Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 3
Laurel was to go to Mrs. Morrison's the following Monday. She dreaded the visit. She was suspicious of women, and especially suspicious of mothers. One of the reasons Laurel always looked forward with such joy to the month with her father was that there never were any slights—never any fear of any slights. His presence seemed to prevent the possibility of slights. Everybody to whom he introduced her in his fine proud manner as "my daughter Laurel," treated her with the same kindness—almost deference—with which they treated him. Mrs. Morrison had been kindness itself to her a year ago, at tea in the hotel, but her father had been there then. Ladies had a way of being kind when men were about, Laurel had discovered. It was being left alone with Mrs. Morrison that she dreaded.
Besides, Laurel knew very little about the etiquette of private homes. She was familiar with the ways and customs of a hotel. Knew the proper manner to assume towards waiters, and porters, and clerks; knew, too, the proper fee to pay bellboys and chambermaids, if she asked them to do anything for her, which she seldom did, for dimes and quarters were never freely squandered by Laurel and her mother on ice-water or extra blankets for cool nights. But she was uncertain about the proper manner to assume towards servants in a private home. In the winter-time she and her mother lived in an apartment hotel. How many servants were there usually, anyhow, and what did you call them, and what fee did you give them? And when, and how, and for what? Or didn't you give them a fee at all? And just how, she wondered, should you dress in a private home? Did a girl of thirteen change three times a day, for instance, and put on an organdie for dinner? And who did her hair? Miss Simpson, it appeared, was not to accompany Laurel to Mrs. Morrison's. Miss Simpson wasn't very good at hair. She never even attempted curls. But she could get snarls out, and brush, and divide fairly well, under direction. Laurel was helpless without somebody.
Laurel mentioned none of her perplexities to her father. If she did he might wonder why it was she knew so little about homes. It might reflect upon her mother. For at the private school she attended in the winter-time, she often heard intimate friends talking about spending nights with each other. Laurel had no such intimate friends at the school. That she hadn't was one of the many galling failures of Mrs. Dallas's ambitions for her daughter. Laurel was not unaware of it. No. Her father should know nothing of her ignorance.
On many topics Laurel was as frank and open with her father as any artless child. But she had her reservations. She had great expanses of thought and experience she never let him glimpse at. She never mentioned her mother's name to him. She made as little reference as possible even to her life with her mother. By the time she was thirteen this silence had become like a wall between Laurel and her father. Stephen was aware of it. It loomed high and blank between them, and shut much of Laurel away from him. But it also shut much of Stella, too.
Once the mention of Stella's name, even as "mother" on Laurel's lips, had hurt Stephen. The years had cured him of the hurt, but still he thought it wiser to let the barrier remain. For one reason—it was kinder to Stella. Laurel's silence made it easier for him never to criticize Stella and, therefore, appear to influence the child against her mother. There were many things to criticize, and if they were brought to his attention in detail, he would be sure to wish to alter them. This he could not do without interference with Stella. Interference with Stella would open up new issues, and lead to unpleasant complications. And after all Laurel was Stella's child. Stella had been necessary to Laurel. He could never have been a nurse to a little girl of six. Had he been determined to control Laurel's bringing-up, then he ought to have been willing to have endured Stella. He had made his decision. He had never regretted it.
He took Laurel down to Mrs. Morrison's in his automobile. She talked very little as the car sped over the smooth roads, through pretty settlement after pretty settlement. When finally Stephen announced, "The next town's ours," Laurel murmured miserably, "You'll surely be back for me Saturday, won't you?"
Stephen laughed. "Surely," he said. "Why, you'd think I was putting you in an institution." And a little later he sang out cheerfully, "Here we are at the prison-gates!" and turned the car in between two cement posts, partly ivy-covered, and up a short curving drive.
The house was cement, and partly ivy-covered, too, like the posts. It was set low, seemed to cling to the ground, and the close-cropped lawn ran right up to long French windows on either side of the front door.
The French windows were open, and from out of one of them stepped Mrs. Morrison. She waved her hand at Stephen and Laurel, and called out in a high pretty voice, "Hello!" then walked rapidly towards the approaching car to meet it.
Laurel noticed that she was dressed in an ordinary white skirt and outing waist, and wore tennis shoes. She was at the door of the car when it stopped, and, before Laurel's father had a chance to open it, she had stretched out her arm in front of him—ignoring him completely—grasped one of Laurel's hands, and was saying in the lovely voice Laurel remembered, "Hello, Laurel." She said "Laurel," not "Laurrul"—like most people. Her voice was like a bell. "I'm ever so glad to see you. I've been waiting and waiting for you. Get out, dear. Let her out, Stephen." She hadn't paid any attention to Stephen till then. "Your trunk has come," she said, still addressing Laurel, still ignoring her father—or almost, for she flung him only the briefest little "Hello," as he stepped out of the automobile beside her—"and for the last hour I've been thinking you yourself were coming every time I heard a horn blowing outside our drive."
