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Emma McChesney Buck always vigorously disclaimed any knowledge of that dreamy-eyed damsel known as Inspiration. T. A. Buck, her husband-partner, accused her of being on intimate terms with the lady. So did the adoring office staff of the T. A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company. Out in the workshop itself, the designers and cutters, those jealous artists of the pencil, shears, and yardstick, looked on in awed admiration on those rare occasions when the feminine member of the business took the scissors in her firm white hands and slashed boldly into a shimmering length of petticoat-silk. When she put down the great shears, there lay on the table the detached parts of that which the appreciative and experienced eyes of the craftsmen knew to be a new and original variation of that elastic garment known as the underskirt.
For weeks preceding one of these cutting- exhibitions, Emma was likely to be not quite her usual brisk self. A mystic glow replaced the alert brightness of her eye. Her wide-awake manner gave way to one of almost sluggish inactivity.
The outer office, noting these things, would lift its eyebrows significantly.
"Another hunch!" it would whisper. "The last time she beat the rest of the trade by six weeks with that elastic-top gusset."
"Inspiration working, Emma?" T. A. Buck would ask, noting the symptoms.
"It isn't inspiration, T. A. Nothing of the kind! It's just an attack of imagination, complicated by clothes-instinct."
"That's all that ails Poiret," Buck would retort.
Early in the autumn, when women were still walking with an absurd sidewise gait, like a duck, or a filly that is too tightly hobbled, the junior partner of the firm began to show unmistakable signs of business aberration. A blight seemed to have fallen upon her bright little office, usually humming with activity. The machinery of her day, ordinarily as noiseless and well ordered as a thing on ball bearings, now rasped, creaked, jerked, stood still, jolted on again. A bustling clerk or stenographer, entering with paper or memorandum, would find her bent over her desk, pencil in hand, absorbed in a rough drawing that seemed to bear no relation to the skirt of the day. The margin of her morning paper was filled with queer little scrawls by the time she reached the office. She drew weird lines with her fork on the table-cloth at lunch. These hieroglyphics she covered with a quick hand, like a bashful schoolgirl, when any one peeped.
"Tell a fellow what it's going to be, can't you?" pleaded Buck.
"I got one glimpse yesterday, when you didn't know I was looking over your shoulder. It seemed a pass between an overgrown Zeppelin and an apple dumpling. So I know it can't be a skirt. Come on, Emma; tell your old man!"
"Not yet," Emma would reply dreamily.
Buck would strike an attitude intended to intimidate.
"If you have no sense of what is due me as your husband, then I demand, as senior partner of this firm, to know what it is that is taking your time, which rightfully belongs to this business."
"Go away, T. A., and stop pestering me! What do you think I'm designing--a doily?"
Buck, turning to go to his own office, threw a last retort over his shoulder--a rather sobering one, this time.
"Whatever it is, it had better be good--with business what it is and skirts what they are."
Emma lifted her head to reply to that.
"It isn't what they are that interests me. It's what they're going to be."
Buck paused in the doorway.
"Going to be! Anybody can see that. Underneath that full, fool, flaring over-drape, the real skirt is as tight as ever. I don't think the spring models will show an inch of real difference. I tell you, Emma, it's serious."
Emma, apparently absorbed in her work, did not reply to this. But a vague something about the back of her head told T. A. Buck that she was laughing at him. The knowledge only gave him new confidence in this resourceful, many-sided, lovable, level-headed partner-wife of his.
Two weeks went by--four--six--eight. Emma began to look a little thin. Her bright color was there only when she was overtired or excited. The workrooms began to talk of new designs for spring, though it was scarcely mid-winter. The head designer came forward timidly with a skirt that measured a yard around the bottom. Emma looked at it, tried to keep her lower lip prisoner between her teeth, failed, and began to laugh helplessly, almost hysterically.
Amazement in the faces of Buck and Koritz, the designer, became consternation, then, in the designer, resentment.
Koritz, dark, undersized, with the eyes of an Oriental and the lean, sensitive fingers of one who creates, shivered a little, like a plant that is swept by an icy blast. Buck came over and laid one hand on his wife's shaking shoulder.
"Emma, you're overtired! This--this thing you've been slaving over has been too much for you."
With one hand, Emma reached up and patted the fingers that rested protectingly on her shoulder. With the other, she wiped her eyes, then, all contrition, grasped the slender brown hand of the offended Koritz.
"Bennie, please forgive me! I--I didn't mean to laugh. I wasn't laughing at your new skirt."
"You think it's too wide, maybe, huh?" Bennie Koritz said, and held it up doubtfully.
"Too wide!" For a moment Emma seemed threatened with another attack of that inexplicable laughter. She choked it back resolutely.
"No, Bennie; not too wide. I'll tell you to-morrow why I laughed. Then, perhaps, you'll laugh with me."
Bennie, draping his despised skirt-model over one arm, had the courage to smile even now, though grimly.
"I laugh--sure," he said, showing his white teeth now. "But the laugh will be, I bet you, on me--like it was when you designed that knickerbocker before the trade knew such a thing could be."
Impulsively Emma grasped his hand and shook it, as though she found a certain needed encouragement in the loyalty of this sallow little Russian.
"Bennie, you're a true artist--because you're big enough to praise the work of a fellow craftsman when you recognize its value." And Koritz, the dull red showing under the olive of his cheeks, went back to his cutting-table happy.
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber