Emma McChesney & Co. by Edna Ferber
A CLOSER CORPORATION
Front offices resemble back kitchens in this: they have always an ear at the keyhole, an eye at the crack, a nose in the air. But
between the ordinary front office and the front office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company there was a difference. The employees at Buck's—from Emil, the errand boy, to old Pop Henderson, who had started as errand boy himself twenty-five years before—possessed the quality of loyalty. They were loyal to the memory of old man Buck, because they had loved and respected him. They were loyal to Mrs. Emma McChesney, because she was Mrs. Emma McChesney (which amounts to the same reason). They were loyal to T. A. Buck, because he was his father's son.
For three weeks the front office had been bewildered. From bewilderment it passed to worry. A worried, bewildered front office is not an efficient front office. Ever since Mrs. McChesney had come off the road, at the death of old T. A. Buck, to assume the secretaryship of the company which she had served faithfully for ten years, she had set an example for the entire establishment. She was the pacemaker. Every day of her life she figuratively pressed the electric button that set the wheels to whirring. At nine A.M., sharp, she appeared, erect, brisk, alert, vibrating energy. Usually, the office staff had not yet swung into its gait. In a desultory way, it had been getting into its sateen sleevelets, adjusting its eye-shades, uncovering its typewriter, opening its ledgers, bringing out its files. Then, down the hall, would come the sound of a firm, light, buoyant step. An electric thrill would pass through the front office. Then the sunny, sincere, "Good morning!"
"'Morning, Mrs. McChesney!" the front office would chorus back.
The day had begun for the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company.
Hortense, the blond stenographer (engaged to the shipping-clerk), noticed it first. The psychology of that is interesting. Hortense knew that by nine-thirty Mrs. McChesney's desk would be clear and that the buzzer would summon her. Hortense didn't mind taking dictation from T. A. Buck, though his method was hesitating and jerky, and he was likely to employ quite casually a baffling and unaccustomed word, over which Hortense's scampering pencil would pause, struggle desperately, then race on. Hortense often was in for a quick, furtive session with her pocket-dictionary after one of T. A.'s periods. But with Mrs. McChesney, dictation was a joy. She knew what she wanted to say and she always said it. The words she used were short, clean-cut, meaningful Anglo-Saxon words. She never used received when she could use got. Hers was the rapid-fire-gun method, each word sharp, well timed, efficient.
Imagine, then, Hortense staring wide-eyed and puzzled at a floundering, hesitating, absent-minded Mrs. McChesney—a Mrs. McChesney strangely starry as to eyes, strangely dreamy as to mood, decidedly deficient as to dictation. Imagine a Hortense with pencil poised in air a full five minutes, waiting until Mrs. McChesney should come to herself with a start, frown, smile vaguely, pass a hand over her eyes, and say, "Let me see—where was I?"
"'And we find, on referring to your order, that the goods you mention——'" Hortense would prompt patiently.
"Oh, yes, of course," with an effort. Hortense was beginning to grow alarmed.
In T. A. Buck's office, just across the hall, the change was quite as noticeable, but in another way. His leisurely drawl was gone. His deliberate manner was replaced by a brisk, quick-thinking, quick-speaking one. His words were brief and to the point. He seemed to be riding on the crest of an excitement-wave. And, as he dictated, he smiled.
Hortense stood it for a week. Then she unburdened herself to Miss Kelly, the assistant bookkeeper. Miss Kelly evinced no surprise at her disclosures.
"I was just talking about it to Pop yesterday. She acts worried, doesn't she? And yet, not exactly worried, either. Do you suppose it can be that son of hers—what's his name? Jock."
Hortense shook her head.
"No; he's all right. She had a letter from him yesterday. He's got a grand position in Chicago, and he's going to marry that girl he was so stuck on here. And it isn't that, either, because Mrs. McChesney likes her. I can tell by the way she talks about her. I ought to know. Look how Henry's ma acted toward me when we were first engaged!"
The front office buzzed with it. It crept into the workroom—into the shipping-room. It penetrated the frowsy head of Jake, the elevator-man. As the days went on and the tempo of the front office slackened with that of the two bright little inner offices, only one member of the whole staff remained unmoved, incurious, taciturn. Pop Henderson listened, one scant old eyebrow raised knowingly, a whimsical half-smile screwing up his wrinkled face.
At the end of three weeks, Hortense, with that display of temperament so often encountered in young ladies of her profession, announced in desperation that, if this thing kept on, she was going to forget herself and jeopardize her position by demanding to know outright what the trouble was.
From the direction of Pop Henderson's inky retreat, there came the sound of a dry chuckle. Pop Henderson had been chuckling in just that way for three weeks, now. It was getting on the nerves of his colleagues.
"If you ever spring the joke that's kept you giggling for a month," snapped Hortense, "it'll break up the office."
Pop Henderson removed his eye-shade very deliberately, passed his thin, cramped old hand over his scant gray locks to his bald spot, climbed down stiffly from his stool, ambled to the center of the room, and, head cocked like a knowing old brown sparrow, regarded the pert Hortense over his spectacles and under his spectacles and, finally, through his spectacles.
"Young folks now 'days," began Pop Henderson dryly, "are so darned cute and knowin' that when an old fellow cuts in ahead of 'em for once, he likes to hug the joke to himself a while before he springs it." There was no acid in his tone. He was beaming very benignantly down upon the little blond stenographer. "You say that Mrs. Mack is absent-minded-like and dreamy, and that young T. A. acts like he'd swallowed an electric battery. Well, when it comes to that, I've seen you many a time, when you didn't know any one was lookin', just sitting there at your typewriter, with your hands kind of poised halfway, and your lips sort of parted, and your eyes just gazing away somewhere off in the distance for fifteen minutes at a stretch. And out there in the shipping-room Henry's singing like a whole minstrel troupe all day long, when he isn't whistlin' so loud you can hear him over 's far as Eighth Avenue." Then, as the red surged up through the girl's fair skin, "Well?" drawled old Pop Henderson, and the dry chuckle threatened again. "We-e-ell?"
"Why, Pop Henderson!" exploded Miss Kelly from her cage. "Why—Pop—Henderson!"
In those six words the brisk and agile-minded Miss Kelly expressed the surprise and the awed conviction of the office staff.
Pop Henderson trotted over to the water-cooler, drew a brimming glass, drank it off, and gave vent to a great exhaust of breath. He tried not to strut as he crossed back to his desk, climbed his stool, adjusted his eye-shade, and, with a last throaty chuckle, plunged into his books again.
But his words already were working their wonders. The office, after the first shock, was flooded with a new atmosphere—a subtle, pervasive air of hushed happiness, of tender solicitude. It went about like a mother who has found her child asleep at play, and who steals away atiptoe, finger on lip, lips smiling tenderly.
The delicate antennae of Emma McChesney's mind sensed the change.
Perhaps she read something in the glowing eyes of her sister-in-love, Hortense. Perhaps she caught a new tone in Miss Kelly's voice or the forewoman's. Perhaps a whisper from the outer office reached her desk. The very afternoon of Pop Henderson's electrifying speech, Mrs. McChesney crossed to T. A. Buck's office, shut the door after her, lowered her voice discreetly, and said,
"T. A., they're on."
"What makes you think so?"
"Nothing. That is, nothing definite. No man-reason. Just a woman-reason."
T. A. Buck strolled over to her, smiling.
"I haven't known you all this time without having learned that that's reason enough. And if they really do know, I'm glad."
"But we didn't want them to know. Not yet—until—until just before the——"
T. A. Buck laid his hands lightly on Emma McChesney's shoulders. Emma McChesney promptly reached up and removed them.
"There you are!" exclaimed Buck, and rammed the offending hands into his pockets.
"That's why I'm glad they know—if they really do know. I'm no actor. I'm a skirt-and-lingerie manufacturer. For the last six weeks, instead of being allowed to look at you with the expression that a man naturally wears when he's looking at the woman he's going to marry, what have I had to do? Glare, that's what! Scowl! Act like a captain of finance when I've felt like a Romeo! I've had to be dry, terse, businesslike, when I was bursting with adjectives that had nothing to do with business. You've avoided my office as you would a small-pox camp. You've greeted me with a what-can-I-do-for-you air when I've dared to invade yours. You couldn't have been less cordial to a book agent. If it weren't for those two hours you grant me in the evening, I'd—I'd blow up with a loud report, that's what. I'd——"
"Now, now, T. A.!" interrupted Emma McChesney soothingly, and patted one gesticulating arm. "It has been a bit of a strain—for both of us. But, you know, we agreed it would be best this way. We've ten days more to go. Let's stick it out as we've begun. It has been best for us, for the office, for the business. The next time you find yourself choked up with a stock of fancy adjectives, write a sonnet to me. Work 'em off that way."
T. A. Buck stood silent a moment, regarding her with a concentration that would have unnerved a woman less poised.
"Emma McChesney, when you talk like that, so coolly, so evenly, so—so darned mentally, I sometimes wonder if you really——"
"Don't say it, T. A. Because you don't mean it. I've had to fight for most of my happiness. I've never before found it ready at hand. I've always had to dig for it with a shovel and a spade and a pickax, and then blast. I had almost twenty years of that—from the time I was eighteen until I was thirty-eight. It taught me to take my happiness seriously and my troubles lightly." She shut her eyes for a moment, and her voice was very low and very deep and very vibrant. "So, when I'm coolest and evenest and most mental, T. A., you may know that I've struck gold."
A great glow illumined Buck's fine eyes. He took two quick steps in her direction. But Emma McChesney, one hand on the door-knob, warned him off with the other.
"Hey—wait a minute!" pleaded Buck.
"Can't. I've a fitting at the tailor's at three-thirty—my new suit. Wait till you see it!"
"The dickens you have! But so have I"—he jerked out his watch—"at three-thirty! It's the suit I'm going to wear when I travel as a blushing bridegroom."
"So's mine. And look here, T. A.! We can't both leave this place for a fitting. It's absurd. If this keeps on, it will break up the business. We'll have to get married one at a time—or, at least, get our trousseaux one at a time. What's your suit?"
"Sort of brown."
"Brown? So's mine! Good heavens, T. A., we'll look like a minstrel troupe!"
Buck sighed resignedly.
"If I telephone my tailor that I can't make it until four-thirty, will you promise to be back by that time?"
"Yes; but remember, if your bride appears in a skirt that sags in the back or a coat that bunches across the shoulders, the crime will lie at your door."
So it was that the lynx-eyed office staff began to wonder if, after all, Pop Henderson was the wizard that he had claimed to be.
During working hours, Mrs. McChesney held rigidly to business. Her handsome partner tried bravely to follow her example. If he failed occasionally, perhaps Emma McChesney was not so displeased as she pretended to be. A business discussion, deeply interesting to both, was likely to run thus:
Buck, entering her office briskly, papers in hand: "Mrs. McChesney—ahem!—I have here a letter from Singer & French, Columbus, Ohio. They ask for an extension. They've had ninety days."
"That's enough. That firm's slow pay, and always will be until old Singer has the good taste and common sense to retire. It isn't because the stock doesn't move. Singer simply believes in not paying for anything until he has to. If I were you, I'd write him that this is a business house, not a charitable institution—— No, don't do that. It isn't politic. But you know what I mean."
"H'm; yes." A silence. "Emma, that's a fiendishly becoming gown."
"Now, T. A.!"
"But it is! It—it's so kind of loose, and yet clinging, and those white collar-and-cuff things——"
"T. A. Buck, I've worn this thing down to the office every day for a month. It shines in the back. Besides, you promised not to——"
"Oh, darn it all, Emma, I'm human, you know! How do you suppose I can stand here and look at you and not——"
Emma McChesney (pressing the buzzer that summons Hortense): "You know, Tim, I don't exactly hate you this morning, either. But business is business. Stop looking at me like that!" Then, to Hortense, in the doorway: "Just take this letter, Miss Stotz-Singer & French, Columbus, Ohio. Dear Sirs: Yours of the tenth at hand. Period. Regarding your request for further extension we wish to say that, in view of the fact——"
T. A. Buck, half resentful, half amused, wholly admiring, would disappear. But Hortense, eyes demurely cast down at her notebook, was not deceived.
"Say," she confided to Miss Kelly, "they think they've got me fooled. But I'm wise. Don't I know? When Henry passes through the office here, from the shipping-room, he looks at me just as cool and indifferent. Before we announced it, we had you all guessing, didn't we? But I can see something back of that look that the rest of you can't get. Well, when Mr. Buck looks at her, I can see the same thing in his eyes. Say, when it comes to seeing the love-light through the fog, I'm there with the spy-glass."
If Emma McChesney held herself well in leash during the busy day, she relished her happiness none the less when she could allow herself the full savor of it. When a girl of eighteen she had married a man of the sort that must put whisky into his stomach before the machinery of his day would take up its creaking round.
Out of the degradation of that marriage she had emerged triumphantly, sweet and unsullied, and she had succeeded in bringing her son, Jock McChesney, out into the clear sunlight with her.
The evenings spent with T. A. Buck, the man of fine instincts, of breeding, of proven worth, of rare tenderness, filled her with a great peace and happiness. When doubts assailed her, it was not for herself but for him. Sometimes the fear would clutch her as they sat before the fire in the sitting-room of her comfortable little apartment. She would voice those fears for the very joy of having them stilled.
"T. A., this is too much happiness. I'm—I'm afraid. After all, you're a young man, though you are a bit older than I in actual years. But men of your age marry girls of eighteen. You're handsome. And you've brains, family, breeding, money. Any girl in New York would be glad to marry you—those tall, slim, exquisite young girls. Young! And well bred, and poised and fresh and sweet and lovable. You see them every day on Fifth Avenue, exquisitely dressed, entirely desirable. They make me feel—old—old and battered. I've sold goods on the road. I've fought and worked and struggled. And it has left its mark. I did it for the boy, God bless him! And I'm glad I did it. But it put me out of the class of that girl you see on——"
"Yes, Emma; you're not at all in the class with that girl you see every day on Fifth Avenue. Fifth Avenue's full of her—hundreds of her, thousands of her. Perhaps, five years ago, before I had worked side by side with you, I might have been attracted by that girl you see every day on Fifth Avenue. You don't see a procession of Emma McChesneys every day on Fifth Avenue—not by a long shot! Why? Because there's only one of her. She doesn't come in dozen lots. I know that that girl you see every day on Fifth Avenue is all that I deserve. But, by some heaven-sent miracle, I'm to have this Emma McChesney woman! I don't know how it came to be true. I don't deserve it. But it is true, and that's enough for me."
Emma McChesney would look up at him, eyes wet, mouth smiling.
"T. A., you're balm and myrrh and incense and meat and drink to me. I wish I had words to tell you what I'm thinking now. But I haven't. So I'll just cover it up. We both know it's there. And I'll tell you that you make love like a 'movie' hero. Yes, you do! Better than a 'movie' hero, because, in the films, the heroine always has to turn to face the camera, which makes it necessary for him to make love down the back of her neck."
But T. A. Buck was unsmiling.
"Don't trifle, Emma. And don't think you can fool me that way. I haven't finished. I want to settle this Fifth Avenue creature for all time. What I have to say is this: I think you are more attractive—finer, bigger, more rounded in character and manner, mellower, sweeter, sounder, with all your angles and corners rubbed smooth, saner, better poised than any woman I have ever known. And what I am to-day you have made me, directly and indirectly, by association and by actual orders, by suggestion, and by direct contact. What you did for Jock, purposefully and by force, you did for me, too. Not so directly, perhaps, but with the same result. Emma McChesney, you've made—actually made, molded, shaped, and turned out two men. You're the greatest sculptor that ever lived. You could make a scarecrow in a field get up and achieve. Everywhere one sees women over-wrought, over-stimulated, eager, tense. When there appears one who has herself in leash, balanced, tolerant, poised, sane, composed, she restores your faith in things. You lean on her, spiritually. I know I need you more than you need me, Emma. And I know you won't love me the less for that. There—that's about all for this evening."
"I think," breathed Emma McChesney in a choked little voice, "that that's about—enough."
Two days before the date set for their very quiet wedding, they told the heads of office and workroom. Office and workroom, somewhat moist as to eye and flushed as to cheek and highly congratulatory, proved their knowingness by promptly presenting to their employers a very costly and unbelievably hideous set of mantel ornaments and clock, calculated to strike horror to the heart of any woman who has lovingly planned the furnishing of her drawing-room. Pop Henderson, after some preliminary wrestling with collar, necktie, spectacles, and voice, launched forth on a presentation speech that threatened to close down the works for the day. Emma McChesney heard it, tears in her eyes. T. A. Buck gnawed his mustache. And when Pop Henderson's cracked old voice broke altogether in the passage that touched on his departed employer, old T. A. Buck, and the great happiness that this occasion would have brought him, Emma's hand met young T. A.'s and rested there. Hortense and Henry, standing very close together all through the speech, had, in this respect, anticipated their employers by several minutes.
They were to be away two weeks only. No one knew just where, except that some small part of the trip was to be spent on a flying visit to young Jock McChesney out in Chicago. He himself was to be married very soon. Emma McChesney had rather startled her very good-looking husband-to-be by whirling about at him with,
"T. A., do you realize that you're very likely to be a step-grandfather some fine day not so far away!"
T. A. had gazed at her for a rather shocked moment, swallowed hard, smiled, and said,
"Even that doesn't scare me, Emma."
Everything had been planned down to the last detail. Mrs. McChesney's little apartment had been subleased, and a very smart one taken and furnished almost complete, with Annie installed in the kitchen and a demure parlor-maid engaged.
"When we come back, we'll come home," T. A. Buck had said. "Home!"
There had been much to do, but it had all been done smoothly and expertly, under the direction of these two who had learned how to plan, direct, and carry out.
Then, on the last day, Emma McChesney, visibly perturbed, entered her partner's office, a letter in her hand.
"This is ghastly!" she exclaimed.
Buck pulled out a chair for her.
"Klein cancel his order again?"
"No. And don't ask me to sit down. Be thankful that I don't blow up."
"Is it as bad as that?"
"Bad! Here—read that! No, don't read it; I'll tell you. It'll relieve my feelings. You know how I've been angling and scheming and contriving and plotting for years to get an exclusive order from Gage & Fosdick. Of course we've had a nice little order every few months, but what's that from the biggest mail-order house in the world? And now, out of a blue sky, comes this bolt from O'Malley, who buys our stuff, saying that he's coming on the tenth—that's next week—that he's planned to establish our line with their trade, and that he wants us to be prepared for a record-breaking order. I've fairly prayed for this. And now—what shall we do?"
"Do?"—smoothly—"just write the gentleman and tell him you're busy getting married this week and next, and that, by a singular coincidence, your partner is similarly engaged; that our manager will attend to him with all care and courtesy, unless he can postpone his trip until our return. Suggest that he call around a week or two later."
"T. A. Buck, I know it isn't considered good form to rage and glare at one's fiance on the eve of one's wedding-day. If this were a week earlier or a week later, I'd be tempted to—shake you!"
Buck stood up, came over to her, and laid a hand very gently on her arm. With the other hand he took the letter from her fingers.
"Emma, you're tired, and a little excited. You've been under an unusual physical and mental strain for the last few weeks. Give me that letter. I'll answer it. This kind of thing"—he held up the letter—"has meant everything to you. If it had not, where would I be to-day? But to-night, Emma, it doesn't mean a thing. Not—one thing."
Slowly Emma McChesney's tense body relaxed. A great sigh that had in it weariness and relief and acquiescence came from her. She smiled ever so faintly.
"I've been a ramrod so long it's going to be hard to learn to be a clinging vine. I've been my own support for so many years, I don't use a trellis very gracefully—yet. But I think I'll get the hang of it very soon."
She turned toward the door, crossed to her own office, looked all about at the orderly, ship-shape room that reflected her personality—as did any room she occupied.
"Just the same," she called out, over her shoulder, to Buck in the doorway, "I hate like fury to see that order slide."
In hat and coat and furs she stood a moment, her fingers on the electric switch, her eyes very bright and wide. The memories of ten years, fifteen years, twenty years crowded up around her and filled the little room. Some of them were golden and some of them were black; a few had power to frighten her, even now. So she turned out the light, stood for just another moment there in the darkness, then stepped out into the hall, closed the door softly behind her, and stood face to face with the lettering on the glass panel of the door—the lettering that spelled the name, "MRS. MCCHESNEY."
T. A. Buck watched her in silence. She reached up with one wavering forefinger and touched each of the twelve letters, one after the other. Then she spread her hand wide, blotting out the second word. And when she turned away, one saw—she being Emma McChesney, and a woman, and very tired and rather sentimental, and a bit hysterical and altogether happy—that, though she was smiling, her eyes were wet.
