Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 14
The same chaste charm that pervaded Helen Morrison's summer home was even more striking in her New York house. A feeling of space and fresh air is more of a triumph in the city than in the country. In both Helen Morrison's houses there was delicious freedom from deleterious overcrowding of possessions beneath a roof. She knew how to make walls backgrounds, instead of boundaries, as unconfining as the sky behind a mountain, or the sea behind a sail. Yet neither of her houses could be called large. Much as nature conforms itself equally happily to decorating a mountain-side, or a salt-water pool no larger than a baptismal font, so Helen conformed herself instinctively to whatever proportions were offered her. Never for the sake of displaying some beautiful work of art would Helen disturb the nice equilibrium and fine composition of a room. Never were the space and air necessary for the spiritual well-being, as it were, of one rare treasure robbed for another. She possessed a nice sense of harmony, too. She could no more have placed Tiffany glass beside old luster than have mixed people of discordant instincts at her dinner-table. This discernment was not acquired. It was as effortless with her as breathing.
When she married Cornelius Morrison and came as a very young bride to the New York house, filled with its chaotic collection of treasures picked up from all over the globe, not only by her widely traveled husband, but by his father before him, she felt little of the delight which beautiful things had given her before. On the contrary, she was possessed of an incessant desire to escape them, to get outdoors, and breathe deep, and look upon broad spaces.
Finally she asked her husband if he would object if she cleared out just one of the rooms in the house of every single thing that was in it. He told her she could clean out the whole house, for since Cornelius Morrison had obtained her, his other treasures had sunk into trivial insignificance. Therefore Helen Morrison had had the entire top floor of the house built into a single room which she called the Museum, and into which she moved the wealth of two generations of collectors.
Cloisonnée no longer rubbed shoulders with Copenhagen in the Morrison drawing-room, nor futurist touched frames with early Italian. Such jarring juxtapositions gave Helen somewhat the same feeling of displeasure that a discord on the piano gives to a sensitively musical child when he is still too young to understand why. Helen Morrison could understand her recoil but imperfectly. She knew little about schools and periods and values in art in its various forms when she married Cornelius Morrison. She warned her husband that she was an expert judge concerning only the merits of table-linen, lingerie, and flat silver. But he soon discovered that if an article was really fine and genuine, the something fine and genuine in his wife recognized it and responded to it. He made her curator of the Museum without hesitation.
Underneath the Museum, Cornelius Morrison's house was like a barn at first. At least so the aunt who had lived with Cornelius before he married told Helen, when she saw it.
Helen had exclaimed, "Isn't it? All beautiful space and shadows, and room enough to dance a spring song in, if you feel like it."
The house didn't remain long like an empty barn, however, though according to the aunt it never seemed "like a really furnished house."
Helen spent hours browsing in the Museum, assimilating it slowly, piece by piece. Gradually various treasures began appearing in the rooms below. When Helen discovered, or believed she had, an affinity between some empty niche downstairs and one of the objects of art in the Museum, she united them with delight. "Trial marriages," she called them humorously to her husband. Many of them proved permanent, but there were certain corners, tables, old chests, and secretaries, "that enjoyed a constant state of polygamy," she laughed, "that adjusted themselves happily to various of the temperamental objects of art in the Museum."
You never could be sure what would be the dominant note in the long room with the old-ivory tinted walls in the front of the house. This room was Helen's own. Here, she changed the ornaments as she would the flowers, with every changing season and mood. Therefore there were few of the objects of value in the Museum that, one time or another, didn't descend to the rooms below.
Cornelius Morrison discovered his collection all over again. As Helen isolated one piece of it after another and placed it in a sympathetic environment, he was constantly finding new beauties in form and line and color, heretofore unseen. He liked to boast that he had never enjoyed his collection until Helen came with her unerring intuitions. She gave it new birth. Helen gave new birth to everything he possessed. He told her that she gave new birth to him, too.
Helen had known Cornelius Morrison ever since she was a little girl. He was her father's friend—not so old as her father by a decade or so, but a younger brother of the same generation. He used to come occasionally and spend a night in her father's house in Reddington, on his way farther west, or else on his way back to New York from some protracted journey to China or Japan. He was one of the few honored guests for whom the wine-glasses were always produced and the little liqueur set. Helen used to examine his baggage in secret—his umbrella, his overcoat, his toilet articles—for they were permeated with the same vague fascinating cosmopolitanism of which she was aware whenever he opened his mouth to speak. In those days he was "Mr. Morrison" to Helen. He was "Mr. Morrison" to her up to the day she told him she would marry him. One of the hardest things she had to do was to learn to call him Cornelius.
Helen spent the first half-dozen years of her long boarding-school career in a small town in Connecticut. But she finished her education at a boarding-school in New York. Judge Dane wrote to his friend Cornelius Morrison, when Helen went to New York, and asked him if he would look up his little daughter sometime, and see if she seemed happy in her new environment.
