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Buck bent forward, eagerly.
"You're going to tell me now, Emma? It's finished?"
"To-night--at home. I want to be the first to try it on. I'll play model. A private exhibition, just for you. It's not only finished; it is patented."
"Patented! But why? What is it, anyway? A new fastener? I thought it was a skirt."
"Wait until you see it. You'll think I should have had it copyrighted as well, not to say passed by the national board of censors."
"Do you mean to say that I'm to be the entire audience at the premiere of this new model?"
"You are to be audience, critic, orchestra, box-holder, patron, and `Diamond Jim' Brady. Now run along into your own office--won't you, dear? I want to get out these letters." And she pressed the button that summoned a stenographer.
T. A. Buck, resigned, admiring, and anticipatory, went.
Annie, the cook, was justified that evening in her bitter complaint. Her excellent dinner received scant enough attention from these two. They hurried through it like eager, bright-eyed school-children who have been promised a treat. Two scarlet spots glowed in Emma's cheeks. Buck's eyes, through the haze of his after-dinner cigar, were luminous.
"No; not yet. I want you to smoke your cigar and digest your dinner and read your paper. I want you to twiddle your thumbs a little and look at your watch. First-night curtains are always late in rising, aren't they? Well!"
She turned on the full glare of the chandelier, turned it off, went about flicking on the soft-shaded wall lights and the lamps.
"Turn your chair so that your back will be toward the door."
He turned it obediently.
From the direction of her bedroom there presently came the sounds of dresser drawers hurriedly opened and shut with a bang, of a slipper dropped on the hard-wood floor, a tune hummed in an absent-minded absorption under the breath, an excited little laugh nervously stifled. Buck, in his role of audience, began to clap impatiently and to stamp with his feet on the floor.
"No gallery!" Emma called in from the hall. "Remember the temperamental family on the floor below!" A silence--then: "I'm coming. Shut your eyes and prepare to be jarred by the Buck balloon-petticoat!"
There was a rustling of silks, a little rush to the center of the big room, a breathless pause, a sharp snap of finger and thumb. Buck opened his eyes.
He opened his eyes. Then he closed them and opened them again, quickly, as we do, sometimes, when we are unwilling to believe that which we see. What he beheld was this: A very pretty, very flushed, very bright-eyed woman, her blond hair dressed quaintly after the fashion of the early 'Sixties, her arms and shoulders bare, a pink-slip with shoulder-straps in lieu of a bodice, and--he passed a bewildered hand over his eyes a skirt that billowed and flared and flounced and spread in a great, graceful circle--a skirt strangely light for all its fulness--a skirt like, and yet, somehow, unlike those garments seen in ancient copies of Godey's Lady Book.
"That can't be--you don't mean--what--what IS it?" stammered Buck, dismayed.
Emma, her arms curved above her head like a ballet-dancer's, pirouetted, curtsied very low so that the skirt spread all about her on the floor, like the petals of a flower.
"Hoops, my dear!"
"Hoops!" echoed Buck, in weak protest. "Hoops, my DEAR!"
Emma stroked one silken fold with approving fingers.
"Our new leader for spring."
"But, Emma, you're joking!"
She stared, suddenly serious.
"You mean--you don't like it!"
"Like it! For a fancy-dress costume, yes; but as a petticoat for every-day wear, to be made up by us for our customers! But of course you're playing a trick on me." He laughed a little weakly and came toward her. "You can't catch me that way, old girl! It's darned becoming, Emma--I'll say that." He bent down, smiling. "I'll allow you to kiss me. And then try me with the real surprise, will you?"
Her coquetry vanished. Her smile fled with it. Her pretty pose was abandoned. Mrs. T. A. Buck, wife, gave way to Emma McChesney Buck, business woman. She stiffened a little, as though bracing herself for a verbal encounter.
"You'll get used to it. I expected you to be jolted at the first shock of it. I was, myself--when the idea came to me."
Buck passed a frenzied forefinger under his collar, as though it had suddenly grown too tight for him.
"Used to it! I don't want to get used to it! It's preposterous! You can't be serious! No woman would wear a garment like that! For five years skirts have been tighter and tighter----"
"Until this summer they became tightest," interrupted Emma. "They could go no farther. I knew that meant, `About face!' I knew it meant not a slightly wider skirt but a wildly wider skirt. A skirt as bouffant as the other had been scant. I was sure it wouldn't be a gradual process at all but a mushroom growth--hobbles to-day, hoops to-morrow. Study the history of women's clothes, and you'll find that has always been true."
"Look here, Emma," began Buck, desperately; "you're wrong, all wrong! Here, let me throw this scarf over your shoulders. Now we'll sit down and talk this thing over sensibly."
"I'll agree to the scarf"--she drew a soft, silken, fringed shawl about her and immediately one thought of a certain vivid, brilliant portrait of a hoop-skirted dancer--"but don't ask me to sit down. I'd rebound like a toy balloon. I've got to convince you of this thing. I'll have to do it standing."
Buck sank into his chair and dabbed at his forehead with his handkerchief.
"You'll never convince me, sitting or standing. Emma, I know I fought the knickerbocker when you originated it, and I know that it turned out to be a magnificent success. But this is different. The knicker was practical; this thing's absurd--it's impossible! This is an age of activity. In Civil War days women minced daintily along when they walked at all. They stitched on samplers by way of diversion."
"What has all that to do with it?" inquired Emma sweetly.
"Everything. Use a little logic."
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber