Emma McChesney & Co. by Edna Ferber
AN ETUDE FOR EMMA
If you listen long enough, and earnestly enough, and with ear sufficiently attuned to the music of this sphere there will come to you this reward: The violins and oboes and 'cellos and brasses of humanity which seemed all at variance with each other will unite as one instrument; seeming discords and dissonances will blend into harmony, and the wail and blare and thrum of humanity's orchestra will sound in your ear the sublime melody of that great symphony called Life.
In her sunny little private office on the twelfth floor of the great loft-building that housed the T. A. Buck Company, Emma McChesney Buck sat listening to the street-sounds that were wafted to her, mellowed by height and distance. The noises, taken separately, were the nerve-racking sounds common to a busy down-town New York cross-street. By the time they reached the little office on the twelfth floor, they were softened, mellowed, debrutalized, welded into a weird choirlike chant first high, then low, rising, swelling, dying away, rising again to a dull roar, with now and then vast undertones like the rumbling of a cathedral pipe-organ. Emma knew that the high, clear tenor note was the shrill cry of the lame "newsie" at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street. Those deep, thunderous bass notes were the combined reverberation of nearby "L" trains, distant subway and clanging surface cars. That sharp staccato was a motorman clanging his bell of warning. These things she knew. But she liked, nevertheless, to shut her eyes for a moment in the midst of her busy day and listen to the chant of the city as it came up to her, subdued, softened, strangely beautified. The sound saddened even while it filled her with a certain exaltation. We have no one word for that sensation. The German (there's a language!) has it—Weltschmerz.
As distance softened the harsh sounds to her ears, so time and experience had given her a perspective on life itself. She saw it, not as a series of incidents, pleasant and unpleasant, but as a great universal scheme too mighty to comprehend—a scheme that always worked itself out in some miraculous way.
She had had a singularly full life, had Emma McChesney Buck. A life replete with work, leavened by sorrows, sweetened with happiness. These ingredients make for tolerance. She saw, for example, how the capable, modern staff in the main business office had forged ahead of old Pop Henderson. Pop Henderson had been head bookkeeper for years. But the pen in his trembling hand made queer spidery marks in the ledgers now, and his figure seven was very likely to look like a drunken letter "z." The great bulk of his work was done by the capable, comely Miss Kelly who could juggle figures like a Cinquevalli. His shaking, blue-veined yellow hand was no match for Miss Kelly's cool, firm fingers. But he stayed on at Buck's, and no one dreamed of insulting him with talk of a pension, least of all Emma. She saw the work-worn pathetic old man not only as a figure but as a symbol.
Jock McChesney, very young, very handsome, very successful, coming on to New York from Chicago to be married in June, found his mother wrapped in this contemplative calm. Now, Emma McChesney Buck, mother of an about-to-be-married son, was also surprisingly young and astonishingly handsome and highly successful. Jock, in a lucid moment the day before his wedding, took occasion to comment rather resentfully on his mother's attitude.
"It seems to me," he said gloomily, "that for a mother whose only son is about to be handed over to what the writers call the other woman, you're pretty resigned, not to say cheerful."
Emma glanced up at him as he stood there, so tall and straight and altogether good to look at, and the glow of love and pride in her eyes belied the lightness of her words.
"I know it," she said, with mock seriousness, "and it worries me. I can't imagine why I fail to feel those pangs that mothers are supposed to suffer at this time. I ought to rend my garments and beat my breast, but I can't help thinking of what a stunning girl Grace Galt is, and what a brain she has, and how lucky you are to get her. Any girl—with the future that girl had in the advertising field—who'll give up four thousand a year and her independence to marry a man does it for love, let me tell you. If anybody knows you better than your mother, son, I'd hate to know who it is. And if anybody loves you more than your mother—well, we needn't go into that, because it would have to be hypothetical, anyway. You see, Jock, I've loved you so long and so well that I know your faults as well as your virtues; and I love you, not in spite of them but because of them.
"Oh, I don't know," interrupted Jock, with some warmth, "I'm not perfect, but a fellow——"
"Perfect! Jock McChesney, when I think of Grace's feelings when she discovers that you never close a closet door! When I contemplate her emotions on hearing your howl at finding one seed in your orange juice at breakfast! When she learns of your secret and unholy passion for neckties that have a dash of red in 'em, and how you have to be restrained by force from——"
With a simulated roar of rage, Jock McChesney fell upon his mother with a series of bear-hugs that left her flushed, panting, limp, but bright-eyed.
