Emma McChesney & Co. by Edna Ferber
THANKS TO MISS MORRISSEY
It was Fat Ed Meyers, of the Sans-Silk Skirt Company, who first said that Mrs. Emma McChesney was the Maude Adams of the business world. It was on the occasion of his being called to the carpet for his failure to make Sans-silks as popular as Emma McChesney's famed Featherlooms. He spoke in self-defense, heatedly.
"It isn't Featherlooms. It's McChesney. Her line is no better than ours. It's her personality, not her petticoats. She's got a following that swears by her. If Maude Adams was to open on Broadway in 'East Lynne,' they'd flock to see her, wouldn't they? Well, Emma McChesney could sell hoop-skirts, I'm telling you. She could sell bustles. She could sell red-woolen mittens on Fifth Avenue!"
The title stuck.
It was late in September when Mrs. McChesney, sunburned, decidedly under weight, but gloriously triumphant, returned from a four months' tour of South America. Against the earnest protests of her business partner, T. A. Buck, president of the Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, she had invaded the southern continent and left it abloom with Featherlooms from the Plata to the Canal.
Success was no stranger to Mrs. McChesney. This last business victory had not turned her head. But it had come perilously near to tilting that extraordinarily well-balanced part. A certain light in her eyes, a certain set of her chin, an added briskness of bearing, a cocky slant of the eyebrow revealed the fact that, though Mrs. McChesney's feet were still on the ground, she might be said to be standing on tiptoe.
When she had sailed from Brooklyn pier that June afternoon, four months before, she had cast her ordinary load of business responsibilities on the unaccustomed shoulders of T. A. Buck. That elegant person, although president of the company which his father had founded, had never been its real head. When trouble threatened in the workroom, it was to Mrs. McChesney that the forewoman came. When an irascible customer in Green Bay, Wisconsin, waxed impatient over the delayed shipment of a Featherloom order, it was to Emma McChesney that his typewritten protest was addressed. When the office machinery needed mental oiling, when a new hand demanded to be put on silk-work instead of mercerized, when a consignment of skirt-material turned out to be more than usually metallic, it was in Mrs. Emma McChesney's little private office that the tangle was unsnarled.
She walked into that little office, now, at nine o'clock of a brilliant September morning. It was a reassuring room, bright, orderly, workmanlike, reflecting the personality of its owner. She stood in the center of it now and looked about her, eyes glowing, lips parted. She raised her hands high above her head, then brought them down to her sides again with an unconsciously dramatic gesture that expressed triumph, peace, content, relief, accomplishment, and a great and deep satisfaction. T. A. Buck, in the doorway, saw the gesture—and understood.
"Not so bad to get back to it, is it?"
"Bad! It's like a drink of cool spring water after too much champagne. In those miserable South American hotels, how I used to long for the orderliness and quiet of this!"
She took off hat and coat. In a vase on the desk, a cluster of yellow chrysanthemums shook their shaggy heads in welcome. Emma McChesney's quick eye jumped to them, then to Buck, who had come in and was surveying the scene appreciatively.
"You—of course." She indicated the flowers with a nod and a radiant smile.
"Sorry—no. The office staff did that. There's a card of welcome, I believe."
"Oh," said Emma McChesney. The smile was still there, but the radiance was gone.
She seated herself at her desk. Buck took the chair near by. She unlocked a drawer, opened it, rummaged, closed it again, unlocked another. She patted the flat top of her desk with loving fingers.
"I can't help it," she said, with a little shamed laugh; "I'm so glad to be back. I'll probably hug the forewoman and bite a piece out of the first Featherloom I lay hands on. I had to use all my self-control to keep from kissing Jake, the elevator-man, coming up."
Out of the corner of her eye, Emma McChesney had been glancing at her handsome business partner. She had found herself doing the same thing from the time he had met her at the dock late in the afternoon of the day before. Those four months had wrought some subtle change. But what? Where? She frowned a moment in thought.
"Is that a new suit, T. A.?"
"This? Lord, no! Last summer's. Put it on because of this July hangover in September. Why?"
"Oh, I don't know"—vaguely—"I just—wondered."
There was nothing vague about T. A. Buck, however. His old air of leisureliness was gone. His very attitude as he sat there, erect, brisk, confident, was in direct contrast to his old, graceful indolence.
