Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 21
"How foolish of you, mother," four days later Laurel scolded Stella, as they stood side by side in front of the sink in the kitchen of the Boston apartment and washed and dried the three-days' collection of dishes Stella had allowed to accumulate. "How foolish to think you could work up any such scheme as that on me. You'd think I didn't have any such thing as a will of my own."
"Oh, I know," sighed Stella. "I suppose we did it the wrong way. I ought to have told you, I guess."
"Telling me wouldn't have made any difference. I wouldn't have listened."
"But I don't see why. He's your own father, and you've always been crazy about him, and she—"
"I know, I know," Laurel interrupted. "Oh, look here, mother," impatiently she broke off. "Listen to me. I'm never going to leave you as long as you live. Do get that through your head. Do try; and don't talk about it any more." Then, suddenly gentle, "Why, mother," she caressed, "don't you remember you said to me once, way back, when I was a mite of a child, 'I'll never leave you, and you'll never leave me, will you, Lollie?' I've never forgotten that."
"Oh," groaned Stella, "what a fool I was to have talked that way to a little kid!"
"No," Laurel retorted. "Rather, what a fool you were to have worked and slaved for that little kid for seventeen years, and skimped and saved for her all that time, and given her everything under the sun you thought would make her happy—oh, that was an awfully foolish way to treat a child you hoped would trot off and leave you the first chance she got."
"What nonsense," Stella scorned. "Why, I didn't even want you before you were born. I didn't like babies."
"Yes, so you've told me before," laughed Laurel, "and you don't want me now, do you? Poor thing! But you've got to have me, just as before I was born. You've got to have me. You see we happen to belong to each other, mother."
"But you belong to your father, too."
Laurel puckered up her brow, thoughtfully, mopping the plate which she held half in the water, half out, round and round slowly with her dishcloth.
"Yes," she acknowledged, "I suppose I do belong to father, too, but it's different. I'm fond of father. I love to be with him. We always have wonderful times, but father and I have never been through anything long and hard and disagreeable. We've always had just fun together. Somehow, having fun together doesn't make two people feel as if they belonged the way suffering together does. Besides, father doesn't need me the way you do."
"Pshaw! I don't need you! I get along all right alone."
"So did I last summer, those two days when you left me. I got along all right alone, too. Nobody to wash dishes with, nobody to talk with, nor to eat with, nor to sleep with, nor to do anything with. I know what it is like. No, mother, you can't live like that. It isn't decent."
"Decent! What do you mean?"
"Why, look at the way the apartment looks, for one thing. Not only the kitchen, but all the other rooms, too. I never saw them in such a mess."
"Well, but I didn't know you were coming. If you'd written—"
"Exactly. Without some human being to clean up for, and have a little pride for, this place would look the way grandpa's used to before he died, in a little while. No, mother. You can never live alone. Come, let's change the subject. What show shall we see to-night?"
Stella threw down her dish-towel and sat down at the kitchen table, her hands dropping limp into her lap. "But I've gone and given your father his divorce now," she lamented. "I didn't want a divorce! It will be all for nothing, if you won't go and live with him for a while."
"Mother, I've told you, and told you, I'm glad you've given father the divorce. It was exactly the right thing to do. Father and Mrs. Morrison cared about each other before you and I ever saw either of them. You've fixed something right that was wrong."
"Yes," sneered Stella, "especially you. I've fixed you fine and right! Oh," she sighed, her eyes resting mournfully on Laurel's back as she stood before the sink, "it just almost kills me to see you doing work like that, Lollie."
Laurel was wiping out the large tin dishpan, now, with her dishcloth, which she had just wrung out with several vigorous little twists. Afterwards she hung up the dishpan on a hook underneath the sink and spread out the dishcloth to dry on top of it. Then proceeded to clean the soapstone sink. She used a small rubber-edged shovel for the purpose, scooping up small bits of refuse with it, and emptying it now and then into her free hand.
"I like making things bright and clean," she called out above the loud scraping noise she was making with her shovel, "but if you prefer," she went on cheerfully, "we'll have a servant. You've often said, since the divorce, we could afford several servants if we wanted them."
"Oh, but, Lollie, I don't know how to run a lot of servants. Besides, what's the use of servants when there's nobody to serve? I can't give you a coming-out party. I used to think I could, but I know now I can't. No. It's no use. It's not in me. I've done all I can for you." She lifted her upturned hands, lying idle in her lap, and then let them drop, dead and lifeless. "She was going to bring you out in New York society, Lollie," she droned on, "she said she was. You'd be going to dinners, and dances, and balls. You'd be having lovely clothes. You'd be having lovely friends—young ladies in limousines calling mornings for you to go shopping with them; young men in limousines calling evenings for you to go—"
"Mother! Please stop. You've told me all that before."
"I haven't told you one thing. I haven't said one word about one special thing. Laurel, listen, if you go to New York for a season you'll be almost sure to run across Richard Grosvenor! He knew Mrs. Morrison, and—"
"Oh, don't drag in Richard Grosvenor."
"And if you did—you can't tell. He was crazy about you—"
"Well, he was."
"I'm all over Richard Grosvenor, now, mother."
"You're not. No such thing."
"But I am! I am! I never even answered his letters last fall."
"Yes. He wrote me—twice. Mrs. Morrison forwarded them. I never told you because you were so silly about him."
Stella shoved her chair back from the table with a fierce jerk and stood up.
"I know why you didn't answer his letters. I know mighty well! Of course you couldn't answer his letters! Of course you couldn't, with him in college right across the river, here, likely—no, sure, to look you up in this hole, and find out we didn't know any of his Back Bay friends, not a single one of the young ladies whose dances he's been ushering at! Oh, I've seen his name in the lists in the papers, too. I've got eyes, and I've just suffered for you, Lollie. Of course you couldn't write to him and have him come here, and find out how we live, and what sort of a freak I am—"
"That's all right. I know—I'm no fool, Laurel. Oh, Lollie, please—please, go to your father just for a little while—just for a year or so, just long enough—"
"No, mother. I'm not going."
Stella sank down in her chair. It was useless, futile to beat herself against this soft child's will once she had set it up. Experience had taught Stella that a big buzzing fly is as ineffective in breaking through a plate-glass barrier.
"Well," gloomily, "what are you going to do with yourself, then? You can't hang around a five-roomed apartment all your life, can you, reading two library books a week, and practicing on a piano two hours a day?" (Laurel had not taken any "Courses" this winter.) "What are you going to do to amuse yourself, I'd like to know?"
"I've got a plan," nodded Laurel, smiling.
"I must have something to do, of course. Busy people are always the happiest. I'm going to be very busy. I'm going to be a stenographer, mother."
"A what?" gasped Stella.
"A stenographer. I've thought it all out."
"A stenographer! A stenographer!" Stella repeated, and a third time, "A stenographer!"
If Laurel had said that she was going to be a German spy, Stella couldn't have been more shocked.
"Yes, mother, dear, a stenographer. Don't you see it's the one thing I can be, and live along here with you, and keep up our nice times together evenings, at the theater and the movies? And have Sundays with you, and holidays, and nights? I'm going to start right in, next week—this week, if I can—at the very best business college there is in this city, and work hard. It's going to be lots of fun!"
"Oh, no, Laurel," Stella broke out. "Not that! Not that! Please. Please." Her voice pleaded, her eyes beseeched, implored. "You wouldn't do that. Say you wouldn't. Not you. It would break my heart. Say you wouldn't, dearie. Please—please." She grasped hold of Laurel's hand. "Lollie, for my sake! It would kill me, Lollie!"
Laurel drew her hand away. "Oh, come, mother. Don't be silly. Don't be a goose."
A stenographer! Laurel, her beautiful Laurel, shut up all day long in an office, reeking with tobacco smoke? Laurel the servant of a lot of men, taking dictation, taking orders? Laurel wearing paper cuffs and elastic bands and pencils in her hair; eating lunch out of a box with a lot of other girls, also wearing paper cuffs and elastic bands and pencils in their hair? No. No. It mustn't be. It simply mustn't be. Why, even she herself wouldn't have been a stenographer.
Stella lay wide awake in the bed beside Laurel. It was nearly two o'clock. Laurel had slept like a baby—sweetly, steadily, all night long so far. She hadn't changed her position. Twice Stella had risen and lit the light to see what time it was, had stopped a moment by the side of the bed, and gazed down upon Laurel.
"Like a lovely Sleeping Beauty, she is. Oh, my God, she can't be a stenographer!" It would be like planting an orchid between the cobblestones at the corner of Washington and Winter Streets to stick Laurel in front of a typewriter, inside of one of the big grimy office-buildings downtown. She'd get all dust and dirt and trampled and spoiled in no time. She mustn't be sacrificed like that! Why, New York would go simply crazy about Lollie. It would exclaim over her, oh-and-ah over her, like the people at the Horticultural Shows over some new amazing flower. "Oh, gracious, what can I do? What can I do to save the kid?"
She must do something, and quick—now. Laurel was all ready to show now. Next year, the year after—too late. She'd be touched, handled, brown on the edges. There'd be a story about her—a tale. "She was once a stenographer, you know." People would whisper, "Really! You don't say!" And eyebrows would be raised. That must not occur. Whatever it cost, by whatever means, that must he avoided.
About three o'clock in the morning Stella crawled out of bed and, wrapping herself up in a blanket, sat down on the window-seat by the open window. She could always think clearer in a vertical position. "If it wasn't for me, Laurel would go. I'm the reason she's tossing aside her opportunity, dumping her happiness overboard, as if it was so much rubbish, and then scrapping herself—her lovely self, all ready to sail (yes, that's what she's like, too—a ship, beautifully made—beautifully fitted out). Oh, gracious, what can I do? She's ruining her life for me—for a big old water-logged hulk like me. (The Lord knows how I happen to be her mother. Talk about miracles!) Oh, why couldn't I have whiffed out last summer at that hotel when I was so sick? She'd have gone to New York then, just as a matter of course. She'd be there, now, to-day. She'd be under steam this minute, admired, desired, flags flying, sun shining. 'As long as you're alive.' Those were her words. Oh, why couldn't I whiff out now? Say, why couldn't I feel a little dizzy and topple over out of the window, down there on the concrete—it's four stories—and clear the job up quick—right now, and no more talk?
"No, I can't. I'm afraid. I haven't the nerve. I haven't the guts. It might only smash me up. Poison would be better, or gas, or a revolver. Poison—what kind? Gas—how long would it take? A revolver—where were they bought? How did you load them? Oh, it would be horrid—horrid! I wonder if I dare."
Stella got down from the window-seat and went over to the bed. The early light of dawn was in the room now, like gray smoke. She stood looking down at Laurel through the thick intangible haze for a long time—for a minute, for two minutes, for three minutes, perhaps.
"Ought I? Oh, gracious, ought I?" she whispered.
The memory of a certain other early morning, when she had stood thus and gazed down upon the sweetly sleeping, defenseless child, recurred to Stella. Then, also, as now, she had whispered, "Ought I? Oh, gracious, ought I?" It was when the doctors were due to arrive in a few hours to perform an operation upon Lollie—years ago, a slight operation, only tonsils—but they were going to make her limp and lifeless, and cut her with a knife.
"Ought I again cut her with a knife?"
It would hurt her, of course—poor kid—at first. Her face would get all white with horror and dismay. "But she'd be rid of me—free, and after a while she'd forget it. She's young, she'd get over it. Or would it also be a story—a tale, to whisper about behind Laurel's back. 'Her mother committed suicide!' 'You don't mean it!' 'And her father's father, too, so I've heard.' 'Really.' 'Runs in the blood on both sides.' 'How shocking!'" Years ago Stella had read in a magazine somewhere that suicidal tendencies were inherited. She recalled it now. Heavens! What if Laurel should grow up and read that, too? Good Lord, it might make her afraid for herself if it was on both sides! She must be saved that horror. A wave of relief swept over Stella.
"I must think of some other way." She went back to the window-seat again. "Oh, how scared I was! What a snivelling coward I am!"
All the next day she submitted compromise after compromise to Laurel. She would keep a servant if only Laurel would go to New York. She would keep two servants, a companion; two companions, return to an apartment hotel, if only—if only—But Laurel simply shrugged her shoulders.
Again and again that day Stella was forced to face the unwelcome consideration of discovering some method of whiffing out that might not arouse suspicion. Slipping down in front of an automobile, making a mistake about sleeping-powders. It might be done. But, oh, she didn't want to die that way. Not that she was much on religion, but she didn't want to take any such chances with immortality. There must be some other way.
It was sometime during the course of the second night, when she was wearied and exhausted almost to the breaking point, that the "some other way" flashed across Stella's mental field of vision. The first consciousness of it made her feel queer and hollow inside for a moment. It was like having a messenger suddenly run onto the scene with your pardon, just when you were settling yourself in the electric chair.
Tremblingly, anxiously, she groped her way across the hall to her desk in the front room. If only she could find the address. It was on a card. She had never thrown the card away. It must be somewhere. Oh, what if Laurel in one of her raids upon the cluttered desk had torn it up, tossed it aside? What if it was ashes now? She had no other clue. If the card was lost, she was lost. "Help me find it. Help me find it." It was about the size of a calling-card, a little larger, very grimy, because she had carried it about in her shopping-bag for a long while. Here! This looked like it! Yes, this was it! No, it wasn't! Yes, it was. Yes! Yes! She had found it. She held it up close to the electric light.
172 North Blank Street,
She'd go to bed now. She'd go to sleep. "Thanks, oh, thanks," she said on her knees three minutes later. "Do please help me bring this business out all right."
Stella as well as Laurel was sleeping soundly and sweetly at dawn on the second morning.