As Laurel stepped off the running-board, Mrs. Morrison put her arm around her and kissed her lightly on the cheek. Afterwards she left her arm there in a casual sort of way as if she forgot to remove it.
"Let's come into the house this way," she suggested, and gently drew Laurel across the lawn towards the French windows. "I've tea and cakes all ready," she said in a low tone, as if it was a confidence not meant for Stephen's ears. "And cinnamon toast." She gave Laurel's shoulders the tiniest little bit of squeeze.
Arm in arm with Mrs. Morrison, Laurel stepped across the low threshold of the French window into a big, generous, library-sort of room, with a grand piano at one end, and books all around the dark walls.
It was as easy as that, getting into the house, and all of the way down Laurel had been making herself miserable wondering just how it would be accomplished—whether there would be a butler as in most movies, to answer the bell, or a maid; and if the butler or the maid took your suitcase, like bellboys in hotels, or if you just held onto it yourself. Laurel's father had told her that he must run directly back to New York, after leaving her at Mrs. Morrison's, to catch his train. She had supposed that he had meant he couldn't even see her across the threshold. But no. He followed her into the big room, carrying her suitcase himself, and showed no sign of hurrying away.
There was an Irish setter in the room, lying down by a big chair as Laurel entered it with Mrs. Morrison.
"This is Laurel, Michael," called out Mrs. Morrison to the dog. "Come and tell her how glad we are to see her."
The dog got up, stretched, and wagged his tail languidly, then, with a sudden brightening of expression, a sudden tightening of muscles he barked twice, and shoved past Mrs. Morrison and Laurel towards Stephen, making joyous little whining sounds as he fell to lavishing damp dog-kisses on the hand that held Laurel's suitcase.
"There's no doubt about how glad he is to see your father, is there?" laughed Mrs. Morrison. "Michael adores your father, Laurel, as we all do around here," she added carelessly. "Come, we'll run upstairs, and wash our hands. Give me the suitcase, Stephen."
"Laurel will take the suitcase," said Stephen. "It's not heavy."
"Yes, I'll take it," said Laurel.
"All right. Come along. And, oh, Stephen," Mrs. Morrison called back over her shoulder, in that sort of singing voice of hers, "just light the hot water, will you please?"
There was a tea-table, with a white cloth near one of the windows, with shining silver on it, and shining tea-cups and a plate or two of snowy sandwiches and a basket of frosted cakes. "We'll be down in a minute."
Upstairs, inside the most exquisite little bathroom Laurel had ever stepped foot in—creamy tiles clear to the ceiling, creamy floor, creamy fittings, not a scrap of nickel in sight—everything all smooth shining porcelain, like the inside of a beautiful china cup, Laurel thought—Mrs. Morrison said, "Here's the washcloth, and here's the soap, and here's the towel. Use them, and then come into this room. It's mine. I'm going to have you in with me. And take off your things. Put them on the bed next to the wall—your bed—then come downstairs. And don't be long. I'll hurry down ahead and get your father started on his tea. He's got to go right back to town." And she left Laurel.
Very carefully Laurel followed her directions, gazing wonderingly about her as she did so, examining various details with investigating nose and finger-tips; sniffing the soap; ever so cautiously opening the door of the medicine chest; touching with a gentle forefinger the silk window-hangings in the bedroom; touching with the same gentle forefinger its ivory-colored walls; the shade on the lamp on the table between the beds. It was made of real filet! So, too, were the curious little pillows on the beds. (Laurel had never seen tiny pillows like that on grown-up beds.) So, too, was the bureau-scarf, and the tidy on the back of the big winged-chair by the window. All real filet! And just the simplest little piece of filet cost six-fifty in the neckwear department!
Standing in the center of the bedroom, Laurel drew in a deep breath, and gazed about her. What a lovely bedroom it was! Yellowish—like pale sunshine. She decided that it was lovelier even than her present luxurious apartment at the hotel. It was lovelier than any apartment in any hotel she had ever caught a glimpse of through half-open doors, on her way to and from elevators.
After she had taken off her hat and coat and laid them on the bed next to the wall as directed (her bed, she would be sleeping in it to-night!) she opened the door, and went out into the upper hall. She stole noiselessly down the broad staircase—there was a tall, slender, light-mahogany grandfather's clock on the landing, and a high window with pink-and-white petunias making it bright in a window-box outside—and noiselessly approached the door of the big room where she had left her father.
There were others in the room now besides her father and Mrs. Morrison. She could tell from the voices. She stopped when she reached the threshold. Nobody saw her, nobody heard her, and she had a moment to gaze unobserved at the scene before her.
It was like a scene at the "movies," with all those books, and the piano, and the comfortable chairs, and the big portrait hanging over the fireplace, and the pretty lady behind the steaming tea-kettle, and the dog, and the boys (there were three boys in the room. One of them, the littlest one, was seated in her father's lap)—only it was real! There were real bindings on the books, real reading in them, there was real tea in the tea-pot. The people were real, and their feelings for each other were real, too. She, standing on the outside, was the only unreal thing in this home scene.
She looked at her father. Suddenly the room faded, disappeared, and a close-up of his face dawned on the screen before her, as it were. Why, her father was gazing at the lady behind the tea-kettle, as if—as if—! Laurel had seen too many close-ups of faces not to recognize that look! She drew in her breath sharply. It flashed over Laurel that perhaps this man wasn't really her father after all! She stirred, moved a foot.
Mrs. Morrison glanced over her shoulder.
"Oh! come here, Laurel," she exclaimed at sight of her, and stretched out her arm, and kept it stretched out until Laurel had stepped within its circle.
"This is Laurel, boys," she said briefly. Then, still holding Laurel, not giving her even a chance to go through the agony of a series of curtsies, she went on, "These are your new friends, Laurel. Cornelius, over there by the piano, is the oldest. 'Con' we call him for short. And Dane comes next. 'Great Dane' they call him at school. But I call him little Dane. And the little boy in your father's lap is Frederick. 'Rick' is his nickname. He's the baby—five years old now. We haven't any little girl for you, Laurel," she sighed. How lucky! No girls! Boys weren't half as cruel.
"And now," Mrs. Morrison broke off, "I wonder would you pass this cup of tea I'm making to your father? And, Con dear, will you pass the sandwiches? Get down, Rickie, and run and get your rabbit and bring it in and show it to Laurel. And, Dane, take Michael out. Michael," she explained to Laurel, "is not fond of Mercedes's society, Mercedes being the rabbit," she smiled.
They were all busy in no time—all but Mrs. Morrison and Stephen, each rushing about on some errand or other. There wasn't a chance for pause or embarrassment. The same rare insight and understanding which made Helen Morrison's dinner-parties such a success was quite as reliable with children, or with servants, or with the factory girls at the settlement-house in which she was interested. Not only did everybody with whom Helen Morrison worked and played get on beautifully with her, but under her gentle management they got on beautifully with one another, too. And yet she seemed to make no effort at adjusting herself to the various ages, groups, and classes with which she came in contact. That was why she was so successful with Laurel. It was her apparent unawareness that she was saying or doing the diplomatic thing that broke through the barrier of silence and reserve which Laurel hid behind whenever she met strangers.
The women whom Laurel met when visiting her father never by any chance, even indirectly, referred to her mother. It would have been a "break" if they had. Laurel knew that. But Mrs. Morrison made such a break. Mrs. Morrison referred to her mother, and the very first night, too, scarcely an hour after her father had said good-bye.
They were upstairs together unpacking. No chambermaid, no lady's-maid assisted at the task. In fact Laurel had begun to wonder if any servants existed in this household. Mrs. Morrison alone helped her, carefully hanging dress after dress in a closet near by, and exclaiming over each one, how pretty she thought it was. What a lovely color! Like jonquils one; like violets another; like a meadow spotted with tiny daisies, a certain English print.
It was when she was hanging up the last dress in the closet that she remarked, ever so naturally, "I think your mother has beautiful taste, Laurel."
Laurel looked up quickly. She had replied so far by only necessary yes-thank-yous and no-thank-yous to Mrs. Morrison, and if-you-pleases—that sort of thing, but now she exclaimed, "My mother has the most beautiful taste in the world!"
She didn't know she was going to say just that, nor that her words were going to rush out in such an unfamiliar fashion. She blushed.
But Mrs. Morrison didn't seem to think her reply odd. She didn't even look at her. She said:
"I've always wanted a little girl. It's such fun to dress them. I can see your mother has had great fun getting all your pretty things to match and blend."
Later when Laurel asked her which dress she should put on for dinner, Mrs. Morrison replied, "Why, I don't know, I'm sure. Which dress do you think your mother would have you put on?"
She kept on referring to her mother casually like that right along. "Perhaps," thought Laurel, "she doesn't know there's any reason not to." And yet, being a friend of her father's, how could she help but know that her mother and father didn't live together like other people. Perhaps she didn't know why they didn't live together, just as Laurel herself didn't know why. Whatever the explanation, Mrs. Morrison's frank and open recognition of her mother as a human being, and a human being, too, not unlike her lovely self, warmed Laurel, thawed out her mistrust and fear.
Before twenty-four hours had passed Laurel was worshiping Mrs. Morrison with that admiring kind of worship that a young girl, not quite a child, and yet not quite a woman, often feels for some stranger who stops and smiles.