"I'd like to go over the home grounds with you this morning," he said. "Of course, in our talk last night, we didn't cover the South American situation thoroughly. But your letters and the orders told the story. You carried the thing through to success. It's marvelous! But we stay-at-homes haven't been marking time during your absence."
The puzzled frown still sat on Emma McChesney's brow. As though thinking aloud, she said,
"Have you grown thinner, or fatter or—something?"
"Not an ounce. Weighed at the club yesterday."
He leaned forward a little, his face suddenly very sober.
"Emma, I want to tell you now that—that mother—she—I lost her just a few weeks after you sailed."
Emma McChesney gave a little cry. She came quickly over to him, and one hand went to his shoulder as she stood looking down at him, her face all sympathy and contrition and sorrow.
"And you didn't write me! You didn't even tell me, last night!"
"I didn't want to distress you. I knew you were having a hard-enough pull down there without additional worries. It happened very suddenly while I was out on the road. I got the wire in Peoria. She died very suddenly and quite painlessly. Her companion, Miss Tate, was with her. She had never been herself since Dad's death."
"I could only do what was to be done. Then I went back on the road. I closed up the house, and now I've leased it. Of course it's big enough for a regiment. But we stayed on because mother was used to it. I sold some of the furniture, but stored the things she had loved. She left some to you."
"You know she used to enjoy your visits so much, partly because of the way in which you always talked of Dad. She left you some jewelry that she was fond of, and that colossal old mahogany buffet that you used to rave over whenever you came up. Heaven knows what you'll do with it! It's a white elephant. If you add another story to it, you could rent it out as an apartment."
"Indeed I shall take it, and cherish it, and polish it up myself every week—the beauty!"
She came back to her chair. They sat a moment in silence. Then Emma McChesney spoke musingly.
"So that was it." Buck looked up. "I sensed something—different. I didn't know. I couldn't explain it."
Buck passed a quick hand over his eyes, shook himself, sat up, erect and brisk again, and plunged, with a directness that was as startling as it was new in him, into the details of Middle Western business.
"Good!" exclaimed Emma McChesney.
"It's all very well to know that Featherlooms are safe in South America. But the important thing is to know how they're going in the corn country."
Buck stood up.
"Suppose we transfer this talk to my office. All the papers are there, all the correspondence—all the orders, everything. You can get the whole situation in half an hour. What's the use of talking when figures will tell you."
He walked swiftly over to the door and stood there waiting. Emma McChesney rose. The puzzled look was there again.
"No, that wasn't it, after all," she said.
"Eh?" said Buck. "Wasn't what?"
"Nothing," replied Emma McChesney.
"I'm wool-gathering this morning. I'm afraid it's going to take me a day or two to get back into harness again."
"If you'd rather wait, if you think you'll be more fit to-morrow or the day after, we'll wait. There's no real hurry. I just thought——"
But Mrs. McChesney led the way across the hall that separated her office from her partner's. Halfway across, she stopped and surveyed the big, bright, busy main office, with its clacking typewriters and rustle and crackle of papers and its air of concentration.
"Why, you've run up a partition there between Miss Casey's desk and the workroom door, haven't you?"
"Yes; it's much better that way."
"Yes, of course. And—why, where are the boys' desks? Spalding's and Hutchinson's, and—they're all gone!" She turned in amazement.
"Break it to me! Aren't we using traveling men any more?"
Buck laughed his low, pleasant laugh.
"Oh, yes; but I thought their desks belonged somewhere else than in the main office. They're now installed in the little room between the shop and Healy's office. Close quarters, but better than having them out here where they were inclined to neglect their reports in order to shine in the eyes of that pretty new stenographer. There are one or two other changes. I hope you'll approve of them."
"I'm sure I shall," replied Emma McChesney, a little stiffly.
In Buck's office, she settled back in her chair to watch him as he arranged neat sheaves of papers for her inspection. Her eyes traveled from his keen, eager face to the piles of paper and back again.
"Tell me, did you hit it off with the Ella Sweeneys and the Sadie Harrises of the great Middle West? Is business as bad as the howlers say it is? You said something last night about a novelty bifurcated skirt. Was that the new designer's idea? How have the early buyers taken to it?"
Buck crooked an elbow over his head in self-defense.
"Stop it! You make me feel like Rheims cathedral. Don't bombard until negotiations fail."
