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"Of course it is," mumbled Miss Smalley. "Everybody's clothes are too young for 'em nowadays. The only difference between the dresses we make for girls of sixteen and the dresses we make for their grandmothers of sixty is that the sixty-year-old ones want 'em shorter and lower, and they run more to rose-bud trimming."
Emma surveyed the acid Miss Smalley with a look that was half amused, half vexed, wholly determined.
"I shan't wear it. Heaven knows I'm not sixty, but I'm not sixteen either! I don't want to be."
Miss Smalley, doubling again to her task, flung upward a grudging compliment.
"Well, anyway, you've got the hair and the coloring and the figure for it. Goodness knows you look young enough!"
"That's because I've worked hard all my life," retorted Emma, almost viciously. "Another month of this leisure and I'll be as wrinkled as the rest of them."
Smalley's magic fingers paused in their manipulation of a soft fold of satin.
"Worked? Earned a living? Used your wits and brains every day against the wits and brains of other folks?"
Into the eyes of Miss Smalley, the artist in draping, there crept the shrewd twinkle of Miss Smalley, the successful woman in business. She had been sitting back on her knees, surveying her handiwork through narrowed lids. Now she turned her gaze on Emma, who was smiling down at her.
"Then for goodness' sake don't stop! I've found out that work is a kind of self-oiler. If you're used to it, the minute you stop you begin to get rusty, and your hinges creak and you clog up. And the next thing you know, you break down. Work that you like to do is a blessing. It keeps you young. When my mother was my age, she was crippled with rheumatism, and all gnarled up, and quavery, and all she had to look forward to was death. Now me--every time the styles in skirts change I get a new hold on life. And on a day when I can make a short, fat woman look like a tall, thin woman, just by sitting here on my knees with a handful of pins, and giving her the line she needs, I go home feeling like I'd just been born."
"I know that feeling," said Emma, in her eyes a sparkle that had long been absent. "I've had it when I've landed a thousand-dollar Featherloom order from a man who has assured me that he isn't interested in our line."
At dinner that evening, Emma's gown was so obviously not of the new crop that even her husband's inexpert eye noted it.
"That's not one of the new ones, is it?"
"This! And you a manufacturer of skirts!"
"What's the matter with the supply of new dresses? Isn't there enough to go round?"
"Enough! I've never had so many new gowns in my life. The trouble is that I shan't feel at home in them until I've had 'em all dry-cleaned at least once."
During the second month, there came a sudden, sharp change in skirt modes. For four years women had been mincing along in garments so absurdly narrow that each step was a thing to be considered, each curbing or car-step demanding careful negotiation. Now, Fashion, in her freakiest mood, commanded a bewildering width of skirt that was just one remove from the flaring hoops of Civil War days. Emma knew what that meant for the Featherloom workrooms and selling staff. New designs, new models, a shift in prices, a boom for petticoats, for four years a garment despised.
A hundred questions were on the tip of Emma's tongue; a hundred suggestions flashed into her keen mind; there occurred to her a wonderful design for a new model which should be full and flaring without being bulky and uncomfortable as were the wide petticoats of the old days.
But a bargain was a bargain. Still, Emma Buck was as human as Emma McChesney had been. She could not resist a timid,
"T. A., are you--that is--I was just wondering--you're making 'em wide, I suppose, for the spring trade."
A queer look flashed into T. A. Buck's eyes --a relieved look that was as quickly replaced by an expression both baffled and anxious.
"Why--a--mmmm--yes--oh, yes, we're making 'em up wide, but----"
"But what?" Emma leaned forward, tense.
During the second month there came calling on Emma, those solid and heavy New Yorkers, with whom the Buck family had been on friendly terms for many years. They came at the correct hour, in their correct motor or conservative broughams, wearing their quietly correct clothes, and Emma gave them tea, and they talked on every subject from suffrage to salad dressings, and from war to weather, but never once was mention made of business. And Emma McChesney's life had been interwoven with business for more than fifteen years.
There were dinners--long, heavy, correct dinners. Emma, very well dressed, bright-eyed, alert, intelligent, vital, became very popular at these affairs, and her husband very proud of her popularity. And if any one as thoroughly alive as Mrs. T. A. Buck could have been bored to extinction by anything, then those dinners would have accomplished the deadly work.
"T. A.," she said one evening, after a particularly large affair of this sort, "T. A., have you ever noticed anything about me that is different from other women?"
"Have I? Well, I should say I----"
"Oh, I don't mean what you mean, dear-- thanks just the same. I mean those women tonight. They all seem to `go in' for something --votes or charity or dancing or social service, or something--even the girls. And they all sounded so amateurish, so untrained, so unprepared, yet they seemed to be dreadfully in earnest."
"This is the difference," said T. A. Buck. "You've rubbed up against life, and you know. They've always been sheltered, but now they want to know. Well, naturally they're going to bungle and bump their heads a good many times before they really find out."
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber