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- Roast Beef, Medium - 5/28 -


fork, and other things that demanded tasting and stirring with a spoon. A neighbor came in to borrow a cup of molasses, and Emma urged upon her one of her freshly baked cookies. And there was a ring at the front-door bell, and she had to rush away to do battle with a persistent book agent....

The buzzing fly alighted on Emma McChesney's left eyebrow. She swatted it with a hand that was not quite quick enough, spoiled the picture, and slowly rose from her perch at the bedside.

"Oh, damn!" she remarked, wearily, and went over to the dresser. Then she pulled down her shirtwaist all around and went down to supper.

The dining-room was very warm, and there came a smell of lardy things from the kitchen. Those supping were doing so languidly.

"I'm dying for something cool, and green, and fresh," remarked Emma to the girl who filled her glass with iced water; "something springish and tempting."

"Well," sing-songed she of the ruffled, starched skirt, "we have ham'n-aigs, mutton chops, cold veal, cold roast--"

"Two, fried," interrupted Emma hopelessly, "and a pot of tea--black."

Supper over she passed through the lobby on her way upstairs. The place was filled with men. They were lolling in the big leather chairs at the window, or standing about, smoking and talking. There was a rattle of dice from the cigar counter, and a burst of laughter from the men gathered about it. It all looked very bright, and cheery, and sociable. Emma McChesney, turning to ascend the stairs to her room, felt that she, too, would like to sit in one of the big leather chairs in the window and talk to some one.

Some one was playing the piano in the parlor. The doors were open. Emma McChesney glanced in. Then she stopped. It was not the appearance of the room that held her. You may have heard of the wilds of an African jungle--the trackless wastes of the desert--the solitude of the forest--the limitless stretch of the storm-tossed ocean; they are cozy and snug when compared to the utter and soul-searing dreariness of a small town hotel parlor. You know what it is--red carpet, red plush and brocade furniture, full-length walnut mirror, battered piano on which reposes a sheet of music given away with the Sunday supplement of a city paper.

A man was seated at the piano, playing. He was not playing the Sunday supplement sheet music. His brown hat was pushed back on his head and there was a fat cigar in his pursy mouth, and as he played he squinted up through the smoke. He was playing Mendelssohn's Spring Song. Not as you have heard it played by sweet young things; not as you have heard it rendered by the Apollo String Quartette. Under his fingers it was a fragrant, trembling, laughing, sobbing, exquisite thing. He was playing it in a way to make you stare straight ahead and swallow hard.

Emma McChesney leaned her head against the door. The man at the piano did not turn. So she tip-toed in, found a chair in a corner, and noiselessly slipped into it. She sat very still, listening, and the past-that-might-have-been, and the future-that-was-to-be, stretched behind and before her, as is strangely often the case when we are listening to music. She stared ahead with eyes that were very wide open and bright. Something in the attitude of the man sitting hunched there over the piano keys, and something in the beauty and pathos of the music brought a hot haze of tears to her eyes. She leaned her head against the back of the chair, and shut her eyes and wept quietly and heart-brokenly. The tears slid down her cheeks, and dropped on her smart tailored waist and her Irish lace jabot, and she didn't care a bit.

The last lovely note died away. The fat man's hands dropped limply to his sides. Emma McChesney stared at them, fascinated. They were quite marvelous hands; not at all the sort of hands one would expect to see attached to the wrists of a fat man. They were slim, nervous, sensitive hands, pink-tipped, tapering, blue-veined, delicate. As Emma McChesney stared at them the man turned slowly on the revolving stool. His plump, pink face was dolorous, sagging, wan-eyed.

He watched Emma McChesney as she sat up and dried her eyes. A satisfied light dawned in his face.

"Thanks," he said, and mopped his forehead and chin and neck with the brown-edged handkerchief.

"You--you can't be Paderewski. He's thin. But if he plays any better than that, then I don't want to hear him. You've upset me for the rest of the week. You've started me thinking about things--about things that--that-"

The fat man clasped his thin, nervous hands in front of him and leaned forward.

"About things that you're trying to forget. It starts me that way, too. That's why sometimes I don't touch the keys for weeks. Say, what do you think of a man who can play like that, and who is out on the road for a living just because he knows it's a sure thing? Music! That's my gift. And I've buried it. Why? Because the public won't take a fat man seriously. When he sits down at the piano they begin to howl for Italian rag. Why, I'd rather play the piano in a five-cent moving picture house than do what I'm doing now. But the old man wanted his son to be a business man, not a crazy, piano-playing galoot. That's the way he put it. And I was darn fool enough to think he was right. Why can't people stand up and do the things they're out to do! Not one person in a thousand does. Why, take you--I don't know you from Eve, but just from the way you shed the briny I know you're busy regretting."

"Regretting?" repeated Emma McChesney, in a wail. "Do you know what I am? I'm a lady drummer. And do you know what I want to do this minute? I want to clean house. I want to wind a towel around my head, and pin up my skirt, and slosh around with a pail of hot, soapy water. I want to pound a couple of mattresses in the back yard, and eat a cold dinner off the kitchen table. That's what I want to do."

"Well, go on and do it," said the fat man.

"Do it? I haven't any house to clean. I got my divorce ten years ago, and I've been on the road ever since. I don't know why I stick. I'm pulling down a good, fat salary and commissions, but it's no life for a woman, and I know it, but I'm not big enough to quit. It's different with a man on the road. He can spend his evenings taking in two or three nickel shows, or he can stand on the drug-store corner and watch the pretty girls go by, or he can have a game of billiards, or maybe cards. Or he can have a nice, quiet time just going up to his room, and smoking a cigar and writing to his wife or his girl. D'you know what I do?"

"No," answered the fat man, interestedly. "What?"

"Evenings I go up to my room and sew or read. Sew! Every hook and eye and button on my clothes is moored so tight that even the hand laundry can't tear 'em off. You couldn't pry those fastenings away with dynamite. When I find a hole in my stockings I'm tickled to death, because it's something to mend. And read? Everything from the Rules of the House tacked up on the door to spelling out the French short story in the back of the Swell Set Magazine. It's getting on my nerves. Do you know what I do Sunday mornings? No, you don't. Well, I go to church, that's what I do. And I get green with envy watching the other women there getting nervous about 11:45 or so, when the minister is still in knee-deep, and I know they're wondering if Lizzie has basted the chicken often enough, and if she has put the celery in cold water, and the ice-cream is packed in burlap in the cellar, and if she has forgotten to mix in a tablespoon of flour to make it smooth. You can tell by the look on their faces that there's company for dinner. And you know that after dinner they'll sit around, and the men will smoke, and the women folks will go upstairs, and she'll show the other woman her new scalloped, monogrammed, hand-embroidered guest towels, and the waist that her cousin Ethel brought from Paris. And maybe they'll slip off their skirts and lie down on the spare-room bed for a ten minutes' nap. And you can hear the hired girl rattling the dishes in the kitchen, and talking to her lady friend who is helping her wipe up so they can get out early. You can hear the two of them laughing above the clatter of the dishes--"

The fat man banged one fist down on the piano keys with a crash.

"I'm through," he said. "I quit to-night. I've got my own life to live. Here, will you shake on it? I'll quit if you will. You're a born housekeeper. You don't belong on the road any more than I do. It's now or never. And it's going to be now with me. When I strike the pearly gates I'm not going to have Saint Peter say to me, 'Ed, old kid, what have you done with your talents?'"

"You're right," sobbed Emma McChesney, her face glowing.

"By the way," interrupted the fat man, "what's your line?"

"Petticoats. I'm out for T. A. Buck's Featherloom Skirts. What's yours?"

"Suffering cats!" shouted the fat man. "D' you mean to tell me that you're the fellow who sold that bill to Blum, of the Novelty Cloak and Suit concern, and spoiled a sale for me?"

"You! Are you--"

"You bet I am. I sell the best little skirt in the world. Strauss's Sans-silk Petticoat, warranted not to crack, rip, or fall into holes. Greatest little skirt in the country."

Emma McChesney straightened her collar and jabot with a jerk, and sat up.

"Oh, now, don't give me that bunk. You've got a good little seller, all right, but that guaranty don't hold water any more than the petticoat contains silk. I know that stuff. It looms up big in the window displays, but it's got a filler of glucose, or starch or mucilage or something, and two days after you wear it it's as limp as a cheesecloth rag. It's showy, but you take a line like mine, for instance, why--"

"My customers swear by me. I make DeKalb to-morrow, and there's Nussbaum, of the Paris Emporium, the biggest store there, who just--"

"I make DeKalb, too," remarked Emma McChesney, the light of battle in her eye.

"You mean," gently insinuated the fat man, "that you were going to, but that's all over now."

"Huh?" said Emma.


Roast Beef, Medium - 5/28

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