MoboReader> Literature > Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock

   Chapter 3 DICTATED BUT NOT READ

Personality Plus: Some Experiences of Emma McChesney and Her Son, Jock By Edna Ferber Characters: 26793

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


About the time that Jock McChesney began to carry a yellow walking-stick down to work each morning his mother noticed a growing tendency on his part to patronize her. Now Mrs. Emma McChesney, successful, capable business woman that she was, could afford to regard her young son's attitude with a quiet and deep amusement. In twelve years Emma McChesney had risen from the humble position of stenographer in the office of the T.A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company to the secretaryship of the firm. So when her young son, backed by the profound business knowledge gained in his one year with the Berg, Shriner Advertising Company, hinted gently that her methods and training were archaic, ineffectual, and lacking in those twin condiments known to the twentieth century as pep and ginger, she would listen, eyebrows raised, lower lip caught between her teeth-a trick which gives a distorted expression to the features, calculated to hide any lurking tendency to grin. Besides, though Emma McChesney was forty she looked thirty-two (as business women do), and knew it. Her hard-working life had brought her in contact with people, and things, and events, and had kept her young.

"Thank fortune!" Mrs. McChesney often said, "that I wasn't cursed with a life of ease. These massage-at-ten-fitting-at-eleven-bridge-at-one women always look such hags at thirty-five."

But repetition will ruin the rarest of jokes. As the weeks went on and Jock's attitude persisted, the twinkle in Emma McChesney's eye died. The glow of growing resentment began to burn in its place. Now and then there crept into her eyes a little look of doubt and bewilderment. You sometimes see that same little shocked, dazed expression in the eyes of a woman whose husband has just said, "Isn't that hat too young for you?"

Then, one evening, Emma McChesney's resentment flared into open revolt. She had announced that she intended to rise half an hour earlier each morning in order that she might walk a brisk mile or so on her way down-town, before taking the subway.

"But won't it tire you too much, Mother?" Jock had asked with maddeningly tender solicitude.

His mother's color heightened. Her blue eyes glowed dark.

"Look here, Jock! Will you kindly stop this lean-on-me-grandma stuff! To hear you talk one would think I was ready for a wheel chair and gray woolen bedroom slippers."

"Why, I didn't mean-I only thought that perhaps overexertion in a woman of your-That is, you need your energy for-"

"Don't wallow around in it," snapped Emma McChesney. "You'll only sink in deeper in your efforts to crawl out. I merely want to warn you that if you persist in this pose of tender solicitude for your doddering old mother, I'll-I'll present you with a stepfather a year younger than you. Don't laugh. Perhaps you think I couldn't do it."

"Good Lord, Mother! Of course you don't mean it, but-"

"Mean it! Cleverer women than I have been driven by their children to marrying bell-boys in self-defense. I warn you!"

That stopped it-for a while. Jock ceased to bestow upon his mother judicious advice from the vast storehouse of his own experience. He refrained from breaking out with elaborate advertising schemes whereby the T.A. Buck Featherloom Petticoat Company might grind every other skirt concern to dust. He gave only a startled look when his mother mischievously suggested raspberry as the color for her new autumn suit. Then, quite suddenly, Circumstance caught Emma McChesney in the meshes and, before she had fought her way free, wrought trouble and change upon her.

Jock McChesney was seated in the window of his mother's office at noon of a brilliant autumn day. A little impatient frown was forming between his eyes. He wanted his luncheon. He had called around expressly to take his mother out to luncheon-always a festive occasion when taken together. But Mrs. McChesney, seated at her desk, was bent absorbedly over a sheet of paper whereon she was adding up two columns of figures at a time-a trick on which she rather prided herself. She was counting aloud, her mind leaping agilely, thus:

"Eleven, twenty-nine, forty-three, sixty, sixty-nine-" Her pencil came down on the desk with a thwack. "SIXTY-NINE!" she repeated in capital letters. She turned around to face Jock. "Sixty-nine!" Her voice bristled with indignation. "Now what do you think of that!"

"I think you'd better make it an even seventy, whatever it is you're counting up, and come on out to luncheon. I've an appointment at two-fifteen, you know."

"Luncheon!"-she waved the paper in the air-"with this outrage on my mind! Nectar would curdle in my system."

Jock rose and strolled lazily over to the desk. "What is it?" He glanced idly at the sheet of paper. "Sixty-nine what?"

Mrs. McChesney pressed a buzzer at the side of her desk. "Sixty-nine dollars, that's what! Representing two days' expenses in the six weeks' missionary trip that Fat Ed Meyers just made for us. And in Iowa, too."

"When you gave that fellow the job," began Jock hotly, "I told you, and Buck told you, that-"

Mrs. McChesney interrupted wearily. "Yes, I know. You'll never have a grander chance to say 'I told you so.' I hired him because he was out of a job and we needed a man who knew the Middle-Western trade, and then because-well, poor fellow, he begged so and promised to keep straight. As though I oughtn't to know that a pinochle-and-poker traveling man can never be anything but a pinochle-and-poker traveling man-"

The office door opened as there appeared in answer to the buzzer a very alert, very smiling, and very tidy office girl. Emma McChesney had tried office boys, and found them wanting.

"Tell Mr. Meyers I want to see him."

"Just going out to lunch,"-she turned like a race horse trembling to be off,-"putting on his overcoat in the front office. Shall I-"

"Catch him."

"Listen here," began Jock uncomfortably; "if you're going to call him perhaps I'd better vanish."

"To save Ed Meyers's tender feelings! You don't know him. Fat Ed Meyers could be courtmartialed, tried, convicted, and publicly disgraced, with his epaulets torn off, and his sword broken, and likely as not he'd stoop down, pick up a splinter of steel to use as a toothpick, and Castlewalk down the aisle to the tune with which they were drumming him out of the regiment. Stay right here. Meyers's explanation ought to be at least amusing, if not educating."

In the corridor outside could be heard some one blithely humming in the throaty tenor of the fat man. The humming ceased with a last high note as the door opened and there entered Fat Ed Meyers, rosy, cherubic, smiling, his huge frame looming mountainous in the rippling folds of a loose-hung London plaid topcoat.

"Greetings!" boomed this cheery vision, raising one hand, palm outward, in mystic salute. He beamed upon the frowning Jock. "How's the infant prodigy!" The fact that Jock's frown deepened to a scowl ruffled him not at all. "And what," went on he, crossing his feet and leaning negligently against Mrs. McChesney's desk, "and what can I do for thee, fair lady?"

"For me?" said Emma McChesney, looking up at him through narrowed eyelids. "I'll tell you what. You can explain to me, in what they call a few well-chosen words, just how you, or any other living creature, could manage to turn in an expense account like that on a six-weeks' missionary trip through the Middle West."

"Dear lady,"-in the bland tones that one uses to an unreasonable child,-"you will need no explanation if you will just remember to lay the stress on the word missionary. I went forth through the Middle West to spread the light among the benighted skirt trade. This wasn't a selling trip, dear lady. It was a buying expedition. And I had to buy, didn't I? all the way from Michigan to Indiana."

He smiled down at her, calm, self-assured, impudent. A little flush grew in Emma McChesney's cheeks.

"I've always said," she began, crisply, "that one could pretty well judge a man's character, temperament, morals, and physical make-up by just glancing at his expense account. The trouble with you is that you haven't learned the art of spending money wisely. It isn't always the man with the largest expense sheet that gets the most business. And it isn't the man who leaves the greatest number of circles on the table top in his hotel room, either." She paused a moment. Ed Meyers's smile had lost some of its heartiness. "Mr. Buck's out of town, as you know. He'll be back next week. He wasn't in favor of-"

"Now, Mrs. McChesney," interrupted Ed Meyers nervously, "you know there's always one live one in every firm, just like there's always one star in every family. You're the-"

"I'm the one who wants to know how you could spend sixty-nine dollars for two days' incidentals in Iowa. Iowa! Why, look here, Ed Meyers, I made Iowa for ten years when I was on the road. You know that. And you know, and I know, that in order to spend sixty-nine dollars for incidentals in two days in Iowa you have to call out the militia."

"Not when you're trying to win the love of every skirt buyer from Sioux City to Des Moines."

Emma McChesney rose impatiently. "Oh, that's nonsense! You don't need to do that these days. Those are old-fashioned methods. They're out of date. They-"

At that a little sound came from Jock. Emma heard it, glanced at him, turned away again in confusion.

"I was foolish enough in the first place to give you this job for old times' sake," she continued hurriedly.

Fat Ed Meyers' face drooped dolefully. He cocked his round head on one side fatuously. "For old times' sake," he repeated, with tremulous pathos, and heaved a gusty sigh.

"Which goes to show that I need a guardian," finished Emma McChesney cruelly. "The only old times that I can remember are when I was selling Featherlooms, and you were out for the Sans-Silk Skirt Company, both covering the same territory, and both running a year-around race to see which could beat the other at his own game. The only difference was that I always played fair, while you played low-down whenever you had a chance."

"Now, my dear Mrs. McChesney-"

"That'll be all," said Emma McChesney, as one whose patience is fast slipping away. "Mr. Buck will see you next week." Then, turning to her son as the door closed on the drooping figure of the erstwhile buoyant Meyers, "Where'll we lunch, Jock?"

"Mother," Jock broke out hotly, "why in the name of all that's foolish do you persist in using the methods of Methuselah! People don't sell goods any more by sending out fat old ex-traveling men to jolly up the trade."

"Jock," repeated Emma McChesney slowly, "where-shall-we-lunch?"

It was a grim little meal, eaten almost in silence. Emma McChesney had made it a rule to use luncheon time as a recess. She played mental tag and hop-scotch, so that, returning to her office refreshed in mind and body, she could attack the afternoon's work with new vigor. And never did she talk or think business.

To-day she ate her luncheon with a forced appetite, glanced about with a listlessness far removed from her usual alert interest, and followed Jock's attempts at conversation with a polite effort that was more insulting than downright inattention.

"Dessert, Mother?" Jock had to say it twice before she heard.

"What? Oh, no-I think not."

The waiter hesitated, coughed discreetly, lifted his eyebrows insinuatingly. "The French pastry's particularly nice to-day, madam. If you'd care to try something? Eclair, madam-peach tart-mocha tart-caramel-"

Emma McChesney smiled. "It does sound tempting." She glanced at Jock. "And we're wearing our gowns so floppy this year that it makes no difference whether one's fat or not." She turned to the waiter. "I never can tell till I see them. Bring your pastry tray, will you?"

Jock McChesney's finger and thumb came together with a snap. He leaned across the table toward his mother, eyes glowing, lips parted and eager. "There! you've proved my point."

"Point?"

"About advertising. No, don't stop me. Don't you see that what applies to pastry applies to petticoats? You didn't think of French pastry until he suggested it to you-advertised it, really. And then you wanted a picture of them. You wanted to know what they looked like before buying. That's all there is to advertising. Telling people about a thing, making 'em want it, and showing 'em how it will look when they have it. Get me?"

Emma McChesney was gazing at Jock with a curious, fascinated stare. It was a blank little look, such as we sometimes wear when the mind is working furiously. If the insinuating waiter, presenting the laden tray for her inspection, was startled by the rapt expression which she turned upon the cunningly wrought wares, he was too much a waiter to show it.

A pause. "That one," said Mrs. McChesney, pointing to the least ornate. She ate it, down to the last crumb, in a silence that was pregnant with portent. She put down her fork and sat back.

"Jock, you win. I-I suppose I have fallen out of step. Perhaps I've been too busy watching my own feet. T.A. will be back next week. Could your office have an advertising plan roughly sketched by that time?"

"Could they!" His tone was exultant. "Watch 'em! Hupp's been crazy to make Featherlooms famous."

"But look here, son

. I want a hand in that copy. I know Featherlooms better than your Sam Hupp will ever-"

Jock shook his head. "They won't stand for that, Mother. It never works. The manufacturer always thinks he can write magic stuff because he knows his own product. But he never can. You see, he knows too much. That's it. No perspective."

"We'll see," said Emma McChesney curtly.

So it was that ten days later the first important conference in the interests of the Featherloom Petticoat Company's advertising campaign was called. But in those ten days of hurried preparation a little silent tragedy had come about. For the first time in her brave, sunny life Emma McChesney had lost faith in herself. And with such malicious humor does Fate work her will that she chose Sam Hupp's new dictagraph as the instrument with which to prick the bubble of Mrs. McChesney's self-confidence.

Sam Hupp, one of the copy-writing marvels of the Berg, Shriner firm, had a trick of forgetting to shut off certain necessary currents when he paused in his dictation to throw in conversational asides. The old and experienced stenographers, had learned to look out for that, and to eliminate from their typewritten letters certain irrelevant and sometimes irreverent asides which Sam Hupp evidently had addressed to his pipe, or the office boy, and not intended for the tube of the all-devouring dictagraph.

There was a new and nervous little stenographer in the outer office, and she had not been warned of this.

"We think very highly of the plan you suggest," Sam Hupp had said into the dictagraph's mouthpiece. "In fact, in one of your valuable copy suggestions you-"

Without changing his tone he glanced over his shoulder at his colleague, Hopper, who was listening and approving.

"... Let the old girl think the idea is her own. She's virtually the head of that concern, and they've spoiled her. Successful, and used to being kowtowed to. Doesn't know her notions of copy are ten years behind the advertising game-"

And went on with his letter again. After which he left the office to play golf. And the little blond numbskull in the outer office dutifully took down what the instrument had to say, word for word, marked it, "Dictated, but not read," signed neat initials, and with a sigh went on with the rest of her sheaf of letters.

Emma McChesney read the letter next morning. She read it down to the end, and then again. The two readings were punctuated with a little gasp, such as we give when an icy douche is suddenly turned upon us. And that was all.

A week later an intent little group formed a ragged circle about the big table in the private office of Bartholomew Berg, head of the Berg, Shriner Advertising Company. Bartholomew Berg himself, massive, watchful, taciturn, managing to give an impression of power by his very silence, sat at one side of the long table. Just across from him a sleek-haired stenographer bent over her note book, jotting down every word, that the conference might make business history. Hopper, at one end of the room, studied his shoe heel intently. He was unbelievably boyish looking to command the fabulous salary reported to be his. Advertising men, mentioning his name, pulled a figurative forelock as they did so. Near Mrs. McChesney sat Sam Hupp, he of the lightning brain and the sure-fire copy. Emma McChesney, strangely silent, kept her eyes intent on the faces of the others. T.A. Buck, interested, enthusiastic, but somewhat uncertain, glanced now and then at his silent business partner, found no satisfaction in her set face, and glanced away again. Grace Galt, unbelievably young and pretty to have won a place for herself in that conference of business people, smiled in secret at Jock McChesney's evident struggle to conceal his elation at being present at this, his first staff meeting.

The conference had lasted one hour now. In that time Featherloom petticoats had been picked to pieces, bit by bit, from hem to waist-band. Nothing had been left untouched. Every angle had come under the keen vision of the advertising experts-the comfort of the garment, its durability, style, cheapness, service. Which to emphasize?

"H-m, novelty campaign, in my opinion," said Hopper, breaking one of his long silences. "There's nothing new in petticoats themselves, you know. You've got to give 'em a new angle."

"Yep," agreed Hupp. "Start out with a feature skirt. Might illustrate with one of those freak drawings they're crazy about now-slinky figure, you know, hollow-chested, one foot trailing, and all that. They're crazy, but they do attract attention, no doubt of that."

Bartholomew Berg turned his head slowly. "What's your opinion, Mrs. McChesney?" he asked.

"I-I'm afraid I haven't any," said Emma McChesney listlessly. T.A. Buck stared at her in dismay and amazement.

"How about you, Mr. Buck?"

"Why-I-er-of course this advertising game's new to me. I'm really leaving it in your hands. I really thought that Mrs. McChesney's idea was to make a point of the fact that these petticoats were not freak petticoats, but skirts for the everyday women. She gave me what I thought was a splendid argument a week ago." He turned to her helplessly.

Mrs. McChesney sat silent.

Bartholomew Berg leaned forward a little and smiled one of his rare smiles.

"Won't you tell us, Mrs. McChesney? We'd all like to hear what you have to say."

Mrs. McChesney looked down at her hands. Then she looked up, and addressed what she had to say straight to Bartholomew Berg.

"I-simply didn't want to interfere in this business. I know nothing about it, really. Of course, I do know Featherloom petticoats. I know all about them. It seemed to me that just because the newspapers and magazines were full of pictures showing spectacular creatures in impossible attitudes wearing tango tea skirts, we are apt to forget that those types form only a thin upper crust, and that down beneath there are millions and millions of regular, everyday women doing regular everyday things in regular everyday clothes. Women who wash on Monday, and iron on Tuesday, and bake one-egg cakes, and who have to hurry home to get supper when they go down-town in the afternoon. They're the kind who go to market every morning, and take the baby along in the go-cart, and they're not wearing crêpe de chine tango petticoats to do it in, either. They're wearing skirts with a drawstring in the back, and a label in the band, guaranteed to last one year. Those are the people I'd like to reach, and hold."

"Hm!" said Hopper, from his corner, cryptically.

Bartholomew Berg looked at Emma McChesney admiringly. "Sounds reasonable and logical," he said.

Sam Hupp sat up with a jerk.

"It does sound reasonable," he said briskly. "But it isn't. Pardon me, won't you, Mrs. McChesney? But you must realize that this is an extravagant age. The very workingmen's wives have caught the spending fever. The time is past when you can attract people to your goods with the promise of durability and wear. They don't expect goods to wear. They'd resent it if they did. They get tired of an article before it's worn out. They're looking for novelties. They'd rather get two months' wear out of a skirt that's slashed a new way, than a year's wear out of one that looks like the sort that mother used to make."

Mrs. McChesney, her cheeks very pink, her eyes very bright, subsided into silence. In silence she sat throughout the rest of the conference. In silence she descended in the elevator with T.A. Buck, and in silence she stepped into his waiting car.

T.A. Buck eyed her worriedly. "Well?" he said. Then, as Mrs. McChesney shrugged noncommittal shoulders, "Tell me, how do you feel about it?"

Emma McChesney turned to face him, breathing rather quickly.

"The last time I felt as I do just now was when Jock was a baby. He took sick, and the doctors were puzzled. They thought it might be something wrong with his spine. They had a consultation-five of them-with the poor little chap on the bed, naked. They wouldn't let me in, so I listened in the hallway, pressed against the door with my face to the crack. They prodded him, and poked him, and worked his little legs and arms, and every time he cried I prayed, and wept, and clawed the door with my fingers, and called them beasts and torturers and begged them to let me in, though I wasn't conscious that I was doing those things-at the time. I didn't know what they were doing to him, though they said it was all for his good, and they were only trying to help him. But I only knew that I wanted to rush in, and grab him up in my arms, and run away with him-run, and run, and run."

She stopped, lips trembling, eyes suspiciously bright.

"And that's the way I felt in there-this afternoon."

T.A. Buck reached up and patted her shoulder. "Don't, old girl! It's going to work out splendidly, I'm sure. After all, those chaps do know best."

"They may know best, but they don't know Featherlooms," retorted Emma McChesney.

"True. But perhaps what Jock said when he walked with us to the elevator was pretty nearly right. You know he said we were criticising their copy the way a plumber would criticise the Parthenon-so busy finding fault with the lack of drains that we failed to see the beauty of the architecture."

"T.A.," said Emma McChesney solemnly, "T.A., we're getting old."

"Old! You! I! Ha!"

"You may 'Ha!' all you like. But do you know what they thought of us in there? They thought we were a couple of fogies, and they humored us, that's what they did. I'll tell you, T.A., when the time comes for me to give Jock up to some little pink-faced girl I'll do it, and smile if it kills me. But to hand my Featherlooms over to a lot of cold-blooded experts who-well-" she paused, biting her lip.

"We'll see, Emma; we'll see."

They did see. The Featherloom petticoat campaign was launched with a great splash. It sailed serenely into the sea of national business. Then suddenly something seemed to go wrong with its engines. It began to wobble and showed a decided list to port. Jock, who at the beginning was so puffed with pride that his gold fountain pen threatened to burst the confines of his very modishly tight vest, lost two degrees of pompousness a day, and his attitude toward his unreproachful mother was almost humble.

A dozen times a week T.A. Buck would stroll casually into Mrs. McChesney's office. "Think it's going to take hold?" he would ask. "Our men say the dealers have laid in, but the public doesn't seem to be tearing itself limb from limb to get to our stuff."

Emma McChesney would smile, and shrug noncommittal shoulders.

When it became very painfully apparent that it wasn't "taking hold," T.A. Buck, after asking the same question, now worn and frayed with asking, broke out, crossly:

"Well, really, I don't mind the shrug, but I do wish you wouldn't smile. After all, you know, this campaign is costing us money-real money, and large chunks of it. It's very evident that we shouldn't have tried to make a national campaign of this thing."

Whereupon Mrs. McChesney's smile grew into a laugh. "Forgive me, T.A. I'm not laughing at you. I'm laughing because-well, I can't tell you why. It's a woman's reason, and you wouldn't think it a reason at all. For that matter, I suppose it isn't, but-Anyway, I've got something to tell you. The fault of this campaign has been the copy. It was perfectly good advertising, but it left the public cold. When they read those ads they might have been impressed with the charm of the garment, but it didn't fill their breasts with any wild longing to possess one. It didn't make the women feel unhappy until they had one of those skirts hanging on the third hook in their closet. The only kind of advertising that is advertising is the kind that makes the reader say, 'I'll have one of those.'"

T.A. Buck threw out helpless hands. "What are we going to do about it?"

"Do? I've already done it."

"Done what?"

"Written the kind of copy that I think Featherlooms ought to have. I just took my knowledge of Featherlooms, plus what I knew about human nature, sprinkled in a handful of good humor and sincerity, and they're going to feed it to the public. It's the same recipe that I used to use in selling Featherlooms on the road. It used to go by word of mouth. I don't see why it shouldn't go on paper. It isn't classic advertising. It isn't scientific. It isn't even what they call psychological, I suppose. But it's human. And it's going to reach that great, big, solid, safe, spot-cash mass known as the middle class. Of course my copy may be wrong. It may not go, after all, but-"

But it did go. It didn't go with a rush, or a bang. It went slowly, surely, hand over hand, but it went, and it kept on going. And watching it climb and take hold there came back to Emma McChesney's eye the old sparkle, to her step the old buoyancy, to her voice the old delightful ring. And now, when T.A. Buck strolled into her office of a morning, with his, "It's taking hold, Mrs. Mack," she would dimple like a girl as she laughed back at him-

"With a grip that won't let go."

"It looks very much as though we were going to be millionaires in our old age, you and I?" went on Buck.

Emma McChesney opened her eyes wide.

"Old!" she mocked, "Old! You! I! Ha!"

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