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"Anyway," retorted Emma, "they want to know. That's something. It's better to have bumped your head, even though you never see what's on the other side of the wall, than never to have tried to climb it."
It was in the third week of the third month that Emma encountered Hortense. Hortense, before her marriage to Henry, the shipping- clerk, had been a very pretty, very pert, very devoted little stenographer in the office of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. She had married just a month after her employers, and Emma, from the fulness of her own brimming cup of happiness, had made Hortense happy with a gift of linens and lingerie and lace of a fineness that Hortense's beauty-loving, feminine heart could never have hoped for.
They met in the busy aisle of a downtown department store and shook hands as do those who have a common bond.
Hortense, as pretty as ever and as pert, spoke first.
"I wouldn't have known you, Mrs. Mc-- Buck!"
"No? Why not?"
"You look--no one would think you'd ever worked in your life. I was down at the office the other day for a minute--the first time since I was married. They told me you weren't there any more."
"No; I haven't been down since my marriage either. I'm like you--an elegant lady of leisure."
Hortense's bright-blue eyes dwelt searchingly on the face of her former employer.
"The bunch in the office said they missed you something awful." Then, in haste: "Oh, I don't mean that Mr. Buck don't make things go all right. They're awful fond of him. But--I don't know--Miss Kelly said she never has got over waiting for the sound of your step down the hall at nine--sort of light and quick and sharp and busy, as if you couldn't wait till you waded into the day's work. Do you know what I mean?"
"I know what you mean," said Emma.
There was a little pause. The two women so far apart, yet so near; so different, yet so like, gazed far down into each other's soul.
"Miss it, don't you?" said Hortense.
"Yes; don't you?"
"Do I! Say----" She turned and indicated the women surging up and down the store aisles, and her glance and gesture were replete with contempt. "Say; look at 'em! Wandering around here, aimless as a lot of chickens in a barnyard. Half of 'em are here because they haven't got anything else to do. Think of it! I've watched 'em lots of times. They go pawing over silks and laces and trimmings just for the pleasure of feeling 'em. They stand in front of a glass case with a figure in it all dressed up in satin and furs and jewels, and you'd think they were worshiping an idol like they used to in the olden days. They don't seem to have anything to do. Nothing to occupy their--their heads. Say, if I thought I was going to be like them in time, I----"
"Hortense, my dear child, you're--you're happy, aren't you? Henry----"
"Well, I should say we are! I'm crazy about Henry, and he thinks I'm perfect. Honestly, ain't they a scream! They think they're so big and manly and all, and they're just like kids; ain't it so? We're living in a four-room apartment in Harlem. We've got it fixed up too cozy for anything."
"I'd like to come and see you," said Emma. Hortense opened her eyes wide.
"Honestly; if you would----"
"Let's go up now. I've the car outside."
"Now! Why I--I'd love it!"
They chattered like schoolgirls on the way uptown--these two who had found so much in common. The little apartment reached, Hortense threw open the door with the confident gesture of the housekeeper who is not afraid to have her household taken by surprise --whose housekeeping is an index of character.
Hortense had been a clean-cut little stenographer. Her correspondence had always been free from erasures, thumb-marks, errors. Her four-room flat was as spotless as her typewritten letters had been. The kitchen shone in its blue and white and nickel. A canary chirped in the tiny dining-room. There were books and magazines on the sitting-room table. The bedroom was brave in its snowy spread and the toilet silver that had been Henry's gift to her the Christmas they became engaged.
Emma examined everything, exclaimed over everything, admired everything. Hortense glowed like a rose.
"Do you really like it? I like the green velours in the sitting-room, don't you? It's always so kind and cheerful. We're not all settled yet. I don't suppose we ever will be. Sundays, Henry putters around, putting up shelves, and fooling around with a can of paint. I always tell him he ought to have lived on a farm, where he'd have elbow-room."
"No wonder you're so happy and busy," Emma exclaimed, and patted the girl's fresh, young cheek.
Hortense was silent a moment.
"I'm happy," she said, at last, "but I ain't busy. And--well, if you're not busy, you can't be happy very long, can you?"
"No," said Emma, "idleness, when you're not used to it, is misery."
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber