Knee-Deep In Knickers by Edna Ferber

Story type: Literature

When the column of figures under the heading known as “Profits,” and the column of figures under the heading known as “Loss” are so unevenly balanced that the wrong side of the ledger sags, then to the listening stockholders there comes the painful thought that at the next regular meeting it is perilously possible that the reading may come under the heads of Assets and Liabilities.

There had been a meeting in the offices of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company, New York. The quarterly report had had a startlingly lop-sided sound. After it was over Mrs. Emma McChesney, secretary of the company, followed T. A. Buck, its president, into the big, bright show-room. T. A. Buck’s hands were thrust deep into his pockets. His teeth worried a cigar, savagely. Care, that clawing, mouthing hag, perched on his brow, tore at his heart.

He turned to face Emma McChesney.

“Well,” he said, bitterly, “it hasn’t taken us long, has it? Father’s been dead a little over a year. In that time we’ve just about run this great concern, the pride of his life, into the ground.”

Mrs. Emma McChesney, calm, cool, unruffled, scrutinized the harassed man before her for a long minute.

“What rotten football material you would have made, wouldn’t you?” she observed.

“Oh, I don’t know,” answered T. A. Buck, through his teeth. “I can stand as stiff a scrimmage as the next one. But this isn’t a game. You take things too lightly. You’re a woman. I don’t think you know what this means.”

Emma McChesney’s lips opened as do those of one whose tongue’s end holds a quick and stinging retort. Then they closed again. She walked over to the big window that faced the street. When she had stood there a moment, silent, she swung around and came back to where T. A. Buck stood, still wrapped in gloom.

“Maybe I don’t take myself seriously. I’d have been dead ten years ago if I had. But I do take my job seriously. Don’t forget that for a minute. You talk the way a man always talks when his pride is hurt.”

“Pride! It isn’t that.”

“Oh, yes, it is. I didn’t sell T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats on the road for almost ten years without learning a little something about men and business. When your father died, and I learned that he had shown his appreciation of my work and loyalty by making me secretary of this great company, I didn’t think of it as a legacy–a stroke of good fortune.”

“No?”

“No. To me it was a sacred trust–something to be guarded, nursed, cherished. And now you say we’ve run this concern into the ground. Do you honestly think that?”

T. A. shrugged impotent shoulders. “Figures don’t lie.” He plunged into another fathom of gloom. “Another year like this and we’re done for.”

Emma McChesney came over and put one firm hand on T. A. Buck’s drooping shoulder. It was a strange little act for a woman–the sort of thing a man does when he would hearten another man.

“Wake up!” she said, lightly. “Wake up, and listen to the birdies sing. There isn’t going to be another year like this. Not if the planning, and scheming, and brain-racking that I’ve been doing for the last two or three months mean anything.”

T. A. Buck seated himself as one who is weary, body and mind.

“Got another new one?”

Emma McChesney regarded him a moment thoughtfully. Then she stepped to the tall show-case, pushed back the sliding glass door, and pointed to the rows of brilliant-hued petticoats that hung close-packed within.

“Look at ’em!” she commanded, disgust in her voice. “Look at ’em!”

T. A. Buck raised heavy, lack-luster eyes and looked. What he saw did not seem to interest him. Emma McChesney drew from the rack a skirt of king’s blue satin messaline and held it at arm’s length.

“And they call that thing a petticoat! Why, fifteen years ago the material in this skirt wouldn’t have made even a fair-sized sleeve.”

T. A. Buck regarded the petticoat moodily. “I don’t see how they get around in the darned things. I honestly don’t see how they wear ’em.”

“That’s just it. They don’t wear ’em. There you have the root of the whole trouble.”

“Oh, nonsense!” disputed T. A. “They certainly wear something–some sort of an–“

“I tell you they don’t. Here. Listen. Three years ago our taffeta skirts ran from thirty-six to thirty-eight yards to the dozen. We paid from ninety cents to one dollar five a yard. Now our skirts run from twenty-five to twenty-eight yards to the dozen. The silk costs us from fifty to sixty cents a yard. Silk skirts used to be a luxury. Now they’re not even a necessity.”

“Well, what’s the answer? I’ve been pondering some petticoat problems myself. I know we’ve got to sell three skirts to-day to make the profit that we used to make on one three years ago.”

Emma McChesney had the brave-heartedness to laugh. “This skirt business reminds me of a game we used to play when I was a kid. We called it Going to Jerusalem, I think. Anyway, I know each child sat in a chair except the one who was It. At a signal everybody had to get up and change chairs. There was a wild scramble, in which the one who was It took part. When the burly-burly was over some child was always chairless, of course. He had to be It. That’s the skirt business to- day. There aren’t enough chairs to go round, and in the scramble somebody’s got to be left out. And let me tell you, here and now, that the firm of T. A. Buck, Featherloom Petticoats, is not going to be It.”

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T. A. rose as wearily as he had sat down. Even the most optimistic of watchers could have discerned no gleam of enthusiasm on his face.

“I thought,” he said listlessly, “that you and I had tried every possible scheme to stimulate the skirt trade.”

“Every possible one, yes,” agreed Mrs. McChesney, sweetly. “And now it’s time to try the impossible. The possibilities haven’t worked. My land! I could write a book on the Decline and Fall of the Petticoat, beginning with the billowy white muslin variety, and working up to the present slinky messaline affair. When I think of those dear dead days of the glorious–er–past, when the hired girl used to complain and threaten to leave because every woman in the family had at least three ruffled, embroidery-flounced white muslin petticoats on the line on Mondays–“

The lines about T. A. Buck’s mouth relaxed into a grim smile.

“Remember that feature you got them to run in the Sunday Sphere? The one headed ‘Are Skirts Growing Fuller, and Where?’”

“Do I remember it!” wailed Emma McChesney. “And can I ever forget the money we put into that fringed model we called the Carmencita! We made it up so it could retail for a dollar ninety-five, and I could have sworn that the women would maim each other to get to it. But it didn’t go. They won’t even wear fringe around their ankles.”

T. A.’s grim smile stretched into a reminiscent grin. “But nothing in our whole hopeless campaign could touch your Municipal Purity League agitation for the abolition of the form-hugging skirt. You talked public morals until you had A. Comstock and Lucy Page Gaston looking like Parisian Apaches.”

A little laugh rippled up to Emma McChesney’s lips, only to die away to a sigh. She shook her head in sorrowful remembrance.

“Yes. But what good did it do? The newspapers and magazines did take it up, but what happened? The dressmakers and tailors, who are charging more than ever for their work, and putting in half as much material, got together and knocked my plans into a cocked hat. In answer to those snap-shots showing what took place every time a woman climbed a car step, they came back with pictures of the styles of ’61, proving that the street-car effect is nothing to what happened to a belle of ’61 if she chanced to sit down or get up too suddenly in the hoop-skirt days.”

They were both laughing now, like a couple of children. “And, oh, say!” gasped Emma, “remember Moe Selig, of the Fine-Form Skirt Company, trying to get the doctors to state that hobble skirts were making women knock-kneed! Oh, mercy!”

But
their laugh ended in a little rueful silence. It was no laughing matter, this situation. T. A. Buck shrugged his shoulders, and began a restless pacing up and down. “Yep. There you are. Meanwhile–“

“Meanwhile, women are still wearing ’em tight, and going petticoatless.”

Suddenly T. A. stopped short in his pacing and fastened his surprised and interested gaze on the skirt of the trim and correct little business frock that sat so well upon Emma McChesney’s pretty figure.

“Why, look at that!” he exclaimed, and pointed with one eager finger.

“Mercy!” screamed Emma McChesney. “What is it? Quick! A mouse?”

T. A. Buck shook his head, impatiently. “Mouse! Lord, no! Plaits!”

“Plaits!”

She looked down, bewildered.

“Yes. In. your skirt. Three plaits at the front-left, and three in the back. That’s new, isn’t it? If outer skirts are being made fuller, then it follows–“

“It ought to follow,” interrupted Emma McChesney, “but it doesn’t. It lags way behind. These plaits are stitched down. See? That’s the fiendishness of it. And the petticoat underneath–if there is one– must be just as smooth, and unwrinkled, and scant as ever. Don’t let ’em fool you.”

Buck spread his palms with a little gesture of utter futility.

“I’m through. Out with your scheme. We’re ready for it. It’s our last card, whatever it is.”

There was visible on Emma McChesney’s face that little tightening of the muscles, that narrowing of the eyelids which betokens intense earnestness; the gathering of all the forces before taking a momentous step. Then, as quickly, her face cleared. She shook her head with a little air of sudden decision.

“Not now. Just because it’s our last card I want to be sure that I’m playing it well. I’ll be ready for you to-morrow morning in my office. Come prepared for the jolt of your young life.”

For the first time since the beginning of the conversation a glow of new courage and hope lighted up T. A. Buck’s good-looking features. His fine eyes rested admiringly upon Emma McChesney standing there by the great show-case. She seemed to radiate energy. alertness, confidence.

“When you begin to talk like that,” he said, “I always feel as though I could take hold in a way to make those famous jobs that Hercules tackled look like little Willie’s chores after school.”

“Fine!” beamed Emma McChesney. “Just store that up, will you? And don’t let it filter out at your finger-tips when I begin to talk to- morrow.”

“We’ll have lunch together, eh? And talk it over then sociably.”

Mrs. McChesney closed the glass door of the case with a bang.

“No, thanks. My office at 9:30.”

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T. A. Buck followed her to the door. “But why not lunch? You never will take lunch with me. Ever so much more comfortable to talk things over that way–“

“When I talk business,” said Emma McChesney, pausing at the threshold, “I want to be surrounded by a business atmosphere. I want the scene all set–one practical desk, two practical chairs, one telephone, one letter-basket, one self-filling fountain-pen, et cetera. And when I lunch I want to lunch, with nothing weightier on my mind than the question as to whether I’ll have chicken livers saute or creamed sweetbreads with mushrooms.”

“That’s no reason,” grumbled T. A. “That’s an excuse.”

“It will have to do, though,” replied Mrs. McChesney abruptly, and passed out as he held the door open for her. He was still standing in the doorway after her trim, erect figure had disappeared into the little office across the hail.

The little scarlet leather clock on Emma McChesney’s desk pointed to 9:29 A.M. when there entered her office an immaculately garbed, miraculously shaven, healthily rosy youngish-middle-aged man who looked ten years younger than the harassed, frowning T. A. Buck with whom she had almost quarreled the evening before. Mrs. McChesney was busily dictating to a sleek little stenographer. The sleek little stenographer glanced up at T. A. Buck’s entrance. The glance, being a feminine one, embraced all of T. A.’s good points and approved them from the tips of his modish boots to the crown of his slightly bald head, and including the creamy-white flower that reposed in his buttonhole.

“‘Morning!” said Emma McChesney, looking up briefly. “Be with you in a minute. …and in reply would say we regret that you have had trouble with No. 339. It is impossible to avoid pulling at the seams in the lower-grade silk skirts when they are made up in the present scant style. Our Mr. Spalding warned you of this at the time of your purchase. We will not under any circumstances consent to receive the goods if they are sent back on our hands. Yours sincerely. That’ll be all, Miss Casey.”

She swung around to face her visitor as the door closed. If T. A. Buck looked ten years younger than he had the afternoon before, Emma McChesney undoubtedly looked five years older. There were little, worried, sagging lines about her eyes and mouth.

T. A. Buck’s eyes had followed the sheaf of signed correspondence, and the well-filled pad of more recent dictation which the sleek little stenographer had carried away with her.

“Good Lord! It looks as though you had stayed down here all night.”

Emma McChesney smiled a little wearily. “Not quite that. But I was here this morning in time to greet the night watchman. Wanted to get my mail out of the way.” Her eyes searched T. A. Buck’s serene face. Then she leaned forward, earnestly.

“Haven’t you seen the morning paper?”

“Just a mere glance at ’em. Picked up Burrows on the way down, and we got to talking. Why?”

“The Rasmussen-Welsh Skirt Company has failed. Liabilities three hundred thousand. Assets one hundred thousand.”

“Failed! Good God!” All the rosy color, all the brisk morning freshness had vanished from his face. “Failed! Why, girl, I thought that concern was as solid as Gibraltar.” He passed a worried hand over his head. “That knocks the wind out of my sails.”

“Don’t let it. Just say that it fills them with a new breeze. I’m all the more sure that the time is ripe for my plan.”

T. A. Buck took from a vest pocket a scrap of paper and a fountain pen, slid down in his chair, crossed his legs, and began to scrawl meaningless twists and curlycues, as was his wont when worried or deeply interested.

“Are you as sure of this scheme of yours as you were yesterday?”

“Sure,” replied Emma McChesney, briskly. Sartin-sure.”

“Then fire away.”

Mrs. McChesney leaned forward, breathing a trifle fast. Her eyes were fastened on her listener.

“Here’s the plan. We’ll make Featherloom Petticoats because there still are some women who have kept their senses. But we’ll make them as a side line. The thing that has got to keep us afloat until full skirts come in again will be a full and complete line of women’s satin messaline knickerbockers made up to match any suit or gown, and a full line of pajamas for women and girls. Get the idea? Scant, smart, trim little taupe-gray messaline knickers for a taupe gray suit, blue messaline for blue suits, brown messaline for brown–“

T. A. Buck stared, open-mouthed, the paper on which he had been scrawling fluttering unnoticed to the floor.

“Look here!” he interrupted. “Is this supposed to be humorous?”

“And,” went on Emma McChesney, calmly, “in our full and complete, not to say nifty line of women’s pajamas–pink pajamas, blue pajamas, violet pajamas, yellow pajamas, white silk–“

T. A. Buck stood up. “I want to say,” he began, “that if you are jesting, I think this is a mighty poor time to joke. And if you are serious I can only deduce from it that this year of business worry and responsibility has been too much for you. I’m sure that if you were–“

“That’s all right,” interrupted Emma McChesney. “Don’t apologize. I purposely broke it to you this way, when I might have approached it gently. You’ve done just what I knew you’d do, so it’s all right. After you’ve thought it over, and sort of got chummy with the idea, you
‘ll be just as keen on it as I am.”

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“Never!”

“Oh, yes, you will. It’s the knickerbocker end of it that scares you. Nothing new or startling about pajamas, except that more and more women are wearing ’em, and that no girl would dream of going away to school without her six sets of pajamas. Why, a girl in a regulation nightie at one of their midnight spreads would be ostracized. Of course I’ve thought up a couple of new kinks in ’em–new ways of cutting and all that, and there’s one model–a washable crepe, for traveling, that doesn’t need to be pressed–but I’ll talk about that later.”

T. A. Buck was trying to put in a word of objection, but she would have none of it. But at Emma McChesney’s next words his indignation would brook no barriers.

“Now,” she went on, “the feature of the knickerbockers will be this: They’ve got to be ready for the boys’ spring trip, and in all the larger cities, especially in the hustling Middle-Western towns, and along the coast, too, I’m planning to have the knickerbockers introduced at private and exclusive exhibitions, and worn by–get this, please–worn by living models. One big store in each town, see? Half a dozen good-looking girls–“

“Never!” shouted T. A. Buck, white and shaking. “Never! This firm has always had a name for dignity, solidness, conservatism–“

“Then it’s just about time it lost that reputation. It’s all very well to hang on to your dignity when you’re on solid ground, but when you feel things slipping from under you the thing to do is to grab on to anything that’ll keep you on your feet for a while at least. I tell you the women will go wild over this knickerbocker idea. They’ve been waiting for it.”

“It’s a wild-cat scheme,” disputed Buck hotly. “It’s a drowning man’s straw, and just about as helpful. I’m a reasonable man–“

“All unreasonable men say that,” smiled Emma McChesney.

“–I’m a reasonable man, I say. And heaven knows I have the interest of this firm at heart. But this is going too far. If we’re going to smash we’ll go decently, and with our name untarnished. Pajamas are bad enough. But when it comes to the firm of T. A. Buck being represented by–by–living model hussies stalking about in satin tights like chorus girls, why–“

In Emma McChesney’s alert, electric mind there leapt about a dozen plans for winning this man over. For win him she would, in the end. It was merely a question of method. She chose the simplest. There was a set look about her jaw. Her eyes flashed. Two spots of carmine glowed in her cheeks.

“I expected just this,” she said. “And I prepared for it.” She crossed swiftly to her desk, opened a drawer, and took out a flat package. “I expected opposition. That’s why I had these samples made up to show you. I designed them myself, and tore up fifty patterns before I struck one that suited me. Here are the pajamas.”

She lifted out a dainty, shell-pink garment, and shook it out before the half-interested, half-unwilling eyes of T. A. Buck.

“This is the jacket. Buttons on the left; see? Instead of the right, as it would in a man’s garment. Semi-sailor collar, with knotted soft silk scarf. Oh, it’s just a little kink, but they’ll love it. They’re actually becoming. I’ve tried ’em. Notice the frogs and cord. Pretty neat, yes? Slight flare at the hips. Makes ’em set and hang right. Perfectly straight, like a man’s coat.”

T. A. Buck eyed the garments with a grudging admiration.

“Oh, that part of it don’t sound so unreasonable, although I don’t believe there is much of a demand for that kind of thing. But the other—the–the knickerbocker things–that’s not even practical. It will make an ugly garment, and the women who would fall for a fad like that wouldn’t be of the sort to wear an ugly piece of lingerie. It isn’t to be thought of seriously–“

Emma McChesney stepped to the door of the tiny wash-room off her office and threw it open.

“Miss La Noyes! We’re ready for you.”

And there emerged from the inner room a trim, lithe, almost boyishly slim figure attired in a bewitchingly skittish-looking garment consisting of knickerbockers and snug brassiere of king’s blue satin messaline. Dainty black silk stockings and tiny buckled slippers set off the whole effect.

“Miss La Noyes,” said Emma McChesney, almost solemnly, “this is Mr. T. A. Buck, president of the firm. Miss La Noyes, of the ‘Gay Social Whirl’ company.”

Miss La Noyes bowed slightly and rested one white hand at her side in an attitude of nonchalant ease.

“Pleased, I’m shaw!” she said, in a clear, high voice.

And, “Charmed,” replied T. A. Buck, his years and breeding standing him in good stead now.

Emma McChesney laid a kindly hand on the girl’s shoulder. “Turn slowly, please. Observe the absence of unnecessary fulness about the hips, or at the knees. No wrinkles to show there. No man will ever appreciate the fine points of this little garment, but the women!–To the left, Miss La Noyes. You’ll see it fastens snug and trim with a tiny clasp just below the knees. This garment has the added attraction of being fastened to the upper garment, a tight satin brassiere. The single, unattached garment is just as satisfactory, however. Women are wearing plush this year. Not only for the street, but for evening dresses. I rather think they’ll fancy a snappy little pair of yellow satin knickers under a gown of the new orange plush. Or a taupe pair, under a gray street suit. Or a natty little pair of black satin, finished and piped in white satin, to be worn with a black and white shopping costume. Why, I haven’t worn a petticoat since I–“

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“Do you mean to tell me,” burst from the long-pent T. A. Buck, “that you wear ’em too?”

“Crazy about ’em. Miss La Noyes, will you just slip on your street skirt, please?”

She waited in silence until the demure Miss La Noyes reappeared. A narrow, straight-hanging, wrinkleless cloth skirt covered the much discussed under-garment. “Turn slowly, please. Thanks. You see, Mr. Buck? Not a wrinkle. No bunchiness. No lumps. No crawling up about the knees. Nothing but ease, and comfort, and trim good looks.”

T. A. Buck passed his hand over his head in a dazed, helpless gesture. There was something pathetic in his utter bewilderment and helplessness in contrast with Emma McChesney’s breezy self-confidence, and the show-girl’s cool poise and unconcern.

“Wait a minute,” he murmured, almost pleadingly. “Let me ask a couple of questions, will you?”

“Questions? A hundred. That proves you’re interested.”

“Well, then, let me ask this young lady the first one. Miss–er–La Noyes, do you honestly and truly like this garment? Would you buy one if you saw it in a shop window?”

Miss La Noyes’ answer came trippingly and without hesitation. She did not even have to feel of her back hair first.

“Say, I’d go without my lunch for a week to get it. Mrs. McChesney says I can have this pair. I can’t wait till our prima donna sees ’em. She’ll hate me till she’s got a dozen like ’em.”

“Next!” urged Mrs. McChesney, pleasantly.

But T. A. Buck shook his head. “That’s all. Only–“

Emma McChesney patted Miss La Noyes lightly on the shoulder, and smiled dazzlingly upon her. “Run along, little girl. You’ve done beautifully. And many thanks.”

Miss La Noyes, appearing in another moment dressed for the street, stopped at the door to bestow a frankly admiring smile upon the abstracted president of the company, and a grateful one upon its pink- cheeked secretary.

“Hope you’ll come and see our show some evening. You won’t know me at first, because I wear a blond wig in the first scene. Third from the left, front row.” And to Mrs. McChesney: “I cer’nly did hate to get up so early this morning, but after you’re up it ain’t so fierce. And it cer’nly was easy money. Thanks.”

Emma McChesney glanced quickly at T. A., saw that he was pliant enough for the molding process, and deftly began to shape, and bend, and smooth and pat.

“Let’s sit down, and unravel the kinks in our ne
rves. Now, if you do favor this new plan–oh, I mean after you’ve given it consideration, and all that! Yes, indeed. But if you do, I think it would be good policy to start the game in–say–Cleveland. The Kaufman-Oster Company of Cleveland have a big, snappy, up-to-the-minute store. We’ll get them to send out announcement cards. Something neat and flattering- looking. See? Little stage all framed up. Scene set to show a bedroom or boudoir. Then, thin girls, plump girls, short girls, high girls. They’ll go through all the paces. We won’t only show the knickerbockers: we demonstrate how the ordinary petticoat bunches and crawls up under the heavy plush and velvet top skirt. We’ll show ’em in street clothes, evening clothes, afternoon frocks. Each one in a different shade of satin knicker. And silk stockings and cunning little slippers to match. The store will stand for that. It’s a big ad for them, too.”

Emma McChesney’s hair was slightly tousled. Her cheeks were carmine. Her eyes glowed.

“Don’t you see! Don’t you get it! Can’t you feel how the thing’s going to take hold?”

“By Gad!” burst from T. A. Buck, “I’m darned if I don’t believe you’re right–almost–But are you sure that you believe–“

Emma McChesney brought one little white fist down into the palm of the other hand. “Sure? Why, I’m so sure that when I shut my eyes I can see T. A. Senior sitting over there in that chair, tapping the side of his nose with the edge of his tortoise-shell-rimmed glasses, and nodding his head, with his features all screwed up like a blessed old gargoyle, the way he always did when something tickled him. That’s how sure I am.”

T. A. Buck stood up abruptly. He shrugged his shoulders. His face looked strangely white and drawn. “I’ll leave it to you. I’ll do my share of the work. But I’m not more than half convinced, remember.”

“That’s enough for the present,” answered Emma McChesney, briskly. “Well, now, suppose we talk machinery and girls, and cutters for a while.”

Two months later found T. A. Buck and his sales-manager, both shirt- sleeved, both smoking nervously, as they marked, ticketed, folded, arranged. They were getting out the travelers’ spring lines. Entered Mrs. McChesney, and stood eying them, worriedly. It was her dozenth visit to the stock-room that morning. A strange restlessness seemed to trouble her. She wandered from office to show-room, from show-room to factory.

“What’s the trouble?” inquired T. A. Buck, squinting up at her through a cloud of cigar smoke.

“Oh, nothing,” answered Mrs. McChesney, and stood fingering the piles of glistening satin garments, a queer, faraway look in her eyes. Then she turned and walked listlessly toward the door. There she encountered Spalding–Billy Spalding, of the coveted Middle-Western territory, Billy Spalding, the long-headed, quick-thinking; Spalding, the persuasive, Spalding the mixer, Spalding on whom depended the fate of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Knickerbocker and Pajama.

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“‘Morning! When do you start out?” she asked him.

“In the morning. Gad, that’s some line, what? I’m itching to spread it. You’re certainly a wonder-child, Mrs. McChesney. Why, the boys–“

Emma McChesney sighed, somberly. “That line does sort of–well, tug at your heart-strings, doesn’t it?” She smiled, almost wistfully. “Say, Billy, when you reach the Eagle House at Waterloo, tell Annie, the head-waitress to rustle you a couple of Mrs. Traudt’s dill pickles. Tell her Mrs. McChesney asked you to. Mrs. Traudt, the proprietor’s wife, doles ’em out to her favorites. They’re crisp, you know, and firm, and juicy, and cold, and briny.”

Spalding drew a sibilant breath. “I’ll be there!” he grinned. “I’ll be there!”

But he wasn’t. At eight the next morning there burst upon Mrs. McChesney a distraught T. A. Buck.

“Hear about Spalding?” he demanded.

“Spalding? No.”

“His wife ‘phoned from St. Luke’s. Taken with an appendicitis attack at midnight. They operated at five this morning. One of those had-it- been-twenty-four-hours-later-etc. operations. That settles us.”

“Poor kid,” replied Emma McChesney. “Rough on him and his brand-new wife.”

“Poor kid! Yes. But how about his territory? How about our new line? How about–“

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Emma McChesney, cheerfully.

“I’d like to know how! We haven’t a man equal to the territory. He’s our one best bet.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” said Mrs. McChesney again, smoothly.

A little impatient exclamation broke from T. A. Buck. At that Emma McChesney smiled. Her new listlessness and abstraction seemed to drop from her. She braced her shoulders, and smiled her old sunny, heartening smile.

“I’m going out with that line. I’m going to leave a trail of pajamas and knickerbockers from Duluth to Canton.”

“You! No, you won’t!” A dull, painful red had swept into T. A. Buck’s face. It was answered by a flood of scarlet in Mrs. McChesney’s countenance.

“I don’t get you,” she said. “I’m afraid you don’t realize what this trip means. It’s going to be a fight. They’ll have to be coaxed and bullied and cajoled, and reasoned with. It’s going to be a ‘show-me’ trip.”

T. A. Buck took a quick step forward. “That’s just why. I won’t have you fighting with buyers, taking their insults, kowtowing to them, salving them. It–it isn’t woman’s work.”

Emma McChesney was sorting the contents of her desk with quick, nervous fingers. “I’ll. get the Twentieth Century,” she said, over her shoulder. “Don’t argue, please. If it’s no work for a woman then I suppose it follows that I’m unwomanly. For ten years I traveled this country selling T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats. My first trip on the road I was in the twenties–and pretty, too. I’m a woman of thirty-seven now. I’ll never forget that first trip–the heartbreaks, the insults I endured, the disappointments, the humiliation, until they understood that I meant business–strictly business. I’m tired of hearing you men say that this and that and the other isn’t woman’s work. Any work is woman’s work that a woman can do well. I’ve given the ten best years of my life to this firm. Next to my boy at school it’s the biggest thing in my life. Sometimes it swamps even him. Don’t come to me with that sort of talk.” She was locking drawers, searching pigeon-holes, skimming files. “This is my busy day.” She arose, and shut her desk with a bang, locked it, and turned a flushed and beaming face toward T. A. Buck, as he stood frowning before her.

“Your father believed in me–from the ground up. We understood each other, he and I. You’ve learned a lot in the last year and a half, T. A. Junior-that-was, but there’s one thing you haven’t mastered. When will you learn to believe in Emma McChesney?”

She was out of the office before he had time to answer, leaving him standing there.

In the dusk of a late winter evening just three weeks later, a man paused at the door of the unlighted office marked “Mrs. McChesney.” He looked about a moment, as though dreading detection. Then he opened the door, stepped into the dim quiet of the little room, and closed the door gently after him. Everything in the tiny room was quiet, neat, orderly. It seemed to possess something of the character of its absent owner. The intruder stood there a moment, uncertainly, looking about him.

Then he took a step forward and laid one hand on the back of the empty chair before the closed desk. He shut his eyes and it seemed that he felt her firm, cool, reassuring grip on his fingers as they clutched the wooden chair. The impression was so strong that he kept his eyes shut, and they were still closed when his voice broke the silence of the dim, quiet little room.

“Emma McChesney,” he was saying aloud, “Emma McChesney, you great big, fine, brave, wonderful woman, you! I believe in you now! Dad and I both believe in you.”

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