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- Roast Beef, Medium - 6/28 -
"Our agreement, you know," the fat man reminded her, sweetly. "You aren't going back on that. The cottage and the Sunday dinner for you, remember."
Of course," agreed Emma listlessly." I think I'll go up and get some sleep now. Didn't get much last night on the road."
"Won't you--er--come down and have a little something moist? Or we could have it sent up here," suggested the fat man.
"You're the third man that's asked me that to-day," snapped Emma McChesney, somewhat crossly. "Say, what do I look like, anyway? I guess I'll have to pin a white ribbon on my coat lapel."
"No offense," put in the fat man, with haste. "I just thought it would bind our bargain. I hope you'll be happy, and contented, and all that, you know."
"Let it go double," replied Emma McChesney, and shook his hand.
"Guess I'll run down and get a smoke," remarked he.
He ran down the stairs in a manner wonderfully airy for one so stout. Emma watched him until he disappeared around a bend in the stairs. Then she walked hastily in the direction of sixty-five.
Down in the lobby the fat man, cigar in mouth, was cautioning the clerk, and emphasizing his remarks with one forefinger.
"I want to leave a call for six thirty," he was saying. "Not a minute later. I've got to get out of here on that 7:35 for DeKalb. Got a Sunday customer there."
As he turned away a telephone bell tinkled at the desk. The clerk bent his stately head.
"Clerk. Yes, ma'am. No, ma'am, there's no train out of here to-night for DeKalb. To-morrow morning. Seven thirty-five A.M. I sure will. At six-thirty? Surest thing you know."
For the benefit of the bewildered reader it should be said that there are two distinct species of chickens. There is the chicken which you find in the barnyard, in the incubator, or on a hat. And there is the type indigenous to State Street, Chicago. Each is known by its feathers. The barnyard variety may puzzle the amateur fancier, but there is no mistaking the State Street chicken. It is known by its soiled, high, white canvas boots; by its tight, short black skirt; by its slug pearl earrings; by its bewildering coiffure. By every line of its slim young body, by every curve of its cheek and throat you know it is adorably, pitifully young. By its carmined lip, its near-smart hat, its babbling of "him," and by the knowledge which looks boldly out of its eyes you know it is tragically old.
Seated in the Pullman car, with a friendly newspaper protecting her bright hair from the doubtful gray-white of the chair cover, Emma McChesney, traveling saleswoman for T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats, was watching the telegraph poles chase each other back to Duluth, Minnesota, and thinking fondly of Mary Cutting, who is the mother-confessor and comforter of the State Street chicken.
Now, Duluth, Minnesota, is trying to be a city. In watching its struggles a hunger for a taste of the real city had come upon Emma McChesney. She had been out with her late Fall line from May until September. Every Middle-Western town of five thousand inhabitants or over had received its share of Emma McChesney's attention and petticoats. It had been a mystifyingly good season in a bad business year. Even old T. A. himself was almost satisfied. Commissions piled up with gratifying regularity for Emma McChesney. Then, quite suddenly, the lonely evenings, the lack of woman companionship, and the longing for a sight of her seventeen-year-old son had got on Emma McChesney's nerves.
She was two days ahead of her schedule, whereupon she wired her son, thus:
"Meet me Chicago usual place Friday large time my treat. MOTHER."
Then she had packed her bag, wired Mary Cutting that she would see her Thursday, and had taken the first train out for Chicago.
You might have found the car close, stuffy, and uninteresting. Ten years on the road had taught Emma McChesney to extract a maximum of enjoyment out of a minimum of material. Emma McChesney's favorite occupation was selling T. A. Buck's Featherloom Petticoats, and her favorite pastime was studying men and women. The two things went well together.
When the train stopped for a minute or two you could hear a faint rattle and click from the direction of the smoking compartment where three jewelry salesmen from Providence, Rhode Island, were indulging in their beloved, but dangerous diversion of dice throwing. Just across the aisle was a woman, with her daughter, Chicago-bound to buy a trousseau. They were typical, wealthy small-town women smartly garbed in a fashion not more than twenty minutes late. In the quieter moments of the trip Emma McChesney could hear the mother's high- pitched, East End Ladies' Reading Club voice saying:
"I'd have the velvet suit made fussy, with a real fancy waist to for afternoons. You can go anywhere in a handsome velvet three-piece suit."
The girl had smiled, dreamily, and gazed out of the car window. "I wonder," she said, "if there'll be a letter from George. He said he would sit right down and write."
In the safe seclusion of her high-backed chair Emma McChesney smiled approvingly. Seventeen years ago, when her son had been born, and ten years ago, when she had got her divorce, Emma McChesney had thanked her God that her boy had not been a girl. Sometimes, now, she was not so sure about it. It must be fascinating work--selecting velvet suits, made "fussy," for a daughter's trousseau.
Just how fully those five months of small-town existence had got on her nerves Emma McChesney did not realize until the train snorted into the shed and she sniffed the mingled smell of smoke and stockyards and found it sweet in her nostrils. An unholy joy seized her. She entered the Biggest Store and made for the millinery department, yielding to an uncontrollable desire to buy a hat. It was a pert, trim, smart little hat. It made her thirty-six years seem less possible than ever, and her seventeen-year-old son an absurdity.
It was four-thirty when she took the elevator up to Mary Cutting's office on the tenth floor. She knew she would find Mary Cutting there --Mary Cutting, friend, counselor, adviser to every young girl in the great store and to all Chicago's silly, helpless "chickens."
A dragon sat before Mary Cutting's door and wrote names on slips. But at sight of Emma McChesney she laid down her pencil.
"Well," smiled the dragon, "you're a sight for sore eyes. There's nobody in there with her. Just walk in and surprise her."
At a rosewood desk in a tiny cozy office sat a pink-cheeked, white- haired woman. You associated her in your mind with black velvet and real lace. She did not look up as Emma McChesney entered. Emma McChesney waited for one small moment. Then:
"Cut out the bank president stuff, Mary Cutting, and make a fuss over me," she commanded.
The pink-cheeked, white-haired woman looked up. You saw that her eyes were wonderfully young. She made three marks on a piece of paper, pushed a call-button at her desk, rose, and hugged Emma McChesney thoroughly and satisfactorily, then held her off a moment and demanded to know where she had bought her hat.
"Got it ten minutes ago, in the millinery department downstairs. Had to. If I'd have come into New York after five months' exile like this I'd probably have bought a brocade and fur-edged evening wrap, to relieve this feeling of wild joy. For five months I've spent my evenings in my hotel room, or watching the Maude Byrnes Stock Company playing "Lena Rivers," with the ingenue coming out between the acts in a calico apron and a pink sunbonnet and doing a thing they bill as vaudeville. I'm dying to see a real show--a smart one that hasn't run two hundred nights on Broadway--one with pretty girls, and pink tights, and a lot of moonrises, and sunsets and things, and a prima donna in a dress so stunning that all the women in the audience are busy copying it so they can describe it to their home-dressmaker next day."
"Poor, poor child," said Mary Cutting, "I don't seem to recall any such show."
"Well, it will look that way to me, anyway," said Emma McChesney. "I've wired Jock to meet me to-morrow, and I'm going to give the child a really sizzling little vacation. But to-night you and I will have an old-girl frolic. We'll have dinner together somewhere downtown, and then we'll go to the theater, and after that I'm coming out to that blessed flat of yours and sleep between real sheets. We'll have some sandwiches and beer and other things out of the ice-box, and then we'll have a bathroom bee. We'll let down our back hair, and slap cold cream around, and tell our hearts' secrets and use up all the hot water. Lordy! It will be a luxury to have a bath in a tub that doesn't make you feel as though you wanted to scrub it out with lye and carbolic. Come on, Mary Cutting."
Mary Cutting's pink cheeks dimpled like a girl's.
[Illustration: "'You'll never grow up, Emma McChesney'"]
"You'll never grow up, Emma McChesney--at least, I hope you never will. Sit there in the corner and be a good child, and I'll be ready for you in ten minutes."
Peace settled down on the tiny office. Emma McChesney, there in her corner, surveyed the little room with entire approval. It breathed of things restful, wholesome, comforting. There was a bowl of sweet peas on the desk; there was an Indian sweet grass basket filled with autumn leaves in the corner; there was an air of orderliness and good taste; and there was the pink-cheeked, white-haired woman at the desk.
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