Stella Dallas (Prouty)/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V

1

After Mrs. Dallas had said good-bye to Laurel, she retraced her steps along the narrow platform beside the train, and immediately sought refuge in the ladies' public dressing-room in the station. Standing in front of the long horizontal mirror with the row of wash-basins beneath, she removed her hat and veil, and leaning forward drew one of the basins full of steaming water. With her bare hands she bathed her smarting eyes and smeared cheeks. The hot water was as soothing as hot soup to a sore throat. She dried her face and hands on a piece of crêpe paper from a roll near by. Afterwards, opening a little red leather case which she always carried with her, she laid it before her on the washstand, first blowing into it, once or twice, to remove a little of the loose pink powder that had shaken out of its container, and was as thick as dust in a carpet-sweeper.

Briskly, in a business-like fashion, Mrs. Dallas proceeded to remedy the damage wrought by her tears, working dexterously with various little sticks and tubes, without any attempt at concealment, apparently without the slightest self-consciousness, although just beside her a prim, school-teacherish-looking little woman, middle-aged, observed her operations with interest. Just when her cheeks presented their customary velvety appearance, her eyes suddenly welled up again with tears. She closed the lids tight. No use. The tears oozed out, streaked her cheeks again.

"Oh, darn it!" she whispered into the hollow of her hands as she pressed her fingers hard against her eyeballs. "Oh, Lollie, Lollie, darn it, darn it!"

Twice she was forced to repeat her operations, and at last gave up the struggle for perfection, satisfying herself with a bit of powder on her nose, trusting that the white veil would suffice to conceal her.

She had planned to spend an hour or two in the shops, take a sandwich and a cup of coffee in a candy-shop a little later, and go to a movie afterwards. It was wholly by accident that she ran across Alfred Munn.

The route she selected to the shops carried her through the outskirts of the wholesale merchandise district of the city. Alfred Munn's present business had something to do with leather or hides—or was it cotton—something of the sort. She ran across Alfred Munn (or rather he ran across her—he saw her before she saw him) at a restaurant.

It had occurred to Stella as she walked away from the station that a cup of coffee would probably help to brace her up better than anything else, and, as it was really time for lunch anyhow, she decided to drop into a certain restaurant she knew about, instead of the candy-shop farther uptown. It was a restaurant where Alfred Munn had taken Laurel and her to lunch one day two years ago. She hadn't seen him since. As she entered it, she observed that men predominated.

She hastened to the dressing-room at the rear. Stella Dallas felt as uncomfortable in the restaurant with her face all red and splotchy, as the school-teacherish little woman would have felt in her stocking-feet. It was with no thought of any man in particular that she set to work again to make herself presentable, now that she had herself under better control; or, at least, with no serious thought of any man in particular. She was always playing with the possibility that some old admirer might run across her path at any moment, and always taking necessary precautions.

Prepared as her cheeks may have been, Stella was taken by surprise when somebody leaned across the little table which she had selected beside the wall-mirrors and drawled in a masculine voice, "Well!"

She knew it was Alfred Munn before she looked up. Nobody else in the world could say "Well," like that. All sorts of interesting implications were packed into the single exclamation.

She glanced up and replied briefly, her blue eyes sparkling at him, "Hello!"

She didn't like Ed Munn. Stephen had been right. He was cheap. It showed now that he wasn't dressed in his riding-clothes any more. But even if she didn't like him very much, she couldn't be horrid to him. Stella Dallas couldn't be horrid to anybody whose eyes flattered her like that!

"What are you doing here?" he asked in a kind of caressing tone, as irresistible to the lonely Stella as food by whomever offered if she were hungry.

"I'm waiting for you!" her voice caressed back at him. Oh, a little harmless flirting was the one thing she needed to restore her wilted spirits!

Alfred Munn smiled at her, showing a row of little crooked yellow teeth. His face crackled up into a hundred pleased wrinkles. Attention from the opposite sex was as welcome to him as it was to Stella.

He drew out the chair opposite Stella, thinking, as he did so, "What have I got on for this afternoon anyhow? Only two appointments; I can cancel 'em." What he said was, as he sat down, "Where's the offspring?"

Stella thought, "Dear me! How thrilling! He's going to stay!" But out loud she said, "Just shipped her to New York."

"You alone?" Alfred Munn exclaimed. "Unattached? No string tied to you?"

Stella, pouting a little, looking pathetic on purpose, nodded. "All alone. No string. Not a thread."

Alfred Munn drew in a deep breath. Let it out audibly.

"My! This is my lucky day, I guess," he ejaculated. "We're going to have lunch together—you and I, and go to a show afterwards. Did you know it?"

Stella, casting down her eyes, and toying with the silver, shook her head. No. She didn't know it.

"Well," masterfully, "you know it now. Here, pass me that menu."

She obeyed with exaggerated docility. "Have your own way. I'm helpless when you're around. Do with me as you wish," her manner implied.

It pleased Alfred Munn. He summoned a waiter with an arrogant motion of his hand, tossed the menu aside, as wholly beneath his notice, and frowningly ordered cocktails—this was before prohibition—oysters, and soup. Then he leaned across the table and suddenly became all soft suavity. The contrast was effective.

"How've you been?" he asked.

"Oh, pretty well," Stella purred. Any one could make Stella purr who stroked her like that.

"How are things going?" he inquired in his terribly intimate manner.

"Oh, pretty well, I guess," she purred again, and glanced up, her big Delft-blue eyes gazing straight into Alfred Munn's little pig-like spots of brightness, rimmed round with the puffy lids.

"I don't care," Stella thought to herself in defense of the things she was allowing her bold eyes to imply to Alfred Munn. "It's only for to-day, and I'm perfectly aware of what he is—dissipated, rotten old thing, probably. Doesn't hurt me any if he is. I'm beyond hurting now. He's better than nobody."

Stella had almost forgotten what a cocktail tasted like. How it did bring back the good old happy days, when everybody admired and flattered, just as Alfred Munn was doing now. For he was doing just that to Stella—over-doing it a little. Well, she could stand a little over-doing in that line. It had been so long since any man had found her attractive! Or, at least, since any man had told her so. She had begun to fear that age had got a grip on her at last which she couldn't loosen, however much she strained. Men hated old women. Alfred Munn restored her self-confidence wonderfully. He found her pleasing. He found her desirable. He told her the very sight of her made him feel young again. Asked her how in the world she did it. How she managed to keep her wonderful peaches-and-cream appearance. She didn't look to him a day over twenty-five!

"Oh," thought Stella, feeling all warm and comforted inside, "if only he could see me in an evening gown!"

As she preceded him out of the restaurant she was as pleased with the present-moment excitement, the present-moment attentions, as a young girl of sixteen on the way to her first matinee with an admiring suitor. Her pleasure was almost as innocent too.

2

Alfred Munn selected for the afternoon's entertainment a popular musical farce. Stella adored a musical farce with all the bold gay costumes. The seats he bought were aisle seats—the best in the house, three rows from the front. As Stella settled herself for the two hours and a half of pleasure in store for her, she was keenly conscious of her nearness to the stage, to the orchestra. How good it did seem to be right down in the midst of things again! When the curtain rolled up on the first act amidst a loud fanfare of trumpets, which Stella could feel tingle inside her, she was filled with gratitude to Alfred Munn. Why, she calculated, already his kindness to her had cost him something like fifteen dollars—twenty possibly. How much were cocktails and wines now, anyhow, and Porterhouse steaks? She mustn't be disappointing to him. She mustn't edge away from Alfred Munn's overlapping arm and shoulder. She must remember her age. Nineteen can afford to be as stand-offish as it chooses, but not thirty-nine. Besides, in one way it was gratifying to Stella that Alfred Munn wanted to sit so close. She had been afraid of late that there was nothing but tiny wrinkles and double chins left of her. But there was—there was! Alfred Munn knew women. Alfred Munn made Stella feel that there was lots else left.

She talked and laughed, eyes shining, and cheeks hot and flushed beneath the powder. Occasionally Laurel's serious face, crowned with the unfamiliar toque with the berries on one side, interrupted, shoved itself between her and the stage, between her and Alfred Munn.

The toque made her look frightfully like a young lady. She was growing up. No doubt about that. Stella hadn't seen her cry since—she couldn't remember since when. Funny kid. Just got silent and horribly quiet instead of letting the tears of a year or two ago well up in her eyes and spill over. Of late she, Stella, was the one who did the crying for the two of them. But she mustn't get teary, here, now, for heaven's sake!

Laurel would be about at New London now, Stella calculated, New Haven, Bridgeport later. New York pretty soon, walking up the long granolithic walk, with the bits of mica in it, sparkling like tiny stars beneath the white artificial light; looking for Stephen; seeing him; greeting him; sitting in a taxicab beside him. They always took a taxicab.

Queer, thought Stella, how the very sight of her present escort used to irritate Stephen. It would be interesting to Alfred Munn, she guessed, and flattering to him, too, if he had a notion how much he used to be discussed between Stephen and herself. Stephen was always making such queer mistakes about her little affairs, picking out somebody she really didn't care a straw about, like Alfred Munn, for instance, to get stuffy over, and remaining undisturbed by the attentions from men who really interested her. Alfred Munn, indeed! A riding-teacher! That was what he had been, in Milhampton seven years ago. The smartest women in town took lessons of him. So did Stella. And the smartest women in town were keen about him, or pretended to be. Naturally they weren't any of them seriously keen about Alfred Munn. The other women's husbands understood. But Stephen wouldn't. It was ridiculous, absurd. Stella told Stephen so dozens and dozens of times. But he would persist in making a mountain out of a molehill.

That was how Mrs. Holland described Stephen's attitude. There was no woman in Milhampton more the fashion than Mrs. Holland at that time. Stella had been immensely pleased by her friendship. Every word she uttered was to Stella like the wisdom of an oracle.

"Husbands need a lot of training, my dear," she had told Stella after a burst of confidences from Stella one afternoon. "Don't let yourself become a doormat. Husbands don't respect doormats, in the long run. Teach him that you can look at another man without wanting to elope with him. And get him used to the idea that you aren't blind to every other masculine creature in the world but himself. Such an attitude keeps them lovers, makes them alert, attentive, my dear."

But it didn't seem to keep Stephen a lover. It didn't make Stephen alert and attentive. It worked just the other way with him.

3

These reflections did not possess Stella in the theater. It was later, alone on the train, returning to her beach hotel that she glanced into her past. She didn't allow herself to do so frequently. It didn't make her any happier. Things had been so rosy, so promising ten years ago—so far beyond her most extravagant girlhood dreams. And now—now! Resolutely she turned her thoughts to other things. She was to meet Alfred Munn again the following Saturday for lunch and another matinee. What should she wear? The sudden necessity of a new early-fall hat gave her a little thrill of delight.

There was nothing in the world Stella enjoyed more than a morning spent in Boston at the expensive uptown shops, pricing and trying on hats, followed by an afternoon in the downtown department stores buying buckram, wire, velvet, feathers, ornaments, flowers, and what-not, and the long inspiring day afterwards shut up in her room moulding with her clever fingers a copy of some little gem that a far-away artist in Paris had conceived.

When Stella said good-bye to Laurel, her plan to spend two hours in the shops had not been an exciting prospect to her. It was stupid to shop if you had nothing you had to buy. The chance meeting with Alfred Munn provided Stella with the necessary incentive to start the machinery of her creative genius going. She would have to have a new dress, too. Perhaps she could pick up some summer silk thing marked down, and pep it up with some black bead trimming, at present on an old chiffon evening gown of hers she scarcely ever wore. Bead trimming was being worn again this fall. Possibly it would be a good idea to overhaul her entire wardrobe immediately, even if it was early in the season. Men liked variety, and it looked as if Alfred Munn meant to see her rather often during Laurel's absence.

When he had put her aboard her train, he had told her that if she didn't object to leaving the seashore for the city frequently he was going to keep her from getting lonely, if she'd let him, while the kid was away.

She wished he wouldn't call Laurel "the kid" and the "offspring." She wished his linen collar hadn't been grimy round the top edge. She wished he hadn't chanced to omit shaving that morning. A man who shaved every morning without reference to the day's programme, and put on a clean collar without reference to the old one, was one of Stella's tests of a gentleman. Alfred Munn never was guilty of any such offenses when he was the vogue in Milhampton. Yes, yes, Stephen was right. Second-rate—that was the term he used to apply to Alfred Munn. Well, she didn't care. It didn't rob orchestra seats at the most popular shows in town of their attraction for Stella, or luncheon-tables in the most popular restaurant in town of their luxury and joy. Alfred Munn was going to take her for lunch next Saturday to the newest and most expensive hotel in the city.

4

Stella spent that evening packing her trunks (there remained two old-fashioned hump-backed affairs), and again it was early morning before she lay down in the battered white iron bed to go to sleep.

Stella never stayed on at the expensive summer resorts after Laurel went. Fifteen miles nearer Boston, along a sandy beach, there was a stretch of board-walk, with the ocean on one side, and on the other, a row of cheap amusement places. Behind this row of amusement places there was a nest of lodging-houses. By occupying a room in one of these houses, and taking her meals outside, Stella could save enough money over what it cost her to live at the expensive summer hotel, to buy several Permanents for Laurel, and a wrist-watch, and a fur coat, too, if Stephen still persisted in books.

You'd think, perhaps, you wouldn't have to economize on three hundred and fifty dollars a month, if there was only yourself and a child to take care of. But gracious, try it! Try it with a little queen like Laurel to bring up and educate, and give half a chance to. When a twelfth of your yearly income went to the private school your little queen attended, for five days a week; and two-twelfths to a decent hotel roof to put over her head in the summer; and several other twelfths for a decent roof to put over her head in the winter (Laurel couldn't live in a tenement), and a big chunk was eaten out of another twelfth by riding-tickets, at the rate of fifty dollars for twenty rides, and completely gobbled up by private dancing-lessons, and private golf and swimming lessons, and heaven knows what not; I tell you what, you have to stretch every single penny you have left to clothe the child properly, to say nothing of yourself, and your own rags.

"I suppose forty-two hundred dollars a year sounds plenty enough to Stephen," Stella said to her old friend Effie McDavitt. "But Stephen and I have probably got different ideas about how the child should be brought up. Well, I'll never ask him for any more. I'll never go grovelling to Stephen Dallas for money as long as I live! I'll tell you that! No, sir-ee! I've got some pride, even though he has acted as if I hadn't any feelings."

The boarding-houses at Belcher's Beach, as the amusement boulevard was called, were not attractive. The people who patronized them were not attractive either. The women were loud-voiced and loud-mannered, and spent a good deal of time walking to and from the beach, in bathrobes and canvas sandals; and the masculine element, if one existed, was likely to be found sitting in his shirt-sleeves on the boarding-house porch, ready to make remarks to the robed ladies as they came trooping up the steps munching peanuts or popcorn cakes.

Stella did not confide this particular economy of hers to Laurel. Laurel mustn't know that her mother mixed up with such society. Stella didn't in fact mix up with it, but Laurel mustn't know that her mother even slept under the same roof with people of that sort.

Laurel, at thirteen, was not a prolific letter-writer, but whatever messages she did send Stella she directed to the summer hotel, where she supposed her mother was to remain. These were forwarded by the clerk at the hotel, according to Stella's instructions, to Milhampton, care of a certain Effie McDavitt. Stella didn't object to Effie's knowing about the cheap lodging-house—poor worn-out, down-at-the-heel Effie. Effie was the only one of her girlhood friends whom Stella hadn't managed to lose. She had tried to lose Effie. Had succeeded for a while, too, during the height of her social success in Milhampton. But Effie hadn't stayed lost. Effie was the sort of woman whom you can grind your heel on in the dirt and it won't kill her loyalty. Like a worm. Cut her feelings of friendship for you in two, and the parts will still wriggle.

Of course Stella might have gone back to the little red cottage house outside Milhampton during Laurel's absence and stayed with her father, if she could have endured the eccentricities of his old age and the lack of any attempt at a self-respecting existence. (He let the hens come right into the kitchen now, and he'd dragged his miserable bed in there, too—all rags, and no sheets.) And Stella could endure much to save a little money, but the danger of discovery was great. Ever since her marriage Stella had been struggling to cover up her early connections with the little red cottage house. She had an idea she had succeeded fairly well, too.

At Belcher's Beach Stella never met anybody whom she knew, nor who knew her. It was only fifteen miles away from the big summer hotel where she and Laurel had spent the season, but it was an entirely different world. The guests from the big summer hotel never left the automobile highway, a half a mile inland, to seek out Belcher's Beach. There was another amusement boulevard of bigger proportions and of less tawdry appearance a few miles farther on.

This wasn't the first time Stella had successfully hidden herself at Belcher's Beach, during Laurel's absence. She had tested its advantages for some three or four years now. It had advantages. For one thing, it was near enough to Boston so that when the "dirt-commonness of the hole" got too unbearable she could dress up in her best clothes and escape to the Boylston Street shops without the price of the ticket hurting too much.

It was cheaper than living in Boston itself. Take just the food, for instance. Stella had always liked hot frankforts embedded in a soft biscuit, slimy with mustard. There were several night-lunch-carts at Belcher's Beach. At Belcher's Beach it was not conspicuous, in the least, for a lady to buy a meal at the door of one of the night-lunch-carts, and carry it away, hot, in a damp brown paper, under her arm.

It was not conspicuous to return from Boston at a late hour with Ed Munn after one of his grand parties. It was just as well, Stella supposed, not to be seen with Ed Munn too much, after all the silly talk there had been about him and her in Milhampton years ago. Even if she could have afforded to stay on at the expensive hotel, she would have been obliged to have foregone too many parties with Ed. There were some compensations, and, ostrich-wise, she stuck her head in the sand of Belcher's Beach and proceeded to enjoy them.

One late Saturday night Ed Munn, who had seen Stella decently inside the front door of the boarding-house at Belcher's Beach, after one of his parties in town, had asked her with an insinuating smile, glancing towards the stairs, "Sure you can unlock your door alone?"

Stella hadn't taken offense. Ed was like that.

"Of course I can, you goose." She flashed back. "Do I look feeble?"

You can just bet she didn't let any masculine escort trail up any inside stairs behind her! Some women in the boarding-house did!

Too bad Ed had that common streak in him. Some men would know when and where it was good taste to spring a joke of that sort.

Stella was blissfully unaware, as she climbed the stairs alone to her room that night, that at the same moment, a touring car, with two excited women in its rear seat, was slipping smoothly away from under the arc light that hung on the tall pole outside Stella's boarding-house.

The automobile had stopped under the light for only a moment. The chauffeur had wanted to find out how much gasoline he had. It was unfortunate for Stella that the car hadn't stopped longer. The two occupants in the back of the car had seen Alfred Munn follow Stella Dallas into the boarding-house, but they hadn't seen him come out!

One of the women in the back of the car was Mrs. Henry Holland. The other was Mrs. Kay Bird. They both lived in Milhampton in the winter. Mrs. Kay Bird occupied rooms directly opposite Stella in the same apartment hotel.

"It was she! I can swear to it!" said Mrs. Henry Holland, as she clutched the arm of her companion.

"It was he. I know him anywhere!" said Mrs. Kay Bird, as she clutched back.

"Only ten more days," said Stella, half an hour later as she knelt in the dark by her bed. "Gosh! how I miss you, Lollie."