It was to her husband that Emma revealed the real source of her Spartan calm. The wedding was over. There had been a quiet little celebration, after which Jock McChesney had gone West with his very lovely young wife. Emma had kissed her very tenderly, very soberly after the brief ceremony. "Mrs. McChesney," she had said, and her voice shook ever so little; "Mrs. Jock McChesney!" And the new Mrs. McChesney, a most astonishingly intuitive young woman indeed, had understood.
T. A. Buck, being a man, puzzled over it a little. That night, when Emma had reached the kimono and hair-brushing stage, he ventured to speak his wonderment.
"D'you know, Emma, you were about the calmest and most serene mother that I ever did see at a son's wedding. Of course I didn't expect you to have hysterics, or anything like that. I've always said that, when it came to repose and self-control, you could make the German Empress look like a hoyden. But I always thought that, at such times, a mother viewed her new daughter-in-law as a rival, that the very sight of her filled her with a jealous rage like that of a tigress whose cub is taken from her. I must say you were so smiling and urbane that I thought it was almost uncomplimentary to the young couple. You didn't even weep, you unnatural woman!"
Emma, seated before her dressing-table, stopped brushing her hair and sat silent a moment, looking down with unseeing eyes at the brush in her hand.
"I know it, T. A. Would you like to have me tell you why?"
He came over to her then and ran a tender hand down the length of her bright hair. Then he kissed the top of her head. This satisfactory performance he capped by saying:
"I think I know why. It's because the minister hesitated a minute and looked from you to Grace and back again, not knowing which was the bride. The way you looked in that dress, Emma, was enough to reconcile any woman to losing her entire family."
"T. A., you do say the nicest things to me."
"Like 'em, Emma?"
"Like 'em? You know perfectly well that you never can offend me by making me compliments like that. I not only like them; I actually believe them!"
"That's because I mean them, Emma. Now, out with that reason!"
Emma stood up then and put her hands on his shoulders. But she was not looking at him. She was gazing past him, her eyes dreamy, contemplative.
"I don't know whether I'll be able to explain to you just how I feel about it. I'll probably make a mess of it. But I'll try. You see, dear, it's just this way: Two years ago—a year ago, even—I might have felt just that sensation of personal resentment and loss. But somehow, lately, I've been looking at life through—how shall I put it?—through seven-league glasses. I used to see life in its relation to me and mine. Now I see it in terms of my relation to it. Do you get me? I was the soloist, and the world my orchestral accompaniment. Lately, I've been content just to step back with the other instruments and let my little share go to make up a more perfect whole. In those years, long before I met you, when Jock was all I had in the world, I worked and fought and saved that he might have the proper start, the proper training, and environment. And I did succeed in giving him those things. Well, as I looked at him there to-day I saw him, not as my son, my property that was going out of my control into the hands of another woman, but as a link in the great chain that I had helped to forge—a link as strong and sound and perfect as I could make it. I saw him, not as my boy, Jock McChesney, but as a unit. When I am gone I shall still live in him, and he in turn will live in his children. There! I've muddled it—haven't I?—as I said I would. But I think"— And she looked into her husband's glowing eyes.—"No; I'm sure you understand. And when I die, T. A.——"
"You, Emma!" And he held her close, and then held her off to look at her through quizzical, appreciative eyes. "Why, girl, I can't imagine you doing anything so passive."
In the busy year that followed, anyone watching Emma McChesney Buck as she worked and played and constructed, and helped others to work and play and construct, would have agreed with T. A. Buck. She did not seem a woman who was looking at life objectively. As she went about her home in the evening, or the office, the workroom, or the showrooms during the day, adjusting this, arranging that, smoothing out snarls, solving problems of business or household, she was very much alive, very vital, very personal, very electric. In that year there came to her many letters from Jock and Grace—happy letters, all of them, some with an undertone of great seriousness, as is fitting when two people are readjusting their lives. Then, in spring, came the news of the baby. The telegram came to Emma as she sat in her office near the close of a busy day. As she read it and reread it, the slip of paper became a misty yellow with vague lines of blue dancing about on it; then it became a blur of nothing in particular, as Emma's tears fell on it in a little shower of joy and pride and wonder at the eternal miracle.
Then she dried her eyes, mopped the telegram and her lace jabot impartially, went across the hall and opened the door marked "T. A. BUCK."
T. A. looked up from his desk, smiled, held out a hand.
"Girl or boy?"
"Girl, of course," said Emma tremulously, "and her name is Emma McChesney."
T. A. stood up and put an arm about his wife's shoulders.
"Lean on me, grandma," he said.
"Fiend!" retorted Emma, and reread the telegram happily. She folded it then, with a pensive sigh, "I hope she'll look like Grace. But with Jock's eyes. They were wasted in a man. At any rate, she ought to be a raving, tearing beauty with that father and mother."
"What about her grandmother, when it comes to looks! Yes, and think of the brain she'll have," Buck reminded her excitedly. "Great Scott! With a grandmother who has made the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat a household word, and a mother who was the cleverest woman advertising copy-writer in New York, this young lady ought to be a composite Hetty Green, Madame de Stael, Hypatia, and Emma McChesney Buck. She'll be a lady wizard of finance or a——"
"She'll be nothing of the kind," Emma disputed calmly. "That child will be a throwback. The third generation generally is. With a militant mother and a grandmother such as that child has, she'll just naturally be a clinging vine. She'll be a reversion to type. She'll be the kind who'll make eyes and wear pale blue and be crazy about new embroidery-stitches. Just mark my words, T. A."
Buck had a brilliant idea.
"Why don't you pack a bag and run over to Chicago for a few days and see this marvel of the age?"
But Emma shook her head.
"Not now, T. A. Later. Let the delicate machinery of that new household adjust itself and begin to run smoothly and sweetly again. Anyone who might come in now—even Jock's mother—would be only an outsider."
So she waited very patiently and considerately. There was much to occupy her mind that spring. Business was unexpectedly and gratifyingly good. Then, too, one of their pet dreams was being realized; they were to have their own house in the country, at Westchester. Together they had pored over the plans. It was to be a house of wide, spacious verandas, of fireplaces, of bookshelves, of great, bright windows, and white enamel and cheerful chintz. By the end of May it was finished, furnished, and complete. At which a surprising thing happened; and yet, not so surprising. A demon of restlessness seized Emma McChesney Buck. It had been a busy, happy winter, filled with work. Now that it was finished, there came upon Emma and Buck that unconscious and quite natural irritation which follows a long winter spent together by two people, no matter how much in harmony. Emma pulled herself up now and then, horrified to find a rasping note of impatience in her voice. Buck found himself, once or twice, fairly caught in a little whirlpool of ill temper of his own making. These conditions they discovered almost simultaneously. And like the comrades they were, they talked it over and came to a sensible understanding.
"We're a bit ragged and saw-edged," said Emma. "We're getting on each other's nerves. What we need is a vacation from each other. This morning I found myself on the verge of snapping at you. At you! Imagine, T. A.!"
Whereupon Buck came forward with his confession.
"It's a couple of late cases of spring fever. You've been tied to this office all winter. So've I. We need a change. You've had too much petticoats, too much husband, too much cutting room and sales-room and rush orders and business generally. Too much Featherloom and not enough foolishness." He came over and put a gentle hand on his wife's shoulder, a thing strictly against the rules during business hours. And Emma not only permitted it but reached over and covered his hand with her own. "You're tired, and you're a wee bit nervous; so g'wan," said T. A., ever so gently, and kissed his wife, "g'wan; get out of here!"
And Emma got.
She went, not to the mountains or the seashore but with her face to the west. In her trunks were tiny garments—garments pink-ribboned, blue-ribboned, things embroidered and scalloped and hemstitched and hand-made and lacy. She went looking less grandmotherly than ever in her smart, blue tailor suit, her rakish hat, her quietly correct gloves, and slim shoes and softly becoming jabot. Her husband had got her a compartment, had laden her down with books, magazines, fruit, flowers, candy. Five minutes before the train pulled out, Emma looked about the little room and sighed, even while she smiled.
"You're an extravagant boy, T. A. I look as if I were equipped for a dash to the pole instead of an eighteen-hour run to Chicago. But I love you for it. I suppose I ought to be ashamed to confess how I like having a whole compartment just for myself. You see, a compartment always will spell luxury to me. There were all those years on the road, you know, when I often considered myself in luck to get an upper on a local of a branch line that threw you around in your berth like a bean in a tin can every time the engineer stopped or started."
Buck looked at his watch, then stooped in farewell. Quite suddenly they did not want to part. They had grown curiously used to each other, these two. Emma found herself clinging to this man with the tender eyes, and Buck held her close, regardless of train-schedules. Emma rushed him to the platform and watched him, wide-eyed, as he swung off the slowly moving train.
"Come on along!" she called, almost tearfully.
Buck looked up at her. At her trim, erect figure, at her clear youthful coloring, at the brightness of her eye.
"If you want to get a reputation for comedy," he laughed, "tell somebody on that train that you're going to visit your granddaughter."
