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"Logic! In a discussion about women's dress! T. A., I'm surprised."
"But, Emma, be reasonable. Good Lord! You're usually clear-sighted enough. Our mode of living has changed in the last fifty years--our methods of transit, our pastimes, customs, everything. Imagine a woman trying to climb a Fifth Avenue 'bus in one of those things. Fancy her in a hot set of tennis. Women use street-cars, automobiles, airships. Can you see a subway train full of hoop-skirted clerks, stenographers, and models? Street-car steps aren't built for it. Office-building elevators can't stand for it. Six-room apartments won't accommodate 'em. They're fantastic, wild, improbable. You're wrong, Emma--all wrong!"
She had listened patiently enough, never once attempting to interrupt. But on her lips was the maddening half-smile of one whose rebuttal is ready. Now she perched for a moment at the extreme edge of the arm of a chair. Her skirt subsided decorously. Buck noticed that, with surprise, even in the midst of his heated protest.
"T. A., you've probably forgotten, but those are the very arguments used when the hobble was introduced. Preposterous, people said--impossible! Women couldn't walk in 'em. Wouldn't, couldn't sit down in 'em. Women couldn't run, play tennis, skate in them. The car steps were too high for them. Well, what happened? Women had to walk in them, and a new gait became the fashion. Women took lessons in how to sit down in them. They slashed them for tennis and skating. And street-car companies all over the country lowered the car steps to accommodate them. What's true for the hobble holds good for the hoop. Women will cease to single-foot and learn to undulate when they walk. They'll widen the car platforms. They'll sit on top the Fifth Avenue 'buses, and you'll never give them a second thought."
"The things don't stay where they belong. I've seen 'em misbehave in musical comedies," argued Buck miserably.
"That's where my patent comes in. The old hoop was cumbersome, unwieldy, clumsy. The new skirt, by my patent featherboning process, is made light, graceful, easily managed. T. A., I predict that by midsummer a tight skirt will be as rare a sight as a full one was a year ago."
"We're not quarreling, are we?"
"Quarreling! I rather think not! A man can have his own opinion, can't he?"
It appeared, however, that he could not. For when they had threshed it out, inch by inch, as might two partners whose only bond was business, it was Emma who won.
"Remember, I'm not convinced," Buck warned her; "I'm only beaten by superior force. But I do believe in your woman's intuition--I'll say that. It has never gone wrong. I'm banking on it.
"It's woman's intuition when we win," Emma observed, thoughtfully. "When we lose it's a foolish, feminine notion."
There were to be no half-way measures. The skirt was to be the feature of the spring line. Cutters and designers were one with Buck in thinking it a freak garment. Emma reminded them that the same thing had been said of the hobble on its appearance.
In February, Billy Spalding, veteran skirt-salesman, led a flying wedge of six on a test-trip that included the Middle West and the Coast. Their sample-trunks had to be rebuilt to accommodate the new model. Spalding, shirt-sleeved, whistling dolorously, eyed each garment with a look of bristling antagonism. Spalding sold skirts on commission.
Emma, surveying his labors, lifted a quizzical eyebrow.
"If you're going to sell that skirt as enthusiastically as you pack it, you'd better stay here in New York and save the house traveling expenses."
Spalding ceased to whistle. He held up a billowy sample and gazed at it.
"Honestly, Mrs. Buck, you know I'd try to sell pretzels in London if you asked me to. But do you really think any woman alive would be caught wearing a garment like this in these days?"
"Not only do I think it, Billy; I'm certain of it. This new petticoat makes me the Lincoln of the skirt trade. I'm literally freeing my sisters from the shackles that have bound their ankles for five years."
Spalding, unimpressed, folded another skirt.
"Um, maybe! But what's that line about slaves hugging their chains?"
The day following, Spalding and his flying squad scattered to spread the light among the skirt trade. And things went wrong from the start.
The first week showed an ominous lack of those cheering epistles beginning, "Enclosed please find," etc. The second was worse. The third was equally bad. The fourth was final. The second week in March, Spalding returned from a territory which had always been known as firmly wedded to the T. A. Buck Featherloom petticoat. The Middle West would have none of him.
They held the post-mortem in Emma's bright little office, and that lady herself seemed to be strangely sunny and undaunted, considering the completeness of her defeat. She sat at her desk now, very interested, very bright-eyed, very calm. Buck, in a chair at the side of her desk, was interested, too, but not so calm. Spalding, who was accustomed to talk while standing, leaned against the desk, feet crossed, brows furrowed. As he talked, he emphasized his remarks by jabbing the air with his pencil.
"Well," said Emma quietly, "it didn't go."
"It didn't even start," corrected Spalding.
"But why?" demanded Buck. "Why?"
Spalding leaned forward a little, eagerly.
"I'll tell you something: When I started out with that little garment, I thought it was a joke. Before I'd been out with it a week, I began to like it. In ten days, I was crazy about it, and I believed in it from the waistband to the hem. On the level, Mrs. Buck, I think it's a wonder. Now, can you explain that?"
"Yes," said Emma; "you didn't like it at first because it was a shock to you. It outraged all your ideas of what a skirt ought to be. Then you grew accustomed to it. Then you began to see its good points. Why couldn't you make the trade get your viewpoint?"
"This is why: Out in Manistee and Oshkosh and Terre Haute, the girls have just really learned the trick of walking in tight skirts. It's as impossible to convince a Middle West buyer that the exaggerated full skirt is going to be worn next summer as it would be to prove to him that men are going to wear sunbonnets. They thought I was trying to sell 'em masquerade costumes. I may believe in it, and you may believe in it, and T. A.; but the girls from Joplin--well, they're from Joplin. And they're waiting to hear from headquarters."
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Ferber's Short Stories Vol. 2 -by- Edna Ferber