Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 4
She didn't talk very much at first. She was too engrossed observing unfamiliar surroundings and watching Mrs. Morrison. It was as interesting as reading a new book almost. The ways and habits of a private home were very curious. For instance, you were introduced to the servants. A maid in spic-and-span gray-and-white did appear finally.
"Hannah," Mrs. Morrison said to her familiarly, "this is our guest, Miss Laurel. Laurel, Hannah is the one to ask if there's anything you want. She is a fairy. You've only to make a wish out loud before her, and it comes true."
And the ways and habits of a lady in a private home were curious, too—at least Mrs. Morrison's were curious. Marveling, Laurel observed the lightning speed with which she dressed. It seemed to Laurel that she was a fairy, too, for she had only to wish herself ready for dinner, or breakfast, or lunch, and she was ready inside of ten minutes.
It was fascinating to watch her do her hair. She would take out four or five hairpins from it, shake her head till the hair fell soft to her shoulders, brush the shining mass hastily a minute, twist it up, and stick the four or five hairpins back again, hardly looking into the mirror at all.
Laurel had thought Mrs. Morrison lovely to look at the first time she saw her a year ago, at the hotel, but ladies were often lovely to look at when they were dressed up. The amazing thing about Mrs. Morrison was that she was lovely to look at always, even in the early morning, even before she got up! She wasn't young. At least Laurel didn't think she was young. She was old enough to be Con's mother, and Con was older than Laurel. There were besides just a few gray hairs. You didn't see them till she let her hair down.
She had beautiful hair—dark, almost black. At night beneath the strong light of the silk-shaded lamp by the piano, it was like the breast of a dark-feathered pigeon in the sunshine—iridescent. She had long slender fingers—very white, and long slender arms, and a long slender neck. The line of her neck in profile had just the same curve from her throat to the tip of her chin (which was usually lifted) as the lady's in the moon. And she did her hair low, just like the lady in the moon, and it fluffed the same way, too, about her brow and ears, for she wore no net. She was like moonlight in lots of ways, Laurel concluded. Almost no color at all in her cheeks. And the dress she wore the first evening was pale yellow. And she didn't wear a single ornament to brighten it up.
Occupying the same room with Mrs. Morrison, it took much less time than otherwise for Laurel's shyness to wear away. Perhaps Mrs. Morrison was aware with what amazing rapidity the homely processes of dressing build up an intimacy. But, whether or not her motive was to win her way into Laurel's confidence the more quickly, or simply to take every precaution in guarding the child against homesickness, twice the number of hours spent in the drawing-room or garden would not have been sufficient to establish the degree of familiarity which made it possible for Laurel to put into words many of her questions and wonderings before she had been three days a guest of Mrs. Morrison.
"Have you a Permanent?" she asked bluntly the third morning as she sat gazing at Mrs. Morrison, seated before the altar-like dressing-table with nothing on it but two candlesticks and an old silver box, and four or five tortoise-shell hairpins.
"Yes," Mrs. Morrison replied, smiling, "but not the kind you mean. I was born with mine."
Still gazing, Laurel inquired a moment later, "Don't you ever use rouge, or an eyebrow pencil?"
"Oh, I don't know. Why do you ask, Laurel?"
"No reason. I was only wondering." Then after a pause Laurel added, "I think you'd be lovely with pink cheeks."
"I would be nicer, wouldn't I?" she agreed, and she stuck in the last hairpin, got up, gathered together a few soft muslin things from a drawer near by (she put on clean clothes every morning: her laundry bill must be terrific), and, wrapped round in a lemon-colored china-silk kimono, passed into one of the little twin bathrooms adjoining, and closed the door.
Laurel heard the click of enamel handles being turned, the violent gush of a stream of water in the marble shower-bath, and a second or two later, or so it seemed, Mrs. Morrison reappeared, as fresh as a pond-lily in her crisp lingerie.
Laurel inquired of her, "If you think you'd be nicer with pink cheeks, then why don't you make them pink?"
