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- Roast Beef, Medium - 4/28 -
get a choice of rooms when the 'bus reached the hotel. The vehicle smelled of straw, and mold, and stables, and dampness, and tobacco, as 'buses have from old Jonas Chuzzlewit's time to this. Nine years on the road had accustomed Emma McChesney's nostrils to 'bus smells. She gazed stolidly out of the window, crossed one leg over the other, remembered that her snug suit-skirt wasn't built for that attitude, uncrossed them again, and caught the delighted and understanding eye of the fat traveling man, who was a symphony in brown--brown suit, brown oxfords, brown scarf, brown bat, brown-bordered handkerchief just peeping over the edge of his pocket. He looked like a colossal chocolate fudge.
"Red-faced, grinning, and a naughty wink--I'll bet he sells coffins and undertakers' supplies," mused Emma McChesney. "And the other one-- the tall, lank, funereal affair in black--I suppose his line would be sheet music, or maybe phonographs. Or perhaps he's a lyceum bureau reader, scheduled to give an evening of humorous readings for the Young Men's Sunday Evening Club course at the First M. E. Church."
During those nine years on the road for the Featherloom Skirt Company Emma McChesney had picked up a side line or two on human nature.
She was not surprised to see the fat man in brown and the thin man in black leap out of the 'bus and into the hotel before she had had time to straighten her hat after the wheels had bumped up against the curbing. By the time she reached the desk the two were disappearing in the wake of a bell-boy.
The sartorial triumph behind the desk, languidly read her signature upside down, took a disinterested look at her, and yelled:
"Front! Show the lady up to nineteen."
Emma McChesney took three steps in the direction of the stairway toward which the boy was headed with her bags. Then she stopped.
"Wait a minute, boy," she said, pleasantly enough; and walked back to the desk. She eyed the clerk, a half-smile on her lips, one arm, in its neat tailored sleeve, resting on the marble, while her right forefinger, trimly gloved, tapped an imperative little tattoo. (Perhaps you think that last descriptive sentence is as unnecessary as it is garbled. But don't you get a little picture of her--trim, taut, tailored, mannish-booted, flat-heeled, linen-collared, sailor-hatted?)
"You've made a mistake, haven't you?" she inquired.
Mistake?" repeated the clerk, removing his eyes from their loving contemplation of his right thumb-nail. "Guess not."
"Oh, think it over," drawled Emma McChesney. "I've never seen nineteen, but I can describe it with both eyes shut, and one hand tied behind me. It's an inside room, isn't it, over the kitchen, and just next to the water butt where the maids come to draw water for the scrubbing at 5 A.M.? And the boiler room gets in its best bumps for nineteen, and the patent ventilators work just next door, and there's a pet rat that makes his headquarters in the wall between eighteen and nineteen, and the housekeeper whose room is across the hail is afflicted with a bronchial cough, nights. I'm wise to the brand of welcome that you fellows hand out to us women on the road. This is new territory for me--my first trip West. Think it over. Don't--er--say, sixty-five strike you as being nearer my size?"
The clerk stared at Emma McChesney, and Emma McChesney coolly stared back at the clerk.
"Our aim," began he, loftily, "is to make our guests as comfortable as possible on all occasions. But the last lady drummer who--"
"That's all right," interrupted Emma McChesney, "but I'm not the kind that steals the towels, and I don't carry an electric iron with me, either. Also I don't get chummy with the housekeeper and the dining- room girls half an hour after I move in. Most women drummers are living up to their reputations, but some of us are living 'em down. I'm for revision downward. You haven't got my number, that's all."
A slow gleam of unwilling admiration illumined the clerk's chill eye. He turned and extracted another key with its jangling metal tag, from one of the many pigeonholes behind him.
"You win," he said. He leaned over the desk and lowered his voice discreetly. "Say, girlie, go on into the cafe and have a drink on me."
"Wrong again," answered Emma McChesney. "Never use it. Bad for the complexion. Thanks just the same. Nice little hotel you've got here."
In the corridor leading to sixty-five there was a great litter of pails, and mops, and brooms, and damp rags, and one heard the sigh of a vacuum cleaner.
"Spring house-cleaning," explained the bellboy, hurdling a pail.
Emma McChesney picked her way over a little heap of dust-cloths and a ladder or so.
"House-cleaning," she repeated dreamily; "spring house-cleaning." And there came a troubled, yearning light into her eyes. It lingered there after the boy had unlocked and thrown open the door of sixty-five, pocketed his dime, and departed.
Sixty-five was--well, you know what sixty-five generally is in a small Middle-Western town. Iron bed--tan wall-paper--pine table--pine dresser--pine chair--red carpet--stuffy smell--fly buzzing at window-- sun beating in from the west. Emma McChesney saw it all in one accustomed glance.
"Lordy, I hate to think what nineteen must be," she told herself, and unclasped her bag. Out came the first aid to the travel-stained--a jar of cold cream. It was followed by powder, chamois, brush, comb, tooth- brush. Emma McChesney dug four fingers into the cold cream jar, slapped the stuff on her face, rubbed it in a bit, wiped it off with a dry towel, straightened her hat, dusted the chamois over her face, glanced at her watch and hurriedly whisked downstairs.
"After all," she mused, "that thin guy might not be out for a music house. Maybe his line is skirts, too. You never can tell. Anyway, I'll beat him to it."
Saturday afternoon and spring-time in a small town! Do you know it? Main Street--on the right side--all a-bustle; farmers' wagons drawn up at the curbing; farmers' wives in the inevitable rusty black with dowdy hats furbished up with a red muslin rose in honor of spring; grand opening at the new five-and-ten-cent store, with women streaming in and streaming out again, each with a souvenir pink carnation pinned to her coat; every one carrying bundles and yellow paper bags that might contain bananas or hats or grass seed; the thirty-two automobiles that the town boasts all dashing up and down the street, driven by hatless youths in careful college clothes; a crowd of at least eleven waiting at Jenson's drug-store corner for the next interurban car.
Emma McChesney found herself strolling when she should have been hustling in the direction of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store. She was aware of a vague, strangely restless feeling in the region of her heart--or was it her liver?--or her lungs?
Reluctantly she turned in at the entrance of the Novelty Cloak and Suit Store and asked for the buyer. (Here we might introduce one of those side-splitting little business deal scenes. But there can be paid no finer compliment to Emma McChesney's saleswomanship than to state that she landed her man on a busy Saturday afternoon, with a store full of customers and the head woman clerk dead against her from the start.)
As she was leaving:
"Generally it's the other way around," smiled the boss, regarding Emma's trim comeliness, "but seeing you're a lady, why, it'll be on me." He reached for his hat. "Let's go and have--ah--a little something."
"Not any, thanks," Emma McChesney replied, a little wearily.
On her way back to the hotel she frankly loitered. Just to look at her made you certain that she was not of our town. Now, that doesn't imply that the women of our town do not dress well, because they do. But there was something about her--a flirt of chiffon at the throat, or her hat quill stuck in a certain way, or the stitching on her gloves, or the vamp of her shoe--that was of a style which had not reached us yet.
As Emma McChesney loitered, looking in at the shop windows and watching the women hurrying by, intent on the purchase of their Sunday dinners, that vaguely restless feeling seized her again. There were rows of plump fowls in the butcher-shop windows, and juicy roasts. The cunning hand of the butcher had enhanced the redness of the meat by trimmings of curly parsley. Salad things and new vegetables glowed behind the grocers' plate-glass. There were the tender green of lettuces, the coral of tomatoes, the brown-green of stout asparagus stalks, bins of spring peas and beans, and carrots, and bunches of greens for soup. There came over the businesslike soul of Emma McChesney a wild longing to go in and select a ten-pound roast, taking care that there should be just the right proportion of creamy fat and red meat. She wanted to go in and poke her fingers in the ribs of a broiler. She wanted to order wildly of sweet potatoes and vegetables, and soup bones, and apples for pies. She ached to turn back her sleeves and don a blue-and-white checked apron and roll out noodles.
She still was fighting that wild impulse as she walked back to the hotel, went up to her stuffy room, and, without removing hat or coat, seated herself on the edge of the bed and stared long and hard at the tan wall-paper.
There is this peculiarity about tan wall-paper. If you stare at it long enough you begin to see things. Emma McChesney, who pulled down something over thirty-two hundred a year selling Featherloom Petticoats, saw this:
A kitchen, very bright and clean, with a cluttered kind of cleanliness that bespeaks many housewifely tasks under way. There were mixing bowls, and saucepans, and a kettle or so, and from the oven there came the sounds of sputtering and hissing. About the room there hung the divinely delectable scent of freshly baked cookies. Emma McChesney saw herself in an all-enveloping checked gingham apron, her sleeves rolled up, her hair somewhat wild, and one lock powdered with white where she had pushed it back with a floury hand. Her cheeks were surprisingly pink, and her eyes were very bright, and she was scraping a baking board and rolling-pin, and trimming the edges of pie tins, and turning with a whirl to open the oven door, stooping to dip up spoonfuls of gravy only to pour the rich brown liquid over the meat again. There were things on top of the stove that required sticking into with a
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Schulers Books Online
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