into harness again."
"If you'd rather wait, if you think you'll be more fit to-morrow or the day after, we'll wait. There's no real hurry. I just thought——"
But Mrs. McChesney led the way across the hall that separated her office from her partner's. Halfway across, she stopped and surveyed the big, bright, busy main office, with its clacking typewriters and rustle and crackle of papers and its air of concentration.
"Why, you've run up a partition there between Miss Casey's desk and the workroom door, haven't you?"
"Yes; it's much better that way."
"Yes, of course. And—why, where are the boys' desks? Spalding's and Hutchinson's, and—they're all gone!" She turned in amazement.
"Break it to me! Aren't we using traveling men any more?"
Buck laughed his low, pleasant laugh.
"Oh, yes; but I thought their desks belonged somewhere else than in the main office. They're now installed in the little room between the shop and Healy's office. Close quarters, but better than having them out here where they were inclined to neglect their reports in order to shine in the eyes of that pretty new stenographer. There are one or two other changes. I hope you'll approve of them."
"I'm sure I shall," replied Emma McChesney, a little stiffly.
In Buck's office, she settled back in her chair to watch him as he arranged neat sheaves of papers for her inspection. Her eyes traveled from his keen, eager face to the piles of paper and back again.
"Tell me, did you hit it off with the Ella Sweeneys and the Sadie Harrises of the great Middle West? Is business as bad as the howlers say it is? You said something last night about a novelty bifurcated skirt. Was that the new designer's idea? How have the early buyers taken to it?"
Buck crooked an elbow over his head in self-defense.
"Stop it! You make me feel like Rheims cathedral. Don't bombard until negotiations fail."
He handed her the first sheaf of papers. But, before she began to read: "I'll say this much. Miss Sharp, of Berg Brothers, Omaha—the one you warned against as the human cactus—had me up for dinner. Well, I know you don't, but it's true. Her father and I hit it off just like that. He's a character, that old boy. Ever meet him? No? And Miss Sharp told me something about herself that explains her porcupine pose. That poor child was engaged to a chap who was killed in the Spanish-American war, and she——"
"Kate Sharp!" interrupted Emma McChesney. "Why, T. A. Buck, in all her vinegary, narrow life, that girl has never had a beau, much less——"
Buck's eyebrows came up slightly.
"Emma McChesney, you haven't developed—er—claws, have you?"
With a gasp, Emma McChesney plunged into the papers before her. For ten minutes, the silence of the room was unbroken except for the crackling of papers. Then Emma McChesney put down the first sheaf and looked up at her business partner.
"Is that a fair sample?" she demanded.
"Very," answered T. A. Buck, and handed her another set.
Another ten minutes of silence. Emma McChesney reached out a hand for still another set of papers. The pink of repressed excitement was tinting her cheeks.
"They're—they're all like this?"
Mrs. McChesney faced him, her eyes wide, her breath coming fast.
"T. A. Buck," she slapped the papers before her smartly with the back of her hand, "this means you've broken our record for Middle Western sales!"
"Yes," said T. A., quietly. "Dad would have enjoyed a morning like this, wouldn't he?"
Emma McChesney stood up.
"Enjoyed it! He is enjoying it. Don't tell me that T. A., Senior, just because he is no longer on earth, has failed to get the joy of knowing that his son has realized his fondest dreams. Why, I can feel him here in this room, I can see those bright brown eyes of his twinkling behind his glasses. Not know it! Of course he knows it."
Buck looked down at the desk, smiling curiously.
"D'you know, I felt that way, too."
Suddenly Emma McChesney began to laugh. It was not all mirth—that laugh. Buck waited.
"And to think that I—I kindly and patronizingly handed you a little book full of tips on how to handle Western buyers, 'The Salesman's Who's Who'—I, who used to think I was the witch of the West when it came to selling! You, on your first selling-trip, have made me look like—like a shoe-string peddler."
Buck put out a hand suddenly.
"Don't say that, Emma. I—somehow it takes away all the pleasure."
"It's true. And now that I know, it explains a lot of things that I've been puzzling about in the last twenty-four hours."
"What kind of things?"
"The way you look and act and think. The way you carry your head. The way you sit in a chair. The very words you use, your gestures, your intonations. They're different."
T. A. Buck, busy with his cigar, laughed a little self-consciously.
"Oh, nonsense!" he said. "You're imagining things."
Which remark, while not a particularly happy one, certainly was not in itself so unfortunate as to explain why Mrs. McChesney should have turned rather suddenly and bolted into her own office across the hall and closed the door behind her.
T. A. Buck, quite cool and unruffled, viewed her sudden departure quizzically. Then he took his cigar from his mouth and stood eying it a moment with more attention, perhaps, than it deserved, in spite of its fine aroma. When he put it back between his lips and sat down at his desk once more he was smiling ever so slightly.
Then began a new order of things in the offices of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. Feet that once had turned quite as a matter of course toward the door marked "MRS. MCCHESNEY," now took the direction of the door opposite—and that door bore the name of Buck. Those four months of Mrs. McChesney's absence had put her partner to the test. That acid test had washed away the accumulated dross of years and revealed the precious metal beneath. T. A. Buck had proved to be his father's son.
If Mrs. McChesney noticed that the head office had miraculously moved across the hall, if her sharp ears marked that the many feet that once had paused at her door now stopped at the door opposite, if she realized that instead of, "I'd like your opinion on this, Mrs. McChesney," she often heard the new, "I'll ask Mr. Buck," she did not show it by word or sign.
The first of October found buyers still flocking into New York from every State in the country. Shrewd men and women, these—bargain hunters on a grand scale. Armed with the long spoon of business knowledge, they came to skim the cream from factory and workroom products set forth for their inspection.
For years, it had been Emma McChesney's quiet boast that of those whose business brought them to the offices and showrooms of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, the foremost insisted on dealing only with her. She was proud of her following. She liked their loyalty. Their preference for her was the subtlest compliment that was in their power to pay. Ethel Morrissey, whose friendship dated back to the days when Emma McChesney had sold Featherlooms through the Middle West, used to say laughingly, her plump, comfortable shoulders shaking, "Emma, if you ever give me away by telling how many years I've been buying Featherlooms of you, I'll—I'll call down upon you the spinster's curse."
Early Monday morning, Mrs. McChesney, coming down the hall from the workroom, encountered Miss Ella Sweeney, of Klein & Company, Des Moines, Iowa, stepping out of the elevator. A very skittish Miss Sweeney, rustling, preening, conscious of her dangling black earrings and her Robespierre collar and her beauty-patch. Emma McChesney met this apparition with outstretched, welcoming hand.
"Ella Sweeney! Well, I'd almost given you up. You're late this fall. Come into my office."
She led the way, not noticing that Miss Sweeney came reluctantly, her eyes on the closed door across the way.
"Sit down," said Emma McChesney, and pulled a chair nearer her desk. "No; wait a minute! Let me look at you. Now, Ella, don't try to tell me that THAT dress came from Des Moines, Iowa! Do I! Why, child, it's distinctive!"
Miss Sweeney, still standing, smiled a pleased but rather preoccupied smile. Her eyes roved toward the door.
Emma McChesney, radiating good will and energy, went on:
"Wait till you see our new samples! You'll buy a million dollars' worth. Just let me lead you to our new Walk-Easy bifurcated skirt. We call it the 'one-stepper's delight.'" She put a hand on Ella Sweeney's arm, preparatory to guiding her to the showrooms in the rear. But Miss Sweeney's strange reluctance grew into resolve. A blush, as real as it was unaccustomed, arose to her bepowdered cheeks.
"Is—I—that is—Mr. Buck is in, I suppose?"
"Mr. Buck? Oh, yes, he's in."
Miss Sweeney's eyes sought the closed door across the hall.
"Is that—his office?"
Emma McChesney stiffened a little. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You have guessed it," she said crisply. "Mr. Buck's name is on the door, and you are looking at it."
Miss Sweeney looked down, looked up, twiddled the chain about her neck.
"You want to see Mr. Buck?" asked Emma McChesney quietly.
Miss Sweeney simpered down at her glove-tips, fluttered her eyelids.
"Well—yes—I—I—you see, I bought of him this year, and when you buy of a person, why, naturally, you——"
"Naturally; I understand."
She walked across the hall, threw open the door, and met T. A. Buck's glance coolly.
"Mr. Buck, Miss Sweeney, of Des Moines, is here, and I'm sure you want to see her. This way, Miss Sweeney."
Miss Sweeney, sidling, blushing, fluttering, teetered in. Emma McChesney, just before she closed the door, saw a little spasm cross Buck's face. It was gone so quickly, and a radiant smile sat there so reassuringly, that she wondered if she had not been mistaken, after all. He had advanced, hand outstretched, with:
"Miss Sweeney! It—it's wonderful to see you again! You're looking——"
The closed door stifled the rest. Emma McChesney, in her office across the way, stood a moment in the center of the room, her hand covering her eyes. The hardy chrysanthemums still glowed sunnily from their vase. The little room was very quiet except for the ticking of the smart, leather-encased clock on the desk.
The closed door shut out factory and office sounds. And Emma McChesney stood with one hand over her eyes. So Napoleon might have stood after Waterloo.
After this first lesson, Mrs. McChesney did not err again. When, two days later, Miss Sharp, of Berg Brothers, Omaha, breezed in, looking strangely juvenile and distinctly anticipatory, Emma greeted her smilingly and waved her toward the door opposite. Miss Sharp, the erstwhile bristling, was strangely smooth and sleek. She glanced ever so softly, sighed ever so flutteringly.
"Working side by side with him, seeing him day after day, how have you been able to resist him?"
Emma McChesney was only human, after all.
"By remembering that this is a business house, not a matrimonial parlor."
The dart found no lodging place in Miss Sharp's sleek armor. She seemed scarcely to have heard.
"My dear," she whispered, "his eyes! And his manner! You must be—whatchamaycallit—adamant. Is that the way you pronounce it? You know what I mean."
"Oh, yes," replied Emma McChesney evenly, "I—know what you mean."
She told herself that she was justified in the righteous contempt which she felt for this sort of thing. A heart-breaker! A cheap lady-killer! Whereupon in walked Sam Bloom, of the Paris Emporium, Duluth, one of Mrs. McChesney's stanchest admirers and a long-tried business friend.
The usual thing: "Younger than ever, Mrs. McChesney! You're a wonder—yes, you are! How's business? Same here. Going to have lunch with me to-day?" Then: "I'll just run in and see Buck. Say, where's he been keeping himself all these years? Chip off the old block, that boy."
So he had the men, too!
It was in this frame of mind that Miss Ethel Morrissey found her on the morning that she came into New York on her semi-annual buying-trip. Ethel Morrissey, plump, matronly-looking, quiet, with her hair fast graying at the sides, had nothing of the skittish Middle Western buyer about her. She might have passed for the mother of a brood of six if it were not for her eyes—the shrewd, twinkling, far-sighted, reckoning eyes of the business woman. She and Emma McChesney had been friends from the day that Ethel Morrissey had bought her first cautious bill of Featherlooms. Her love for Emma McChesney had much of the maternal in it. She felt a personal pride in Emma McChesney's work, her success, her clean reputation, her life of self-denial for her son Jock. When Ethel Morrissey was planned by her Maker, she had not been meant to be wasted on the skirt-and-suit department of a small-town store. That broad, gracious breast had been planned as a resting-place for heads in need of comfort. Those plump, firm arms were meant to enfold the weak and distressed. Those capable hands should have smoothed troubled heads and patted plump cheeks, instead of wasting their gifts in folding piles of petticoats and deftly twitching a plait or a tuck into place. She was playing Rosalind in buskins when she should have been cast for the Nurse.
She entered Emma McChesney's office, now, in her quiet blue suit and her neat hat, and she looked very sane and cheerful and rosy-cheeked and dependable. At least, so Emma McChesney thought, as she kissed her, while the plump arms held her close.
Ethel Morrissey, the hugging process completed, held her off and eyed her.
"Well, Emma McChesney, flourish your Featherlooms for me. I want to buy and get it over, so we can talk."
"Are you sure that you want to buy of me?" asked Emma McChesney, a little wearily.
"What's the joke?"
"I'm not joking. I thought that perhaps you might prefer to see Mr. Buck this trip."
Ethel Morrissey placed one forefinger under Emma McChesney's chin and turned that lady's face toward her and gazed at her long and thoughtfully—the most trying test of courage in the world, that, to one whose eyes fear meeting yours. Emma McChesney, bravest of women, tried to withstand it, and failed. The next instant her head lay on Ethel Morrissey's broad breast, her hands were clutching the plump shoulders, her cheek was being patted soothingly by the kind hands.
"Now, now—what is it, dear? Tell Ethel. Yes; I do know, but tell me, anyway. It'll do you good."
And Emma McChesney told her. When she had finished:
"You bathe your eyes, Emma, and put on your hat and we'll eat. Oh, yes, you will. A cup of tea, anyway. Isn't there some little cool fool place where I can be comfortable on a hot day like this—where we can talk comfortably? I've got at least an hour's conversation in me."
With the first sip of her first cup of tea, Ethel Morrissey began to unload that burden of conversation.
"Emma, this is the best thing that could have happened to you. Oh, yes, it is. The queer thing about it is that it didn't happen sooner. It was bound to come. You know, Emma, the Lord lets a woman climb just so high up the mountain of success. And then, when she gets too cocky, when she begins to measure her wits and brain and strength against that of men, and finds herself superior, he just taps her smartly on the head and shins, so that she stumbles, falls, and rolls down a few miles on the road she has traveled so painfully. He does it just as a gentle reminder to her that she's only a woman, after all. Oh, I know all about this feminist talk. But this thing's been proven. Look at what happened to—to Joan of Arc, and Becky Sharp, and Mary Queen of Scots, and—yes, I have been spending my evenings reading. Now, stop laughing at your old Ethel, Emma McChesney!"
"You meant me to laugh, dear old thing. I don't feel much like it, though. I don't see why I should be reminded of my lowly state. Heaven knows I haven't been so terrifically pleased with myself! Of course, that South American trip was—well, gratifying. But I earned it. For ten years I lived with head in a sample-trunk, didn't I? I worked hard enough to win the love of all these Westerners. It wasn't all walking dreamily down Main Street, strewing Featherlooms along my path."
Ethel Morrissey stirred her second cup of tea, sipped, stirred, smiled, then reached over and patted Emma McChesney's hand.
"Emma, I'm a wise old party, and I can see that it isn't all pique with you. It's something else—something deeper. Oh, yes, it is! Now let me tell you what happened when T. A. Buck invaded your old-time territory. I was busy up in my department the morning he came in. I had my head in a rack of coats, and a henny customer waiting. But I sensed something stirring, and I stuck my head out of the coat-rack in which I was fumbling. The department was aflutter like a poultry-yard. Every woman in it, from the little new Swede stock-girl to Gladys Hemingway, who is only working to wear out her old clothes, was standing with her face toward the elevator, and on her face a look that would make the ordinary door-mat marked 'Welcome' seem like an insult. I kind of smoothed my back hair, because I knew that only one thing could bring that look into a woman's face. And down the aisle came a tall, slim, distinguished-looking, wonderfully tailored, chamois-gloved, walking-sticked Fifth Avenue person with EYES! Of course, I knew. But the other girls didn't. They just sort of fell back at his approach, smitten. He didn't even raise an eyebrow to do it. Now, Emma, I'm not exaggerating. I know what effect he had on me and my girls, and, for that matter, every other man or woman in the store. Why, he was a dream realized to most of 'em. These shrewd, clever buyer-girls know plenty of men—business men of the slap-bang, horn-blowing, bluff, good-natured, hello-kid kind—the kind that takes you out to dinner and blows cigar smoke in your face. Along comes this chap, elegant, well dressed and not even conscious of it, polished, suave, smooth, low-voiced, well bred. Why, when he spoke to a girl, it was the subtlest kind of flattery. Can you see little Sadie Harris, of Duluth, drawing a mental comparison between Sam Bloom, the store-manager, and this fascinating devil—Sam, red-faced, loud voiced, shirt-sleeving it around the sample room, his hat pushed 'way back on his head, chewing his cigar like mad, and wild-eyed for fear he's buying wrong? Why, child, in our town, nobody carries a cane except the Elks when they have their annual parade, and old man Schwenkel, who's lame. And yet we all accepted that yellow walking-stick of Buck's. It belonged to him. There isn't a skirt-buyer in the Middle West that doesn't dream of him all night and push Featherlooms in the store all day. Emma, I'm old and fat and fifty, but when I had dinner with him at the Manitoba House that evening, I caught myself making eyes at him, knowing that every woman in the dining-room would have given her front teeth to be where I was."
After which extensive period, Ethel Morrissey helped herself to her third cup of tea. Emma McChesney relaxed a little and laughed a tremulous little laugh.
"Oh, well, I suppose I must not hope to combat such formidable rivals as walking-sticks, chamois gloves, and EYES. My business arguments are futile compared to those."
Ethel Morrissey delivered herself of a last shot.
"You're wrong, Emma. Those things helped him, but they didn't sell his line. He sold Featherlooms out of salesmanship, and because he sounded convincing and sincere and businesslike—and he had the samples. It wasn't all bunk. It was three-quarters business. Those two make an invincible combination."
An hour later, Ethel Morrissey was shrewdly selecting her winter line of Featherlooms from the stock in the showrooms of the T. A. Buck Company. They went about their business transaction, these two, with the cool abruptness of men, speaking little, and then only of prices, discounts, dating, shipping. Their luncheon conversation of an hour before seemed an impossibility.
"You'll have dinner with me to-night?" Emma asked. "Up at my apartment, all cozy?"
"Not to-night, dearie. I'll be in bed by eight. I'm not the girl I used to be. Time was when a New York buying-trip was a vacation. Now it's a chore."
She took Emma McChesney's hand and patted it.
"If you've got something real nice for dinner, though, and feel like company, why don't you ask—somebody else that's lonesome."
After which, Ethel Morrissey laughed her wickedest and waved a sudden good-by with a last word about seeing her to-morrow.
Emma McChesney, her color high, entered her office. It was five o'clock. She cleared her desk in half an hour, breathed a sigh of weariness, reached for hat and jacket, donned them, and, turning out her lights, closed her door behind her for the day. At that same instant, T. A. Buck slammed his own door and walked briskly down the hall. They met at the elevator.
They descended in silence. The street gained, they paused uncertainly.
"Won't you stay down and have dinner with me to-night, Emma?"
"Thanks so much, T. A. Not to-night."
She turned away. He stood there, in the busy street, looking irresolutely and not at all eagerly in the direction of his club, perhaps, or his hotel, or whatever shelter he sought after business hours. Something in his attitude—the loneliness of it, the uncertainty, the indecision—smote Emma McChesney with a great pang. She came swiftly back.
"I wish you'd come home to dinner with me. I don't know what Annie'll give us. Probably bread pudding. She does, when she's left to her own devices. But I—I wish you would." She looked up at him almost shyly.
T. A. Buck took Emma McChesney's arm in a rather unnecessarily firm grip and propelled her, surprised and protesting, in the direction of the nearest vacant taxi.
"But, T. A.! This is idiotic! Why take a cab to go home from the office on a—a week day?"
"In with you! Besides, I never have a chance to take one from the office on Sunday, do I? Does Annie always cook enough for two?"
Apparently Annie did. Annie was something of a witch, in her way. She whisked about, wrought certain changes, did things with asparagus and mayonnaise, lighted the rose-shaded table-candles. No one noticed that dinner was twenty minutes late.
Together they admired the great mahogany buffet that Emma had miraculously found space for in the little dining-room.
"It glows like a great, deep ruby, doesn't it?" she said proudly. "You should see Annie circle around it with the carpet-sweeper. She knows one bump would be followed by instant death."
Looking back on it, afterward, they remembered that the dinner was a very silent one. They did not notice their wordlessness at the time. Once, when the chops came on, Buck said absently,
"Oh, I had those for l——" Then he stopped abruptly.
Emma McChesney smiled.
"Your mother trained you well," she said.
The October night had grown cool. Annie had lighted a wood fire in the living-room.
"That was what attracted me to this apartment in the first place," Mrs. McChesney said, as they left the dining-room. "A fireplace—a practical, real, wood-burning fireplace in a New York apartment! I'd have signed the lease if the plaster had been falling in chunks and the bathtub had been zinc."
"That's because fireplaces mean home—in our minds," said Buck.
He sat looking into the heart of the glow. There fell another of those comfortable silences.
"T. A., I—I want to tell you that I know I've been acting the cat ever since I got home from South America and found that you had taken charge. You see, you had spoiled me. The thing that has happened to me is the thing that always happens to those who assume to be dictators. I just want you to know, now, that I'm glad and proud and happy because you have come into your own. It hurt me just at first. That was the pride of me. I'm quite over that now. You're not only president of the T. A. Buck Company in name. You're its actual head. And that's as it should be. Long live the King!"
Buck sat silent a moment. Then,
"I had to do it, Emma." She looked up. "You have a wonderful brain," said Buck then, and the two utterances seemed connected in his mind.
They seemed to bring no great satisfaction to the woman to whom he addressed them, however. She thanked him dryly, as women do when their brain is dragged into an intimate conversation.
"But," said Buck, and suddenly stood up, looking at her very intently, "it isn't for your mind that I love you this minute. I love you for your eyes, Emma, and for your mouth—you have the tenderest, most womanly-sweet mouth in the world—and for your hair, and the way your chin curves. I love you for your throat-line, and for the way you walk and talk and sit, for the way you look at me, and for the way you don't look at me."
He reached down and gathered Emma McChesney, the alert, the aggressive, the capable, into his arms, quite as men gather the clingingest kind of woman. "And now suppose you tell me just why and how you love me."
And Emma McChesney told him.
When, at last, he was leaving,
"Don't you think," asked Emma McChesney, her hands on his shoulders, "that you overdid the fascination thing just the least leetle bit there on the road?"
"Well, but you told me to entertain them, didn't you?"
"Yes," reluctantly; "but I didn't tell you to consecrate your life to 'em. The ordinary fat, middle-aged, every-day traveling man will never be able to sell Featherlooms in the Middle West again. They won't have 'em. They'll never be satisfied with anything less than John Drew after this."
"Emma McChesney, you're not marrying me because a lot of overdressed, giggling, skittish old girls have taken a fancy to make eyes at me, are you!"
Emma McChesney stood up very straight and tall.
"I'm marrying you, T. A., because you are a great, big, fine, upstanding, tender, wonderful——"
"Oh, well, then that's all right," broke in Buck, a little tremulously.
Emma McChesney's face grew serious.
"But promise me one thing, T. A. Promise me that when you come home for dinner at night, you'll never say, 'Good heavens, I had that for lunch!'"
A CLOSER CORPORATION
Front offices resemble back kitchens in this: they have always an ear at the keyhole, an eye at the crack, a nose in the air. But
between the ordinary front office and the front office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company there was a difference. The employees at Buck's—from Emil, the errand boy, to old Pop Henderson, who had started as errand boy himself twenty-five years before—possessed the quality of loyalty. They were loyal to the memory of old man Buck, because they had loved and respected him. They were loyal to Mrs. Emma McChesney, because she was Mrs. Emma McChesney (which amounts to the same reason). They were loyal to T. A. Buck, because he was his father's son.
For three weeks the front office had been bewildered. From bewilderment it passed to worry. A worried, bewildered front office is not an efficient front office. Ever since Mrs. McChesney had come off the road, at the death of old T. A. Buck, to assume the secretaryship of the company which she had served faithfully for ten years, she had set an example for the entire establishment. She was the pacemaker. Every day of her life she figuratively pressed the electric button that set the wheels to whirring. At nine A.M., sharp, she appeared, erect, brisk, alert, vibrating energy. Usually, the office staff had not yet swung into its gait. In a desultory way, it had been getting into its sateen sleevelets, adjusting its eye-shades, uncovering its typewriter, opening its ledgers, bringing out its files. Then, down the hall, would come the sound of a firm, light, buoyant step. An electric thrill would pass through the front office. Then the sunny, sincere, "Good morning!"
"'Morning, Mrs. McChesney!" the front office would chorus back.
The day had begun for the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company.
Hortense, the blond stenographer (engaged to the shipping-clerk), noticed it first. The psychology of that is interesting. Hortense knew that by nine-thirty Mrs. McChesney's desk would be clear and that the buzzer would summon her. Hortense didn't mind taking dictation from T. A. Buck, though his method was hesitating and jerky, and he was likely to employ quite casually a baffling and unaccustomed word, over which Hortense's scampering pencil would pause, struggle desperately, then race on. Hortense often was in for a quick, furtive session with her pocket-dictionary after one of T. A.'s periods. But with Mrs. McChesney, dictation was a joy. She knew what she wanted to say and she always said it. The words she used were short, clean-cut, meaningful Anglo-Saxon words. She never used received when she could use got. Hers was the rapid-fire-gun method, each word sharp, well timed, efficient.
Imagine, then, Hortense staring wide-eyed and puzzled at a floundering, hesitating, absent-minded Mrs. McChesney—a Mrs. McChesney strangely starry as to eyes, strangely dreamy as to mood, decidedly deficient as to dictation. Imagine a Hortense with pencil poised in air a full five minutes, waiting until Mrs. McChesney should come to herself with a start, frown, smile vaguely, pass a hand over her eyes, and say, "Let me see—where was I?"
"'And we find, on referring to your order, that the goods you mention——'" Hortense would prompt patiently.
"Oh, yes, of course," with an effort. Hortense was beginning to grow alarmed.
In T. A. Buck's office, just across the hall, the change was quite as noticeable, but in another way. His leisurely drawl was gone. His deliberate manner was replaced by a brisk, quick-thinking, quick-speaking one. His words were brief and to the point. He seemed to be riding on the crest of an excitement-wave. And, as he dictated, he smiled.
Hortense stood it for a week. Then she unburdened herself to Miss Kelly, the assistant bookkeeper. Miss Kelly evinced no surprise at her disclosures.
"I was just talking about it to Pop yesterday. She acts worried, doesn't she? And yet, not exactly worried, either. Do you suppose it can be that son of hers—what's his name? Jock."
Hortense shook her head.
"No; he's all right. She had a letter from him yesterday. He's got a grand position in Chicago, and he's going to marry that girl he was so stuck on here. And it isn't that, either, because Mrs. McChesney likes her. I can tell by the way she talks about her. I ought to know. Look how Henry's ma acted toward me when we were first engaged!"
The front office buzzed with it. It crept into the workroom—into the shipping-room. It penetrated the frowsy head of Jake, the elevator-man. As the days went on and the tempo of the front office slackened with that of the two bright little inner offices, only one member of the whole staff remained unmoved, incurious, taciturn. Pop Henderson listened, one scant old eyebrow raised knowingly, a whimsical half-smile screwing up his wrinkled face.
At the end of three weeks, Hortense, with that display of temperament so often encountered in young ladies of her profession, announced in desperation that, if this thing kept on, she was going to forget herself and jeopardize her position by demanding to know outright what the trouble was.
From the direction of Pop Henderson's inky retreat, there came the sound of a dry chuckle. Pop Henderson had been chuckling in just that way for three weeks, now. It was getting on the nerves of his colleagues.
"If you ever spring the joke that's kept you giggling for a month," snapped Hortense, "it'll break up the office."
Pop Henderson removed his eye-shade very deliberately, passed his thin, cramped old hand over his scant gray locks to his bald spot, climbed down stiffly from his stool, ambled to the center of the room, and, head cocked like a knowing old brown sparrow, regarded the pert Hortense over his spectacles and under his spectacles and, finally, through his spectacles.
"Young folks now 'days," began Pop Henderson dryly, "are so darned cute and knowin' that when an old fellow cuts in ahead of 'em for once, he likes to hug the joke to himself a while before he springs it." There was no acid in his tone. He was beaming very benignantly down upon the little blond stenographer. "You say that Mrs. Mack is absent-minded-like and dreamy, and that young T. A. acts like he'd swallowed an electric battery. Well, when it comes to that, I've seen you many a time, when you didn't know any one was lookin', just sitting there at your typewriter, with your hands kind of poised halfway, and your lips sort of parted, and your eyes just gazing away somewhere off in the distance for fifteen minutes at a stretch. And out there in the shipping-room Henry's singing like a whole minstrel troupe all day long, when he isn't whistlin' so loud you can hear him over 's far as Eighth Avenue." Then, as the red surged up through the girl's fair skin, "Well?" drawled old Pop Henderson, and the dry chuckle threatened again. "We-e-ell?"
"Why, Pop Henderson!" exploded Miss Kelly from her cage. "Why—Pop—Henderson!"
In those six words the brisk and agile-minded Miss Kelly expressed the surprise and the awed conviction of the office staff.
Pop Henderson trotted over to the water-cooler, drew a brimming glass, drank it off, and gave vent to a great exhaust of breath. He tried not to strut as he crossed back to his desk, climbed his stool, adjusted his eye-shade, and, with a last throaty chuckle, plunged into his books again.
But his words already were working their wonders. The office, after the first shock, was flooded with a new atmosphere—a subtle, pervasive air of hushed happiness, of tender solicitude. It went about like a mother who has found her child asleep at play, and who steals away atiptoe, finger on lip, lips smiling tenderly.
The delicate antennae of Emma McChesney's mind sensed the change.
Perhaps she read something in the glowing eyes of her sister-in-love, Hortense. Perhaps she caught a new tone in Miss Kelly's voice or the forewoman's. Perhaps a whisper from the outer office reached her desk. The very afternoon of Pop Henderson's electrifying speech, Mrs. McChesney crossed to T. A. Buck's office, shut the door after her, lowered her voice discreetly, and said,
"T. A., they're on."
"What makes you think so?"
"Nothing. That is, nothing definite. No man-reason. Just a woman-reason."
T. A. Buck strolled over to her, smiling.
"I haven't known you all this time without having learned that that's reason enough. And if they really do know, I'm glad."
"But we didn't want them to know. Not yet—until—until just before the——"
T. A. Buck laid his hands lightly on Emma McChesney's shoulders. Emma McChesney promptly reached up and removed them.
"There you are!" exclaimed Buck, and rammed the offending hands into his pockets.
"That's why I'm glad they know—if they really do know. I'm no actor. I'm a skirt-and-lingerie manufacturer. For the last six weeks, instead of being allowed to look at you with the expression that a man naturally wears when he's looking at the woman he's going to marry, what have I had to do? Glare, that's what! Scowl! Act like a captain of finance when I've felt like a Romeo! I've had to be dry, terse, businesslike, when I was bursting with adjectives that had nothing to do with business. You've avoided my office as you would a small-pox camp. You've greeted me with a what-can-I-do-for-you air when I've dared to invade yours. You couldn't have been less cordial to a book agent. If it weren't for those two hours you grant me in the evening, I'd—I'd blow up with a loud report, that's what. I'd——"
"Now, now, T. A.!" interrupted Emma McChesney soothingly, and patted one gesticulating arm. "It has been a bit of a strain—for both of us. But, you know, we agreed it would be best this way. We've ten days more to go. Let's stick it out as we've begun. It has been best for us, for the office, for the business. The next time you find yourself choked up with a stock of fancy adjectives, write a sonnet to me. Work 'em off that way."
T. A. Buck stood silent a moment, regarding her with a concentration that would have unnerved a woman less poised.
"Emma McChesney, when you talk like that, so coolly, so evenly, so—so darned mentally, I sometimes wonder if you really——"
"Don't say it, T. A. Because you don't mean it. I've had to fight for most of my happiness. I've never before found it ready at hand. I've always had to dig for it with a shovel and a spade and a pickax, and then blast. I had almost twenty years of that—from the time I was eighteen until I was thirty-eight. It taught me to take my happiness seriously and my troubles lightly." She shut her eyes for a moment, and her voice was very low and very deep and very vibrant. "So, when I'm coolest and evenest and most mental, T. A., you may know that I've struck gold."
A great glow illumined Buck's fine eyes. He took two quick steps in her direction. But Emma McChesney, one hand on the door-knob, warned him off with the other.
"Hey—wait a minute!" pleaded Buck.
"Can't. I've a fitting at the tailor's at three-thirty—my new suit. Wait till you see it!"
"The dickens you have! But so have I"—he jerked out his watch—"at three-thirty! It's the suit I'm going to wear when I travel as a blushing bridegroom."
"So's mine. And look here, T. A.! We can't both leave this place for a fitting. It's absurd. If this keeps on, it will break up the business. We'll have to get married one at a time—or, at least, get our trousseaux one at a time. What's your suit?"
"Sort of brown."
"Brown? So's mine! Good heavens, T. A., we'll look like a minstrel troupe!"
Buck sighed resignedly.
"If I telephone my tailor that I can't make it until four-thirty, will you promise to be back by that time?"
"Yes; but remember, if your bride appears in a skirt that sags in the back or a coat that bunches across the shoulders, the crime will lie at your door."
So it was that the lynx-eyed office staff began to wonder if, after all, Pop Henderson was the wizard that he had claimed to be.
During working hours, Mrs. McChesney held rigidly to business. Her handsome partner tried bravely to follow her example. If he failed occasionally, perhaps Emma McChesney was not so displeased as she pretended to be. A business discussion, deeply interesting to both, was likely to run thus: