Pink Tights And Ginghams by Edna Ferber

Story type: Literature

Some one–probably one of those Frenchmen whose life job it was to make epigrams—once said that there are but two kinds of women: good women, and bad women. Ever since then problem playwrights have been putting that fiction into the mouths of wronged husbands and building their “big scene” around it. But don’t you believe it. There are four kinds: good women, bad women, good bad women, and bad good women. And the worst of these is the last. This should be a story of all four kinds, and when it is finished I defy you to discover which is which.

When the red stuff in the thermometer waxes ambitious, so that fat men stand, bulging-eyed, before it and beginning with the ninety mark count up with a horrible satisfaction–ninety-one–ninety-two–ninety- three–NINETY FOUR! by gosh! and the cinders are filtering into your berth, and even the porter is wandering restlessly up and down the aisle like a black soul in purgatory and a white duck coat, then the thing to do is to don those mercifully few garments which the laxity of sleeping-car etiquette permits, slip out between the green curtains and fare forth in search of draughts, liquid and atmospheric.

At midnight Emma McChesney, inured as she was to sleepers and all their horrors, found her lower eight unbearable. With the bravery of desperation she groped about for her cinder-strewn belongings, donned slippers and kimono, waited until the tortured porter’s footsteps had squeaked their way to the far end of the car, then sped up the dim aisle toward the back platform. She wrenched open the door, felt the rush of air, drew in a long, grateful, smoke-steam-dust laden lungful of it, felt the breath of it on spine and chest, sneezed, realized that she would be the victim of a summer cold next day, and, knowing, cared not.

“Great, ain’t it?” said a voice in the darkness. (Nay, reader. A woman’s voice.)

Emma McChesney was of the non-screaming type. But something inside of her suspended action for the fraction of a second. She peered into the darkness.

“‘J’ get scared?” inquired the voice. Its owner lurched forward from the corner in which she had been crouching, into the half-light cast by the vestibule night-globe.

Even as men judge one another by a Masonic emblem, an Elk pin, or the band of a cigar, so do women in sleeping-cars weigh each other according to the rules of the Ancient Order of the Kimono. Seven seconds after Emma McChesney first beheld the negligee that stood revealed in the dim light she had its wearer neatly weighed, marked, listed, docketed and placed.

It was the kind of kimono that is associated with straw-colored hair, and French-heeled shoes, and over-fed dogs at the end of a leash. The Japanese are wrongly accused of having perpetrated it. In pattern it showed bright green flowers-that-never-were sprawling on a purple background. A diamond bar fastened it not too near the throat.

It was one of Emma McChesney’s boasts that she was the only living woman who could get off a sleeper at Bay City, Michigan, at 5 A.M., without looking like a Swedish immigrant just dumped at Ellis Island. Traveling had become a science with her, as witness her serviceable dark-blue silk kimono, and her hair in a schoolgirl braid down her back. The blonde woman cast upon Emma McChesney an admiring eye.

“Gawd, ain’t it hot!” she said, sociably.

“I wonder,” mused Emma McChesney, “if that porter could be hypnotized into making some lemonade–a pitcherful, with a lot of ice in it, and the cold sweat breaking out all over the glass?

“Lemonade!” echoed the other, wonder and amusement in her tone. “Are they still usin’ it?” She leaned against the door, swaying with the motion of the car, and hugging her. plump, bare arms. “Travelin’ alone?” she asked.

“Oh, yes,” replied Emma McChesney, and decided it was time to go in.

“Lonesome, ain’t it, without company? Goin’ far?”

“I’m accustomed to it. I travel on business, not pleasure. I’m on the road, representing T. A. Buck’s Featherloom Petticoats!”

The once handsome violet eyes of the plump blonde widened with surprise. Then they narrowed to critical slits.

“On the road! Sellin’ goods! And I thought you was only a kid. It’s the way your hair’s fixed, I suppose. Say, that must be a hard life for a woman–buttin’ into a man’s game like that.”

“Oh, I suppose any work that takes a woman out into the world–” began Emma McChesney vaguely, her hand on the door-knob.

“Sure,” agreed the other. “I ought to know. The hotels and time-tables alone are enough to kill. Who do you suppose makes up train schedules? They don’t seem to think no respectable train ought to leave anywhere before eleven-fifty A.M., or arrive after six A.M. We played Ottumwa, Iowa, last night, and here we are jumpin’ to Illinois.”

In surprise Emma McChesney turned at the door for another look at the hair, figure, complexion and kimono.

“Oh, you’re an actress! Well, if you think mine is a hard life for a woman, why–“

“Me!” said the green-gold blonde, and laughed not prettily. “I ain’t a woman. I’m a queen of burlesque.

“Burlesque? You mean one of those–” Emma McChesney stopped, her usually deft tongue floundering.

“One of those ‘men only’ troupes? You guessed it. I’m Blanche LeHaye, of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles. We get into North Bend at six to- morrow morning, and we play there to-morrow night, Sunday.” She took a step forward so that her haggard face and artificially tinted hair were very near Emma McChesney. “Know what I was thinkin’ just one second before you come out here?”

“No; what?”

“I was thinkin’ what a cinch it would be to just push aside that canvas thing there by the steps and try what the newspaper accounts call ‘jumping into the night.’ Say, if I’d had on my other lawnjerie I’ll bet I’d have done it.”

Into Emma McChesney’s understanding heart there swept a wave of pity. But she answered lightly: “Is that supposed to be funny?”

The plump blonde yawned. “It depends on your funny bone. Mine’s got blunted. I’m the lady that the Irish comedy guy slaps in the face with a bunch of lettuce. Say, there’s something about you that makes a person get gabby and tell things. You’d make a swell clairvoyant.”

Beneath the comedy of the bleached hair, and the flaccid face, and the bizarre wrapper; behind the coarseness and vulgarity and ignorance, Emma McChesney’s keen mental eye saw something decent and clean and beautiful. And something pitiable, and something tragic.

“I guess you’d better come in and get some sleep,” said Emma McChesney; and somehow found her hand resting on the woman’s shoulder. So they stood, on the swaying, jolting platform. Blanche LeHaye, of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles, looked down, askance, at the hand on her shoulder, as at some strange and interesting object.

“Ten years ago,” she said, “that would have started me telling the story of my life, with all the tremolo stops on, and the orchestra in tears. Now it only makes me mad.”

Emma McChesney’s hand seemed to snatch itself away from the woman’s shoulder.

“You can’t treat me with your life’s history. I’m going in.”

“Wait a minute. Don’t go away sore, kid. On the square, I guess I liked the feel of your hand on my arm, like that. Say, I’ve done the same thing myself to a strange dog that looked up at me, pitiful. You know, the way you reach down, and pat ‘m on the head, and say, ‘Nice doggie, nice doggie, old fellow,’ even if it is a street cur, with a chawed ear, and no tail. They growl and show their teeth, but they like it. A woman–Lordy! there comes the brakeman. Let’s beat it. Ain’t we the nervy old hens!”

The female of the species as she is found in sleeping-car dressing- rooms had taught Emma McChesney to rise betimes that she might avoid contact with certain frowsy, shapeless beings armed with bottles of milky liquids, and boxes of rosy pastes, and pencils that made arched and inky lines; beings redolent of bitter almond, and violet toilette water; beings in doubtful cor
sets and green silk petticoats perfect as to accordion-plaited flounce, but showing slits and tatters farther up; beings jealously guarding their ten inches of mirror space and consenting to move for no one; ladies who had come all the way from Texas and who insisted on telling about it, despite a mouthful of hairpins; doubtful sisters who called one dearie and required to be hooked up; distracted mothers with three small children who wiped their hands on your shirt-waist.

So it was that Emma McChesney, hatted and veiled by 5:45, saw the curtains of the berth opposite rent asunder to disclose the rumpled, shapeless figure of Miss Blanche LeHaye. The queen of burlesque bore in her arms a conglomerate mass of shoes, corset, purple skirt, bag and green-plumed hat. She paused to stare at Emma McChesney’s trim, cool preparedness.

“You must have started to dress as soon’s you come in last night. I never slep’ a wink till just about half a hour ago. I bet I ain’t got more than eleven minutes to dress in. Ain’t this a scorcher!”

When the train stopped at North Bend, Emma McChesney, on her way out, collided with a vision in a pongee duster, rose-colored chiffon veil, chamois gloves, and plumed hat. Miss Blanche LeHaye had made the most of her eleven minutes. Her baggage attended to, Emma McChesney climbed into a hotel ‘bus. It bore no other passengers. From her corner in the vehicle she could see the queen of burlesque standing in the center of the depot platform, surrounded by her company. It was a tawdry, miserable, almost tragic group, the men undersized, be-diamonded, their skulls oddly shaped, their clothes a satire on the fashions for men, their chins unshaven, their loose lips curved contentedly over cigarettes; the women dreadfully unreal with the pitiless light of the early morning sun glaring down on their bedizened faces, their spotted, garish clothes, their run-down heels, their vivid veils, their matted hair. They were quarreling among themselves, and a flame of hate for the moment lighted up those dull, stupid, vicious faces. Blanche LeHaye appeared to be the center about which the strife waged, for suddenly she flung through the shrill group and walked swiftly over to the ‘bus and climbed into it heavily. One of the women turned, her face lived beneath the paint, to scream a great oath after her. The ‘bus driver climbed into his seat and took up the reins. After a moment’s indecision the little group on the platform turned and trailed off down the street, the women sagging under the weight of their bags, the men, for the most part, hurrying on ahead. When the ‘bus lurched past them the woman who had screamed the oath after Blanche LeHaye laughed shrilly and made a face, like a naughty child, whereupon the others laughed in falsetto chorus.

A touch of real color showed in Blanche LeHaye’s flabby cheek. “I’ll show’m she snarled. That hussy of a Zella Dacre thinkin’ she can get my part away from me the last week or so, the lyin’ sneak. I’ll show’m a leadin’ lady’s a leadin’ lady. Let ’em go to their hash hotels. I’m goin’ to the real inn in this town just to let ’em know that I got my dignity to keep up, and that I don’t have to mix in with scum like that. You see that there? She pointed at something in the street. Emma McChesney turned to look. The cheap lithographs of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles Company glared at one from the bill-boards.

“That’s our paper,” explained Blanche LeHaye. “That’s me, in the center of the bunch, with the pink reins in my hands, drivin’ that four-in-hand of johnnies. Hot stuff! Just let Dacre try to get it away from me, that’s all. I’ll show’m.”

She sank back into her corner. Her anger left her with the suddenness characteristic of her type.

“Ain’t this heat fierce?” she fretted, and closed her eyes.

Now, Emma McChesney was a broad-minded woman. The scars that she had received in her ten years’ battle with business reminded her to be tender at sight of the wounds of others. But now, as she studied the woman huddled there in the corner, she was conscious of a shuddering disgust of her–of the soiled blouse, of the cheap finery, of the sunken places around the jaw-bone, of the swollen places beneath the eyes, of the thin, carmined lips, of the–

Blanche LeHaye opened her eyes suddenly and caught the look on Emma McChesney’s face. Caught it, and comprehended it. Her eyes narrowed, and she laughed shortly.

“Oh, I dunno,” drawled Blanche LeHaye. “I wouldn’t go’s far’s that, kid. Say, when I was your age I didn’t plan to be no bum burlesquer neither. I was going to be an actress, with a farm on Long Island, like the rest of ’em. Every real actress has got a farm on Long Island, if it’s only there in the mind of the press agent. It’s a kind of a religion with ’em. I was goin’ to build a house on mine that was goin’ to be a cross between a California bungalow and the Horticultural Building at the World’s Fair. Say, I ain’t the worst, kid. There’s others outside of my smear, understand, that I wouldn’t change places with.”

A dozen apologies surged to Emma McChesney’s lips just as the driver drew up at the curbing outside the hotel and jumped down to open the door. She found herself hoping that the hotel clerk would not class her with her companion.

At eleven o’clock that morning Emma McChesney unlocked her door and walked down the red-carpeted hotel corridor. She had had two hours of restful sleep. She had bathed, and breakfasted, and donned clean clothes. She had brushed the cinders out of her hair, and manicured. She felt as alert, and cool and refreshed as she looked, which speaks well for her comfort.

Halfway down the hail a bedroom door stood open. Emma McChesney glanced in. What she saw made her stop. The next moment she would have hurried on, but the figure within called out to her.

Miss Blanche LeHaye had got into her kimono again. She was slumped in a dejected heap in a chair before the window. There was a tray, with a bottle and some glasses on the table by her side.

“Gawd, ain’t it hot!” she whined miserably. “Come on in a minute. I left the door open to catch the breeze, but there ain’t any. You look like a peach just off the ice. Got a gent friend in town?”

“No,” answered Emma McChesney hurriedly, and turned to go.

“Wait a minute,” said Blanche LeHaye, sharply, and rose. She slouched over to where Emma McChesney stood and looked up at her sullenly.

“Why!” gasped Emma McChesney, and involuntarily put out her hand, “why–my dear–you’ve been crying! Is there–“

“No, there ain’t. I can bawl, can’t I, if I am a bum burlesquer?” She put down the squat little glass she had in her hand and stared resentfully at Emma McChesney’s cool, fragrant freshness.

“Say,” she demanded suddenly, “whatja mean by lookin’ at me the way you did this morning, h’m? Whatja mean? You got a nerve turnin’ up your nose at me, you have. I’ll just bet you ain’t no better than you might be, neither. What the–“

Swiftly Emma McChesney crossed the room and closed the door. Then she came back to where Blanche LeHaye stood.

“Now listen to me,” she said. “You shed that purple kimono of yours and hustle into some clothes and come along with me. I mean it. Whenever I’m anywhere near this town I make a jump and Sunday here. I’ve a friend here named Morrissey–Ethel Morrissey–and she’s the biggest-hearted, most understanding friend that a woman ever had. She’s skirt and suit buyer at Barker & Fisk’s here. I have a standing invitation to spend Sunday at her house. She knows I’m coming. I help get dinner if I feel like it, and wash my hair if I want to, and sit out in the back yard, and fool with the dog, and act like a human being for one day. After you’ve been on the road for ten years a real Sunday dinner in a real home has got Sherry’s flossiest efforts looking like a picnic collation with ants in the pie. You’re coming with me, more for my sake than for yours, because the thought of you sitting here, like this, would sour the day for me.”

Blanche LeHaye’s fingers w
ere picking at the pin which fastened her gown. She smiled, uncertainly.

“What’s your game?” she inquired.

“I’ll wait for you downstairs,” said Emma McChesney, pleasantly. “Do you ever have any luck with caramel icing? Ethel’s and mine always curdles.”

“Do I?” yelled the queen of burlesque. “I invented it.” And she was down on her knees, her fingers fumbling with the lock of her suitcase.

Only an Ethel Morrissey, inured to the weird workings of humanity by years of shrewd skirt and suit buying, could have stood the test of having a Blanche LeHaye thrust upon her, an unexpected guest, and with the woman across the street sitting on her front porch taking it all in.

At the door–“This is Miss Blanche LeHaye of the–er–Simon–“

“Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles,” put in Miss LeHaye. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Come in,” said Miss Ethel Morrissey without batting an eye. “I just ‘phoned the hotel. Thought you’d gone back on me, Emma. I’m baking a caramel cake. Don’t slam the door. This your first visit here, Miss LeHaye? Excuse me for not shaking hands. I’m all flour. Lay your things in there. Ma’s spending the day with Aunt Gus at Forest City and I’m the whole works around here. It’s got skirts and suits beat a mile. Hot, ain’t it? Say, suppose you girls slip off your waists and I’ll give you each an all-over apron that’s loose and let’s the breeze slide around.”

Blanche LeHaye, the garrulous, was strangely silent. When she stepped about it was in the manner of one who is fearful of wakening a sleeper. When she caught the eyes of either of the other women her own glance dropped.

When Ethel Morrissey came in with the blue-and-white gingham aprons Blanche LeHaye hesitated a long minute before picking hers up. Then she held it by both sleeves and looked at it long, and curiously. When she looked up again she found the eyes of the other two upon her. She slipped the apron over her head with a nervous little laugh.

“I’ve been a pair of pink tights so long,” she said, “that I guess I’ve almost forgotten how to be a woman. But once I get this on I’ll bet I can come back.”

She proved it from the moment that she measured out the first cupful of brown sugar for the caramel icing. She shed her rings, and pinned her hair back from her forehead, and tucked up her sleeves, and as Emma McChesney watched her a resolve grew in her mind.

The cake disposed of–“Give me some potatoes to peel, will you?” said Blanche LeHaye, suddenly. “Give ’em to me in a brown crock, with a chip out of the side. There’s certain things always goes hand-in-hand in your mind. You can’t think of one without the other. Now, Lillian Russell and cold cream is one; and new potatoes and brown crocks is another.”

She peeled potatoes, sitting hunched up on the kitchen chair with her high heels caught back of the top rung. She chopped spinach until her face was scarlet, and her hair hung in limp strands at the back of her neck. She skinned tomatoes. She scoured pans. She wiped up the white oilcloth table-top with a capable and soapy hand. The heat and bustle of the little kitchen seemed to work some miraculous change in her. Her eyes brightened. Her lips smiled. Once, Emma McChesney and Ethel Morrissey exchanged covert looks when they heard her crooning one of those tuneless chants that women hum when they wring out dishcloths in soapy water.

After dinner, in the cool of the sitting-room, with the shades drawn, and their skirts tucked halfway to their knees, things looked propitious for that first stroke in the plan which had worked itself out in Emma McChesney’s alert mind. She caught Blanche LeHaye’s eye, and smiled.

“This beats burlesquing, doesn’t it?” she said. She leaned forward a bit in her chair. “Tell me, Miss LeHaye, haven’t you ever thought of quitting that–the stage–and turning to something–something–“

“Something decent?” Blanche LeHaye finished for her. “I used to. I’ve got over that. Now all I ask is to get a laugh when I kick the comedian’s hat off with my toe.”

“But there must have been a time–” insinuated Emma McChesney, gently.

Blanche LeHaye grinned broadly at the two women who were watching her so intently.

“I think I ought to tell you,” she began, “that I never was a minister’s daughter, and I don’t remember ever havin’ been deserted by my sweetheart when I was young and trusting. If I was to draw a picture of my life it would look like one of those charts that the weather bureau gets out–one of those high and low barometer things, all uphill and downhill like a chain of mountains in a kid’s geography.”

She shut her eyes and lay back in the depths of the leather-cushioned chair. The three sat in silence for a moment.

“Look here,” said Emma McChesney, suddenly, rising and coming over to the woman in the big chair, “that’s not the life for a woman like you. I can get you a place in our office–not much, perhaps, but something decent–something to start with. If you–“

“For that matter,” put in Ethel Morrissey, quickly, “I could get you something right here in our store. I’ve been there long enough to have some say-so, and if I recommend you they’d start you in the basement at first, and then, if you made good, they advance you right along.”

Blanche LeHaye stood up and, twisting her arm around at the back, began to unbutton her gingham apron.

“I guess you think I’m a bad one, don’t you? Well, maybe I am. But I’m not the worst. I’ve got a brother. He lives out West, and he’s rich, and married, and respectable. You know the way a man can climb out of the mud, while a woman just can’t wade out of it? Well, that’s the way it was with us. His wife’s a regular society bug. She wouldn’t admit that there was any such truck as me, unless, maybe, the Municipal Protective League, or something, of her town, got to waging a war against burlesque shows. I hadn’t seen Len–that’s my brother—in years and years. Then one night in Omaha, I glimmed him sitting down in the B. H. row. His face just seemed to rise up at me out of the audience. He recognized me, too. Say, men are all alike. What they see in a dingy, half-fed, ignorant bunch like us, I don’t know. But the minute a man goes to Cleveland, or Pittsburgh, or somewhere on business he’ll hunt up a burlesque show, and what’s more, he’ll enjoy it. Funny. Well, Len waited for me after the show, and we had a talk. He told me his troubles, and I told him some of mine, and when we got through I wouldn’t have swapped with him. His wife’s a wonder. She’s climbed to the top of the ladder in her town. And she’s pretty, and young-looking, and a regular swell. Len says their home is one of the kind where the rubberneck auto stops while the spieler tells the crowd who lives there, and how he made his money. But they haven’t any kids, Len told me. He’s crazy about ’em. But his wife don’t want any. I wish you could have seen Len’s face when he was talking about it.”

She dropped the gingham apron in a circle at her feet, and stepped out of it. She walked over to where her own clothes lay in a gaudy heap.

“Exit the gingham. But it’s been great.” She paused before slipping her skirt over her head. The silence of the other two women seemed to anger her a little.

“I guess you think I’m a bad one, clear through, don’t you? Well, I ain’t. I don’t hurt anybody but myself. Len’s wife–that’s what I call bad.”

“But I don’t think you’re bad clear through,” tried Emma McChesney. “I don’t. That’s why I made that proposition to you. That’s why I want you to get away from all this, and start over again.”

“Me?” laughed Blanche LeHaye. “Me! In a office! With ledgers, and sale bills, and accounts, and all that stuff! Why, girls, I couldn’t hold down a job in a candy factory. I ain’t got any intelligence. I never had. You don’t find women with brains in a burlesque troupe. If they had ’em they wouldn’t be there. Why, we’re the dumbest, most ignorant bunch there is. Most of us are just hired girls, dressed up. That’s why you find the Woman’s Uplift Union having
such a blamed hard time savin’ souls. The souls they try to save know just enough to be wise to the fact that they couldn’t hold down a five-per-week job. Don’t you feel sorry for me. I’m doing the only thing I’m good for.”

Emma McChesney put out her hand. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I only meant it for–“

“Why, of course,” agreed Blanche LeHaye, heartily. “And you, too.” She turned so that her broad, good-natured smile included Ethel Morrissey. “I’ve had a whale of a time. My fingers are all stained up with new potatoes, and my nails is full of strawberry juice, and I hope it won’t come off for a week. And I want to thank you both. I’d like to stay, but I’m going to hump over to the theater. That Dacre’s got the nerve to swipe the star’s dressing-room if I don’t get my trunks in first.”

They walked with her to the front porch, making talk as they went. Resentment and discomfiture and a sort of admiration all played across the faces of the two women, whose kindness had met with rebuff. At the foot of the steps Blanche LeHaye, prima donna of the Sam Levin Crackerjack Belles turned.

“Oh, say,” she called. “I almost forgot. I want to tell you that if you wait until your caramel is off the stove, and then add your butter, when the stuff’s hot, but not boilin’, it won’t lump so. H’m? Don’t mention it.”

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