Jock met her at the station in Chicago and drove her home in a very dapper and glittering black runabout.
"Grace wanted to come down," he explained, as they sped along, "but they're changing the baby's food or something, and she didn't want to leave. You know those nurses." Emma felt a curious little pang. This was her boy, her baby, talking about his baby and nurses. She had a sense of unreality. He turned to her with shining eyes. "That's a stunning get-up, Blonde. Honestly, you're a wiz, mother. Grace has told all her friends that you're coming, and their mothers are going to call. But, good Lord, you look like my younger sister, on the square you do!"
The apartment reached, it seemed to Emma that she floated across the walk and up the stairs, so eagerly did her heart cry out for a glimpse of this little being who was flesh of her flesh. Grace, a little pale but more beautiful than ever, met them at the door. Her arms went about Emma's neck. Then she stood her handsome mother-in-law off and gazed at her.
"You wonder! How lovely you look! Good heavens, are they wearing that kind of hat in New York! And those collars! I haven't seen a thing like 'em here. 'East is east and West is west and——'"
"Where's that child?" demanded Emma McChesney Buck. "Where's my baby?"
"Sh-sh-sh-sh!" came in a sibilant duet from Grace and Jock. "Not now. She's sleeping. We were up with her for three hours last night. It was the new food. She's not used to it yet."
"But, you foolish children, can't I peek at her?"
"Oh, dear, no!" said Grace hastily. "We never go into her room when she's asleep. This is your room, mother dear. And just as soon as she wakes up—this is your bath—you'll want to freshen up. Dear me; who could have hung the baby's little shirt here? The nurse, I suppose. If I don't attend to every little thing——"
Emma took off her hat and smoothed her hair with light, deft fingers. She turned a smiling face toward Jock and Grace standing there in the doorway.
"Now don't bother, dear. If you knew how I love having that little shirt to look at! And I've such things in my trunk! Wait till you see them."
So she possessed her soul in patience for one hour, two hours. At the end of the second hour, a little wail went up. Grace vanished down the hall. Emma, her heart beating very fast, followed her. A moment later she was bending over a very pink morsel with very blue eyes and she was saying, over and over in a rapture of delightful idiocy:
"Say hello to your gran-muzzer, yes her is! Say, hello, granny!" And her longing arms reached down to take up her namesake.
"Not now!" Grace said hastily. "We never play with her just before feeding-time. We find that it excites her, and that's bad for her digestion."
"Dear me!" marveled Emma. "I don't remember worrying about Jock's digestion when he was two and a half months old!"
It was thus that Emma McChesney Buck, for many years accustomed to leadership, learned to follow humbly and in silence. She had always been the orbit about which her world revolved. Years of brilliant success, of triumphant execution, had not spoiled her, or made her offensively dictatorial. But they had taught her a certain self-confidence; had accustomed her to a degree of deference from others. Now she was the humblest of the satellites revolving about this sun of the household. She learned to tiptoe when small Emma McChesney was sleeping. She learned that the modern mother does not approve of the holding of a child in one's arms, no matter how those arms might be aching to feel the frail weight of the soft, sweet body. She who had brought a child into the world, who had had to train that child alone, had raised him single-handed, had educated him, denied herself for him, made a man of him, now found herself all ignorant of twentieth century child-raising methods. She learned strange things about barley-water and formulae and units and olive oil, and orange juice and ounces and farina, and bath-thermometers and blue-and-white striped nurses who view grandmothers with a coldly disapproving and pitying eye.
She watched the bathing-process for the first time with wonder as frank as it was unfeigned.
"And I thought I was a modern woman!" she marveled. "When I used to bathe Jock I tested the temperature of the water with my elbow; and I know my mother used to test my bath-water when I was a baby by putting me into it. She used to say that if I turned blue she knew the water was too cold, and if I turned red she knew it was too hot."
"Humph!" snorted the blue-and-white striped nurse, and rightly.
"Oh, I don't say that your method isn't the proper one," Emma hastened to say humbly, and watched Grace scrutinize the bath-thermometer with critical eye.
In the days that followed, there came calling the mothers of Grace's young-women friends, as Jock had predicted. Charming elderly women, most of them, all of them gracious and friendly with that generous friendliness which is of the West. But each fell into one of two classes—the placid, black-silk, rather vague woman of middle age, whose face has the blank look of the sheltered woman and who wrinkles early from sheer lack of sufficient activity or vital interest in life; and the wiry, well-dressed, assertive type who talked about her club work and her charities, her voice always taking the rising inflection at the end of a sentence, as though addressing a meeting. When they met Emma, it was always with a little startled look of surprise, followed by something that bordered on disapproval. Emma, the keenly observant, watching them, felt vaguely uncomfortable. She tried to be politely interested in what they had to say, but she found her thoughts straying a thousand miles away to the man whom she loved and who loved her, to the big, busy factory with its humming machinery and its capable office staff, to the tasteful, comfortable, spacious house that she had helped to plan; to all the vital absorbing, fascinating and constructive interests with which her busy New York life was filled to overflowing.
So she looked smilingly at the plump, gray-haired ladies who came a-calling in their smart black with the softening lace-effect at the throat, and they looked, smiling politely, too, at this slim, erect, pink-cheeked, bright-eyed woman with the shining golden hair and the firm, smooth skin, and the alert manner; and in their eyes was that distrust which lurks in the eyes of a woman as she looks at another woman of her own age who doesn't show it.
In the weeks of her stay, Emma managed, little by little, to take the place of second mother in the household. She had tact and finesse and cleverness enough even for that herculean feat. Grace's pale cheeks and last year's wardrobe made her firm in her stand.
"Grace," she said, one day, "listen to me: I want you to get some clothes—a lot of them, and foolish ones, all of them. Babies are all very well, but husbands have some slight right to consideration. The clock, for you, is an instrument devised to cut up the day and night into your baby's eating- and sleeping-periods. I want you to get some floppy hats with roses on 'em, and dresses with ruffles and sashes. I'll stay home and guard your child from vandals and ogres. Scat!"
Her stay lengthened to four weeks, five weeks, six. She had the satisfaction of seeing the roses blooming in Grace's cheeks as well as in her hats. She learned to efface her own personality that others might shine who had a better right. And she lost some of her own bright color, a measure of her own buoyancy. In the sixth week she saw, in her mirror, something that caused her to lean forward, to stare for one intent moment, then to shrink back, wide-eyed. A little sunburst, hair-fine but undeniable, was etched delicately about the corners of her eyes. Fifteen minutes later, she had wired New York thus:
Home Friday. Do you still love me? EMMA.
When she left, little Emma McChesney was sleeping, by a curious coincidence, as she had been when Emma arrived, so that she could not have the satisfaction of a last pressure of the lips against the rose-petal cheek. She had to content herself with listening close to the door in the vain hope of catching a last sound of the child's breathing.
She was laden with fruits and flowers and magazines on her departure, as she had been when she left New York. But, somehow, these things did not seem to interest her. After the train had left Chicago's smoky buildings far behind, she sat very still for a long time, her eyes shut. She told herself that she felt and looked very old, very tired, very unlike the Emma McChesney Buck who had left New York a few weeks before. Then she thought of T. A., and her eyes unclosed and she smiled. By the time the train had reached Cleveland the little lines seemed miraculously to have disappeared, somehow, from about her eyes. When they left the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street station she was a creature transformed. And when the train rolled into the great down-town shed, Emma was herself again, bright-eyed, alert, vibrating energy.
There was no searching, no hesitation. Her eyes met his, and his eyes found hers with a quite natural magnetism.
"Oh, T. A., my dear, my dear! I didn't know you were so handsome! And how beautiful New York is! Tell me: Have I grown old? Have I?"
T. A. bundled her into a taxi and gazed at her in some alarm.
"You! Old! What put that nonsense into your head? You're tired, dear. We'll go home, and you'll have a good rest, and a quiet evening——"
"Rest!" echoed Emma, and sat up very straight, her cheeks pink. "Quiet evening! T. A. Buck, listen to me. I've had nothing but rest and quiet evenings for six weeks. I feel a million years old. One more day of being a grandmother and I should have died! Do you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to stop at Fifth Avenue this minute and buy a hat that's a thousand times too young for me, and you're going with me to tell me that it isn't. And then you'll take me somewhere to dinner—a place with music and pink shades. And then I want to see a wicked play, preferably with a runway through the center aisle for the chorus.
And then I want to go somewhere and dance! Get that, dear? Dance! Tell me, T. A.—tell me the truth: Do you think I'm old, and faded, and wistful and grandmotherly?"
"I think," said T. A. Buck, "that you're the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the most adorable woman in the world, and the more foolish your new hat is and the later we dance the better I'll like it. It has been awful without you, Emma."
Emma closed her eyes and there came from the depths of her heart a great sigh of relief, and comfort and gratification.
"Oh, T. A., my dear, it's all very well to drown your identity in the music of the orchestra, but there's nothing equal to the soul-filling satisfaction that you get in solo work."