Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 10

CHAPTER X

1

It was several weeks before Stella knew how serious her bullet wound was. She was calm by that time. She could talk over its details with Effie McDavitt with perfect composure and with a touch of brusque humor, too.

"Why," she said, "Ed bores me. He never gave me a thrill in his life. Oh, Milhampton makes me sick! Narrow-minded, evil-minded, nasty-minded, I think. I'll tell you just how it was. I was down there in Boston, for two days, shopping, getting favors and things for Lollie's party. Naturally, when Ed suggested that he run down and take me to the theater in the evening, I was pleased to pieces. Wouldn't you be? I love the theater in Boston. We didn't stay at the same hotel, though for the life of me I don't see why we shouldn't. There were a hundred or so other men staying there. Glory, how I hate all this winking and shoulder-shrugging stuff about hotels and bedrooms! When Ed suggested, after the theater, that he drop around and have breakfast with me, why, I said, 'Sure, Mike,' quick as a wink. It never entered my head but what that was all right. I didn't care if somebody from Milhampton did see me. Married woman like me! Breakfast! Right in a public dining-room! What's there so horrible about that, I'd like to know! I didn't want anything of Ed but a little fun, and a little advertising. When Stephen wrote to me in that iceberg-y way of his, and asked if I would like my freedom so as to be able to marry Alfred Munn, I could have screamed! Marry Ed? Why, I'd commit suicide first. I don't want to marry Ed! Hasn't anybody any understanding of the human animal? A woman can have other reasons for liking a little attention than just the one the shady stories are all based on. I'm no worn-out old man whose appetite for everything but just indecency has gone dead. I like a little dinner and theater-party just for fun's sake. Honestly, Effie, sometimes I think I'm the only one who's got a clean mind in this town."

Stella took rooms, for the season, at a fashionable hotel on the coast of Maine that summer. She had never spent a summer at a hotel. It might prove diverting. She certainly needed something diverting, she thought. But whatever it proved, the arrow of direction pointed her out of Milhampton for a while.

"I'll give the mud-slingers in this town a rest for a month or two," she said to Effie. "By the end of the summer perhaps their muck will have all dried up. Of course, it would be rather nice if I could fall into some harmless, but showy 'little affair' this summer, with some attractive gentleman or other, up there at that fashionable hotel. That would prove there wasn't anything serious in this Alfred Munn business. It would be rather nice, too, if some of the cats in this town could hear that I was having a wonderful time this summer—being taken right into all sorts of inner circles, and select groups. Oh, there are lots of possibilities in this summer hotel scheme of mine, Effie, my dear."

Stella equipped Laurel with a dozen new frocks, replenished her own wardrobe, and, stout-heartedly, set forth to new fields and untried country, in search of fresh laurels with which to cover up the dried and dead ones.

That was the beginning of her summer hotel era. In the fall, not even Effie was told, in detail, of the disheartening experiences of the first experiment.

"You can drill forever for oil in some places, but unless oil is there, it won't do you any good," was how Stella briefly summed it up. "Next summer, I'll try the Cape—or the mountains possibly."

Stella didn't go back to the detached house when she returned from Maine. Instead she took two-rooms-and-a-bath in an apartment hotel that had lately been built in a residential section of Milhampton.

The apartment hotel offered her more companionship than the detached house. There would at least be the necessity of getting out of a kimono when you went down to meals. Besides, she could have people to dinner more safely. The invaluable Hedwig, whom Stephen had engaged six years ago, and taught and trained, had left to be married. Stella was afraid to trust a new servant with all the hard-and-fast rules. In an apartment hotel, all you had to do, if anything went wrong, was to shrug and say, "Oh, dear, isn't the service in this place dreadful?"

Moreover, there were social advantages. The King Arthur (that was the name of the new apartment hotel) was to be patronized by what Stella called "the right people." She needed all the advantages that she could get from close proximity to the right people.

Stella was determined not to let her injury of the preceding spring incapacitate her. It isn't always necessary for a man to go to bed and stay there even if there is a bullet embedded in him somewhere. Stella wasn't going to become a social invalid just because she'd been unfortunate and the target of a little disagreeable gossip.

Alfred Munn had left Milhampton by the time Stella and Laurel returned from Maine. He had gone into another business in another city. Somebody else had taken over the horses. In time people would forget about Ed. Bullet wounds heal. Scars can be covered up. Of course it was a handicap not to have a husband if he was still in the land of the living; at least it was a handicap in Milhampton, Massachusetts. In California single married women were as plentiful as sunshine, and as welcome, Stella had heard—Oh, she did wish it had been in some place in California that she and Stephen had happened to put down their roots. But it couldn't be helped. It was only common sense, of course, to keep on growing in the same place where they'd started. Stella appreciated her own limitations to the extent of realizing that it would be difficult, even in California, to work her way up alone to anything like the position that she had attained with Stephen in Milhampton.

When Stephen's business took him to New York, Laurel was enrolled as a pupil in the exclusive school of the community. She attended the exclusive dancing-class, and she attended the exclusive Sunday-school. Stella belonged to a few helpful organizations herself. Her name was in the Blue Book. She had at least a bowing acquaintance with almost everybody "worth-while." She had lots of men friends. She believed she had quite a few women friends of value. There was, besides, Stephen's membership at the River Club, an asset indeed to her now, since she had no house of her own in which to entertain crowds, and pay back social debts.

It was a very unhappy day for Stella when she first learned that Stephen had resigned from all his Milhampton clubs. She thought it was the cruelest blow he could deal her. At that time Stella was mercifully unaware how many more cruel blows were to follow, not from Stephen alone, but from everybody—from all sides. They didn't come all at once. If they had, she must have been convinced of the futility of her effort, and given up her fight early.

Her defeat was gradual. She lost ground by degrees. Her various points of vantage and fortresses of strength fell slowly. This season she failed to receive an announcement of the Current Events Class; next season, her name appeared to have been dropped from the Charity Ball list. The season after, the small Luncheon Club she belonged to was reorganized and she was omitted. Every year there were personal slights of various kinds, coolnesses, intentional inattentions from all quarters. Laughingly—bitterly, too—she told herself that the people in Milhampton must be having some sort of chronic eye difficulty. So many old friends and acquaintances failed to recognize her, lately. But Stella didn't lose hope. She didn't, anyhow, show that she lost hope. She managed to keep her eyes bright, and her lips smiling, and her head erect, in spite of repeated rebukes.

"Why, I've got to. For Lollie's sake," she said. "Lollie mustn't know her mother has got anything to look sour-faced over. Oh, we'll be all right after a while—Lollie and me," she told Effie McDavitt. "We'll come out on top in the end. You watch us."

2

It was always "Lollie and me," always "we," and "us," by that time. Stella didn't even think in the singular number, once her maternal instinct had worked its way up through her vanities and self-interests and appeared in her consciousness. The seed of it must have been planted deep, for it took a period of years to appear. In vain Stephen had looked for it when Laurel was a baby; and later when she was in the helpless, toddling stage.

For the first half-dozen years of Laurel's life, Stella took her lightly. Not that she neglected her in any obvious way. She couldn't. There were certain manners and forms in the modern bringing-up of a child that had to be observed. She had an excellent nurse-girl for Lollie; she spent hours in the selection of Lollie's clothes; she had a Mother-Goose cretonne at Lollie's windows; a Noah's-Ark paper on Lollie's walls. There were low chairs, and low shelves. Stella loved to show Laurel's room to guests, when occasion arose. Laurel benefited by many an attention from Stella in those days that did not spring from the maternal instinct. However, the maternal instinct must have been growing underneath the surface, and growing according to Nature's own methods—sending down tough wiry roots in the dark, all the while it was sending up its tender arrow-pointed shaft of life, for when it did shoot through into the light, the plant was strong and vigorous.

Perhaps the first time that Stella was aware of the new insistent force within her was the day Laurel came home from school with the news about the party.

"Gosh, Effie," she had said afterwards, "I don't care what people do to me, but to stick hatpins into Lollie—into my baby! Say, that's more than I can stand. I'm ready to use my claws on anybody who hurts Lollie."

3

During the years between Laurel's sixth birthday and her thirteenth there were many times for Stella to use her claws. There were many times that Laurel was hurt and Stella knew it. "Though the funny little kid doesn't think I do. She never lets on to me. I just have to guess at it from the way she acts."

If she came home from school especially quiet and uncommunicative, and was not very hungry at dinner, Stella would begin to be suspicious.

"What's the matter?" she would demand with a piercing look.

"Nothing," Laurel would reply, feigned surprise and wonder in her voice.

"Has anything happened at school?"

"No."

"Who'd you play with at recess?"

"Nobody special."

"Did you play all alone?"

"No."

"Look here, Lollie. Answer me. Has somebody been horrid to you? Has somebody hurt your feelings?"

"No."

If Stella stared at her hard enough, probed long enough, Laurel might reply, "My stomach aches a little bit," and pay the price of two shredded wheat biscuit and no dessert for dinner.

It would never be from Laurel that Stella would get the first wind of a party in prospect from which Laurel was omitted. Laurel would never tell her that the girls in her class were meeting every few days at each other's houses to work for a fair, or to rehearse a play or fête in which she had no part. When information of an event of this sort did reach Stella, she knew then what had been the cause of Laurel's quiet, brown-study day a week ago. And yet she couldn't use her claws after all. It would be the worst policy in the world For the sake of Lollie's future, for that dim, far-away, full-of-promise time when Lollie would "come out" (girls "came out," now, in Milhampton), she must be as nice and purry as she knew how to the women she knew who could help her daughter.

Laurel could see through her mother's little shams and deceits, devised to spare her pain, much quicker than Stella could see through Laurel's. At thirteen Laurel was an odd mixture of artificiality and truthfulness, of craft and naïveté, of grown-up woman and little girl. She could deceive her mother without flickering an eyelash, and could repeat to strangers the little white lies Stella taught her, with the finesse of a woman of the world, but at school in her work and play, she was never anything but strictly honest.

As experienced as Laurel was in certain of the world's cruelties, and as mature in her calm manner of acceptance of whatever befell, she was amazingly young and innocent about many of the facts of life. Another antithesis. Much younger and much more innocent than the group of sophisticated little girls in her class at school. They were constantly spending days and nights with each other. Their intimacies led to easy discussions of all sorts of subjects. By the time they were twelve their activities out of school were closely resembling their mothers'. And their conversations, too. There were already conflicting invitations for every Saturday. Laurel could catch bits of conversation, now and then, as the various competing parties and entertainments were reviewed afterwards, and their details discussed and criticized. Most of these girls became perceiving and canny little critics before they had finished playing dolls.

Laurel had no intimate friends, belonged in no group, joined in no daily gossipings. Her critical faculty went through no such course of training. She was still groping for the whys and wherefores of many of society's verdicts long after her dolls were put away. Why had she no intimate friends? Why was she never asked to lunch, or to spend the night? Why had she been dropped from the Widow's Mite Club which met Saturday mornings at Stephanie Holland's? The worldly-wise little girls at school could have told her.

"It's your mother."

"What's the matter with my mother?" she would have asked, surprised. Laurel thought her mother beautiful. The little girls would have shrugged and said, "Our mothers don't 'know her.'" "With just the same shrug and inflection that had silenced them.

But Laurel never asked questions of the little girls. She passed through her childhood blindfolded, picking her way cautiously along, sensitive finger-tips stretched out before her to avoid sharp corners and unyielding walls, clinging close to the protection of solitude and isolation.

There were other questions besides those connected with social values to which she didn't know the answers, big questions like, what becomes of dead people, and what God is like, and if He really hears you pray, and knows when a bird falls out of a nest, and where babies come from, and what doctors carry in their mysterious leather bags, and how kittens are born, and if there was ever actually a George Washington, and a Polyphemus, and a Jesus Christ, and a Noah, and a Noah's Ark, with a pair of every kind of animal there is in it, even a pair of mosquitoes, and why there had to be a pair.

Laurel never asked her mother questions about big things. She had discovered that her mother always changed the subject ever so quickly if she did. And once she had exclaimed, "Oh, my! Laurel, nice little girls don't talk about things of that sort!"

Until then Laurel had thought that perhaps she might ask her father. He liked talking about big things, about certain big things, that is—like beautiful music, and beautiful sunsets, and how wonderful nature is, and being honest and a good sportsman, and all that. But Laurel was shy with her father during the short periods she spent with him. She usually listened more than she talked. He always introduced the subjects of their conversations. She'd sooner die in ignorance than to ask him a question that wasn't "nice."