Stella Dallas (Prouty, 1923, Houghton Mifflin)/Chapter 6
The red cottage house where Stella had lived as a young girl, and until she married Stephen Dallas, was located in an outlying district of Milhampton. The district was known as Cataract Village. The little settlement of houses was named after the Cataract Mills, and the mills were named after a fall of water hidden inside them somewhere, over which they crouched like some great vampire and sucked the strength that made their wheels go round.
Cataract Village was the home of the Cataract Mill employees. Stella's father had worked in the mills ever since he was a boy. Stella was born in one of the ugly three-deckers, close to the mill gate. She was ten years old when her father bought one of the red cottage-houses on the river-bank. She had been proud of the cottage then, and proud of it, too, as she grew older. On each side of the little porch over the front door, every spring, for years, Stella planted morning-glories and wild-cucumber vine, which climbed a string trellis of her own making.
The first time Stephen went to see Stella at the red cottage her vines were profuse with leaf and blossom. She had trained the docile vines to run all over the picket fence that surrounded the little house, and had shrouded the back porch with them; had shrouded with them, too, a latticed summer-house which stood in the side yard. Stella had copied the summer-house, with much the same genius with which she copied hats or dresses, from a summer-house she had seen in a garden in Milhampton across the river. Stella's summer-house was made of plasterer's laths painted white, and criss-crossed. The summer-house in the garden at Milhampton, designed by a landscape-gardener, had been covered with Dorothy Perkins roses. But sunlight shining through the chinks of Stella's morning-glories and wild-cucumbers, was just as prettily dappled with shadows, as sunshine shining through rose-vines. At night the darkness was just as dense inside Stella's summer-house—a little denser, perhaps. Stella had been particular to plant her seeds thick. Inside Stella's summer-house there hung a Gloucester hammock!
The first night Stephen called on Stella, he had sat in the hammock alone, while Stella had curled herself up on the low step of the summer-house, leaning her head against one of the upright posts, so that the searchlight moon could shine full upon her face, and her caller could observe from the darkness of the hammock how pretty she was.
She was pretty—she was very pretty in those days. But it was not Stella's bright eyes and bright cheeks that Stephen Dallas thought about most, after that first call. It hadn't been quite dark when he arrived. Before he was sure that the red cottage was the house where Stella lived, he had noticed the morning-glories and wild-cucumber vines.
When later that first evening he discovered that Stella had planted the vines herself, had built much of the summer-house, driven all the nails in the diamond lattice-work, done all the painting, it had set him to thinking. Out of a bundle of plasterer's laths and a handful or two of common little seeds, she had created a charming spot. As he leaned back in the Gloucester hammock, and gazed at Stella on the step below him, the simplicity of her setting, the absence from it of everything that required accumulated wealth to possess, had been soothing and comforting to Stephen, suffering as he was—suffering as he had been for the last year and a half.
Stephen was young then, barely twenty-three, but for eighteen months he had felt nothing but the resignation of old age, and the bitterness of disappointed old age. It had never occurred to Stephen Dallas that disgrace, disaster, utter and complete ruin, could befall him. He had taken it for granted always that he would fulfill, to a greater or less degree, his expectations for himself, and his family's and friend's expectations for him, too. Whether as a doctor or lawyer, or business man of ability, he didn't know which, before he went East to school, but in some capacity he would fill a position of responsibility in his home city. It had always been understood that when Stephen's education was completed, he would return to that home city, where he had been born, and where his father had been born before him, and continue to add honor to the family reputation.
It was a reputation to be proud of. The Dallases of Reddington, Illinois, were a respected and honored family. The Dallas house, built by Stephen's grandfather, was quiet and unostentatious in appearance, but solid, substantial—a big, square brick affair, painted dull brown. There was something so solid and substantial about everything connected with the Dallases, that people in Reddington supposed them to be infallible, as immune to panics and market fluctuations as an oak to the varying antics of the elements.
This attitude of the people toward the Dallases was partly responsible for their ruin. Stephen's father prized and treasured his reputation for indestructibility. To a man of his special brand of pride, it was galling to allow his fellow citizens even to suspect that the roots of the oak tree were not as healthy as the proud and upstanding trunk signified. And so it was not until the great tree fell—was pulled over by its own weight, and lay sprawling on the ground, a mammoth and pitiful wreck, for every curious passer-by to gape at—that the decayed and rotten condition of the roots was discovered by the astonished public.
When the brief telegram from home reached Stephen (he had completed his college course by this time and had nearly completed his post-graduate course—he had decided to follow in his father's steps and become a lawyer) the message gave no details. Simply stated the fact of his father's sudden death and summoned him home immediately.
It was not until he was within a few hours of Reddington that he learned of the manner of his father's death. He read it in a Chicago paper.
His father had committed suicide! He had locked himself up in his office downtown, one night, and shot himself with a revolver!
"For a number of years," the article stated, "Mr. Stephen Dallas, who was a lawyer and one of Reddington's most respected citizens, has acted as trustee for various estates, and sole legal and financial advisor for a number of charitable institutions. It is feared that the various funds entrusted to him may have suffered and an investigation of his affairs is now under way."
Stephen learned upon his arrival home that the fears hinted at in the papers were justified. His one desire was to escape, to get away from everybody and everything familiar as soon as possible, after the details of burial were disposed of. He had no forgiveness, no charity, for his father. He told his mother and his older sister Fanny that he wished they could dispose of the ruined thing his father had made of the Dallas reputation as easily as they could dispose of the ruined thing he had made of his body. But no, the reputation they must wear tied round their necks for everybody to see, and stare at, and keep away from. Obliged as he was to bear his father's name (why had his parents handicapped him thus?) he could never hope to succeed in any large way, he said; for who would ever trust a man with the name of Stephen Dallas? It spelled suicide and dishonor now.
His mother tried in a weak, feminine sort of way, Stephen thought, to excuse his father's act. He had never let them even guess at home, she said, that the big house and all the servants, the stable full of expensive cars, and the proportionate demands in way of clothes and entertaining, and contributions to various charitable institutions, were eating into his capital—had been for years.
But why hadn't he? What kindness had it been to them? It was beyond Stephen's young comprehension that his father, like some weak, inexperienced bank clerk, could be tempted into "borrowing" even a portion of the funds entrusted to him.
"Borrowing!" That is what his father's friends and associates called it, when they talked to Stephen. They tried to soften the facts to him, these kind, old, pitying men, who felt sorry to look upon the destruction of so young a man's career, Stephen supposed. Well, there was one satisfaction. Thank heaven, his father hadn't taken liberties with the legacies left to him and Fanny by their grandfather, nor touched the solid securities packed away years ago in his mother's safe-deposit box. By scraping everything together, none of the estates which had been entrusted to his father need to suffer at all. The kind old men told Stephen that he and his mother and sister were under no obligation. Stephen was glad that his mother and Fanny felt, just as he did, that the only thing for them to do was to wipe out his father's dishonesty as far as possible.
Stephen was glad, too, that his mother and Fanny agreed with him that it would be unbearable to continue to live in Reddington. As soon as the big brown house, and the automobiles, and the servants were disposed of, they would disappear as quietly as possible. Fanny and his mother would go to Chicago and conceal themselves there as best they could. There would be little for them to live on. Only the insurance policy. Stephen would, of course, get a job somewhere, as soon as he could. Oh, no, he wouldn't finish at the law school! He couldn't afford the time. He never wanted to see the law school again! He never wanted to see anything again, or anybody that recalled to him his old bright hopes and ambitions, he said.
"Oh, no, least of all Helen Dane," he shuddered, replying to his mother's timid reminder that Helen had sent her card to him, with a message written on it to come and see her.
Stephen was thankful that there had never been anything serious between him and Helen. There might have been. It had seemed last summer as if there probably would have been, but not now—never now! There was no girl in Reddington, no girl anywhere, whom he would ever ask to bear the name of Dallas.
Stephen first heard of the Cataract Mills in Milhampton, Massachusetts, through an advertisement in a paper. He answered the advertisement. He had never been to Milhampton. He had no friends, no acquaintances there, that he knew of. It was well removed from Reddington. It would serve his purpose as well as any other place in the United States. His mother had begged him not to put the ocean between himself and her, when he had mentioned Australia or South America.
Upon his arrival in Milhampton, Stephen hunted up a lodging-house in Cataract Village close to the mills, and hired a room. He worked hard for his eighteen dollars a week. But there was little joy in his work. Even the raise in his position, and pay, at the end of the first three months, gave him no thrill. What was the use of his rising in the world? Wasn't oblivion what he desired more than anything else? Wasn't the feature that he liked best about his new job, the fact that it hid him, covered him up? None of the men who ate breakfast and supper with him—who softened their bread-crusts in their coffee, and prepared their meat and potatoes as Stephen had seen the dog's meat and potatoes prepared at home, chopped all up and covered with gravy—had heard of Stephen Dallas of Reddington. Success, too many raises, would mean exposure finally, opening up the old wound again. Stephen had suffered enough for a while.
Stephen believed he would suffer always. But he didn't take into consideration his youth. There is something about twenty-three that struggles and fights all by itself—never mind how indifferent the soul, how sick the body—and accomplishes its purposes and designs without help. The same month that Stephen's mother's age came to her rescue, Stephen's youth came to his. Early in September, before a year had passed since the Dallas oak had fallen, death delivered Mrs. Dallas from her suffering. It was two or three weeks before his mother died that Stephen met Stella.
He met her at a church-sociable, in the vestry of the Congregational Church in Cataract Village. He had gone to the church sociable with the shipping-clerk at the mills, who had told him, with a wink, that he had met some peaches there at the last shindy, and invited him to come along, if he wanted to. Stephen had never in his life before passed a whole year practically void of feminine society.
It so happened that the night before the shipping-clerk invited Stephen to the church sociable, Stephen had drifted into a musical show downtown. The musical show started him to thinking about Helen Dane.
All the way back to Mrs. Bean's lodging-house he had dwelt upon Helen's loveliness, longed, as he didn't suppose he could ever long again, for an hour with her. A wave of despair had swept over him. Helen Dane was miles away, barriered and forbidden now.
Stephen had fallen to sleep in his bare, bleak bedroom very miserable and unhappy. But in reality his state of mind was healthier, more normal than it had been since his father had died, and that night Stephen's youth danced a little delighted jig of triumph on the dingy pillow-case beside him as he slept.
Stella Martin was an acknowledged belle in Cataract Village. Her lips were cherry-red, her cheeks peach-blossom pink, and without paint and powder in those days. She had, too, as her girl friends expressed it, "stacks of style." Stella Martin could drape a straight piece of cloth about her hips and shoulders, and it would assume fashionable lines all by itself! She far outshone the other young girls in Cataract Village. She was far better educated than the other girls. Stella had gone all the way through the high school, and graduated in a white dress with ruffles. When Stephen met Stella she was completing a course at the State Normal School on the other side of the river.
Not that Stella meant to make teaching a lifework! By no means! But it happened that next to the State Normal School there was located a technical school for young men. Stella had heard that students at the two institutions of learning sometimes made friendships that led to an interchange of ceremonies that sounded attractive to her.
Stella was ambitious. She couldn't help but see she was different from the girl friends of her childhood. Most of them were content to take a job in the weaving-rooms at the mills, as soon as they had finished the ninth grade, or a year or two in the high school; or else to marry some raw, half-awake young man, from the mills, and live in one of the Cataract Village three-deckers, and have children, and children, and children! Not Stella, however! Nothing like that for Stella Martin!
There was a little brown spot on Stella's neck. It showed when she wore summer dresses cut in a low V in front. She was on the point of having it removed when a certain old woman, a sort of half-witch, told her it was a sign that some day she would make a brilliant marriage. So Stella kept her little brown spot, and though she laughed and flirted with almost every young man who admired her, and generously let them hold her hand, and take advantage of the dark, she had no notion of marrying in a hurry.
Stella had a streak of common sense in her, and she didn't leave it entirely to the magic power of the brown spot upon her neck to bring about the brilliant marriage. After providing herself with a few possible candidates for the marriage, the enterprising Stella spent long laborious hours making the yard surrounding the red cottage attractive, with morning-glory vines and wild-cucumber; and built herself a little temple that was very becoming to her type of beauty; and when the young men from the technical school came, in their clean collars, and dark suits, with beautiful creases down the front legs of their trousers, to call on Miss Martin, she usually chanced to be sitting in her little shrine. Therefore, during the spring and summer and early fall these young men seldom caught a glimpse of her mother in the ugly mouse-colored wrapper and flat shoes shuffling about in the kitchen, washing dishes, or mixing bread. They never had a chance to discover that the red cottage lacked a dining-room. Later, after Stella's charms had worked their blinding enchantment, it was her theory that the skeletons inside the house were less to be feared.
The first night that Stephen Dallas went to see Stella she exerted herself more than usual in behalf of her caller, for though he was one of the spurned Cataract Mill employees, she was aware that he was as far ahead of the technical school students of her acquaintance, as to requirements for a brilliant marriage, as the technical school students were far ahead of the Cataract Village young men.
Stella had an eye for details. This Mr. Dallas, she observed, wasn't too spic-and-span. He didn't look as if he had just stepped out of the barber's shop round the corner, and he didn't smell so. His cheeks didn't shine. His collars didn't shine, and his clothes seemed to have been worn by him long enough to fall naturally into his lines, instead of retaining those of the wax dummy's with the black mustache in the gentlemen's furnishing-shop on the corner of Main and Webster Streets downtown. When he leaned forward his waistcoat (but Stella called it vest) clung to him, instead of sticking out and making caves and caverns, in which glimpses of lining and suspenders could be seen; and straight across the vest, rather low-down, where it wrinkles a little (just where it ought to wrinkle when a man leans forward), Stella observed the slender watch-chain made of gold and platinum shafts, linked together.
She observed, too, Mr. Dallas's handkerchief. He had pulled it out of his pocket and offered it to her to sit on, when she insisted upon occupying the low step of the summer-house. She had taken it from him just to feel of it. It was made of finest linen. It had a narrow hemstitched edge, and hand-embroidered letters in the corner.
"What's S stand for, Mr. Dallas?" Stella had asked with the time-worn coyness of her sex when first touching upon so intimate a subject as first names.
"Stephen." Stephen had replied shortly, from the Gloucester hammock.
"Stephen, Stephen," Stella had repeated two or three times—in a dainty, sort of experimental fashion, as if she were tasting some new kind of candy. "Stephen." Then, "It's nice. I like it," she exclaimed and glanced up at Stephen from under her long lashes.
"Really? Do you?" Stephen had laughed, just a little disconcerted.
Stella liked the way he said, "Really?" and "Do you?" and later, "Delightful," and "Int'resting." He spoke like an actor on the stage, she thought.
When Stella discovered that her caller was a college graduate, and a college graduate from the same university which Harold Miller and Spencer Chisholm had attended, as well as a half-dozen other young Milhampton blue-bloods, who lived on the other side of the river, and whom Stella knew by sight and reputation, and by their fine houses on upper Webster Street, she was aware that this Mr. Dallas was the biggest opportunity she had ever had.
You might have thought she would have been a little awed, but Stella had confidence in her personal charms. Experience had convinced her that the same upward glances, intimacies, reservations, shynesses, boldnesses, what-not, were attractive to the genus "young man" whatever his species. When Stephen Dallas bade Stella good-bye that first night, he had held her willing hand a moment longer than is conventional and had asked if he could come again.
Later, when Stella went to bed, she tipped the little high square mirror on her bureau, well forward and gazing up into it, at her bare, fair expanse of gleaming neck and shoulders, she placed her forefinger on the little brown beauty-spot and pressed it gently.
"I wonder," she whispered.
The distance between Mrs. Bean's lodging-house and the little red cottage was only a quarter of a mile. It took Stephen less than ten minutes to walk it. Mrs. Bean's boarding-house was an impossible place in which to spend the evening. The walks around and about the boarding-house had come to seem impossible, too. So also had the bare, white-lighted, white-walled reading-room at the Milhampton Public Library.
Ever since Stephen had come to Milhampton (up to the time he met Stella), each night, when he finished his supper in the boarding-house dining-room, he was faced with the problem of killing two and a half hours somehow till a civilized hour for sleep arrived. But after he met Stella, and found the straight, easy way that led to the red cottage, there was no more problem as to how to spend his evenings—at least as to how he wanted to spend them.
If Stephen's mother hadn't died just when she did; and if, on top of that, Stephen's sister Fanny hadn't received, in reply to an application she had made to teach in a girls' boarding-school in Japan, summons to sail immediately, Stephen's infatuation would probably have burned itself out before he was in a position to consider additional financial burdens of any sort.
Suddenly Stephen found himself free and unfettered. There was no more need to send weekly checks to Chicago. There was no more need to send letters there, or to go there from time to time himself. Stephen was entirely cut off from his old associations, his laboring boat had lost even its dragging anchor, and was touching the shores of a country on the other side of the earth.