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- Roast Beef, Medium - 2/28 -
competitors, the Strauss Sans-silk Skirt Company. It was a good reading ad. Emma McChesney, who had forgotten more about petticoats than the average skirt salesman ever knew, presently allowed her luke- warm beef to grow cold and flabby as she read. Somewhere in her subconscious mind she realized that the lanky head waitress had placed some one opposite her at the table. Also, subconsciously, she heard him order liver and bacon, with onions. She told herself that as soon as she reached the bottom of the column she'd look up to see who the fool was. She never arrived at the column's end.
"I just hate to tear you away from that love lyric; but if I might trouble you for the vinegar--"
Emma groped for it back of her paper and shoved it across the table without looking up. "--and the Worcester--"
One eye on the absorbing column, she passed the tall bottle. But at its removal her prop was gone. The _Dry Goods Review_ was too weighty for the salt shaker alone.
"--and the salt. Thanks. Warm, isn't it?"
There was a double vertical frown between Emma McChesney's eyes as she glanced up over the top of her _Dry Goods Review_. The frown gave way to a half smile. The glance settled into a stare.
"But then, anybody would have stared. He expected it," she said, afterwards, in telling about it. "I've seen matinee idols, and tailors' supplies salesmen, and Julian Eltinge, but this boy had any male professional beauty I ever saw, looking as handsome and dashing as a bowl of cold oatmeal. And he knew it."
Now, in the ten years that she had been out representing T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats Emma McChesney had found it necessary to make a rule or two for herself. In the strict observance of one of these she had become past mistress in the fine art of congealing the warm advances of fresh and friendly salesmen of the opposite sex. But this case was different, she told herself. The man across the table was little more than a boy--an amazingly handsome, astonishingly impudent, cockily confident boy, who was staring with insolent approval at Emma McChesney's trim, shirt-waisted figure, and her fresh, attractive coloring, and her well-cared-for hair beneath the smart summer hat.
[Illustration: "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," he announced, glibly.]
"It isn't in human nature to be as good-looking as you are," spake Emma McChesney, suddenly, being a person who never trifled with half- way measures. "I'll bet you have bad teeth, or an impediment in your speech."
The gorgeous young man smiled. His teeth were perfect. "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers," he announced, glibly. "Nothing missing there, is there?"
"Must be your morals then," retorted Emma McChesney. "My! My! And on the road! Why, the trail of bleeding hearts that you must leave all the way from Maine to California would probably make the Red Sea turn white with envy."
The Fresh Young Kid speared a piece of liver and looked soulfully up into the adoring eyes of the waitress who was hovering over him. "Got any nice hot biscuits to-night, girlie?" he inquired.
"I'll get you some; sure," wildly promised his handmaiden, and disappeared kitchenward.
"Brand new to the road, aren't you?" observed Emma McChesney, cruelly.
"What makes you think--"
"Liver and bacon, hot biscuits, Worcestershire," elucidated she. "No old-timer would commit suicide that way. After you've been out for two or three years you'll stick to the Rock of Gibraltar--roast beef, medium. Oh, I get wild now and then, and order eggs if the girl says she knows the hen that layed 'em, but plain roast beef, unchloroformed, is the one best bet. You can't go wrong if you stick to it."
The god-like young man leaned forward, forgetting to eat.
"You don't mean to tell me you're on the road!"
"Why not?" demanded Emma McChesney, briskly.
"Oh, fie, fie!" said the handsome youth, throwing her a languishing look. "Any woman as pretty as you are, and with those eyes, and that hair, and figure--Say, Little One, what are you going to do to-night?"
Emma McChesney sugared her tea, and stirred it, slowly. Then she looked up. "To-night, you fresh young kid, you!" she said calmly, "I'm going to dictate two letters, explaining why business was rotten last week, and why it's going to pick up next week, and then I'm going to keep an engagement with a nine-hour beauty sleep."
"Don't get sore at a fellow. You'd take pity on me if you knew how I have to work to kill an evening in one of these little townpump burgs. Kill 'em! It can't be done. They die harder than the heroine in a ten, twenty, thirty. From supper to bedtime is twice as long as from breakfast to supper. Honest!"
But Emma McChesney looked inexorable, as women do just before they relent. Said she: "Oh, I don't know. By the time I get through trying to convince a bunch of customers that T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoat has every other skirt in the market looking like a piece of Fourth of July bunting that's been left out in the rain, I'm about ready to turn down the spread and leave a call for six-thirty."
"Be a good fellow," pleaded the unquenchable one. "Let's take in all the nickel shows, and then see if we can't drown our sorrows in--er--"
Emma McChesney slipped a coin under her plate, crumpled her napkin, folded her arms on the table, and regarded the boy across the way with what our best talent calls a long, level look. It was so long and so level that even the airiness of the buoyant youngster at whom it was directed began to lessen perceptibly, long before Emma began to talk.
"Tell me, young 'un, did any one ever refuse you anything? I thought not. I should think that when you realize what you've got to learn it would scare you to look ahead. I don't expect you to believe me when I tell you I never talk to fresh guys like you, but it's true. I don't know why I'm breaking my rule for you, unless it's because you're so unbelievably good-looking that I'm anxious to know where the blemish is. The Lord don't make 'em perfect, you know. I'm going to get out those letters, and then, if it's just the same to you, we'll take a walk. These nickel shows are getting on my nerves. It seems to me that if I have to look at one more Western picture about a fool girl with her hair in a braid riding a show horse in the wilds of Clapham Junction and being rescued from a band of almost-Indians by the handsome, but despised Eastern tenderfoot, or if I see one more of those historical pictures, with the women wearing costumes that are a pass between early Egyptian and late State Street, I know I'll get hysterics and have to be carried shrieking, up the aisle. Let's walk down Main Street and look in the store windows, and up as far as the park and back."
"Great!" assented he. "Is there a park?
"I don't know," replied Emma McChesney, "but there is. And for your own good I'm going to tell you a few things. There's more to this traveling game than just knocking down on expenses, talking to every pretty woman you meet, and learning to ask for fresh white-bread heels at the Palmer House in Chicago. I'll meet you in the lobby at eight."
Emma McChesney talked steadily, and evenly, and generously, from eight until eight-thirty. She talked from the great storehouse of practical knowledge which she had accumulated in her ten years on the road. She told the handsome young cub many things for which he should have been undyingly thankful. But when they reached the park--the cool, dim, moon-silvered park, its benches dotted with glimpses of white showing close beside a blur of black, Emma McChesney stopped talking. Not only did she stop talking, but she ceased to think of the boy seated beside her on the bench.
In the band-stand, under the arc-light, in the center of the pretty little square, some neighborhood children were playing a noisy game, with many shrill cries, and much shouting and laughter. Suddenly, from one of the houses across the way, a woman's voice was heard, even above the clamor of the children.
"Fred-dee!" called the voice. "Maybelle! Come, now."
And a boy's voice answered, as boys' voices have since Cain was a child playing in the Garden of Eden, and as boys' voices will as long as boys are:
"Aw, ma, I ain't a bit sleepy. We just begun a new game, an' I'm leader. Can't we just stay out a couple of minutes more?"
"Well, five minutes," agreed the voice. "But don't let me call you again."
Emma McChesney leaned back on the rustic bench and clasped her strong, white hands behind her head, and stared straight ahead into the soft darkness. And if it had been light you could have seen that the bitter lines showing faintly about her mouth were outweighed by the sweet and gracious light which was glowing in her eyes.
"Fred-dee!" came the voice of command again. "May-belle! This minute, now!"
One by one the flying little figures under the arc-light melted away in the direction of the commanding voice and home and bed. And Emma McChesney forgot all about fresh young kids and featherloom petticoats and discounts and bills of lading and sample-cases and grouchy buyers. After all, it had been her protecting maternal instinct which had been aroused by the boy at supper, although she had not known it then. She did not know it now, for that matter. She was busy remembering just such evenings in her own life--summer evenings, filled with the high, shrill laughter of children at play. She too, had stood in the doorway, making a funnel of her hands, so that her clear call through the twilight might be heard above the cries of the boys and girls. She had known how loath the little feet had been to leave their play, and how they had lagged up the porch stairs, and into the house. Years, whose memory she had tried to keep behind her, now suddenly loomed before her in the dim quiet of the little flower-scented park.
A voice broke the silence, and sent her dream-thoughts scattering to the winds.
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Schulers Books Online
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