In her ten years on the road, visiting town after town, catching trains, jolting about in rumbling hotel 'buses or musty-smelling small-town hacks, living in hotels, good, bad, and indifferent, Emma McChesney had come upon hundreds of rice-strewn, ribbon-bedecked bridal couples. She had leaned from her window at many a railway station to see the barbaric and cruel old custom of bride-and-bridegroom baiting. She had smiled very tenderly—and rather sadly, and hopefully, too—upon the boy and girl who rushed breathless into the car in a flurry of white streamers, flowers, old shoes, laughter, cheers, last messages. Now, as in a dream, she found herself actually of these. Of rice, old shoes, and badinage there had been none, it is true. She stood quietly by while Buck attended to their trunks, just as she had seen it done by hundreds of helpless little cotton-wool women who had never checked a trunk in their lives—she, who had spent ten years of her life wrestling with trunks and baggagemen and porters. Once there was some trifling mistake—Buck's fault. Emma, with her experience of the road, saw his error. She could have set him right with a word. It was on the tip of her tongue. By sheer force of will she withheld that word, fought back the almost overwhelming inclination to take things in hand, set them right. It was just an incident, almost trifling in itself. But its import was tremendous, for her conduct, that moment, shaped the happiness of their future life together.
Emma had said that there would be no rude awakenings for them, no startling shocks.
"There isn't a thing we don't know about each other," she had said. "We each know the other's weaknesses and strength. I hate the way you gnaw your mustache when you're troubled, and I think the fuss you make when the waiter pours your coffee without first having given you sugar and cream is the most absurd thing I've ever seen. But, then, I know how it annoys you to see me sitting with one slipper dangling from my toe, when I'm particularly comfortable and snug. You know how I like my eggs, and you think it's immoral. I suppose we're really set in our ways. It's going to be interesting to watch each other shift."
"Just the same," Buck said, "I didn't dream there was any woman living who could actually make a Pullman drawing-room look homelike."
"Any woman who has spent a fourth of her life in hotels and trains learns that trick. She has to. If she happens to be the sort that likes books and flowers and sewing, she carries some of each with her. And one book, one rose, and one piece of unfinished embroidery would make an oasis in the Sahara Desert look homelike."
It was on the westbound train that they encountered Sam—Sam of the rolling eye, the genial grin, the deft hand. Sam was known to every hardened traveler as the porter de luxe of the road. Sam was a diplomat, a financier, and a rascal. He never forgot a face. He never forgave a meager tip. The passengers who traveled with him were at once his guests and his victims.
Therefore his, "Good evenin', Mis' McChesney, ma'am. Good even'! Well, it suh't'nly has been a long time sense Ah had the pleasuh of yoh presence as passengah, ma'am. Ah sure am——"
The slim, elegant figure of T. A. Buck appeared in the doorway. Sam's rolling eye became a thing on ball bearings. His teeth flashed startlingly white in the broadest of grins. He took Buck's hat, ran a finger under its inner band, and shook it very gently.
"What's the idea?" inquired Buck genially. "Are you a combination porter and prestidigitator?"
Sam chuckled his infectious negro chuckle.
"Well, no, sah! Ah wouldn' go's fah as t' say that, sah. But Ah hab been known to shake rice out of a gen'lman's ordinary, ever'-day, black derby hat."
"Get out!" laughed T. A. Buck, as Sam ducked.
"You may as well get used to it," smiled Emma, "because I'm known to every train-conductor, porter, hotel-clerk, chamber-maid, and bell-boy between here and the Great Lakes."
It was Sam who proved himself hero of the honeymoon, for he saved T. A. Buck from continuing his journey to Chicago brideless. Fifteen minutes earlier, Buck had gone to the buffet-car for a smoke. At Cleveland, Emma, looking out of the car window, saw a familiar figure pacing up and down the station platform. It was that dapper and important little Irishman, O'Malley, buyer for Gage & Fosdick, the greatest mail-order house in the world—O'Malley, whose letter T. A. Buck had answered; O'Malley, whose order meant thousands. He was on his way to New York, of course.
In that moment Mrs. T. A. Buck faded into the background and Emma McChesney rose up in her place. She snatched hat and coat and furs, put them on as she went down the long aisle, swung down the car steps, and flew down the platform to the unconscious O'Malley. He was smoking, all unconscious. The Fates had delivered him into her expert hands. She knew those kindly sisters of old, and she was the last to refuse their largesse.
"Mrs. McChesney!" He had just a charming trace of a brogue. His enemies said he assumed it. "Well, who was I thinkin' of but you a minute ago. What——"
"I'm on my way to Chicago. Saw you from the car window. You're on the New York train? I thought so. Tell me, you're surely seeing our man, aren't you?"
O'Malley's smiling face clouded. He was a temperamental Irishman—Ted O'Malley—with ideas on the deference due him and his great house.
"I'll tell you the truth, Mrs. McChesney. I had a letter from your Mr. Buck. It wasn't much of a letter to a man like me, representing a house like Gage & Fosdick. It said both heads of the firm would be out of town, and would I see the manager. Me—see the manager! Well, thinks I, if that's how important they think my order, then they'll not get it—that's all. I've never yet——"
"Dear Mr. O'Malley, please don't be offended. As a McChesney to an O'Malley, I want to tell you that I've just been married."
"Married! God bless me—to——"
"To T. A. Buck, of course. He's on that train. He——"
She turned toward the train. And as she turned it began to move, ever so gently. At the same moment there sped toward her, with unbelievable swiftness, the figure of Sam the porter, his eyes all whites. By one arm he grasped her, and half carried, half jerked her to the steps of the moving train, swung her up to the steps like a bundle of rags, caught the rail by a miracle, and stood, grinning and triumphant, gazing down at the panting O'Malley, who was running alongside the train.
"Back in a week. Will you wait for us in New York?" called Emma, her breath coming fast. She was trembling, too, and laughing.
"Will I wait!" called back the puffing O'Malley, every bit of the Irish in him beaming from his eyes. "I'll be there when you get back as sure as your name's McBuck."
From his pocket he took a round, silver Western dollar and, still running, tossed it to the toothy Sam. That peerless porter caught it, twirled it, kissed it, bowed, and grinned afresh as the train glided out of the shed.
Emma, flushed, smiling, flew up the aisle.
Buck, listening to her laughing, triumphant account of her hairbreadth, harum-scarum adventure, frowned before he smiled.
"Emma, how could you do it! At least, why didn't you send back for me first?"
Emma smiled a little tremulously.
"Don't be angry. You see, dear boy, I've only been your wife for a week. But I've been Featherloom petticoats for over fifteen years. It's a habit."
Just how strong and fixed a habit, she proved to herself a little more than a week later. It was the morning of their first breakfast in the new apartment. You would have thought, to see them over their coffee and eggs and rolls, that they had been breakfasting together thus for years—Annie was so at home in her new kitchen; the deft little maid, in her crisp white, fitted so perfectly into the picture. Perhaps the thing that T. A. Buck said, once the maid left them alone, might have given an outsider the cue.
"You remind me of a sweetpea, Emma. One of those crisp, erect, golden-white, fresh, fragrant sweetpeas. I think it is the slenderest, sweetest, neatest, trimmest flower in the world, so delicately set on its stem, and yet so straight, so independent."
"T. A., you say such dear things to me!"
No; they had not been breakfasting together for years.
"I'm glad you're not one of those women that wears a frowsy, lacy, ribbony, what-do-you-call-'em-boudoir-cap—down to breakfast. They always make me think of uncombed hair. That's just one reason why I'm glad."
"And I'm glad," said Emma, looking at his clear eyes and steady hand and firm skin, "for a number of reasons. One of them is that you're not the sort of man who's a grouch at breakfast."
When he had hat and coat and stick in hand, and had kissed her good-by and reached the door and opened it, he came back again, as is the way of bridegrooms. But at last the door closed behind him.
Emma sat there a moment, listening to his quick, light step down the corridor, to the opening of the lift door, to its metallic closing. She sat there, in the sunshiny dining-room, in her fresh, white morning gown. She picked up her newspaper, opened it; scanned it, put it down. For years, now, she had read her newspaper in little gulps on the way downtown in crowded subway or street-car. She could not accustom herself to this leisurely scanning of the pages. She rose, went to the window, came back to the table, stood there a moment, her eyes fixed on something far away.
The swinging door between dining-room and butler's pantry opened. Annie, in her neat blue-and-white stripes, stood before her.
"Shall it be steak or chops to-night, Mrs. Mc—Buck?"
Emma turned her head in Annie's direction—then her eyes. The two actions were distinct and separate.
"Steak or——" There was a little bewildered look in her eyes.
Her mind had not yet focused on the question. "Steak—oh! Oh, yes, of course! Why—why, Annie"—and the splendid thousand-h.-p. mind brought itself down to the settling of this butter-churning, two-h.-p. question—"why, Annie, considering all things, I think we'll make it filet with mushrooms."