He handed her the first sheaf of papers. But, before she began to read: "I'll say this much. Miss Sharp, of Berg Brothers, Omaha—the one you warned against as the human cactus—had me up for dinner. Well, I know you don't, but it's true. Her father and I hit it off just like that. He's a character, that old boy. Ever meet him? No? And Miss Sharp told me something about herself that explains her porcupine pose. That poor child was engaged to a chap who was killed in the Spanish-American war, and she——"
"Kate Sharp!" interrupted Emma McChesney. "Why, T. A. Buck, in all her vinegary, narrow life, that girl has never had a beau, much less——"
Buck's eyebrows came up slightly.
"Emma McChesney, you haven't developed—er—claws, have you?"
With a gasp, Emma McChesney plunged into the papers before her. For ten minutes, the silence of the room was unbroken except for the crackling of papers. Then Emma McChesney put down the first sheaf and looked up at her business partner.
"Is that a fair sample?" she demanded.
"Very," answered T. A. Buck, and handed her another set.
Another ten minutes of silence. Emma McChesney reached out a hand for still another set of papers. The pink of repressed excitement was tinting her cheeks.
"They're—they're all like this?"
Mrs. McChesney faced him, her eyes wide, her breath coming fast.
"T. A. Buck," she slapped the papers before her smartly with the back of her hand, "this means you've broken our record for Middle Western sales!"
"Yes," said T. A., quietly. "Dad would have enjoyed a morning like this, wouldn't he?"
Emma McChesney stood up.
"Enjoyed it! He is enjoying it. Don't tell me that T. A., Senior, just because he is no longer on earth, has failed to get the joy of knowing that his son has realized his fondest dreams. Why, I can feel him here in this room, I can see those bright brown eyes of his twinkling behind his glasses. Not know it! Of course he knows it."
Buck looked down at the desk, smiling curiously.
"D'you know, I felt that way, too."
Suddenly Emma McChesney began to laugh. It was not all mirth—that laugh. Buck waited.
"And to think that I—I kindly and patronizingly handed you a little book full of tips on how to handle Western buyers, 'The Salesman's Who's Who'—I, who used to think I was the witch of the West when it came to selling! You, on your first selling-trip, have made me look like—like a shoe-string peddler."
Buck put out a hand suddenly.
"Don't say that, Emma. I—somehow it takes away all the pleasure."
"It's true. And now that I know, it explains a lot of things that I've been puzzling about in the last twenty-four hours."
"What kind of things?"
"The way you look and act and think. The way you carry your head. The way you sit in a chair. The very words you use, your gestures, your intonations. They're different."
T. A. Buck, busy with his cigar, laughed a little self-consciously.
"Oh, nonsense!" he said. "You're imagining things."
Which remark, while not a particularly happy one, certainly was not in itself so unfortunate as to explain why Mrs. McChesney should have turned rather suddenly and bolted into her own office across the hall and closed the door behind her.
T. A. Buck, quite cool and unruffled, viewed her sudden departure quizzically. Then he took his cigar from his mouth and stood eying it a moment with more attention, perhaps, than it deserved, in spite of its fine aroma. When he put it back between his lips and sat down at his desk once more he was smiling ever so slightly.
Then began a new order of things in the offices of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. Feet that once had turned quite as a matter of course toward the door marked "MRS. MCCHESNEY," now took the direction of the door opposite—and that door bore the name of Buck. Those four months of Mrs. McChesney's absence had put her partner to the test. That acid test had washed away the accumulated dross of years and revealed the precious metal beneath. T. A. Buck had proved to be his father's son.
If Mrs. McChesney noticed that the head office had miraculously moved across the hall, if her sharp ears marked that the many feet that once had paused at her door now stopped at the door opposite, if she realized that instead of, "I'd like your opinion on this, Mrs. McChesney," she often heard the new, "I'll ask Mr. Buck," she did not show it by word or sign.
The first of October found buyers still flocking into New York from every State in the country. Shrewd men and women, these—bargain hunters on a grand scale. Armed with the long spoon of business knowledge, they came to skim the cream from factory and workroom products set forth for their inspection.
For years, it had been Emma McChesney's quiet boast that of those whose business brought them to the offices and showrooms of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, the foremost insisted on dealing only with her. She was proud of her following. She liked their loyalty. Their preference for her was the subtlest compliment that was in their power to pay. Ethel Morrissey, whose friendship dated back to the days when Emma McChesney had sold Featherlooms through the Middle West, used to say laughingly, her plump, comfortable shoulders shaking, "Emma, if you ever give me away by telling how many years I've been buying Featherlooms of you, I'll—I'll call down upon you the spinster's curse."
Early Monday morning, Mrs. McChesney, coming down the hall from the workroom, encountered Miss Ella Sweeney, of Klein & Company, Des Moines, Iowa, stepping out of the elevator. A very skittish Miss Sweeney, rustling, preening, conscious of her dangling black earrings and her Robespierre collar and her beauty-patch. Emma McChesney met this apparition with outstretched, welcoming hand.
"Ella Sweeney! Well, I'd almost given you up. You're late this fall. Come into my office."
She led the way, not noticing that Miss Sweeney came reluctantly, her eyes on the closed door across the way.
"Sit down," said Emma McChesney, and pulled a chair nearer her desk. "No; wait a minute! Let me look at you. Now, Ella, don't try to tell me that THAT dress came from Des Moines, Iowa! Do I! Why, child, it's distinctive!"
Miss Sweeney, still standing, smiled a pleased but rather preoccupied smile. Her eyes roved toward the door.
Emma McChesney, radiating good will and energy, went on:
"Wait till you see our new samples! You'll buy a million dollars' worth. Just let me lead you to our new Walk-Easy bifurcated skirt. We call it the 'one-stepper's delight.'" She put a hand on Ella Sweeney's arm, preparatory to guiding her to the showrooms in the rear. But Miss Sweeney's strange reluctance grew into resolve. A blush, as real as it was unaccustomed, arose to her bepowdered cheeks.
"Is—I—that is—Mr. Buck is in, I suppose?"
"Mr. Buck? Oh, yes, he's in."
Miss Sweeney's eyes sought the closed door across the hall.
"Is that—his office?"
Emma McChesney stiffened a little. Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully. "You have guessed it," she said crisply. "Mr. Buck's name is on the door, and you are looking at it."
Miss Sweeney looked down, looked up, twiddled the chain about her neck.
"You want to see Mr. Buck?" asked Emma McChesney quietly.
Miss Sweeney simpered down at her glove-tips, fluttered her eyelids.
"Well—yes—I—I—you see, I bought of him this year, and when you buy of a person, why, naturally, you——"
"Naturally; I understand."
She walked across the hall, threw open the door, and met T. A. Buck's glance coolly.
"Mr. Buck, Miss Sweeney, of Des Moines, is here, and I'm sure you want to see her. This way, Miss Sweeney."
Miss Sweeney, sidling, blushing, fluttering, teetered in. Emma McChesney, just before she closed the door, saw a little spasm cross Buck's face. It was gone so quickly, and a radiant smile sat there so reassuringly, that she wondered if she had not been mistaken, after all. He had advanced, hand outstretched, with:
"Miss Sweeney! It—it's wonderful to see you again! You're looking——"
The closed door stifled the rest. Emma McChesney, in her office across the way, stood a moment in the center of the room, her hand covering her eyes. The hardy chrysanthemums still glowed sunnily from their vase. The little room was very quiet except for the ticking of the smart, leather-encased clock on the desk.
The closed door shut out factory and office sounds. And Emma McChesney stood with one hand over her eyes. So Napoleon might have stood after Waterloo.
After this first lesson, Mrs. McChesney did not err again. When, two days later, Miss Sharp, of Berg Brothers, Omaha, breezed in, looking strangely juvenile and distinctly anticipatory, Emma greeted her smilingly and waved her toward the door opposite. Miss Sharp, the erstwhile bristling, was strangely smooth and sleek. She glanced ever so softly, sighed ever so flutteringly.
"Working side by side with him, seeing him day after day, how have you been able to resist him?"
Emma McChesney was only human, after all.
"By remembering that this is a business house, not a matrimonial parlor."
The dart found no lodging place in Miss Sharp's sleek armor. She seemed scarcely to have heard.
"My dear," she whispered, "his eyes! And his manner! You must be—whatchamaycallit—adamant. Is that the way you pronounce it? You know what I mean."
"Oh, yes," replied Emma McChesney evenly, "I—know what you mean."
She told herself that she was justified in the righteous contempt which she felt for this sort of thing. A heart-breaker! A cheap lady-killer! Whereupon in walked Sam Bloom, of the Paris Emporium, Duluth, one of Mrs. McChesney's stanchest admirers and a long-tried business friend.
The usual thing: "Younger than ever, Mrs. McChesney! You're a wonder—yes, you are! How's business? Same here. Going to have lunch with me to-day?" Then: "I'll just run in and see Buck. Say, where's he been keeping himself all these years? Chip off the old block, that boy."
So he had the men, too!
It was in this frame of mind that Miss Ethel Morrissey found her on the morning that she came into New York on her semi-annual buying-trip. Ethel Morrissey, plump, matronly-looking, quiet, with her hair fast graying at the sides, had nothing of the skittish Middle Western buyer about her. She might have passed for the mother of a brood of six if it were not for her eyes—the shrewd, twinkling, far-sighted, reckoning eyes of the business woman. She and Emma McChesney had been friends from the day that Ethel Morrissey had bought her first cautious bill of Featherlooms. Her love for Emma McChesney had much of the maternal in it. She felt a personal pride in Emma McChesney's work, her success, her clean reputation, her life of self-denial for her son Jock. When Ethel Morrissey was planned by her Maker, she had not been meant to be wasted on the skirt-and-suit department of a small-town store. That broad, gracious breast had been planned as a resting-place for heads in need of comfort. Those plump, firm arms were meant to enfold the weak and distressed. Those capable hands should have smoothed troubled heads and patted plump cheeks, instead of wasting their gifts in folding piles of petticoats and deftly twitching a plait or a tuck into place. She was playing Rosalind in buskins when she should have been cast for the Nurse.
She entered Emma McChesney's office, now, in her quiet blue suit and her neat hat, and she looked very sane and cheerful and rosy-cheeked and dependable. At least, so Emma McChesney thought, as she kissed her, while the plump arms held her close.
Ethel Morrissey, the hugging process completed, held her off and eyed her.
"Well, Emma McChesney, flourish your Featherlooms for me. I want to buy and get it over, so we can talk."
"Are you sure that you want to buy of me?" asked Emma McChesney, a little wearily.
"What's the joke?"
"I'm not joking. I thought that perhaps you might prefer to see Mr. Buck this trip."
Ethel Morrissey placed one forefinger under Emma McChesney's chin and turned that lady's face toward her and gazed at her long and thoughtfully—the most trying test of courage in the world, that, to one whose eyes fear meeting yours. Emma McChesney, bravest of women, tried to withstand it, and failed. The next instant her head lay on Ethel Morrissey's broad breast, her hands were clutching the plump shoulders, her cheek was being patted soothingly by the kind hands.
"Now, now—what is it, dear? Tell Ethel. Yes; I do know, but tell me, anyway. It'll do you good."
And Emma McChesney told her. When she had finished:
"You bathe your eyes, Emma, and put on your hat and we'll eat. Oh, yes, you will. A cup of tea, anyway. Isn't there some little cool fool place where I can be comfortable on a hot day like this—where we can talk comfortably? I've got at least an hour's conversation in me."
With the first sip of her first cup of tea, Ethel Morrissey began to unload that burden of conversation.
"Emma, this is the best thing that could have happened to you. Oh, yes, it is. The queer thing about it is that it didn't happen sooner. It was bound to come. You know, Emma, the Lord lets a woman climb just so high up the mountain of success. And then, when she gets too cocky, when she begins to measure her wits and brain and strength against that of men, and finds herself superior, he just taps her smartly on the head and shins, so that she stumbles, falls, and rolls down a few miles on the road she has traveled so painfully. He does it just as a gentle reminder to her that she's only a woman, after all. Oh, I know all about this feminist talk. But this thing's been proven. Look at what happened to—to Joan of Arc, and Becky Sharp, and Mary Queen of Scots, and—yes, I have been spending my evenings reading. Now, stop laughing at your old Ethel, Emma McChesney!"
"You meant me to laugh, dear old thing. I don't feel much like it, though. I don't see why I should be reminded of my lowly state. Heaven knows I haven't been so terrifically pleased with myself! Of course, that South American trip was—well, gratifying. But I earned it. For ten years I lived with head in a sample-trunk, didn't I? I worked hard enough to win the love of all these Westerners. It wasn't all walking dreamily down Main Street, strewing Featherlooms along my path."
Ethel Morrissey stirred her second cup of tea, sipped, stirred, smiled, then reached over and patted Emma McChesney's hand.
"Emma, I'm a wise old party, and I can see that it isn't all pique with you. It's something else—something deeper. Oh, yes, it is! Now let me tell you what happened when T. A. Buck invaded your old-time territory. I was busy up in my department the morning he came in. I had my head in a rack of coats, and a henny customer waiting. But I sensed something stirring, and I stuck my head out of the coat-rack in which I was fumbling. The department was aflutter like a poultry-yard. Every woman in it, from the little new Swede stock-girl to Gladys Hemingway, who is only working to wear out her old clothes, was standing with her face toward the elevator, and on her face a look that would make the ordinary door-mat marked 'Welcome' seem like an insult. I kind of smoothed my back hair, because I knew that only one thing could bring that look into a woman's face. And down the aisle came a tall, slim, distinguished-looking, wonderfully tailored, chamois-gloved, walking-sticked Fifth Avenue person with EYES! Of course, I knew. But the other girls didn't. They just sort of fell back at his approach, smitten. He didn't even raise an eyebrow to do it. Now, Emma, I'm not exaggerating. I know what effect he had on me and my girls, and, for that matter, every other man or woman in the store. Why, he was a dream realized to most of 'em. These shrewd, clever buyer-girls know plenty of men—business men of the slap-bang, horn-blowing, bluff, good-natured, hello-kid kind—the kind that takes you out to dinner and blows cigar smoke in your face. Along comes this chap, elegant, well dressed and not even conscious of it, polished, suave, smooth, low-voiced, well bred. Why, when he spoke to a girl, it was the subtlest kind of flattery. Can you see little Sadie Harris, of Duluth, drawing a mental comparison between Sam Bloom, the store-manager, and this fascinating devil—Sam, red-faced, loud voiced, shirt-sleeving it around the sample room, his hat pushed 'way back on his head, chewing his cigar like mad, and wild-eyed for fear he's buying wrong? Why, child, in our town, nobody carries a cane except the Elks when they have their annual parade, and old man Schwenkel, who's lame. And yet we all accepted that yellow walking-stick of Buck's. It belonged to him. There isn't a skirt-buyer in the Middle West that doesn't dream of him all night and push Featherlooms in the store all day. Emma, I'm old and fat and fifty, but when I had dinner with him at the Manitoba House that evening, I caught myself making eyes at him, knowing that every woman in the dining-room would have given her front teeth to be where I was."
After which extensive period, Ethel Morrissey helped herself to her third cup of tea. Emma McChesney relaxed a little and laughed a tremulous little laugh.
"Oh, well, I suppose I must not hope to combat such formidable rivals as walking-sticks, chamois gloves, and EYES. My business arguments are futile compared to those."
Ethel Morrissey delivered herself of a last shot.
"You're wrong, Emma. Those things helped him, but they didn't sell his line. He sold Featherlooms out of salesmanship, and because he sounded convincing and sincere and businesslike—and he had the samples. It wasn't all bunk. It was three-quarters business. Those two make an invincible combination."
An hour later, Ethel Morrissey was shrewdly selecting her winter line of Featherlooms from the stock in the showrooms of the T. A. Buck Company. They went about their business transaction, these two, with the cool abruptness of men, speaking little, and then only of prices, discounts, dating, shipping. Their luncheon conversation of an hour before seemed an impossibility.
"You'll have dinner with me to-night?" Emma asked. "Up at my apartment, all cozy?"
"Not to-night, dearie. I'll be in bed by eight. I'm not the girl I used to be. Time was when a New York buying-trip was a vacation. Now it's a chore."
She took Emma McChesney's hand and patted it.
"If you've got something real nice for dinner, though, and feel like company, why don't you ask—somebody else that's lonesome."
After which, Ethel Morrissey laughed her wickedest and waved a sudden good-by with a last word about seeing her to-morrow.
Emma McChesney, her color high, entered her office. It was five o'clock. She cleared her desk in half an hour, breathed a sigh of weariness, reached for hat and jacket, donned them, and, turning out her lights, closed her door behind her for the day. At that same instant, T. A. Buck slammed his own door and walked briskly down the hall. They met at the elevator.
They descended in silence. The street gained, they paused uncertainly.
"Won't you stay down and have dinner with me to-night, Emma?"
"Thanks so much, T. A. Not to-night."
She turned away. He stood there, in the busy street, looking irresolutely and not at all eagerly in the direction of his club, perhaps, or his hotel, or whatever shelter he sought after business hours. Something in his attitude—the loneliness of it, the uncertainty, the indecision—smote Emma McChesney with a great pang. She came swiftly back.
"I wish you'd come home to dinner with me. I don't know what Annie'll give us. Probably bread pudding. She does, when she's left to her own devices. But I—I wish you would." She looked up at him almost shyly.
T. A. Buck took Emma McChesney's arm in a rather unnecessarily firm grip and propelled her, surprised and protesting, in the direction of the nearest vacant taxi.
"But, T. A.! This is idiotic! Why take a cab to go home from the office on a—a week day?"
"In with you! Besides, I never have a chance to take one from the office on Sunday, do I? Does Annie always cook enough for two?"
Apparently Annie did. Annie was something of a witch, in her way. She whisked about, wrought certain changes, did things with asparagus and mayonnaise, lighted the rose-shaded table-candles. No one noticed that dinner was twenty minutes late.
Together they admired the great mahogany buffet that Emma had miraculously found space for in the little dining-room.
"It glows like a great, deep ruby, doesn't it?" she said proudly. "You should see Annie circle around it with the carpet-sweeper. She knows one bump would be followed by instant death."
Looking back on it, afterward, they remembered that the dinner was a very silent one. They did not notice their wordlessness at the time. Once, when the chops came on, Buck said absently,
"Oh, I had those for l——" Then he stopped abruptly.
Emma McChesney smiled.
"Your mother trained you well," she said.
The October night had grown cool. Annie had lighted a wood fire in the living-room.
"That was what attracted me to this apartment in the first place," Mrs. McChesney said, as they left the dining-room. "A fireplace—a practical, real, wood-burning fireplace in a New York apartment! I'd have signed the lease if the plaster had been falling in chunks and the bathtub had been zinc."
"That's because fireplaces mean home—in our minds," said Buck.
He sat looking into the heart of the glow. There fell another of those comfortable silences.
"T. A., I—I want to tell you that I know I've been acting the cat ever since I got home from South America and found that you had taken charge. You see, you had spoiled me. The thing that has happened to me is the thing that always happens to those who assume to be dictators. I just want you to know, now, that I'm glad and proud and happy because you have come into your own. It hurt me just at first. That was the pride of me. I'm quite over that now. You're not only president of the T. A. Buck Company in name. You're its actual head. And that's as it should be. Long live the King!"
Buck sat silent a moment. Then,
"I had to do it, Emma." She looked up. "You have a wonderful brain," said Buck then, and the two utterances seemed connected in his mind.
They seemed to bring no great satisfaction to the woman to whom he addressed them, however. She thanked him dryly, as women do when their brain is dragged into an intimate conversation.
"But," said Buck, and suddenly stood up, looking at her very intently, "it isn't for your mind that I love you this minute. I love you for your eyes, Emma, and for your mouth—you have the tenderest, most womanly-sweet mouth in the world—and for your hair, and the way your chin curves. I love you for your throat-line, and for the way you walk and talk and sit, for the way you look at me, and for the way you don't look at me."
He reached down and gathered Emma McChesney, the alert, the aggressive, the capable, into his arms, quite as men gather the clingingest kind of woman. "And now suppose you tell me just why and how you love me."
And Emma McChesney told him.
When, at last, he was leaving,
"Don't you think," asked Emma McChesney, her hands on his shoulders, "that you overdid the fascination thing just the least leetle bit there on the road?"
"Well, but you told me to entertain them, didn't you?"
"Yes," reluctantly; "but I didn't tell you to consecrate your life to 'em. The ordinary fat, middle-aged, every-day traveling man will never be able to sell Featherlooms in the Middle West again. They won't have 'em. They'll never be satisfied with anything less than John Drew after this."
"Emma McChesney, you're not marrying me because a lot of overdressed, giggling, skittish old girls have taken a fancy to make eyes at me, are you!"
Emma McChesney stood up very straight and tall.
"I'm marrying you, T. A., because you are a great, big, fine, upstanding, tender, wonderful——"
"Oh, well, then that's all right," broke in Buck, a little tremulously.
Emma McChesney's face grew serious.
"But promise me one thing, T. A. Promise me that when you come home for dinner at night, you'll never say, 'Good heavens, I had that for lunch!'"