ROAST BEEF, MEDIUM
THE BUSINESS ADVENTURES OF EMMA McCHESNEY
BY EDNA FERBER
Author of "Dawn O'Hara," "Buttered Side Down," Etc.
With twenty-seven illustrations by James Montgomery Flagg
Roast Beef, Medium, is not only a food. It is a philosophy.
Seated at Life's Dining Table, with the Menu of Morals before you, your eye wanders a bit over the entrees, the hors d'oeuvres, and the things a la, though you know that Roast Beef, Medium, is safe, and sane, and sure. It agrees with you. As you hesitate there sounds in your ear a soft and insinuating Voice.
"You'll find the tongue in aspic very nice today," purrs the Voice. "May I recommend the chicken pie, country style? Perhaps you'd relish something light and tempting. Eggs Benedictine. Very fine. Or some flaked crab meat, perhaps. With a special Russian sauce."
Roast Beef, Medium! How unimaginative it sounds. How prosaic, and dry! You cast the thought of it aside with the contempt that it deserves, and you assume a fine air of the epicure as you order. There are set before you things encased in pastry; things in frilly paper trousers; things that prick the tongue; sauces that pique the palate. There are strange vegetable garnishings, cunningly cut. This is not only Food. These are Viands.
"Everything satisfactory?" inquires the insinuating Voice.
"Yes," you say, and take a hasty sip of water. That paprika has burned your tongue. "Yes. Check, please."
You eye the score, appalled. "Look here! Aren't you over-charging!"
"Our regular price," and you catch a sneer beneath the smugness of the Voice. "It is what every one pays, sir."
You reach deep, deep into your pocket, and you pay. And you rise and go, full but not fed. And later as you take your fifth Moral Pepsin Tablet you say Fool! and Fool! and Fool!
When next we dine we are not tempted by the Voice. We are wary of weird sauces. We shun the cunning aspics. We look about at our neighbor's table. He is eating of things French, and Russian and Hungarian. Of food garnished, and garish and greasy. And with a little sigh of Content and resignation we settle down to our Roast Beef, Medium.
I. ROAST BEEF, MEDIUM II. REPRESENTING T. A. BUCK III. CHICKENS IV. HIS MOTHER'S SON V. PINK TIGHTS AND GINGHAMS VI. SIMPLY SKIRTS VII. UNDERNEATH THE HIGH-CUT VEST VIII. CATCHING UP WITH CHRISTMAS IX. KNEE-DEEP IN KNICKERS X. IN THE ABSENCE OF THE AGENT
"'And they call that thing a petticoat!'"
"'Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,' he announced, glibly"
"'That was a married kiss—a two-year-old married kiss at least'"
"'I won't ask you to forgive a hound like me'"
"'You'll never grow up, Emma McChesney'"
"'Well, s'long then, Shrimp. See you at eight'"
"'I'm still in a position to enforce that ordinance against pouting'"
"'Son!' echoed the clerk, staring"
"'Well!' gulped Jock, 'those two double-bedded, bloomin', blasted Bisons—'"
"'Come on out of here and I'll lick the shine off your shoes, you blue-eyed babe, you!'"
"'You can't treat me with your life's history. I'm going in'"
"'Now, Lillian Russell and cold cream is one; and new potatoes and brown crocks is another'"
"'Why, girls, I couldn't hold down a job in a candy factory'"
"'Honestly, I'd wear it myself!'"
"'I've lived petticoats, I've talked petticoats, I've dreamed petticoats—why, I've even worn the darn things!'"
"And found himself addressing the backs of the letters on the door marked 'Private'"
"'Shut up, you blamed fool! Can't you see the lady's sick?'"
"At his gaze that lady fled, sample-case banging at her knees"
"In the exuberance of his young strength, he picked her up"
"She read it again, dully, as though every selfish word had not already stamped itself on her brain and heart"
"'Not that you look your age—not by ten years!"'
"'Christmas isn't a season ... it's a feeling; and, thank God, I've got it!'"
"No man will ever appreciate the fine points of this little garment, but the women—"
"Emma McChesney ... I believe in you now! Dad and I both believe in you'"
"It had been a whirlwind day"
"'Emma,' he said, 'will you marry me?'"
'"Welcome home!' she cried. 'Sketch in the furniture to suit yourself"'
ROAST BEEF, MEDIUM
There is a journey compared to which the travels of Bunyan's hero were a summer-evening's stroll. The Pilgrims by whom this forced march is taken belong to a maligned fraternity, and are known as traveling men. Sample-case in hand, trunk key in pocket, cigar in mouth, brown derby atilt at an angle of ninety, each young and untried traveler starts on his journey down that road which leads through morasses of chicken a la Creole, over greasy mountains of queen fritters made doubly perilous by slippery glaciers of rum sauce, into formidable jungles of breaded veal chops threaded by sanguine and deadly streams of tomato gravy, past sluggish mires of dreadful things en casserole, over hills of corned-beef hash, across shaking quagmires of veal glace, plunging into sloughs of slaw, until, haggard, weary, digestion shattered, complexion gone, he reaches the safe haven of roast beef, medium. Once there, he never again strays, although the pompadoured, white-aproned siren sing-songs in his ear the praises of Irish stew, and pork with apple sauce.
Emma McChesney was eating her solitary supper at the Berger house at Three Rivers, Michigan. She had arrived at the Roast Beef haven many years before. She knew the digestive perils of a small town hotel dining-room as a guide on the snow-covered mountain knows each treacherous pitfall and chasm. Ten years on the road had taught her to recognize the deadly snare that lurks in the seemingly calm bosom of minced chicken with cream sauce. Not for her the impenetrable mysteries of a hamburger and onions. It had been a struggle, brief but terrible, from which Emma McChesney had emerged triumphant, her complexion and figure saved.
No more metaphor. On with the story, which left Emma at her safe and solitary supper.
She had the last number of the Dry Goods Review propped up against the vinegar cruet and the Worcestershire, and the salt shaker. Between conscientious, but disinterested mouthfuls of medium roast beef, she was reading the snappy ad set forth by her firm's bitterest competitors, the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company. It was a good reading ad. Emma McChesney, who had forgotten more about petticoats than the average skirt salesman ever knew, presently allowed her luke- warm beef to grow cold and flabby as she read. Somewhere in her subconscious mind she realized that the lanky head waitress had placed some one opposite her at the table. Also, subconsciously, she heard him order liver and bacon, with onions. She told herself that as soon as she reached the bottom of the column she'd look up to see who the fool was. She never arrived at the column's end.
"I just hate to tear you away from that love lyric; but if I might trouble you for the vinegar—"
Emma groped for it back of her paper and shoved it across the table without looking up. "—and the Worcester—"
One eye on the absorbing column, she passed the tall bottle. But at its removal her prop was gone. The Dry Goods Review was too weighty for the salt shaker alone.
"—and the salt. Thanks. Warm, isn't it?"
There was a double vertical frown between Emma McChesney's eyes as she glanced up over the top of her Dry Goods Review. The frown gave way to a half smile. The glance settled into a stare.
"But then, anybody would have stared. He expected it," she said, afterwards, in telling about it. "I've seen matinee idols, and tailors' supplies salesmen, and Julian Eltinge, but this boy had any male professional beauty I ever saw, looking as handsome and dashing as a bowl of cold oatmeal. And he knew it."
Now, in the ten years that she had been out representing T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats Emma McChesney had found it necessary to make a rule or two for herself. In the strict observance of one of these she had become past mistress in the fine art of congealing the warm advances of fresh and friendly salesmen of the opposite sex. But this case was different, she told herself. The man across the table was little more than a boy—an amazingly handsome, astonishingly impudent, cockily confident boy, who was staring with insolent approval at Emma McChesney's trim, shirt-waisted figure, and her fresh, attractive coloring, and her well-cared-for hair beneath the smart summer hat.
"It isn't in human nature to be as good-looking as you are," spake Emma McChesney, suddenly, being a person who never trifled with half- way measures. "I'll bet you have bad teeth, or an impediment in your speech."
The gorgeous young man smiled. His teeth were perfect. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," he announced, glibly. "Nothing missing there, is there?"
"Must be your morals then," retorted Emma McChesney. "My! My! And on the road! Why, the trail of bleeding hearts that you must leave all the way from Maine to California would probably make the Red Sea turn white with envy."
The Fresh Young Kid speared a piece of liver and looked soulfully up into the adoring eyes of the waitress who was hovering over him. "Got any nice hot biscuits to-night, girlie?" he inquired.
"I'll get you some; sure," wildly promised his handmaiden, and disappeared kitchenward.
"Brand new to the road, aren't you?" observed Emma McChesney, cruelly.
"What makes you think—"
"Liver and bacon, hot biscuits, Worcestershire," elucidated she. "No old-timer would commit suicide that way. After you've been out for two or three years you'll stick to the Rock of Gibraltar—roast beef, medium. Oh, I get wild now and then, and order eggs if the girl says she knows the hen that layed 'em, but plain roast beef, unchloroformed, is the one best bet. You can't go wrong if you stick to it."
The god-like young man leaned forward, forgetting to eat.
"You don't mean to tell me you're on the road!"
"Why not?" demanded Emma McChesney, briskly.
"Oh, fie, fie!" said the handsome youth, throwing her a languishing look. "Any woman as pretty as you are, and with those eyes, and that hair, and figure—Say, Little One, what are you going to do to-night?"
Emma McChesney sugared her tea, and stirred it, slowly. Then she looked up. "To-night, you fresh young kid, you!" she said calmly, "I'm going to dictate two letters, explaining why business was rotten last week, and why it's going to pick up next week, and then I'm going to keep an engagement with a nine-hour beauty sleep."
"Don't get sore at a fellow. You'd take pity on me if you knew how I have to work to kill an evening in one of these little townpump burgs. Kill 'em! It can't be done. They die harder than the heroine in a ten, twenty, thirty. From supper to bedtime is twice as long as from breakfast to supper. Honest!"
But Emma McChesney looked inexorable, as women do just before they relent. Said she: "Oh, I don't know. By the time I get through trying to convince a bunch of customers that T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoat has every other skirt in the market looking like a piece of Fourth of July bunting that's been left out in the rain, I'm about ready to turn down the spread and leave a call for six-thirty."
"Be a good fellow," pleaded the unquenchable one. "Let's take in all the nickel shows, and then see if we can't drown our sorrows in—er—"
Emma McChesney slipped a coin under her plate, crumpled her napkin, folded her arms on the table, and regarded the boy across the way with what our best talent calls a long, level look. It was so long and so level that even the airiness of the buoyant youngster at whom it was directed began to lessen perceptibly, long before Emma began to talk.
"Tell me, young 'un, did any one ever refuse you anything? I thought not. I should think that when you realize what you've got to learn it would scare you to look ahead. I don't expect you to believe me when I tell you I never talk to fresh guys like you, but it's true. I don't know why I'm breaking my rule for you, unless it's because you're so unbelievably good-looking that I'm anxious to know where the blemish is. The Lord don't make 'em perfect, you know. I'm going to get out those letters, and then, if it's just the same to you, we'll take a walk. These nickel shows are getting on my nerves. It seems to me that if I have to look at one more Western picture about a fool girl with her hair in a braid riding a show horse in the wilds of Clapham Junction and being rescued from a band of almost-Indians by the handsome, but despised Eastern tenderfoot, or if I see one more of those historical pictures, with the women wearing costumes that are a pass between early Egyptian and late State Street, I know I'll get hysterics and have to be carried shrieking, up the aisle. Let's walk down Main Street and look in the store windows, and up as far as the park and back."
"Great!" assented he. "Is there a park?
"I don't know," replied Emma McChesney, "but there is. And for your own good I'm going to tell you a few things. There's more to this traveling game than just knocking down on expenses, talking to every pretty woman you meet, and learning to ask for fresh white-bread heels at the Palmer House in Chicago. I'll meet you in the lobby at eight."
Emma McChesney talked steadily, and evenly, and generously, from eight until eight-thirty. She talked from the great storehouse of practical knowledge which she had accumulated in her ten years on the road. She told the handsome young cub many things for which he should have been undyingly thankful. But when they reached the park—the cool, dim, moon-silvered park, its benches dotted with glimpses of white showing close beside a blur of black, Emma McChesney stopped talking. Not only did she stop talking, but she ceased to think of the boy seated beside her on the bench.
In the band-stand, under the arc-light, in the center of the pretty little square, some neighborhood children were playing a noisy game, with many shrill cries, and much shouting and laughter. Suddenly, from one of the houses across the way, a woman's voice was heard, even above the clamor of the children.
"Fred-dee!" called the voice. "Maybelle! Come, now."
And a boy's voice answered, as boys' voices have since Cain was a child playing in the Garden of Eden, and as boys' voices will as long as boys are:
"Aw, ma, I ain't a bit sleepy. We just begun a new game, an' I'm leader. Can't we just stay out a couple of minutes more?"
"Well, five minutes," agreed the voice. "But don't let me call you again."
Emma McChesney leaned back on the rustic bench and clasped her strong, white hands behind her head, and stared straight ahead into the soft darkness. And if it had been light you could have seen that the bitter lines showing faintly about her mouth were outweighed by the sweet and gracious light which was glowing in her eyes.
"Fred-dee!" came the voice of command again. "May-belle! This minute, now!"
One by one the flying little figures under the arc-light melted away in the direction of the commanding voice and home and bed. And Emma McChesney forgot all about fresh young kids and featherloom petticoats and discounts and bills of lading and sample-cases and grouchy buyers. After all, it had been her protecting maternal instinct which had been aroused by the boy at supper, although she had not known it then. She did not know it now, for that matter. She was busy remembering just such evenings in her own life—summer evenings, filled with the high, shrill laughter of children at play. She too, had stood in the doorway, making a funnel of her hands, so that her clear call through the twilight might be heard above the cries of the boys and girls. She had known how loath the little feet had been to leave their play, and how they had lagged up the porch stairs, and into the house. Years, whose memory she had tried to keep behind her, now suddenly loomed before her in the dim quiet of the little flower-scented park.
A voice broke the silence, and sent her dream-thoughts scattering to the winds.
"Honestly, kid," said the voice, "I could be crazy about you, if you'd let me."
The forgotten figure beside her woke into sudden life. A strong arm encircled her shoulders. A strong hand seized her own, which were clasped behind her head. Two warm, eager lips were pressed upon her lips, checking the little cry of surprise and wrath that rose in her throat.
Emma McChesney wrenched herself free with a violent jerk, and pushed him from her. She did not storm. She did not even rise. She sat very quietly, breathing fast. When she turned at last to look at the boy beside her it seemed that her white profile cut the darkness. The man shrank a little, and would have stammered something, but Emma McChesney checked him.
"You nasty, good-for-nothing, handsome young devil, you!" she said. "So you're married."
He sat up with a jerk. "How did you—what makes you think so?"
"That was a married kiss—a two-year-old married kiss, at least. No boy would get as excited as that about kissing an old stager like me. The chances are you're out of practise. I knew that if it wasn't teeth or impediment it must be morals. And it is."
She moved over on the bench until she was close beside him. "Now, listen to me, boy." She leaned forward, impressively. "Are you listening?"
"Yes," answered the handsome young devil, sullenly.
"What I've got to say to you isn't so much for your sake, as for your wife's. I was married when I was eighteen, and stayed married eight years. I've had my divorce ten years, and my boy is seventeen years old. Figure it out. How old is Ann?"
"I don't believe it," he flashed back. "You're not a day over twenty- six—anyway, you don't look it. I—"
"Thanks," drawled Emma. "That's because you've never seen me in negligee. A woman's as old as she looks with her hair on the dresser and bed only a few minutes away. Do you know why I was decent to you in the first place? Because I was foolish enough to think that you reminded me of my own kid. Every fond mama is gump enough to think that every Greek god she sees looks like her own boy, even if her own happens to squint and have two teeth missing—which mine hasn't, thank the Lord! He's the greatest young—Well, now, look here, young 'un. I'm going to return good for evil. Traveling men and geniuses should never marry. But as long as you've done it, you might as well start right. If you move from this spot till I get through with you, I'll yell police and murder. Are you ready?"
"I'm dead sorry, on the square, I am—"
"Ten minutes late," interrupted Emma McChesney. "I'm dishing up a sermon, hot, for one, and you've got to choke it down. Whenever I hear a traveling man howling about his lonesome evenings, and what a dog's life it is, and no way for a man to live, I always wonder what kind of a summer picnic he thinks it is for his wife. She's really a widow seven months in the year, without any of a widow's privileges. Did you ever stop to think what she's doing evenings? No, you didn't. Well, I'll tell you. She's sitting home, night after night, probably embroidering monograms on your shirt sleeves by way of diversion. And on Saturday night, which is the night when every married woman has the inalienable right to be taken out by her husband, she can listen to the woman in the flat upstairs getting ready to go to the theater. The fact that there's a ceiling between 'em doesn't prevent her from knowing just where they're going, and why he has worked himself into a rage over his white lawn tie, and whether they're taking a taxi or the car and who they're going to meet afterward at supper. Just by listening to them coming downstairs she can tell how much Mrs. Third Flat's silk stockings cost, and if she's wearing her new La Valliere or not. Women have that instinct, you know. Or maybe you don't. There's so much you've missed."
"Say, look here—" broke from the man beside her. But Emma McChesney laid her cool fingers on his lips.
"Nothing from the side-lines, please," she said. "After they've gone she can go to bed, or she can sit up, pretending to read, but really wondering if that squeaky sound coming from the direction of the kitchen is a loose screw in the storm door, or if it's some one trying to break into the flat. And she'd rather sit there, scared green, than go back through that long hall to find out. And when Tillie comes home with her young man at eleven o'clock, though she promised not to stay out later than ten, she rushes back to the kitchen and falls on her neck, she's so happy to see her. Oh, it's a gay life. You talk about the heroism of the early Pilgrim mothers! I'd like to know what they had on the average traveling man's wife."
"Bess goes to the matinee every Saturday," he began, in feeble defense.
"Matinee!" scoffed Emma McChesney. "Do you think any woman goes to matinee by preference? Nobody goes but girls of sixteen, and confirmed old maids without brothers, and traveling men's wives. Matinee! Say, would you ever hesitate to choose between an all-day train and a sleeper? It's the same idea. What a woman calls going to the theater is something very different. It means taking a nap in the afternoon, so her eyes will be bright at night, and then starting at about five o'clock to dress, and lay her husband's clean things out on the bed. She loves it. She even enjoys getting his bath towels ready, and putting his shaving things where he can lay his hands on 'em, and telling the girl to have dinner ready promptly at six-thirty. It means getting out her good dress that hangs in the closet with a cretonne bag covering it, and her black satin coat, and her hat with the paradise aigrettes that she bought with what she saved out of the housekeeping money. It means her best silk stockings, and her diamond sunburst that he's going to have made over into a La Valliere just as soon as business is better. She loves it all, and her cheeks get pinker and pinker, so that she really doesn't need the little dash of rouge that she puts on 'because everybody does it, don't you know?' She gets ready, all but her dress, and then she puts on a kimono and slips out to the kitchen to make the gravy for the chicken because the girl never can get it as smooth as he likes it. That's part of what she calls going to the theater, and having a husband. And if there are children—"
There came a little, inarticulate sound from the boy. But Emma's quick ear caught it.
"No? Well, then, we'll call that one black mark less for you. But if there are children—and for her sake I hope there will be—she's father and mother to them. She brings them up, single-handed, while he's on the road. And the worst she can do is to say to them, 'Just wait until your father gets home. He'll hear of this.' But shucks! When he comes home he can't whip the kids for what they did seven weeks before, and that they've forgotten all about, and for what he never saw, and can't imagine. Besides, he wants his comfort when he gets home. He says he wants a little rest and peace, and he's darned if he's going to run around evenings. Not much, he isn't! But he doesn't object to her making a special effort to cook all those little things that he's been longing for on the road. Oh, there'll be a seat in Heaven for every traveling man's wife—though at that, I'll bet most of 'em will find themselves stuck behind a post."
"You're all right!" exclaimed Emma McChesney's listener, suddenly. "How a woman like you can waste her time on the road is more than I can see. And—I want to thank you. I'm not such a fool—"
"I haven't let you finish a sentence so far and I'm not going to yet. Wait a minute. There's one more paragraph to this sermon. You remember what I told you about old stagers, and the roast beef diet? Well, that applies right through life. It's all very well to trifle with the little side-dishes at first, but there comes a time when you've got to quit fooling with the minced chicken, and the imitation lamb chops of this world, and settle down to plain, everyday, roast beef, medium. That other stuff may tickle your palate for a while, but sooner or later it will turn on you, and ruin your moral digestion. You stick to roast beef, medium. It may sound prosaic, and unimaginative and dry, but you'll find that it wears in the long run. You can take me over to the hotel now. I've lost an hour's sleep, but I don't consider it wasted. And you'll oblige me by putting the stopper on any conversation that may occur to you between here and the hotel. I've talked until I'm so low on words that I'll probably have to sell featherlooms in sign language to-morrow."
They walked to the very doors of the Berger House in silence. But at the foot of the stairs that led to the parlor floor he stopped, and looked into Emma McChesney's face. His own was rather white and tense.
"Look here," he said. "I've got to thank you. That sounds idiotic, but I guess you know what I mean. And I won't ask you to forgive a hound like me. I haven't been so ashamed of myself since I was a kid. Why, if you knew Bess—if you knew—"
"I guess I know Bess, all right. I used to be a Bess, myself. Just because I'm a traveling man it doesn't follow that I've forgotten the Bess feeling. As far as that goes, I don't mind telling you that I've got neuralgia from sitting in that park with my feet in the damp grass. I can feel it in my back teeth, and by eleven o'clock it will be camping over my left eye, with its little brothers doing a war dance up the side of my face. And, boy, I'd give last week's commissions if there was some one to whom I had the right to say: 'Henry, will you get up and get me a hot-water bag for my neuralgia? It's something awful. And just open the left-hand lower drawer of the chiffonier and get out one of those gauze vests and then get me a safety pin from the tray on my dresser. I'm going to pin it around my head.'"
REPRESENTING T. A. BUCK
Emma McChesney, Mrs. (I place it in the background because she generally did) swung off the 2:15, crossed the depot platform, and dived into the hotel 'bus. She had to climb over the feet of a fat man in brown and a lean man in black, to do it. Long practise had made her perfect in the art. She knew that the fat man and the thin man were hogging the end seats so that they could be the first to register and get a choice of rooms when the 'bus reached the hotel. The vehicle smelled of straw, and mold, and stables, and dampness, and tobacco, as 'buses have from old Jonas Chuzzlewit's time to this. Nine years on the road had accustomed Emma McChesney's nostrils to 'bus smells. She gazed stolidly out of the window, crossed one leg over the other, remembered that her snug suit-skirt wasn't built for that attitude, uncrossed them again, and caught the delighted and understanding eye of the fat traveling man, who was a symphony in brown—brown suit, brown oxfords, brown scarf, brown bat, brown-bordered handkerchief just peeping over the edge of his pocket. He looked like a colossal chocolate fudge.
"Red-faced, grinning, and a naughty wink—I'll bet he sells coffins and undertakers' supplies," mused Emma McChesney. "And the other one— the tall, lank, funereal affair in black—I suppose his line would be sheet music, or maybe phonographs. Or perhaps he's a lyceum bureau reader, scheduled to give an evening of humorous readings for the Young Men's Sunday Evening Club course at the First M. E. Church."
During those nine years on the road for the Featherloom Skirt Company Emma McChesney had picked up a side line or two on human nature.
She was not surprised to see the fat man in brown and the thin man in black leap out of the 'bus and into the hotel before she had had time to straighten her hat after the wheels had bumped up against the curbing. By the time she reached the desk the two were disappearing in the wake of a bell-boy.
The sartorial triumph behind the desk, languidly read her signature upside down, took a disinterested look at her, and yelled:
"Front! Show the lady up to nineteen."
Emma McChesney took three steps in the direction of the stairway toward which the boy was headed with her bags. Then she stopped.
"Wait a minute, boy," she said, pleasantly enough; and walked back to the desk. She eyed the clerk, a half-smile on her lips, one arm, in its neat tailored sleeve, resting on the marble, while her right forefinger, trimly gloved, tapped an imperative little tattoo. (Perhaps you think that last descriptive sentence is as unnecessary as it is garbled. But don't you get a little picture of her—trim, taut, tailored, mannish-booted, flat-heeled, linen-collared, sailor-hatted?)
"You've made a mistake, haven't you?" she inquired.
Mistake?" repeated the clerk, removing his eyes from their loving contemplation of his right thumb-nail. "Guess not."
"Oh, think it over," drawled Emma McChesney. "I've never seen nineteen, but I can describe it with both eyes shut, and one hand tied behind me. It's an inside room, isn't it, over the kitchen, and just next to the water butt where the maids come to draw water for the scrubbing at 5 A.M.? And the boiler room gets in its best bumps for nineteen, and the patent ventilators work just next door, and there's a pet rat that makes his headquarters in the wall between eighteen and nineteen, and the housekeeper whose room is across the hail is afflicted with a bronchial cough, nights. I'm wise to the brand of welcome that you fellows hand out to us women on the road. This is new territory for me—my first trip West. Think it over. Don't—er—say, sixty-five strike you as being nearer my size?"
The clerk stared at Emma McChesney, and Emma McChesney coolly stared back at the clerk.
"Our aim," began he, loftily, "is to make our guests as comfortable as possible on all occasions. But the last lady drummer who—"
"That's all right," interrupted Emma McChesney, "but I'm not the kind that steals the towels, and I don't carry an electric iron with me, either. Also I don't get chummy with the housekeeper and the dining- room girls half an hour after I move in. Most women drummers are living up to their reputations, but some of us are living 'em down. I'm for revision downward. You haven't got my number, that's all."
A slow gleam of unwilling admiration illumined the clerk's chill eye. He turned and extracted another key with its jangling metal tag, from one of the many pigeonholes behind him.
"You win," he said. He leaned over the desk and lowered his voice discreetly. "Say, girlie, go on into the cafe and have a drink on me."
"Wrong again," answered Emma McChesney. "Never use it. Bad for the complexion. Thanks just the same. Nice little hotel you've got here."
In the corridor leading to sixty-five there was a great litter of pails, and mops, and brooms, and damp rags, and one heard the sigh of a vacuum cleaner.
"Spring house-cleaning," explained the bellboy, hurdling a pail.
Emma McChesney picked her way over a little heap of dust-cloths and a ladder or so.
"House-cleaning," she repeated dreamily; "spring house-cleaning." And there came a troubled, yearning light into her eyes. It lingered there after the boy had unlocked and thrown open the door of sixty-five, pocketed his dime, and departed.
Sixty-five was—well, you know what sixty-five generally is in a small Middle-Western town. Iron bed—tan wall-paper—pine table—pine dresser—pine chair—red carpet—stuffy smell—fly buzzing at window— sun beating in from the west. Emma McChesney saw it all in one accustomed glance.
"Lordy, I hate to think what nineteen must be," she told herself, and unclasped her bag. Out came the first aid to the travel-stained—a jar of cold cream. It was followed by powder, chamois, brush, comb, tooth- brush. Emma McChesney dug four fingers into the cold cream jar, slapped the stuff on her face, rubbed it in a bit, wiped it off with a dry towel, straightened her hat, dusted the chamois over her face, glanced at her watch and hurriedly whisked downstairs.
"After all," she mused, "that thin guy might not be out for a music house. Maybe his line is skirts, too. You never can tell. Anyway, I'll beat him to it."
Saturday afternoon and spring-time in a small town! Do you know it? Main Street—on the right side—all a-bustle; farmers' wagons drawn up at the curbing; farmers' wives in the inevitable rusty black with dowdy hats furbished up with a red muslin rose in honor of spring; grand opening at the new five-and-ten-cent store, with women streaming in and streaming out again, each with a souvenir pink carnation pinned to her coat; every one carrying bundles and yellow paper bags that might contain bananas or hats or grass seed; the thirty-two automobiles that the town boasts all dashing up and down the street, driven by hatless youths in careful college clothes; a crowd of at least eleven waiting at Jenson's drug-store corner for the next interurban car.
Emma McChesney found herself strolling when she should have been hustling in the direction of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store. She was aware of a vague, strangely restless feeling in the region of her heart—or was it her liver?—or her lungs?
Reluctantly she turned in at the entrance of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store and asked for the buyer. (Here we might introduce one of those side-splitting little business deal scenes. But there can be paid no finer compliment to Emma McChesney's saleswomanship than to state that she landed her man on a busy Saturday afternoon, with a store full of customers and the head woman clerk dead against her from the start.)
As she was leaving:
"Generally it's the other way around," smiled the boss, regarding Emma's trim comeliness, "but seeing you're a lady, why, it'll be on me." He reached for his hat. "Let's go and have—ah—a little something."
"Not any, thanks," Emma McChesney replied, a little wearily.
On her way back to the hotel she frankly loitered. Just to look at her made you certain that she was not of our town. Now, that doesn't imply that the women of our town do not dress well, because they do. But there was something about her—a flirt of chiffon at the throat, or her hat quill stuck in a certain way, or the stitching on her gloves, or the vamp of her shoe—that was of a style which had not reached us yet.
As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley. Salad things and new vegetables glowed behind the grocers' plate-glass. There were the tender green of lettuces, the coral of tomatoes, the brown-green of stout asparagus stalks, bins of spring peas and beans, and carrots, and bunches of greens for soup. There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat. She wanted to go in and poke her fingers in the ribs of a broiler. She wanted to order wildly of sweet potatoes and vegetables, and soup bones, and apples for pies. She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.
She still was fighting that wild impulse as she walked back to the hotel, went up to her stuffy room, and, without removing hat or coat, seated herself on the edge of the bed and stared long and hard at the tan wall-paper.
There is this peculiarity about tan wall-paper. If you stare at it long enough you begin to see things. Emma McChesney, who pulled down something over thirty-two hundred a year selling Featherloom Petticoats, saw this:
A kitchen, very bright and clean, with a cluttered kind of cleanliness that bespeaks many housewifely tasks under way. There were mixing bowls, and saucepans, and a kettle or so, and from the oven there came the sounds of sputtering and hissing. About the room there hung the divinely delectable scent of freshly baked cookies. Emma McChesney saw herself in an all-enveloping checked gingham apron, her sleeves rolled up, her hair somewhat wild, and one lock powdered with white where she had pushed it back with a floury hand. Her cheeks were surprisingly pink, and her eyes were very bright, and she was scraping a baking board and rolling-pin, and trimming the edges of pie tins, and turning with a whirl to open the oven door, stooping to dip up spoonfuls of gravy only to pour the rich brown liquid over the meat again. There were things on top of the stove that required sticking into with a fork, and other things that demanded tasting and stirring with a spoon. A neighbor came in to borrow a cup of molasses, and Emma urged upon her one of her freshly baked cookies. And there was a ring at the front-door bell, and she had to rush away to do battle with a persistent book agent....
The buzzing fly alighted on Emma McChesney's left eyebrow. She swatted it with a hand that was not quite quick enough, spoiled the picture, and slowly rose from her perch at the bedside.
"Oh, damn!" she remarked, wearily, and went over to the dresser. Then she pulled down her shirtwaist all around and went down to supper.
The dining-room was very warm, and there came a smell of lardy things from the kitchen. Those supping were doing so languidly.
"I'm dying for something cool, and green, and fresh," remarked Emma to the girl who filled her glass with iced water; "something springish and tempting."
"Well," sing-songed she of the ruffled, starched skirt, "we have ham'n-aigs, mutton chops, cold veal, cold roast—"
"Two, fried," interrupted Emma hopelessly, "and a pot of tea—black."
Supper over she passed through the lobby on her way upstairs. The place was filled with men. They were lolling in the big leather chairs at the window, or standing about, smoking and talking. There was a rattle of dice from the cigar counter, and a burst of laughter from the men gathered about it. It all looked very bright, and cheery, and sociable. Emma McChesney, turning to ascend the stairs to her room, felt that she, too, would like to sit in one of the big leather chairs in the window and talk to some one.
Some one was playing the piano in the parlor. The doors were open. Emma McChesney glanced in. Then she stopped. It was not the appearance of the room that held her. You may have heard of the wilds of an African jungle—the trackless wastes of the desert—the solitude of the forest—the limitless stretch of the storm-tossed ocean; they are cozy and snug when compared to the utter and soul-searing dreariness of a small town hotel parlor. You know what it is—red carpet, red plush and brocade furniture, full-length walnut mirror, battered piano on which reposes a sheet of music given away with the Sunday supplement of a city paper.
A man was seated at the piano, playing. He was not playing the Sunday supplement sheet music. His brown hat was pushed back on his head and there was a fat cigar in his pursy mouth, and as he played he squinted up through the smoke. He was playing Mendelssohn's Spring Song. Not as you have heard it played by sweet young things; not as you have heard it rendered by the Apollo String Quartette. Under his fingers it was a fragrant, trembling, laughing, sobbing, exquisite thing. He was playing it in a way to make you stare straight ahead and swallow hard.
Emma McChesney leaned her head against the door. The man at the piano did not turn. So she tip-toed in, found a chair in a corner, and noiselessly slipped into it. She sat very still, listening, and the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-was-to-be, stretched behind and before her, as is strangely often the case when we are listening to music. She stared ahead with eyes that were very wide open and bright. Something in the attitude of the man sitting hunched there over the piano keys, and something in the beauty and pathos of the music brought a hot haze of tears to her eyes. She leaned her head against the back of the chair, and shut her eyes and wept quietly and heart-brokenly. The tears slid down her cheeks, and dropped on her smart tailored waist and her Irish lace jabot, and she didn't care a bit.
The last lovely note died away. The fat man's hands dropped limply to his sides. Emma McChesney stared at them, fascinated. They were quite marvelous hands; not at all the sort of hands one would expect to see attached to the wrists of a fat man. They were slim, nervous, sensitive hands, pink-tipped, tapering, blue-veined, delicate. As Emma McChesney stared at them the man turned slowly on the revolving stool. His plump, pink face was dolorous, sagging, wan-eyed.
He watched Emma McChesney as she sat up and dried her eyes. A satisfied light dawned in his face.
"Thanks," he said, and mopped his forehead and chin and neck with the brown-edged handkerchief.
"You—you can't be Paderewski. He's thin. But if he plays any better than that, then I don't want to hear him. You've upset me for the rest of the week. You've started me thinking about things—about things that—that-"
The fat man clasped his thin, nervous hands in front of him and leaned forward.
"About things that you're trying to forget. It starts me that way, too. That's why sometimes I don't touch the keys for weeks. Say, what do you think of a man who can play like that, and who is out on the road for a living just because he knows it's a sure thing? Music! That's my gift. And I've buried it. Why? Because the public won't take a fat man seriously. When he sits down at the piano they begin to howl for Italian rag. Why, I'd rather play the piano in a five-cent moving picture house than do what I'm doing now. But the old man wanted his son to be a business man, not a crazy, piano-playing galoot. That's the way he put it. And I was darn fool enough to think he was right. Why can't people stand up and do the things they're out to do! Not one person in a thousand does. Why, take you—I don't know you from Eve, but just from the way you shed the briny I know you're busy regretting."
"Regretting?" repeated Emma McChesney, in a wail. "Do you know what I am? I'm a lady drummer. And do you know what I want to do this minute? I want to clean house. I want to wind a towel around my head, and pin up my skirt, and slosh around with a pail of hot, soapy water. I want to pound a couple of mattresses in the back yard, and eat a cold dinner off the kitchen table. That's what I want to do."
"Well, go on and do it," said the fat man.
"Do it? I haven't any house to clean. I got my divorce ten years ago, and I've been on the road ever since. I don't know why I stick. I'm pulling down a good, fat salary and commissions, but it's no life for a woman, and I know it, but I'm not big enough to quit. It's different with a man on the road. He can spend his evenings taking in two or three nickel shows, or he can stand on the drug-store corner and watch the pretty girls go by, or he can have a game of billiards, or maybe cards. Or he can have a nice, quiet time just going up to his room, and smoking a cigar and writing to his wife or his girl. D'you know what I do?"
"No," answered the fat man, interestedly. "What?"
"Evenings I go up to my room and sew or read. Sew! Every hook and eye and button on my clothes is moored so tight that even the hand laundry can't tear 'em off. You couldn't pry those fastenings away with dynamite. When I find a hole in my stockings I'm tickled to death, because it's something to mend. And read? Everything from the Rules of the House tacked up on the door to spelling out the French short story in the back of the Swell Set Magazine. It's getting on my nerves. Do you know what I do Sunday mornings? No, you don't. Well, I go to church, that's what I do. And I get green with envy watching the other women there getting nervous about 11:45 or so, when the minister is still in knee-deep, and I know they're wondering if Lizzie has basted the chicken often enough, and if she has put the celery in cold water, and the ice-cream is packed in burlap in the cellar, and if she has forgotten to mix in a tablespoon of flour to make it smooth. You can tell by the look on their faces that there's company for dinner. And you know that after dinner they'll sit around, and the men will smoke, and the women folks will go upstairs, and she'll show the other woman her new scalloped, monogrammed, hand-embroidered guest towels, and the waist that her cousin Ethel brought from Paris. And maybe they'll slip off their skirts and lie down on the spare-room bed for a ten minutes' nap. And you can hear the hired girl rattling the dishes in the kitchen, and talking to her lady friend who is helping her wipe up so they can get out early. You can hear the two of them laughing above the clatter of the dishes—"
The fat man banged one fist down on the piano keys with a crash.
"I'm through," he said. "I quit to-night. I've got my own life to live. Here, will you shake on it? I'll quit if you will. You're a born housekeeper. You don't belong on the road any more than I do. It's now or never. And it's going to be now with me. When I strike the pearly gates I'm not going to have Saint Peter say to me, 'Ed, old kid, what have you done with your talents?'"
"You're right," sobbed Emma McChesney, her face glowing.
"By the way," interrupted the fat man, "what's your line?"
"Petticoats. I'm out for T. A. Buck's Featherloom Skirts. What's yours?"
"Suffering cats!" shouted the fat man. "D' you mean to tell me that you're the fellow who sold that bill to Blum, of the Novelty Cloak and Suit concern, and spoiled a sale for me?"
"You! Are you—"
"You bet I am. I sell the best little skirt in the world. Strauss's Sans-silk Petticoat, warranted not to crack, rip, or fall into holes. Greatest little skirt in the country."
Emma McChesney straightened her collar and jabot with a jerk, and sat up.
"Oh, now, don't give me that bunk. You've got a good little seller, all right, but that guaranty don't hold water any more than the petticoat contains silk. I know that stuff. It looms up big in the window displays, but it's got a filler of glucose, or starch or mucilage or something, and two days after you wear it it's as limp as a cheesecloth rag. It's showy, but you take a line like mine, for instance, why—"
"My customers swear by me. I make DeKalb to-morrow, and there's Nussbaum, of the Paris Emporium, the biggest store there, who just—"
"I make DeKalb, too," remarked Emma McChesney, the light of battle in her eye.
"You mean," gently insinuated the fat man, "that you were going to, but that's all over now."
"Huh?" said Emma.
"Our agreement, you know," the fat man reminded her, sweetly. "You aren't going back on that. The cottage and the Sunday dinner for you, remember."
Of course," agreed Emma listlessly." I think I'll go up and get some sleep now. Didn't get much last night on the road."
"Won't you—er—come down and have a little something moist? Or we could have it sent up here," suggested the fat man.
"You're the third man that's asked me that to-day," snapped Emma McChesney, somewhat crossly. "Say, what do I look like, anyway? I guess I'll have to pin a white ribbon on my coat lapel."
"No offense," put in the fat man, with haste. "I just thought it would bind our bargain. I hope you'll be happy, and contented, and all that, you know."
"Let it go double," replied Emma McChesney, and shook his hand.
"Guess I'll run down and get a smoke," remarked he.
He ran down the stairs in a manner wonderfully airy for one so stout. Emma watched him until he disappeared around a bend in the stairs. Then she walked hastily in the direction of sixty-five.
Down in the lobby the fat man, cigar in mouth, was cautioning the clerk, and emphasizing his remarks with one forefinger.
"I want to leave a call for six thirty," he was saying. "Not a minute later. I've got to get out of here on that 7:35 for DeKalb. Got a Sunday customer there."
As he turned away a telephone bell tinkled at the desk. The clerk bent his stately head.
"Clerk. Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am, there's no train out of here to-night for DeKalb. To-morrow morning. Seven thirty-five A.M. I sure will. At six-thirty? Surest thing you know."
For the benefit of the bewildered reader it should be said that there are two distinct species of chickens. There is the chicken which you find in the barnyard, in the incubator, or on a hat. And there is the type indigenous to State Street, Chicago. Each is known by its feathers. The barnyard variety may puzzle the amateur fancier, but there is no mistaking the State Street chicken. It is known by its soiled, high, white canvas boots; by its tight, short black skirt; by its slug pearl earrings; by its bewildering coiffure. By every line of its slim young body, by every curve of its cheek and throat you know it is adorably, pitifully young. By its carmined lip, its near-smart hat, its babbling of "him," and by the knowledge which looks boldly out of its eyes you know it is tragically old.
Seated in the Pullman car, with a friendly newspaper protecting her bright hair from the doubtful gray-white of the chair cover, Emma McChesney, traveling saleswoman for T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats, was watching the telegraph poles chase each other back to Duluth, Minnesota, and thinking fondly of Mary Cutting, who is the mother-confessor and comforter of the State Street chicken.
Now, Duluth, Minnesota, is trying to be a city. In watching its struggles a hunger for a taste of the real city had come upon Emma McChesney. She had been out with her late Fall line from May until September. Every Middle-Western town of five thousand inhabitants or over had received its share of Emma McChesney's attention and petticoats. It had been a mystifyingly good season in a bad business year. Even old T. A. himself was almost satisfied. Commissions piled up with gratifying regularity for Emma McChesney. Then, quite suddenly, the lonely evenings, the lack of woman companionship, and the longing for a sight of her seventeen-year-old son had got on Emma McChesney's nerves.
She was two days ahead of her schedule, whereupon she wired her son, thus:
"Meet me Chicago usual place Friday large time my treat. MOTHER."
Then she had packed her bag, wired Mary Cutting that she would see her Thursday, and had taken the first train out for Chicago.
You might have found the car close, stuffy, and uninteresting. Ten years on the road had taught Emma McChesney to extract a maximum of enjoyment out of a minimum of material. Emma McChesney's favorite occupation was selling T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats, and her favorite pastime was studying men and women. The two things went well together.
When the train stopped for a minute or two you could hear a faint rattle and click from the direction of the smoking compartment where three jewelry salesmen from Providence, Rhode Island, were indulging in their beloved, but dangerous diversion of dice throwing. Just across the aisle was a woman, with her daughter, Chicago-bound to buy a trousseau. They were typical, wealthy small-town women smartly garbed in a fashion not more than twenty minutes late. In the quieter moments of the trip Emma McChesney could hear the mother's high- pitched, East End Ladies' Reading Club voice saying:
"I'd have the velvet suit made fussy, with a real fancy waist to for afternoons. You can go anywhere in a handsome velvet three-piece suit."
The girl had smiled, dreamily, and gazed out of the car window. "I wonder," she said, "if there'll be a letter from George. He said he would sit right down and write."
In the safe seclusion of her high-backed chair Emma McChesney smiled approvingly. Seventeen years ago, when her son had been born, and ten years ago, when she had got her divorce, Emma McChesney had thanked her God that her boy had not been a girl. Sometimes, now, she was not so sure about it. It must be fascinating work—selecting velvet suits, made "fussy," for a daughter's trousseau.
Just how fully those five months of small-town existence had got on her nerves Emma McChesney did not realize until the train snorted into the shed and she sniffed the mingled smell of smoke and stockyards and found it sweet in her nostrils. An unholy joy seized her. She entered the Biggest Store and made for the millinery department, yielding to an uncontrollable desire to buy a hat. It was a pert, trim, smart little hat. It made her thirty-six years seem less possible than ever, and her seventeen-year-old son an absurdity.
It was four-thirty when she took the elevator up to Mary Cutting's office on the tenth floor. She knew she would find Mary Cutting there —Mary Cutting, friend, counselor, adviser to every young girl in the great store and to all Chicago's silly, helpless "chickens."
A dragon sat before Mary Cutting's door and wrote names on slips. But at sight of Emma McChesney she laid down her pencil.
"Well," smiled the dragon, "you're a sight for sore eyes. There's nobody in there with her. Just walk in and surprise her."
At a rosewood desk in a tiny cozy office sat a pink-cheeked, white- haired woman. You associated her in your mind with black velvet and real lace. She did not look up as Emma McChesney entered. Emma McChesney waited for one small moment. Then:
"Cut out the bank president stuff, Mary Cutting, and make a fuss over me," she commanded.
The pink-cheeked, white-haired woman looked up. You saw that her eyes were wonderfully young. She made three marks on a piece of paper, pushed a call-button at her desk, rose, and hugged Emma McChesney thoroughly and satisfactorily, then held her off a moment and demanded to know where she had bought her hat.
"Got it ten minutes ago, in the millinery department downstairs. Had to. If I'd have come into New York after five months' exile like this I'd probably have bought a brocade and fur-edged evening wrap, to relieve this feeling of wild joy. For five months I've spent my evenings in my hotel room, or watching the Maude Byrnes Stock Company playing "Lena Rivers," with the ingenue coming out between the acts in a calico apron and a pink sunbonnet and doing a thing they bill as vaudeville. I'm dying to see a real show—a smart one that hasn't run two hundred nights on Broadway—one with pretty girls, and pink tights, and a lot of moonrises, and sunsets and things, and a prima donna in a dress so stunning that all the women in the audience are busy copying it so they can describe it to their home-dressmaker next day."
"Poor, poor child," said Mary Cutting, "I don't seem to recall any such show."
"Well, it will look that way to me, anyway," said Emma McChesney. "I've wired Jock to meet me to-morrow, and I'm going to give the child a really sizzling little vacation. But to-night you and I will have an old-girl frolic. We'll have dinner together somewhere downtown, and then we'll go to the theater, and after that I'm coming out to that blessed flat of yours and sleep between real sheets. We'll have some sandwiches and beer and other things out of the ice-box, and then we'll have a bathroom bee. We'll let down our back hair, and slap cold cream around, and tell our hearts' secrets and use up all the hot water. Lordy! It will be a luxury to have a bath in a tub that doesn't make you feel as though you wanted to scrub it out with lye and carbolic. Come on, Mary Cutting."
Mary Cutting's pink cheeks dimpled like a girl's.
"You'll never grow up, Emma McChesney—at least, I hope you never will. Sit there in the corner and be a good child, and I'll be ready for you in ten minutes."
Peace settled down on the tiny office. Emma McChesney, there in her corner, surveyed the little room with entire approval. It breathed of things restful, wholesome, comforting. There was a bowl of sweet peas on the desk; there was an Indian sweet grass basket filled with autumn leaves in the corner; there was an air of orderliness and good taste; and there was the pink-cheeked, white-haired woman at the desk.
"There!" said Mary Cutting, at last. She removed her glasses, snapped them up on a little spring-chain near her shoulder, sat back, and smiled upon Emma McChesney.
Emma McChesney smiled back at her. Theirs was not a talking friendship. It was a thing of depth and understanding, like the friendship between two men.
They sat looking into each other's eyes, and down beyond, where the soul holds forth. And because what each saw there was beautiful and sightly they were seized with a shyness such as two men feel when they love each other, and so they awkwardly endeavored to cover up their shyness with words.
"You could stand a facial and a decent scalp massage, Emma," observed Mary Cutting in a tone pregnant with love and devotion. "Your hair looks a little dry. Those small-town manicures don't know how to give a real treatment."
"I'll have it to-morrow morning, before the Kid gets in at eleven. As the Lily Russell of the traveling profession I can't afford to let my beauty wane. That complexion of yours makes me mad, Mary. It goes through a course of hard water and Chicago dirt and comes up looking like a rose leaf with the morning dew on it. Where'll we have supper?"
"I know a new place," replied Mary Cutting. "German, but not greasy."
She was sorting, marking, and pigeonholing various papers and envelopes. When her desk was quite tidy she shut and locked it, and came over to Emma McChesney.
"Something nice happened to me to-day," she said, softly. "Something that made me realize how worth while life is. You know we have five thousand women working here—almost double that during the holidays. A lot of them are under twenty and, Emma, a working girl, under twenty, in a city like this—Well, a brand new girl was looking for me today. She didn't know the way to my office, and she didn't know my name. So she stopped one of the older clerks, blushed a little, and said, 'Can you tell me the way to the office of the Comfort Lady?' That's worth working for, isn't it, Emma McChesney?"
"It's worth living for," answered Emma McChesney, gravely. "It—it's worth dying for. To think that those girls come to you with their little sacred things, their troubles, and misfortunes, and unhappinesses and—"
"And their disgraces—sometimes," Mary Cutting finished for her. "Oh, Emma McChesney, sometimes I wonder why there isn't a national school for the education of mothers. I marvel at their ignorance more and more every day. Remember, Emma, when we were kids our mothers used to send us flying to the grocery on baking day? All the way from our house to Hine's grocery I'd have to keep on saying, over and over: 'Sugar, butter, molasses; sugar, butter, molasses; sugar, butter, molasses.' If I stopped for a minute I'd forget the whole thing. It isn't so different now. Sometimes at night, going home in the car after a day so bad that the whole world seems rotten, I make myself say, over and over, as I used to repeat my 'Sugar, butter, and molasses.' 'It's a glorious, good old world; it's a glorious, good old world; it's a glorious, good old world.' And I daren't stop for a minute for fear of forgetting my lesson."
For the third time in that short half-hour a silence fell between the two—a silence of perfect sympathy and understanding.
Five little strokes, tripping over each other in their haste, came from the tiny clock on Mary Cutting's desk. It roused them both.
"Come on, old girl," said Mary Cutting. "I've a chore or two still to do before my day is finished. Come along, if you like. There's a new girl at the perfumes who wears too many braids, and puffs, and curls, and in the basement misses' ready-to-wear there's another who likes to break store rules about short-sleeved, lace-yoked lingerie waists. And one of the floor managers tells me that a young chap of that callow, semi-objectionable, high-school fraternity, flat-heeled shoe type has been persistently hanging around the desk of the pretty little bundle inspector at the veilings. We're trying to clear the store of that type. They call girls of that description chickens. I wonder why some one hasn't found a name for the masculine chicken."
"I'll give 'em one," said Emma McChesney as they swung down a broad, bright aisle of the store. "Call 'em weasels. That covers their style, occupation, and character."
They swung around the corner to the veilings, and there they saw the very pretty, very blond, very young "chicken" deep in conversation with her weasel. The weasel's trousers were very tight and English, and his hat was properly woolly and Alpine and dented very much on one side and his heels were fashionably flat, and his hair was slickly pompadour.
Mary Cutting and Emma McChesney approached them very quietly just in time to hear the weasel say:
"Well, s' long then, Shrimp. See you at eight."
And he swung around and faced them.
That sick horror of uncertainty which had clutched at Emma McChesney when first she saw the weasel's back held her with awful certainty now. But ten years on the road had taught her self-control, among other things. So she looked steadily and calmly into her son's scarlet face. Jock's father had been a liar.
She put her hand on the boy's arm.
"You're a day ahead of schedule, Jock," she said evenly.
"So are you," retorted Jock, sullenly, his hands jammed into his pockets.
"All the better for both of us, Kid. I was just going over to the hotel to clean up, Jock. Come along, boy."
The boy's jaw set. His eyes sought any haven but that of Emma McChesney's eyes. "I can't," he said, his voice very low. "I've an engagement to take dinner with a bunch of the fellows. We're going down to the Inn. Sorry."
A certain cold rigidity settled over Emma McChesney's face. She eyed her son in silence until his miserable eyes, perforce, looked up into hers.
"I'm afraid you'll have to break your engagement," she said.
She turned to face Mary Cutting's regretful, understanding gaze. Her eyebrows lifted slightly. Her head inclined ever so little in the direction of the half-scared, half-defiant "chicken."
"You attend to your chicken, Mary," she said. "I'll see to my weasel."
So Emma McChesney and her son Jock, looking remarkably like brother and sister, walked down the broad store aisles and out into the street. There was little conversation between them. When the pillared entrance of the hotel came into sight Jock broke the silence, sullenly:
"Why do you stop at that old barracks? It's a rotten place for a woman. No one stops there but clothing salesmen and boobs who still think it's Chicago's leading hotel. No place for a lady."
"Any place in the world is the place for a lady, Jock," said Emma McChesney quietly.
Automatically she started toward the clerk's desk. Then she remembered, and stopped. "I'll wait here," she said. "Get the key for five-eighteen, will you please? And tell the clerk that I'll want the room adjoining beginning to-night, instead of to-morrow, as I first intended. Tell him you're Mrs. McChesney's son."
He turned away. Emma McChesney brought her handkerchief up to her mouth and held it there a moment, and the skin showed white over the knuckles of her hand. in that moment every one of her thirty-six years were on the table, face up.
"We'll wash up," said Emma McChesney, when he returned, "and then we'll have dinner here."
"I don't want to eat here," objected Jock McChesney. "Besides, there's no reason why I can't keep my evening's engagements."
"And after dinner," went on his mother, as though she had not heard, "we'll get acquainted, Kid."
It was a cheerless, rather tragic meal, though Emma McChesney saw it through from soup to finger-bowls. When it was over she led the way down the old-fashioned, red-carpeted corridors to her room. It was the sort of room to get on its occupant's nerves at any time, with its red plush arm-chairs, its black walnut bed, and its walnut center table inlaid with an apoplectic slab of purplish marble.
Emma McChesney took off her hat before the dim old mirror, and stood there, fluffing out her hair here, patting it there. Jock had thrown his hat and coat on the bed. He stood now, leaning against the footboard, his legs crossed, his chin on his breast, his whole attitude breathing sullen defiance.
"Jock," said his mother, still patting her hair, "perhaps you don't know it, but you're pouting just as you used to when you wore pinafores. I always hated pouting children. I'd rather hear them howl. I used to spank you for it. I have prided myself on being a modern mother, but I want to mention, in passing, that I'm still in a position to enforce that ordinance against pouting." She turned around abruptly. "Jock, tell me, how did you happen to come here a day ahead of me, and how do you happen to be so chummy with that pretty, weak- faced little thing at the veiling counter, and how, in the name of all that's unbelievable, have you managed to become a grown-up in the last few months?"
Jock regarded the mercifully faded roses in the carpet. His lower lip came forward again.
"Oh, a fellow can't always be tied to his mother's apron strings. I like to have a little fling myself. I know a lot of fellows here. They are frat brothers. And anyway, I needed some new clothes."
For one long moment Emma McChesney stared, in silence. Then: "Of course," she began, slowly, "I knew you were seventeen years old. I've even bragged about it. I've done more than that—I've gloried in it. But somehow, whenever I thought of you in my heart—and that was a great deal of the time it was as though you still were a little tyke in knee-pants, with your cap on the back of your head, and a chunk of apple bulging your cheek. Jock, I've been earning close to six thousand a year since I put in that side line of garters. Just how much spending money have I been providing you with?"
Jock twirled a coat button uncomfortably "Well, quite a lot. But a fellow's got to have money to keep up appearances. A lot of the fellows in my crowd have more than I. There are clothes, and tobacco, and then flowers and cabs for the skirts—girls, I mean, and—"
"Kid," impressively, "I want you to sit down over there in that plush chair—the red one, with the lumps in the back. I want you to be uncomfortable. From where I am sitting I can see that in you there is the making of a first-class cad. That's no pleasant thing for a mother to realize. Now don't interrupt me. I'm going to be chairman, speaker, program, and ways-and-means committee of this meeting. Jock, I got my divorce from your father ten years ago. Now, I'm not going to say anything about him. Just this one thing. You're not going to follow in his footsteps, Kid. Not if I have to take you to pieces like a nickel watch and put you all together again. You're Emma McChesney's son, and ten years from now I intend to be able to brag about it, or I'll want to know the reason why—and it'll have to be a blamed good reason."
"I'd like to know what I've done!" blurted the boy. "Just because I happened to come here a few hours before you expected me, and just because you saw me talking to a girl! Why—"
"It isn't what you've done. It's what those things stand for. I've been at fault. But I'm willing to admit it. Your mother is a working woman, Jock. You don't like that idea, do you? But you don't mind spending the money that the working woman provides you with, do you? I'm earning a man's salary. But Jock, you oughtn't to be willing to live on it.
"What do you want me to do?" demanded Jock. "I'm not out of high school yet. Other fellows whose fathers aren't earning as much—"
"Fathers," interrupted Emma McChesney. "There you are. Jock, I don't have to make the distinction for you. You're sufficiently my son to know it, in your heart. I had planned to give you a college education, if you showed yourself deserving. I don't believe in sending a boy in your position to college unless he shows some special leaning toward a profession."
"Mother, you know how wild I am about machines, and motors, and engineering, and all that goes with it. Why I'd work—"
"You'll have to, Jock. That's the only thing that will make a man of you. I've started you wrong, but it isn't too late yet. It's all very well for boys with rich fathers to run to clothes, and city jaunts, and 'chickens,' and cabs and flowers. Your mother is working tooth and nail to earn her six thousand, and when you realize just what it means for a woman to battle against men in a man's game, you'll stop being a spender, and become an earner—because you'll want to. I'll tell you what I'm going to do, Kid. I'm going to take you on the road with me for two weeks. You'll learn so many things that at the end of that time the sides of your head will be bulging."
"I'd like it!" exclaimed the boy, sitting up. "It will be regular fun."
"No, it won't," said Emma McChesney; "not after the first three or four days. But it will be worth more to you than a foreign tour and a private tutor."
She came over to him and put her hand on his shoulder. "Your room's just next to mine," she said. "You and I are going to sleep on this. To-morrow we'll have a real day of it, as I promised. If you want to spend it with the fellows, say so. I'm not going to spoil this little lark that I promised you."
"I think," said the boy, looking up into his mother's face, "I think that I'll spend it with you."
The door slammed after him.
Emma McChesney remained standing there, in the center of the room. She raised her arms and passed a hand over her forehead and across her hair until it rested on the glossy knot at the back of her head. It was the weary little gesture of a weary, heart-sick woman.
There came a ring at the 'phone.
Emma McChesney crossed the room and picked up the receiver.
"Hello, Mary Cutting," she said, without waiting for the voice at the other end. "What? Oh, I just knew. No, it's all right. I've had some high-class little theatricals of my own, right here, with me in the roles of leading lady, ingenue, villainess, star, and heavy mother. I've got Mrs. Fiske looking like a First Reader Room kid that's forgotten her Friday piece. What's that?"
There was no sound in the room but the hollow cackle of the voice at the other end of the wire, many miles away.
Then: "Oh, that's all right, Mary Cutting. I owe you a great big debt of gratitude, bless your pink cheeks and white hair! And, Mary," she lowered her voice and glanced in the direction of the room next door, "I don't know how a hard, dry sob would go through the 'phone, so I won't try to get it over. But, Mary, it's been 'sugar, butter, and molasses' for me for the last ten minutes, and I'm dead scared to stop for fear I'll forget it. I guess it's 'sugar, butter, and molasses' for me for the rest of the night, Mary Cutting; just as hard and fast as I can say it, 'sugar, butter, molasses.'"
HIS MOTHER'S SON
"Full?" repeated Emma McChesney (and if it weren't for the compositor there'd be an exclamation point after that question mark).
"Sorry, Mrs. McChesney," said the clerk, and he actually looked it, "but there's absolutely nothing stirring. We're full up. The Benevolent Brotherhood of Bisons is holding its regular annual state convention here. We're putting up cots in the hall."
Emma McChesney's keen blue eyes glanced up from their inspection of the little bunch of mail which had just been handed her. "Well, pick out a hall with a southern exposure and set up a cot or so for me," she said, agreeably; "because I've come to stay. After selling Featherloom Petticoats on the road for ten years I don't see myself trailing up and down this town looking for a place to lay my head. I've learned this one large, immovable truth, and that is, that a hotel clerk is a hotel clerk. It makes no difference whether he is stuck back of a marble pillar and hidden by a gold vase full of thirty-six-inch American Beauty roses at the Knickerbocker, or setting the late fall fashions for men in Galesburg, Illinois."
By one small degree was the perfect poise of the peerless personage behind the register jarred. But by only one. He was a hotel night clerk.
"It won't do you any good to get sore, Mrs. McChesney," he began, suavely. "Now a man would—"
"But I'm not a man," interrupted Emma McChesney. "I'm only doing a man's work and earning a man's salary and demanding to be treated with as much consideration as you'd show a man."
The personage busied himself mightily with a pen, and a blotter, and sundry papers, as is the manner of personages when annoyed. "I'd like to accommodate you; I'd like to do it."
"Cheer up," said Emma McChesney, "you're going to. I don't mind a little discomfort. Though I want to mention in passing that if there are any lady Bisons present you needn't bank on doubling me up with them. I've had one experience of that kind. It was in Albia, Iowa. I'd sleep in the kitchen range before I'd go through another."
Up went the erstwhile falling poise. "You're badly mistaken, madam. I'm a member of this order myself, and a finer lot of fellows it has never been my pleasure to know."
"Yes, I know," drawled Emma McChesney. "Do you know, the thing that gets me is the inconsistency of it. Along come a lot of boobs who never use a hotel the year around except to loaf in the lobby, and wear out the leather chairs, and use up the matches and toothpicks and get the baseball returns, and immediately you turn away a traveling man who uses a three-dollar-a-day room, with a sample room downstairs for his stuff, who tips every porter and bell-boy in the place, asks for no favors, and who, if you give him a half-way decent cup of coffee for breakfast, will fall in love with the place and boom it all over the country. Half of your Benevolent Bisons are here on the European plan, with a view to patronizing the free-lunch counters or being asked to take dinner at the home of some local Bison whose wife has been cooking up on pies, and chicken salad and veal roast for the last week."
Emma McChesney leaned over the desk a little, and lowered her voice to the tone of confidence. "Now, I'm not in the habit of making a nuisance of myself like this. I don't get so chatty as a rule, and I know that I could jump over to Monmouth and get first-class accommodations there. But just this once I've a good reason for wanting to make you and myself a little miserable. Y'see, my son is traveling with me this trip."
"Son!" echoed the clerk, staring.
"Thanks. That's what they all do. After a while I'll begin to believe that there must be something hauntingly beautiful and girlish about me or every one wouldn't petrify when I announce that I've a six-foot son attached to my apron-strings. He looks twenty-one, but he's seventeen. He thinks the world's rotten because he can't grow one of those fuzzy little mustaches that the men are cultivating to match their hats. He's down at the depot now, straightening out our baggage. Now I want to say this before he gets here. He's been out with me just four days. Those four days have been a revelation, an eye-opener, and a series of rude jolts. He used to think that his mother's job consisted of traveling in Pullmans, eating delicate viands turned out by the hotel chefs, and strewing Featherloom Petticoats along the path. I gave him plenty of money, and he got into the habit of looking lightly upon anything more trifling than a five-dollar bill. He's changing his mind by great leaps. I'm prepared to spend the night in the coal cellar if you'll just fix him up—not too comfortably. It'll be a great lesson for him. There he is now. Just coming in. Fuzzy coat and hat and English stick. Hist! As they say on the stage."
The boy crossed the crowded lobby. There was a little worried, annoyed frown between his eyes. He laid a protecting hand on his mother's arm. Emma McChesney was conscious of a little thrill of pride as she realized that he did not have to look up to meet her gaze.
"Look here, Mother, they tell me there's some sort of a convention here, and the town's packed. That's what all those banners and things were for. I hope they've got something decent for us here. I came up with a man who said he didn't think there was a hole left to sleep in."
"You don't say!" exclaimed Emma McChesney, and turned to the clerk. "This is my son, Jock McChesney—Mr. Sims. Is this true?"
"Glad to know you, sir," said Mr. Sims. "Why, yes, I'm afraid we are pretty well filled up, but seeing it's you maybe we can do something for you."
He ruminated, tapping his teeth with a pen-holder, and eying the pair before him with a maddening blankness of gaze. Finally:
"I'll do my best, but you can't expect much. I guess I can squeeze another cot into eighty-seven for the young man. There's—let's see now—who's in eighty-seven? Well, there's two Bisons in the double bed, and one in the single, and Fat Ed Meyers in the cot and—"
Emma McChesney stiffened into acute attention. "Meyers?" she interrupted. "Do you mean Ed Meyers of the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company?"
"That's so. You two are in the same line, aren't you? He's a great little piano player, Ed is. Ever hear him play?"
"When did he get in?"
"Oh, he just came in fifteen minutes ago on the Ashland division. He's in at supper." "Oh," said Emma McChesney. The two letters breathed relief.
But relief had no place in the voice, or on the countenance of Jock McChesney. He bristled with belligerence. "This cattle-car style of sleeping don't make a hit. I haven't had a decent night's rest for three nights. I never could sleep on a sleeper. Can't you fix us up better than that?"
"Best I can do."
"But where's mother going? I see you advertise three 'large and commodious steam-heated sample rooms in connection.' I suppose mother's due to sleep on one of the tables there."
"Jock," Emma McChesney reproved him, "Mr. Sims is doing us a great favor. There isn't another hotel in town that would—"
"You're right, there isn't," agreed Mr. Sims. "I guess the young man is new to this traveling game. As I said, I'd like to accommodate you, but—Let's see now. Tell you what I'll do. If I can get the housekeeper to go over and sleep in the maids' quarters just for to- night, you can use her room. There you are! Of course, it's over the kitchen, and there may be some little noise early in the morning—"
Emma McChesney raised a protesting hand. "Don't mention it. Just lead me thither. I'm so tired I could sleep in an excursion special that was switching at Pittsburgh. Jock, me child, we're in luck. That's twice in the same place. The first time was when we were inspired to eat our supper on the diner instead of waiting until we reached here to take the leftovers from the Bisons' grazing. I hope that housekeeper hasn't a picture of her departed husband dangling, life- size, on the wall at the foot of the bed. But they always have. Good- night, son. Don't let the Bisons bite you. I'll be up at seven."
But it was just 6:30 A.M. when Emma McChesney turned the little bend in the stairway that led to the office. The scrub-woman was still in possession. The cigar-counter girl had not yet made her appearance. There was about the place a general air of the night before. All but the night clerk. He was as spruce and trim, and alert and smooth- shaven as only a night clerk can be after a night's vigil.
"'Morning!" Emma McChesney called to him. She wore blue serge, and a smart fall hat. The late autumn morning was not crisper and sunnier than she.
"Good-morning, Mrs. McChesney," returned Mr. Sims, sonorously. "Have a good night's sleep? I hope the kitchen noises didn't wake you."
Emma McChesney paused with her hand on the door. "Kitchen? Oh, no. I could sleep through a vaudeville china-juggling act. But—-what an extraordinarily unpleasant-looking man that housekeeper's husband must have been."
That November morning boasted all those qualities which November- morning writers are so prone to bestow upon the month. But the words wine, and sparkle, and sting, and glow, and snap do not seem to cover it. Emma McChesney stood on the bottom step, looking up and down Main Street and breathing in great draughts of that unadjectivable air. Her complexion stood the test of the merciless, astringent morning and came up triumphantly and healthily firm and pink and smooth. The town was still asleep. She started to walk briskly down the bare and ugly Main Street of the little town. In her big, generous heart, and her keen, alert mind, there were many sensations and myriad thoughts, but varied and diverse as they were they all led back to the boy up there in the stuffy, over-crowded hotel room—the boy who was learning his lesson.
Half an hour later she reentered the hotel, her cheeks glowing. Jock was not yet down. So she ordered and ate her wise and cautious breakfast of fruit and cereal and toast and coffee, skimming over her morning paper as she ate. At 7:30 she was back in the lobby, newspaper in hand. The Bisons were already astir. She seated herself in a deep chair in a quiet corner, her eyes glancing up over the top of her paper toward the stairway. At eight o'clock Jock McChesney came down.
There was nothing of jauntiness about him. His eyelids were red. His face had the doughy look of one whose sleep has been brief and feverish. As he came toward his mother you noticed a stain on his coat, and a sunburst of wrinkles across one leg of his modish brown trousers.
"Good-morning, son!" said Emma McChesney. "Was it as bad as that?"
Jock McChesney's long fingers curled into a fist.
"Say," he began, his tone venomous, "do you know what those—those— those—"
"Say it!" commanded Emma McChesney. "I'm only your mother. If you keep that in your system your breakfast will curdle in your stomach."
Jock McChesney said it. I know no phrase better fitted to describe his tone than that old favorite of the erotic novelties. It was vibrant with passion. It breathed bitterness. It sizzled with savagery. It— Oh, alliteration is useless.
"Well," said Emma McChesney, encouragingly, "go on."
"Well!" gulped Jock McChesney, and glared; "those two double-bedded, bloomin', blasted Bisons came in at twelve, and the single one about fifteen minutes later. They didn't surprise me. There was a herd of about ninety-three of 'em in the hall, all saying good-night to each other, and planning where they'd meet in the morning, and the time, and place and probable weather conditions. For that matter, there were droves of 'em pounding up and down the halls all night. I never saw such restless cattle. If you'll tell me what makes more noise in the middle of the night than the metal disk of a hotel key banging and clanging up against a door, I'd like to know what it is. My three Bisons were all dolled up with fool ribbons and badges and striped paper canes. When they switched on the light I gave a crack imitation of a tired working man trying to get a little sleep. I breathed regularly and heavily, with an occasional moaning snore. But if those two hippopotamus Bisons had been alone on their native plains they couldn't have cared less. They bellowed, and pawed the earth, and threw their shoes around, and yawned, and stretched and discussed their plans for the next day, and reviewed all their doings of that day. Then one of them said something about turning in, and I was so happy I forgot to snore. Just then another key clanged at the door, in walked a fat man in a brown suit and a brown derby, and stuff was off."
"That," said Emma McChesney, "would be Ed Meyers, of the Strauss Sans- silk Skirt Company."
"None other than our hero." Jock's tone had an added acidity. "It took those four about two minutes to get acquainted. In three minutes they had told their real names, and it turned out that Meyers belonged to an organization that was a second cousin of the Bisons. In five minutes they had got together a deck and a pile of chips and were shirt-sleeving it around a game of pinochle. I would doze off to the slap of cards, and the click of chips, and wake up when the bell-boy came in with another round, which he did every six minutes. When I got up this morning I found that Fat Ed Meyers had been sitting on the chair over which I trustingly had draped my trousers. This sunburst of wrinkles is where he mostly sat. This spot on my coat is where a Bison drank his beer."
Emma McChesney folded her paper and rose, smiling. "It is sort of trying, I suppose, if you're not used to it."
"Used to it!" shouted the outraged Jock. "Used to it! Do you mean to tell me there's nothing unusual about—"
"Not a thing. Oh, of course you don't strike a bunch of Bisons every day. But it happens a good many times. The world is full of Ancient Orders and they're everlastingly getting together and drawing up resolutions and electing officers. Don't you think you'd better go in to breakfast before the Bisons begin to forage? I've had mine."
The gloom which had overspread Jock McChesney's face lifted a little. The hungry boy in him was uppermost. "That's so. I'm going to have some wheat cakes, and steak, and eggs, and coffee, and fruit, and toast, and rolls."
"Why slight the fish?" inquired his mother. Then, as he turned toward the dining-room, "I've two letters to get out. Then I'm going down the street to see a customer. I'll be up at the Sulzberg-Stein department store at nine sharp. There's no use trying to see old Sulzberg before ten, but I'll be there, anyway, and so will Ed Meyers, or I'm no skirt salesman. I want you to meet me there. It will do you good to watch how the overripe orders just drop, ker-plunk, into my lap."
Maybe you know Sulzberg & Stein's big store? No? That's because you've always lived in the city. Old Sulzberg sends his buyers to the New York market twice a year, and they need two floor managers on the main floor now. The money those people spend for red and green decorations at Christmas time, and apple-blossoms and pink crepe paper shades in the spring, must be something awful. Young Stein goes to Chicago to have his clothes made, and old Sulzberg likes to keep the traveling men waiting in the little ante-room outside his private office.
Jock McChesney finished his huge breakfast, strolled over to Sulzberg & Stein's, and inquired his way to the office only to find that his mother was not yet there. There were three men in the little waiting- room. One of them was Fat Ed Meyers. His huge bulk overflowed the spindle-legged chair on which he sat. His brown derby was in his hands. His eyes were on the closed door at the other side of the room. So were the eyes of the other two travelers. Jock took a vacant seat next to Fat Ed Meyers so that he might, in his mind's eye, pick out a particularly choice spot upon which his hard young fist might land—if only he had the chance. Breaking up a man's sleep like that, the great big overgrown mutt!
"What's your line?" said Ed Meyers, suddenly turning toward Jock.
Prompted by some imp—"Skirts," answered Jock. "Ladies' petticoats." ("As if men ever wore 'em!" he giggled inwardly.)
Ed Meyers shifted around in his chair so that he might better stare at this new foe in the field. His little red mouth was open ludicrously.
"Who're you out for?" he demanded next.
There was a look of Emma McChesney on Jock's face. "Why—er—the Union Underskirt and Hosiery Company of Chicago. New concern."
"Must be," ruminated Ed Meyers. "I never heard of 'em, and I know 'em all. You're starting in young, ain't you, kid! Well, it'll never hurt you. You'll learn something new every day. Now me, I—"
In breezed Emma McChesney. Her quick glance rested immediately upon Meyers and the boy. And in that moment some instinct prompted Jock McChesney to shake his head, ever so slightly, and assume a blankness of expression. And Emma McChesney, with that shrewdness which had made her one of the best salesmen on the road, saw, and miraculously understood.
"How do, Mrs. McChesney," grinned Fat Ed Meyers. "You see I beat you to it."
"So I see," smiled Emma, cheerfully. "I was delayed. Just sold a nice little bill to Watkins down the Street." She seated herself across the way, and kept her eyes on that closed door.
"Say, kid," Meyers began, in the husky whisper of the fat man, "I'm going to put you wise to something, seeing you're new to this game. See that lady over there?" He nodded discreetly in Emma McChesney's direction.
"Pretty, isn't she?" said Jock, appreciatively.
"Know who she is?"
"Well—I—she does look familiar but—"
"Oh, come now, quit your bluffing. If you'd ever met that dame you'd remember it. Her name's McChesney—Emma McChesney, and she sells T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats. I'll give her her dues; she's the best little salesman on the road. I'll bet that girl could sell a ruffled, accordion-plaited underskirt to a fat woman who was trying to reduce. She's got the darndest way with her. And at that she's straight, too."
If Ed Meyers had not been gazing so intently into his hat, trying at the same time to look cherubically benign he might have seen a quick and painful scarlet sweep the face of the boy, coupled with a certain tense look of the muscles around the jaw.
"Well, now, look here," he went on, still in a whisper. "We're both skirt men, you and me. Everything's fair in this game. Maybe you don't know it, but when there's a bunch of the boys waiting around to see the head of the store like this, and there happens to be a lady traveler in the crowd, why, it's considered kind of a professional courtesy to let the lady have the first look-in. See? It ain't so often that three people in the same line get together like this. She knows it, and she's sitting on the edge of her chair, waiting to bolt when that door opens, even if she does act like she was hanging on the words of that lady clerk there. The minute it does open a crack she'll jump up and give me a fleeting, grateful smile, and sail in and cop a fat order away from the old man and his skirt buyer. I'm wise. Say, he may be an oyster, but he knows a pretty woman when he sees one. By the time she's through with him he'll have enough petticoats on hand to last him from now until Turkey goes suffrage. Get me?"
"I get you," answered Jock.
"I say, this is business, and good manners be hanged. When a woman breaks into a man's game like this, let her take her chances like a man. Ain't that straight?"
"You've said something," agreed Jock.
"Now, look here, kid. When that door opens I get up. See? And shoot straight for the old man's office. See? Like a duck. See? Say, I may be fat, kid, but I'm what they call light on my feet, and when I see an order getting away from me I can be so fleet that I have Diana looking like old Weston doing a stretch of muddy country road in a coast to coast hike. See? Now you help me out on this and I'll see that you don't suffer for it. I'll stick in a good word for you, believe me. You take the word of an old stager like me and you won't go far—"
The door opened. Simultaneously three figures sprang into action. Jock had the seat nearest the door. With marvelous clumsiness he managed to place himself in Ed Meyers' path, then reddened, began an apology, stepped on both of Ed's feet, jabbed his elbow into his stomach, and dropped his hat. A second later the door of old Sulzberg's private office closed upon Emma McChesney's smart, erect, confident figure.
Now, Ed Meyers' hands were peculiar hands for a fat man. They were tapering, slender, delicate, blue-veined, temperamental hands. At this moment, despite his purpling face, and his staring eyes, they were the most noticeable thing about him. His fingers clawed the empty air, quivering, vibrant, as though poised to clutch at Jock's throat.
Then words came. They spluttered from his lips. They popped like corn kernels in the heat of his wrath; they tripped over each other; they exploded.
"You darned kid, you!" he began, with fascinating fluency. "You thousand-legged, double-jointed, ox-footed truck horse. Come on out of here and I'll lick the shine off your shoes, you blue-eyed babe, you! What did you get up for, huh? What did you think this was going to be —a flag drill?"
With a whoop of pure joy Jock McChesney turned and fled.
They dined together at one o'clock, Emma McChesney and her son Jock. Suddenly Jock stopped eating. His eyes were on the door. "There's that fathead now," he said, excitedly. "The nerve of him! He's coming over here."
Ed Meyers was waddling toward them with the quick light step of the fat man. His pink, full-jowled face was glowing. His eyes were bright as a boy's. He stopped at their table and paused for one dramatic moment.
"So, me beauty, you two were in cahoots, huh? That's the second low- down deal you've handed me. I haven't forgotten that trick you turned with Nussbaum at DeKalb. Never mind, little girl. I'll get back at you yet."
He nodded a contemptuous head in Jock's direction. "Carrying a packer?"
Emma McChesney wiped her fingers daintily on her napkin, crushed it on the table, and leaned back in her chair. "Men," she observed, wonderingly, "are the cussedest creatures. This chap occupied the same room with you last night and you don't even know his name. Funny! If two strange women had found themselves occupying the same room for a night they wouldn't have got to the kimono and back hair stage before they would not only have known each other's name, but they'd have tried on each other's hats, swapped corset cover patterns, found mutual friends living in Dayton, Ohio, taught each other a new Irish crochet stitch, showed their family photographs, told how their married sister's little girl nearly died with swollen glands, and divided off the mirror into two sections to paste their newly washed handkerchiefs on. Don't tell me men have a genius for friendship."