Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 15

CHAPTER XV

1

Although Cornelius Morrison was always aware he was not the perfect mate for Helen, and Helen observed her marriage with wide-open and seeing eyes, they both did much to enrich and beautify the life of the other. All happy marriages are not "made in heaven," Helen discovered. Some are the result of wise human effort, and long steady adaptation.

Cornelius Morrison was thirty years older than Helen. He was never free from the fear that some day a younger man, a more appropriate comrade for his wife, might supplant him in her affections. If a younger man devoted an evening to Helen, if she seemed to respond to his attentions with interest and vivacity, a deep melancholy would take possession of Cornelius Morrison—unreasonable, perhaps, but uncontrollable and terribly painful.

Helen needed no explanations. With her intuition she saw as clearly as through a microscope into the reason for her husband's occasional waves of depression. Not for anything in the world would she hurt him. She might not love him in the romantic way that she had loved Stephen. She knew that she didn't; but there was something fine and untarnished to be preserved about their relations, beside which passing and personal pleasures were trivial and unimportant. She became as careful to spare her husband the secret ignominy of jealousy as to guard her children from groundless fears and premonitions. In spite of her youth, in spite of her natural impulses, she avoided all intimacies that might even indefinitely disturb Cornelius.

With gentle consideration, too, she abandoned all forms of pleasure that emphasized the difference in their ages and placed him at a disadvantage. Cornelius spoke no word of complaint on the several occasions when she danced half the night away on a ballroom floor while he waited for her in a smoky anteroom, but quietly, without comment, Helen gave up dancing after a little while. Cornelius liked to give dinners. Helen learned to like to give them. Cornelius liked to go to the opera. Helen learned to like to go to the opera. Cornelius liked to ride horseback. Helen learned to like to ride horseback. It was when Helen was riding horseback in Central Park one morning alone that she met Stephen Dallas.

2

When Stephen had said, "Do you remember me?" Helen had replied with a little puzzled look, as if she wasn't quite sure, "You're Stephen Dallas, aren't you?"

"You know I'm Stephen Dallas," he exclaimed in the old sure way with her he used to have.

There was joy in his eyes. There was gladness in his voice. He had the queer sensation that the intervening years since last he saw this girl were a bad dream, and he had just waked up, as keenly responsive to her as the day he lost consciousness.

He leaned over and they shook hands. The sort of ecstasy swept over Stephen that any victim of a nightmare feels when he returns to the realm of realities and his physical contacts register properly.

They exchanged a commonplace or two—Helen sweetly, but coolly. Stephen with an impetuosity he didn't try to conceal.

"I saw you, half a mile back," he confessed. "You passed me. I didn't think at first it could be really you. Chance isn't usually so kind to me. By the time I had decided it couldn't possibly be anybody else, you had gone too far ahead for me to overtake you with proper park decorum. So I've been contriving ever since how I might head you off. Again chance has favored me. You might have made half a dozen wrong turns. Or, perhaps it wasn't chance at all. Perhaps it was mental telepathy."

To this boyish outburst of Stephen's Helen replied, still sweetly, still coolly (long practice had made her skillful), "I'm delighted we met, but I scarcely think it was due to mental telepathy. I let my horse choose the turns this morning. I usually ride with my husband and we always come this way."

"Oh, I know you're married, Helen," laughed Stephen boldly, as much as to say, "I suppose you think I ought to be told, I seem so glad to see you."

Helen was not to be perturbed by boldness. She was not a young girl to betray a pounding heart which she had reason to wish to conceal.

Politely, calmly, she inquired, "Are you living in New York now?"

He nodded, smiling. (What a beautiful woman she had become!)

"If two rooms in bachelor's apartments is living, yes, I am," he said.

"Have you been here long?"

"Three years."

"Three years? Really!" She raised her lovely brows.

"Oh, people may say the world's a small place, Helen," Stephen exclaimed. "But New York isn't. I've been trying for three years to run across your path, and I haven't succeeded until to-day!" He simply couldn't resist being personal with her at every turn.

Helen replied prosaically, "Well, I'm glad we've met at last. It's always a pleasure to see any one from Reddington."

She was almost convincing. Stephen looked at her sharply. Was it pretense, or was she actually unaware of any special significance in this meeting? "Don't you remember the talks we used to have, Helen?" he asked.

"Why, of course," she answered him, but she managed to sound more tactful than honest.

Stephen looked into her well-remembered eyes. "I've never forgotten them," he told her quietly.

Helen would not give him the slightest sign of response.

"I suppose," she went on serenely, "like most young people of our time we tried to settle all the weighty questions of the day, didn't we?"

Stephen felt a pang of disappointment. The years since last he saw Helen had not been a dream. They were real—every one of them was real, and Helen was as far removed, as beyond recall, as his youth. There she sat opposite him, graceful, lovely, beautifully poised upon her horse (beautifully poised in speech and manner, too), as impervious to him as a picture. She looked at him kindly, graciously, but disinterestedly as if he were a part of the landscape. He turned away from her tranquil face.

"You must come to dinner with us some day," he heard her saying in that cool, smooth, impersonal voice of hers.

"Thank you very much," he replied perfunctorily, not looking back at her. Oh, he, too, could be cool and smooth and impersonal if that was what she really wanted.

3

It was what she really wanted. When he dined for the first time at the Cornelius Morrison's there were half a dozen other guests present. He sat nowhere near his hostess, nor did she give him any chance for conversation after dinner. It was always like that. As time went on, Stephen was frequently in the same drawing-room with Helen, and often one of the same party, but she always contrived to avoid all opportunity for intimate conversation.

Stephen was hungry to talk to Helen. He had no intention of making love to her. She needn't have been afraid. He was scarcely less free than she. He simply wanted to sit occasionally, for short periods, in an outer circle of the warm sunshine of her radiating sympathy. But she wouldn't let him. Her insistence upon a purely impersonal basis of intercourse made anything but the merest superficialities impossible.

When Cornelius Morrison met Stephen Dallas, he took a fancy to the young man. They had several interests in common. Cornelius and Stephen went on a fall fishing-trip together six months after Stephen met Helen in Central Park. Stephen was often at Helen's house after the fishing-trip. Cornelius would bring him home to dinner unannounced. After dinner the two men would play long games of chess in the library, while Helen read to her boys in a room above. Of course Stephen saw Helen alone sometimes, but never for longer than a passing moment or two. Helen always had something to call her away. And during those passing moments or two she was always clothed in her armor.

Stephen made no attempt to pierce that armor. Convinced that it was not only her wish, but her determined resolve to treat him merely as a friend of her husband's, to whom she extended the courtesies of her position, but nothing more, he acquiesced. He even tried to help her. Finally Stephen avoided all chance for intimate conversation with Helen as delicately and adroitly as herself. Through Helen's skillful management Cornelius Morrison never experienced a moment of the cruel suspicion that he was unwelcome in the company of these two creatures so many years younger than himself.

For over half a dozen years Stephen came and went to and from the Morrison home. He was constantly moving before Helen's eyes—vivid and alive, but, as far as she was concerned, apparently divested of all reality.

When Cornelius Morrison died, and suddenly Helen was released from all fear of hurting him, she did not immediately alter her attitude towards Stephen Dallas. Habit was so strong—or was it respect for Cornelius that was so strong?—she contrived to maintain with Stephen for many months the same remote relations which she had established when her husband was alive.

Stephen had a great deal to do in settling Cornelius Morrison's affairs. Cornelius Morrison had concluded that, of all his friends who were members of the bar, Stephen Dallas, who had known Helen as a child, could work with her to the best advantage. He named Stephen as one of his trustees. Therefore Stephen and Helen were necessarily alone together frequently.

At first Stephen treated Helen as she had indicated she wished to be treated. He was almost formal with her unless the children were present as a safeguard. It was difficult to strike a happy medium after Stephen had been alone in Helen's presence for longer than half an hour. For he loved her! He believed he had loved her ever since that day he had met her in Central Park, and his own eagerness and joy at sight of her had so startled and surprised him. No. He believed he had loved her longer. Occasionally a look would pass between Helen and himself—a vague, indefinite look that recalled to Stephen the picture of a girl sitting by a rose-shaded lamp, and a boy opposite her toying with a little bronze which he had picked up from the table near by. Stephen believed he had loved Helen ever since that first night in Judge Dane's drawing-room!

When for the first time Stephen pursued one of those vague illusive looks, gazed straight at Helen in the gray depths of her eyes, and by sheer mind-energy captured that will-o'-the-wisp impulse that had drifted like vapor between them, she had drawn in her breath quickly and her eyelids had flickered and closed for a moment; and color, ever so faint, ever so indefinite, had tinged her cheeks.

It was no picture of a girl that Stephen saw then! It was the girl herself! She was not the wife of Cornelius Morrison. She was his, to love and to win! And again Stephen had the queer sensation of waking up from a bad dream. Again his father's suicide, the black days that had followed, Milhampton, the boarding-house, the little red cottage and Stella, were all parts of a nightmare. Helen alone was real. She was made for him. She was meant for him. All that had happened to prevent nature's plan was a mistake, an abortion.

At the time of Helen's betrayal of her real feelings for Stephen, he made no comment. He seemed not to notice the sharp intaking of her breath, the faint color, the closed lids. He began talking quickly about a certain exchange of property they had been discussing. And he left her very soon. Stephen made up his mind he would not speak a word of love to this beautiful woman until he was free to do so, with no fear of casting reflection upon her reputation.

Divorce, public acknowledgement of failure in the most sacred department in a man's or a woman's life, had always seemed hideous to Stephen. But wasn't it the failure, after all, that was hideous, rather than the acknowledgment? His and Stella's failure had already been demonstrated. They had already made the slow embittering descent from confidence and hope to doubt and despair. For years their marriage had been absolved. To place the law's decree upon dead hopes is not the saddest part of the experience. It is not the required death notice in the city's records that remains graven forever in the memory of the watcher by the bedside. Thus Stephen reasoned.

4

It was in September, shortly before Laurel's first visit at Mrs. Morrison's, that Stephen called on his friend Morley Smith and started proceedings for a divorce. It was in January when Stephen came to the definite conclusion that there was only one way that he could obtain a divorce; and that one way would defeat the object for it.

Stella was as firm as adamant. Every form of argument that Morley Smith could think of, every variety of persuasion that he could devise, had been brought to bear upon her, but to no avail. Stella would not comply. "If Stephen wants a divorce he will have to fight for it," was her invariable answer.

Stephen's hands were tied. It was unthinkable to expose in court the tawdry and unbeautiful details of his life with Stella before he went to New York, to unbury for the delight of a greedy public her compromising relations with Alfred Munn. He might be granted a divorce (Morley Smith assured him that he would), but of what use would it be to him? Helen's position as Mrs. Cornelius Morrison must be considered. She had always looked upon it as a sort of trust. Besides, there were her boys. They should not be made victims of such a scandal. And there was Laurel. No. A divorce obtained in such a manner was out of the question.

As a last resort Stephen had gone to see Stella himself. It was after that ordeal that he felt convinced that he could never marry Helen Dane. He went to her as soon as possible after he had left the Boston train to tell her of his defeat. He stopped only long enough at his rooms to change, and then hastened directly to her house.

It was nearly twelve o'clock at night before he arrived. As he sat down in the long room two floors above the entrance, he felt a little faint. Helen was not in the room, but it was so peculiarly hers that he could hardly breathe its air lately without feeling her sweet presence. To-night there were fresh logs flaming in the open fireplace. There was a flame-colored porcelain bowl, placed on each of the chests on either side of the hearth. There was a piece of flame-colored brocade, brilliant as a bank of nasturtiums, thrown over one end of the long Sheraton sofa.

When Helen came into the room Stephen was aware that she was in pure white, but there was something as brilliant about her, as flame-colored, as the two bowls, as the brocade, as the fire.

He gazed at her speechless a moment, then went to meet her. He put his arms around her and kissed her.

Afterwards he said quietly, "They're numbered, Helen." And she knew that what she had read in his eyes when first she entered the room was true.

She slipped a firm, steadying arm through his, and guided him to the sofa. They sat down side by side, on the flame-colored brocade. He kissed her again.

In spite of his high resolve to hold himself in restraint, until the law had pronounced him free, he had not done so. As long as there had been hope that he might go to Helen unentangled, some day, he remained silent. But when that hope had grown faint, had all but disappeared, brokenly, despairingly, one day, he had confessed his love to her. That was a month ago. His confession had acted like a lighted match on paper. Once Stephen revealed himself to Helen, her love for him, long concealed, but long realized, flashed into flame, like the combustion of a long-stifled fire once it is given air.

As she sat beside him on the sofa, to-night, her arm thrust through his, she observed with fierce pity his drooping shoulders, his hand lying limp and inert upon his knee. She placed her own on top of it and grasped it hard.

"Never mind, Stephen."

"There's no hope."

"I know. We scarcely expected it so soon."

"Oh, it's final, Helen."

There was a pause.

"Do you care to tell me about it?"

Stephen shook his head. It seemed to him sacrilege to bring even the image he had of Stella in his mind into this room. So long as he remained in Helen's presence, he wished he might erase from his brain the memory of the interview he had just had with the woman who had one day been his wife. (Was it possible that she had one day been his wife?) Stephen closed his eyes an instant. Stella, powdered, painted, perfumed, coarsened in speech and manner as he didn't suppose it possible, her fattened figure covered with cheap trappings from head to toe, flashed into his field of vision. He looked down at Helen's lovely hand. Stella and Helen were as unlike as a wax figure, with highly colored cheeks, glass eyes, and blond hair, is unlike a statue of a beautiful Diana carved in white marble.

"You saw her?"

"Yes, I saw her."

There was another pause.

Gently Helen withdrew her arm and got up. Of course as long as she sat so close to Stephen he could not talk to her. She shoved up her little armchair opposite him and sat down in it.

"Now, Stephen, tell me about it."

Tell her about it? Repeat to her the threat Stella had hurled at him? No! Helen must never surmise that her fair name had been mentioned, even by an unscrupulous lawyer as a corespondent in a divorce case. For such had been the nature of Stella's threat.

It had been torture to Stephen to sit in Stella's presence and listen to her using Helen's name familiarly, daring to refer to her in the same breath that she referred to Alfred Munn. Stephen closed his eyes again an instant. He could hear Stella still. Her speech had grown terribly crude with the years.

"Thank heaven for lawyers, I say now. Gracious! I'd never have thought myself of getting something on you, Stephen, but my lawyer has been right onto his job. He's been down there to New York, and he says that I've got as much grounds to do a little naming as you have. So if you want a divorce, Stephen, go ahead and dig up Ed Munn, and I'll dig up Helen Morrison and we'll give the public something worth reading. Of course, I, myself, don't want a divorce. There's nobody I want to marry. I'd see myself dead rather than tied up to Ed Munn. And I can't see that it's any advantage to a woman with a daughter she's got to bring out in society to be a grass-widow. I'd just rather have you in New York, on business, the way you've always been. I've taken an apartment in Boston now, and by the time Laurel's old enough to come out, it may strike me as a good idea to have her father in the background somewheres, when we give her a ball at one of the big hotels. Mr. Hinckly, my lawyer, says you'll probably want to do about anything I want you to, just so I don't show up your little affair with that pretty widow down there in New York. My! But I think lawyers are clever. I certainly take off my hat to Mr. Hinckly."

It was Helen's sweet voice saying, "You have had a difficult day, Stephen. I'm so sorry," that called Stephen back to a brief glimpse of heaven again.

He looked at her long and quietly. Then he said, "Helen, I gave you up years ago, because I felt I could bring you nothing but shame. I must give you up again for the same reason."