"Oh, it takes such a lot of time!" laughed Mrs. Morrison. "And then, besides," she added, "I would always be getting them spoiled. I like to be outdoors so much, digging in the garden, riding horseback, romping with the boys in all sorts of weather. If I did use rouge, Laurel," she went on more seriously, "and an eyebrow pencil, as you suggested, I should want to do it exquisitely, like an artist, so that no one's sense of beauty could possibly be offended."
"Yes. To some people paint and powder on the human face is distasteful."
"Like paint and powder on the petals of a flower, I suppose."
There was a long pause, Laurel broke it at last.
"Is that why you haven't a string of pearls?"
"Is what why, Laurel?"
"Because pearls on your neck would be to some people like pearls on flowers?"
"Oh, no," Helen Morrison replied, managing not even to smile. "I haven't a string of pearls because they're so expensive."
"Imitation pearls aren't very expensive."
Laurel considered. Her mother had often told her that her pearls and imitation diamond bar-pin would pass for the genuine articles anywhere.
"They look just like the real ones," she told Mrs. Morrison.
"Oh, no, Laurel, not to a person who knows pearls. They lack inner beauty, just as a wax figure lacks soul. To the really discerning they're as lifeless and unbeautiful as that." Then, with a sudden happy inspiration, as she thought, Helen Morrison added, "Your mother has trimmed several of your pretty dresses with narrow filet lace, but there isn't an inch of imitation filet."
No, of course not, because imitation filet "never fooled anybody," Laurel's mother had often told her. In fact, she had said, and only a short fortnight ago, that there wasn't anything a woman could make more show with, at present, than a lot of splashy real lace, or anything that could kill her socially as surely as the imitation stuff.
Laurel wondered if to the really discerning her mother's imitation pearls were like imitation filet.
The next day Laurel asked Mrs. Morrison if she had ever seen her mother. Her mother's name by then was mentioned with perfect ease between them.
"No, I never have, Laurel," said Mrs. Morrison. "Tell me about her." They were walking in the garden. "Is she like you?"
"Oh, no," said Laurel. "She's not the least like me. She hasn't a single freckle. And her hair is yellow. She was born with it yellow, like you with your Permanent." Which was true. Mrs. Dallas had not tampered with the color of her hair as yet. "Her eyes," Laurel went on, "are blue—the color of that little blue pitcher you said was Delft, that you used one morning at breakfast. And her skin is like the cream in it."
"She must be lovely."
"Oh, she is, she is," flashed Laurel.
"Haven't you her picture?"
"No. Not here." After a pause Laurel added gravely, "I never bring her picture to New York when I come to see my father."
It was the first reference she had made to the relation that existed between her mother and father. But Mrs. Morrison made as casual a reply to it, as if it had been a frequent topic of conversation between them.
"Of course you don't. I didn't think for a minute. Naturally it's kinder not to."
Oh, how easy it was to talk to Mrs. Morrison! Questions Laurel had long wanted to know the answers to crowded to her lips. "Why are my mother and father different from other mothers and fathers? Why don't they live together? Why aren't people nice to my mother? And why are they nice to my father?" But she didn't allow one of them to escape. Not yet. Nor did Mrs. Morrison allow a question to escape either. They simply walked on in silence till they came to a turn in the garden path where some late pansies were blooming.
"Let's pick some," said Mrs. Morrison.
"Let's," said Laurel, and they leaned down together over the low-growing flowers.
Laurel's heart was beating fast. She could feel it. Between herself and this lovely lady the gossamer-like bond of sympathy, as delicate at first as a thread of a spider's web, had become now as strong as the silk cable pearls are strung on. It would bear actual spoken words about her father's and mother's separation!
"Is there anything in the world softer than the petal of a pansy!" remarked Mrs. Morrison, pressing one of the flowers against her lips, and gently drawing it across them.
Laurel laid a flower against her lips, too, and, closing her eyes, likewise tested its texture.
"The end of a horse's nose is as soft," she said contemplatively, "and," she went on, eyes still closed, "the back of a little tiny baby's head, where they'll let you kiss it."
Mrs. Morrison broke into a laugh.
"Dear delightful Laurel! That's so! That's so!" And suddenly she took hold of one of Laurel's hands and drew the back of that, too, across her lips, and kissed it.
That playful little kiss of Helen Morrison's on the back of Laurel's hand made Laurel's world whirl round her giddily for a moment. No one had ever kissed her on the hand before! It was a caress entirely different from an ordinary kiss upon the lips. She felt exalted, like a young knight in armor before his lady. She wished she dared kneel on the ground and kiss the hem of Mrs. Morrison's dress!
Laurel wondered a great deal about Mrs. Morrison's husband, and finally one day concluded to inquire about him.
"Is your husband away on business?" she began politely.
"Why, no. Didn't you know? Didn't your father tell you?"
Laurel shook her head. "No, father has told me nothing."
"He is not living, Laurel," gently Mrs. Morrison announced.
"Oh," said Laurel. "Of course," she went on, "I knew he wasn't really away on business, because of the drawers in the chiffonier being perfectly empty, and the closet beside yours, too, where you hung my things. But I didn't see any pictures of him around, so I thought perhaps you were separated."
"The portrait in the big gold frame in the living-room is a picture of him, Laurel, and that's a copy of it, in the silver frame on my dressing-table."
"Is he your husband?" exclaimed Laurel.
She had studied the portrait. The man in the portrait looked like a grandfather! He had long drooping mustaches, almost white, and the sockets of his eyes hung down like the eyes of a hunting-hound, Laurel had seen in the Maine woods once.
"He looks too old for you!"
"Does he? Well, he was older, but, oh, ever so kind, and the father of my dear boys, and," she added after a pause, "the father of my little girl, too."
"Your little girl?"
"Yes, Laurel, my only little girl. She died, before she was old enough to walk without holding tight onto one of my fingers."
"What was her name?"
"How old would she be?"
"About as old as you, I think."
"Did she have light hair, or dark?"
"No, straight. Oh, how we did try to make it curl," laughed Mrs. Morrison.
"But I guess she didn't have freckles," said Laurel.
"Not then. But I think she would have had, when she grew up. She liked the sun, and out-of-doors. I'd have loved to have had her have ever so freckly a nose!"
"Do you like freckles?" Laurel exclaimed, wide-eyed, and amazed.
As easily as that, they wandered into the holy of holies of Helen Morrison's heart, and wandered out again.
When Mrs. Morrison had helped Laurel unpack her trunk on the first afternoon, she had been doubtful as to how her athletic young sons would get along with the little spic-and-span, bandbox girl she rather guessed Laurel to be. There were no stout boots, nor rough clothes of any sort among Laurel's things. There was a bathing-suit, but it was an elaborate fragile affair made of black satin, trimmed with orange. Excellent for exhibition on the beach, but it didn't look very appropriate for use in a certain deep black swimming-hole which the boys had discovered between two barnacled rocks. However, she needn't have worried.
The first night after dinner Con had inquired of Laurel, "Do you ride?"
It seemed there was a stable back of the house.
"I ride some."
"Can you swim?" Dane had asked.
"I swim a little."
To Mrs. Morrison's amazement, to the boys' amazement, too—and to their admiration besides—Laurel's "some" and "little" proved a great deal.
Next morning dressed in an old knickerbocker suit of Dane's (Laurel had never needed her riding-clothes in New York before), after she had ridden four or five times around the paddock back of the stable, she had called out, "Does he jump?" and the next time around she had taken one of the hurdles with perfect ease and familiarity.
It was the same with swimming. It didn't matter if her suit was satin, the swimming-hole didn't daunt her. She could dive better than Con! Laurel had taken swimming-lessons ever since she could remember. She had taken riding-lessons since she was eight. She had taken lessons in every sport which her mother considered fashionable and in which instructions could be bought.
"The funny thing is," said Con to Laurel the second day, "you don't play tennis."
But in games which required partners, Laurel had not had much experience. Solitaire sports were her specialty. However, she was pretty good at golf, she told Con. There had usually been a professional at the links connected with the summer hotels which her mother patronized.
"We'll try it," said Con, "and I'll teach you tennis."
He wouldn't acknowledge that he liked Laurel. None of the boys went as far as that. "But she isn't silly, and she isn't afraid of things!" he told his mother.
"They get along together beautifully, Stephen," said Helen Morrison to Laurel's father the night he came to take Laurel away.
It was after dinner. They were sitting in the garden terrace just outside the big room, where the portrait hung. Through the open windows, uncurtained towards the terrace, they could see Laurel seated with the two older of the boys at a table, busy over some sort of game with cards, with Michael stretched out comfortably at their feet.
"I've enjoyed every moment of her," Helen went on, gazing fondly at the group inside the room. "Only," and there was a sudden change in her voice, "it's brought home to me afresh what I've missed—all these years. Oh, we've had such fun together!" she broke off gaily. "Girls' sort of fun," she laughed; "doing each other's hair, for instance—trying on each other's hats—that sort of thing. Boys—men, couldn't understand. And her questions! Don't you love little girls' blunt questions? Darling things, I think, like awkward little colts and calves—oh, Laurel's a dear child, Stephen. I've kept pretending she was mine," she exclaimed lightly.
"Oh, Helen! if she only were!"
There wasn't a trace of lightness in Stephen's exclamation.
"I couldn't have equipped her any better for the present-day activities of a young girl's life than her own mother has done, Stephen," said Helen. "There doesn't appear to be a muscle or a bone in her body that has been neglected."
"I'm thinking about her soul," Stephen remarked.
"It hasn't lost any of its beauty yet, Stephen," Helen assured him. "She's as unspoiled a little girl as I know—so pleased (so genuinely pleased, too—you can tell by the shine in her eyes) at the least kindness or attention. And the combination in her of sophistication and innocence is a source of constant surprise to me—a source of constant joy, too. Oh, you needn't be afraid. So far the undesirable influences haven't hurt Laurel a bit."
"But she's getting older, Helen. Her youth and innocence cannot protect her always."
"Oh, I know, I know," agreed Helen; "I've thought of that, too. It's a pity. I'm so sorry, Stephen. Let her stay with me often—whenever you can. See them in there—all so happy. Don't take her to a hotel when she comes for the visits. Bring her to me here, or to the town house, if we've moved in."
Driving back to New York that night over the almost deserted road (it was late. "Very late for thirteen," Mrs. Morrison had laughed, as she had tucked Laurel into a warm coat of her own), Laurel sat beside her father like a little stone image for the first ten minutes.
There was something exciting about the beautiful coat that wrapped her round so close. It was a little as if Mrs. Morrison herself held her, wrapped her round in her kindness. Every once in a while Laurel would rub her cheek against the soft fur of the high collar. It felt like Mrs. Morrison's hair the day after it had been washed, and she had let Laurel brush it, and twist it up, and stick the hairpins in. It smelled like it, too—fresh, clean like a flower-garden after rain. Laurel drew in great deep breaths of the soft brown sable. "It's Mrs. Morrison," she pretended with all the sentimentality of thirteen.
Gazing up into the sky from out of the fur collar, Laurel could see the full round moon above her. "She's following me to New York," she made-believe. "She's going to follow me wherever I go, always and always, and I can look up at her and see her whenever the moon is full, and tell her how lovely I think she is, and try to be like her. I shan't care so much if people are horrid after this."
"Well, Laurel," interrupted Stephen, "how did you get along?"
"Was it very terrible?"
"How did you like the boys?"
"And how did you like Mrs. Morrison?"
Gazing up at the moon, Laurel replied fervently, "I think Mrs. Morrison is the loveliest lady I ever knew."
"Do you?" her father exclaimed; "oh, do you, Lollie, dear?"
Lollie! Suddenly Laurel stiffened inside the long coat. Lollie!
"I mean," she added, with the exaltation all gone out of her voice, "I mean next to—next to—" It had to be. She couldn't avoid the word—"next to my mother."
All the rest of the way back to the hotel Laurel didn't once glance up at the moon. How could she—oh, how could she have become a part of the picture on the screen, while her mother was still in the audience, out there, in the dark, looking on.