Cornelius Morrison was very kind to the little daughter. He became a sort of fairy godfather to Helen and her group of friends at the New York school. He sent them flowers. He sent them candy. He gave them theater-parties, and afternoon-tea-parties, and college football-parties—all properly chaperoned, all properly discussed and arranged with the mistress of such affairs at the school.
Helen was old enough to appreciate that Mr. Cornelius Morrison was something of a personage in New York (her friends left her in no doubt on that point), but she was not old enough to appreciate that the friendship between Mr. Morrison and her father scarcely warranted so much time and thought spent in her entertainment. She accepted his attentions with enthusiasm, and with the simple joy of a child accepting the bounty of a generous Santa Claus. He bestowed them with no more thought of return.
Cornelius Morrison had never married. In spite of the prominence of his name and family in New York, he had always been shy with women. Helen and her friends were an entirely new adventure to him. He became very fond of Helen Dane. At first he believed he was fond of her as he might have been fond of a younger sister, and he mourned the fact that he had been an only child. Later he believed he was fond of her as he might have been fond of a daughter, and he mourned the fact that he had never married. Then suddenly Cornelius Morrison discovered that he was fond of Helen—that he loved Helen—as only a man can love the woman he wants to make his wife. And she was nineteen, and he was fifty-two!
He started for India a few weeks after his discovery. He didn't return for three years. When he came back he stopped off at Reddington as was his custom when returning to New York from the Far East. His old friend, Judge Dane, had died during his absence—he had been dead a year—but he wished to pay respect to his memory and also to find out if the little daughter, who had finished school now, was well and happy.
He was disturbed about the little daughter when he saw her. The death of her father must have cut deep. She had suffered. This tender creature was still suffering, Cornelius Morrison believed. It struck him, as he sat opposite her at dinner in the big ponderous dining-room where he had often sat opposite her father before, that she was like an abandoned kitten in this great empty place, with only paid caretakers to see that she was fed.
After dinner in the drawing-room he said to her, "Helen, I believe you are lonely here."
Calmly, with no tears (Helen had shed all her tears), with no raising of her voice—she might have been a woman of forty who spoke—she replied, "I am lonely, Mr. Morrison, and I am unhappy, too. I wish I could leave Reddington forever. There's absolutely nothing for me here now."
A wave of tenderness swept over Cornelius Morrison. A wild delirious hope sprang alive within his heart. Could it be that he had anything to offer Helen that she wanted?
Cornelius Morrison had arrived in Reddington a few months after the Dallas tragedy. He had reappeared in Helen's life at a time when every waking moment was dull pain to her, and the days and the months and the years stretched ahead of her like a long, dark, drear road with a blind end.
Helen Dane had loved the son of the man whose last act had cast such a shadow upon the boy who bore his name. Helen had loved Stephen from the first time he had come to call on her the night after the dance her father had given her when she returned to be the young mistress of his house. He had danced with her half a dozen times that evening. He had claimed her for "Home, Sweet Home." Well, who had a better right? They had known each other as children, years before they went East to school. Their fathers served on several same boards of directors together. During "Home, Sweet Home" Stephen asked Helen if he might "call." Such was the custom in those days. He was returning to his law school shortly. He asked if he might call the next evening, that is, if she was going to be at home, and if she hadn't too many other bookings. She was going to be at home. If she had other bookings, she cancelled them. Stephen found her alone.
They sat in Judge Dane's big quiet drawing-room, one on each side of the rose-shaded table-lamp and discussed such impersonal subjects as the football game in New Haven last November, and the boat-race on the Thames last June, and the plays they had seen last spring in New York, and the places they had dined and danced there; and Shaw and Ibsen and Arnold Daly and Nazimova. It was a typical call for that era. Helen had carried on conversations of the same sort with many a young man before. But never had her hands been cold, and her face hot, and never had she lain awake afterwards for three hours and a half.
The truth was that Helen, with the same unerring instinct that later guided her in recognizing kinships between objects of art, was aware of something of the sort between Stephen and herself on her first evening alone with him, and it was exciting. It wasn't only that they were both young, with traditions that were not dissimilar, and tastes and ideals that were not antagonistic. For such was the case between Helen and many of the young men she had met. It was something deeper, more vital. Why, even when this Stephen disagreed with her, now and again, as he had that first evening, she had experienced as sharp—as glowing a sense of pleasure, as certain sharp contrasts in color gave her. No. It wasn't that Stephen was like her, any more like her than a cup is like a saucer (but one without the other is incomplete—broken) or the tallow candle like the silver stick to hold it (but one is the perfect complement of the other, even though made of such different stuff).
Stephen also had been awake a good many hours of the night after his first call on Helen. He wouldn't have been, probably, if he had been in his own bed at home, instead of on the train speeding East. (Stephen was less given to contemplation than Helen.) But every time a stop, or jolt, or sudden application of brakes shook him awake, he was conscious of Helen Dane. "By George, she's a pretty girl"—"I'll write to her to-morrow"—"I'll order her some flowers as soon as I reach Boston"—"I'm going to see something more of that girl. She has beautiful eyes—and a brain too"—"I don't know when I've met such a girl"—"I wonder if she'll want to settle down in Reddington."
The world took on a new interest and significance for Helen after that. The sound of the mailman's whistle would often make her heart jump up in the region of her throat. The sight of a certain shaped envelope on the hall table, sometimes bearing two and three stamps in its corner, would fill her with such a choking wave of emotion that she couldn't answer questions coherently until she had closed herself in her room and had devoured the letter's contents. And why not? Wasn't it written by the man she was going to marry (though he might not yet be aware of it), and didn't it discuss thrilling things about religion and philosophy, and art and music, and all sorts of foundation-stones of a life together?
They didn't refer to that life together in their letters, not directly. They didn't refer to it at Easter-time when the discussions continued by the rose-shaded lamp. Of course not. Stephen's education was not finished yet. He had a whole year and a half at the law school still before he could even start upon a self-supporting career. But Helen was not impatient. She liked prolonging the sweet adventure. It couldn't possibly come out but one way. Stephen's eyes had told her over and over that she was the only girl in the world for him, and her eyes had replied, shiningly, mistily, that she knew it—she knew it and was glad! At least she thought that was what his eyes had said. She thought he understood what she had replied.
When his father did that awful thing, Helen's love for Stephen burst into a blinding desire to help and comfort and share. Her own father had died a few months before. She was alone in the world. If Stephen had need of her, she had need of him, too. She must tell him so when his long torturing journey home was over and he came to her.
Helen waited for three days for Stephen to come to her. Finally, convinced that he was waiting for a sign from her, she stole out quietly, one evening, by herself, and called at the Dallas's big brown house, shrouded in its silent and solemn horror. She stood on the doorstep and rang the bell, and without explanation asked for Stephen. He was out. She left her card with a hasty pencil message written on it, "Please come over to-night. Helen." But he didn't come.
Helen didn't see Stephen Dallas again until one day, fifteen years later, sauntering along one of the bridle-paths of Central Park, she glanced up and there he was standing before her (on horseback also) with his hat off, smiling and saying, "Do you remember me?"
Her heart had jumped up into her throat in the same old young way it used to at sight of him a lifetime ago.
When Helen told Cornelius Morrison that she would marry him, she felt that Stephen was as definitely lost to her as her father. When the doctor had come to her just after her father had died and said, "It is all over," his words were no more final than Stephen's letter, which Helen received a long three weeks after she had called at the Dallas house. The letter was in answer to her note of consolation. For Helen had written to Stephen an outburst of sympathy at the first possible moment.
He thanked her for her note in a formal punctilious manner which she scarcely recognized. He thanked her for the card she had sent over to the house at the time of the funeral. He appreciated her kindness in offering to see him, but it was difficult for him to talk to his friends. He had left Reddington forever. He never wanted to see Reddington again. He was going away—very far away, to Australia, possibly, where he was unknown. He was thankful that Helen's and his friendship was still in its infancy. He was thankful he had formed no business alliances. He was thankful that his father's act cast no shadow of shame on any one outside his own immediate household.
Helen read Stephen's letter until every word of it was graven on her heart. Then she put it away and faced the world without him. There was no recalling him. One cannot recall that which one has never had. One cannot pursue that which does not exist. Stephen was aware of no special bond, of no insolubility. That which to her had been one of those rare relationships that occur once in a long, long while in various groups and communities, had been to him but a "friendship in its infancy." He classed it with a dozen others. She was just a girl he had fancied for a season.
There was only one small light to relieve the darkness of Helen's solitude that winter. She had always loved children. One of her aunts had a little girl—a baby barely three, who took a fancy to Helen. The baby would clamber up into her arms, and cuddle down contented like a kitten in the sun. When Helen told Cornelius Morrison that she would marry him, it was with the distinct image of a little girl of her own, clambering up into her arms and cuddling down contented.
When he asked her when she would like to be married (he waited a whole week before he broached the question: not for anything would he frighten Helen, would he seem to hasten her), she replied, "I would like to be married soon, within a few weeks."
Her voice did not waver. The pallor of her cheeks was as steady as that of a petal of a white rose. It was Cornelius Morrison who was trembling. He could scarcely trust himself to speak. A few weeks! Did she know what marriage meant? He didn't think so. Well, he would never teach her. It would be more than he had even hoped for, just to have her to be kind to, to take care of for a little while.
"I'll do my very best to make you happy, Helen," he said quietly.
There was something in his voice that struck through the wall of Helen's personal suffering behind which she had shut herself for so long. She leaned toward him. She grasped one of his hands with both of hers.
"I'll do my best to make you happy, too," she said fervently.
Neither of them ever forgot their promise.