Stella Dallas (Prouty)/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII

1

Stephen married Stella in January, four months after he first saw her. He thought he loved her. Most sincerely he thought he loved her. He desired to be with her—terribly, terrifyingly—more than he had ever desired to be with any girl. Moreover, he felt very tenderly towards her. He was aware of her limitations, of her little crudities, but what if she did make a few mistakes in grammar, a few mistakes in taste, occasionally. She was wonderfully sweet-tempered, always amiable, always gay, as easily pleased as a child, as easily guided, he believed.

Once, when he corrected her for one of her grammatical offenses (she would say "somewheres"; and "would of" for "would have"; and "got a" for "got to"—"got a-laughing," "got a-going"; and "lay" for "lie"; and "how does it suit," and "how do you like," without an object), she replied good-naturedly, "That's right, Mr. Harvard of Bawston, teach me to talk like you do. I'm crazy to learn."

Stephen thought that he could make her over, rub down the rough edges once they were married, once he had her alone to himself. Alone, to himself! Blinding possibility! Well, well, he must use his head, too!

Of course she was different from the girls he used to know. But he was different from the man he used to be. He required somebody different. Stephen did not want a girl to step down to him. Stephen did not want pity from the woman he married. Stella was not stepping down to him. Stella did not pity him.

When he first told her about his father, she replied, lightly, laughingly, "Mercy, I don't care what your father did, Stephen, nor your great-grandfather either." Then, with disarming honesty, "Gracious, you'd never have looked at poor me unless something had knocked you off your high horse."

No girl who belonged to Stephen's former existence would look upon a hundred and fifty dollars a month as a fortune. Stella did. Nor upon five rooms and a bath in an apartment house in the upper Webster Street district in Milhampton, as a palace. Stella did. Nor upon himself, dethroned, cast out, and disgraced, as still a prince. Stella did.

Stephen experienced no crude and sudden awakening. During the first year of their married life, there were surprises for him, gentle shocks almost every day, but nothing shattering. For instance, he was amazed to discover how little education a girl can absorb, and go through a high school and two years of normal school besides. Why, Stella didn't know Thackeray from George Eliot!

"Oh, I suppose I learned about those old fellows once, but you know how things of that sort slip in and out, unless they're dinged in everlastingly."

But didn't normal schools "ding in" such things? Apparently not. Stephen had been counting on the normal-school experience. He had dwelt with emphasis upon it when he had first written his sister Fanny in far-away Japan, about Stella.

It was another shock to Stephen to discover how little interest his precious resurrected library aroused in Stella. Once before they were married she had told him she would simply adore to live in a room with books to the ceiling! But her only passion, as far as books were concerned, seemed to be in their decorative quality. One day she spent three hours changing Stephen's careful arrangement of his books, so that all the bindings of one color should be grouped together, irrespective of subject. One evening, when Stephen started to read out loud to her from one of his favorite authors, in an attempt to lure her inside the books, she told him good-naturedly, for goodness' sake not to spout any more of that dead, old-fashioned, high-brow stuff to her. It gave her the fidgets.

She had no love at all for music, it appeared, although during the short period of their courtship she told Stephen she was "crazy about it," and in fact seemed to him to be. She was a beautiful dancer. "I just can't keep still when there's a tune going on." But after her first real musical concert with Stephen, one Saturday night several weeks after their marriage (Boston artists often came to Milhampton), she frankly confessed herself as horribly bored. A violin made her want to scream. It was so squeaky, like filing finger-nails with a steel file, she thought. Of course if musical concerts, Kneisel quartettes and the like were "the thing," she was game for them. But really a good vaudeville show (movies were then in their infancy) was much more entertaining. And a good play, where you saw modern actors, kept you so much better up-to-date, and rubbed the green moss off you in rolls. The beauty of out-of-doors had no attraction for her, nor flowers either, her morning-glories and wild cucumbers notwithstanding. She spent a good deal of time outdoors, walking; not, however, for the physical exhilaration of it, but simply "to reduce" (even then Stella was inclined to be a little plump) or to save the price of a car-fare, which she usually invested in candy. She was always nibbling at candy.

Often during the first few months of his marriage, grave doubts and misgivings assailed Stephen, but he was able to send them slinking away usually by comparing his present existence with that of a year ago. A year ago his evenings had been awful stretches of loneliness and unloveliness. Now each night there was a very pretty and always good-natured Stella waiting for him in a little sweet-smelling apartment; and after his evening meal there were distant sounds, far from unpleasing to him, of running water and rattling dishes, as he sat smoking and reading in his old Morris chair, wrapped round with his books and his rugs and a few treasured pieces of furniture unburied from a storehouse in Reddington.

Later, there was somebody sitting on the arm of his Morris chair, pressing against his shoulder, somebody soft and warm and alive, and his—all his, to do with as he pleased. No; he was not sorry that he had married Stella.

2

If time had not been steadily at work performing its gentle cure upon Stephen, he might never have been sorry he had married Stella. But old hopes, old ideals began to reassert themselves. In spite of himself, gradually, slowly, Stephen became interested in his job at the Cataract Mills. More than once that Spring, Stella, coming in from the kitchen of the little apartment after the supper dishes had been put away, found Stephen poring over one of the sheepskin-bound volumes from the bottom shelf of the bookcases he had had built around the living-room, his precious Trollope or Meredith (Lord, what did he find in those old birds?) pushed aside, discarded.

The sheepskin-bound volumes were Stephen's law-books. He told Stella he wanted to satisfy a curiosity he had, as to the legal right or wrong of certain affairs at the Cataract Mills. Stephen was in the Complaint Department at the mills at that time. This curiosity of Stephen's percolated through the man immediately above him, and through the next man, and the next, and the next, and so on to the general manager finally. Once the general manager discovered Stephen, it was every night then that he pored over the law-books.

Stella did not begrudge the late nights Stephen spent with the big volumes.

"Gracious," she had exclaimed, eyes aglint, when Stephen confided to her that the general manager had suggested that he pass his bar examination, so as to be able to assist in the legal end of the business, if occasion arose. "Gracious, a lawyer! My! Won't I feel just grand? Oh, Stephen, I knew I'd picked a winner. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if I found myself a governor's wife some day, or a president's! Gosh, wouldn't I be thrilled?"

"Oh, Stella. Not 'Gosh!' Please."

"Oh, well—Jiminy then—What's the diff? Lord, I'm excited!"

"Poor Stella," thought Stephen. "Poor Stephen, too!" For it occurred to him suddenly, sickeningly, gazing at Stella, listening to Stella, that there were two reasons now instead of one a year ago why he should avoid the smiles and favors of success.

3

But he didn't. He couldn't. Much in the same way as water seeks its own level, so Stephen had a level he, too, involuntarily sought. He had been born with the love of success running in his veins and it wouldn't be denied.

Mr. Palmer, the general manager of the Cataract Mills, became very much interested in Stephen Dallas. He had no son of his own; he had no protégé in whom to feel pride and pleasure. He could well feel pride and pleasure in Stephen. Stephen was by nature very adaptable, very approachable. His father's act had only temporarily crippled his graceful self-confidence. He was tall and slight, more aristocratic than rugged in appearance; forehead high, eyes well-set, chin and mouth strong and distinctive. His dark, close-cut hair grew thick on top of his head, but receded on either side like so many American boys still in their twenties. The mustache, restrained and close-cut, which he had allowed to grow when he first came to Milhampton, in order to make him forget whom he had been before, gave him a foreign look.

"English," delightedly whispered some of the Milhampton women, to whom everything English was desirable.

Mr. Palmer suggested his name for membership at the Milhampton City Club; at the River Country Club; introduced him to a group of young lawyers. Stephen ran across some old college acquaintances, some old law-school contemporaries. Swiftly, with amazing speed old lines of communication were established between himself and the world to which he belonged. The impression he made upon Milhampton was distinctly favorable.

One day Mrs. Palmer invited Stephen and his wife to dinner. Others invited Stephen and his wife to dinner. Stephen became very anxious to feel pride in Stella, now that he had begun to feel pride again in himself. Stella became very anxious that he should feel pride in her. To appear the lady Stephen's wife should have been born became Stella's greatest ambition. On the first few occasions when she appeared with Stephen before the footlights of the social life in Milhampton—a stage she had gazed upon with longing eyes for years—she would do nothing, say nothing, almost think nothing, until it was first approved by Stephen. At first she invited his criticism, responded with eagerness to his constant drilling and grilling, welcomed his slightest suggestion. Of course she made progress. She was a clever mimic. At first Stephen had great hopes for Stella.

4

But success went to Stella's head like wine, even a small amount of success. Stella never became the belle she thought she did in Milhampton society, but she was, for a period, received and accepted by certain of its high prelates and officials, for Stephen's sake. It puffed her all up; it filled her with disastrous self-confidence. Within a period of a few weeks the limelight of recognition made of the soft, pliable clay Stella had been in Stephen's hands, something hard and brittle that would fly to pieces at his slightest touch.

Stella's first dance at the River Club was a bitter occasion for Stephen. She, a stranger, an invited guest of Mrs. Palmer's, had allowed one man to dance with her for the entire last half of the evening. Afterwards in their bedroom, when Stephen spoke to her about it, to his amazement she laughed and scoffed.

"Oh, gracious, Stephen, don't think you can give me pointers on how to treat a man at a dance! There are some things I know more about than you, my dear."

It was when Stella began to think that there were some things she knew more than Stephen, and to act upon that superior knowledge, that the seed of the trouble that ended so disastrously for her first began to grow.

"But, Stella, for you, a stranger, to dance so much with one man is conspicuous."

"Of course! Of course, it's conspicuous," Stella replied. "Oh, I know what I'm about, stupid! That man was Spencer Chisholm! Gracious, think of it! The Chisholms, Stephen! Think of it! An affair between me and Spencer Chisholm!" Her eyes sparkled.

Stephen turned away. It was going to be as difficult to stamp out Stella's vulgarity as to rid a lawn of the persistent dandelion once it gets its roots down. Stephen despised kow-towing.

"The Chisholms! My dear Stella, I hope you'll avoid that attitude toward people hereafter. You're my wife now."

"And can't look at another man?" she flashed.

"That isn't the point."

"Mercy," she went right on, "I can't help it if a man wants to dance with me. I should think you'd be pleased to have your wife popular. Most men would be. Most men—"

"I'm not pleased to have you talked about. Please don't give any one occasion to again, Stella."

"Good Lord, Stephen, you're not going to turn out to be the jealous kind, I hope, if another man looks at me."

Stephen winced.

"I hate a jealous man," she went on. "I always have!" And she threw down her comb upon the dressing-table. It screeched as it struck the plate-glass protection.

Stephen winced again. Throwing things! His wife! Accusing him of jealousy! Very quietly he went out into the hall, and stood a moment in the darkness, waiting till his jarred nerves stopped tingling.

"I must be patient," he thought. "It isn't her fault. It is only that she has been bred differently. She doesn't know."

5

There were many late-night discussions in the bedroom after that. Stephen hated wrangling, constant argument, constant controversy, but he was willing to endure much if he could prevent Stella from cheapening herself, and him, too, by promiscuous flirtations. But he couldn't. It was a futile attempt. It was as instinctive for Stella's eyes to brighten up, and for her manner to brighten up, too, when a man appeared who might admire her, as for a puppy's tail to wag when a possibly appreciative human being approaches. Stephen might as well have tried to discipline the puppy's tail as Stella's eyes and manner.

Stella's fondness for attention from men was not deep-seated. If her response had aroused any great depth of feeling or desire, red danger-flags would have appeared to warn her. As it was, her very innocence worked to her disadvantage. She could see no reason for not taking a little harmless fun as it came along, especially if it improved her social prospects. Because it was harmless she persisted in it, until Stephen's patience was worn out, and his pride and self-respect torn and tattered.

It was not only in regard to her relations with men that Stella turned deaf ears to Stephen. Under the head-turning effect of attentions paid her by such women as Phyllis Stearns and Myrtle Holland (Myrtle Holland took up Stella Dallas as a sort of fad that Spring, her friends said) she came to consider all Stephen's ideas as old-fashioned, and out-of-date.

She could see nothing but advantage in forming alliances with such women as Phyllis and Myrtle. "They're in everything. They go everywhere." Nothing but distinction in entering into every activity and amusement that they suggested. "Gracious, how little men know how to get on in society." Stephen was harping morning, noon, and night, on the dangers of too intimate friendships, and too rapid progress. "If I followed your advice I wouldn't get anywhere. You'd make out of me just a prim, stupid, little stay-at-home. Myrtle says she'd just die if her husband tried to dictate to her the way you do to me."

"'Myrtle says'! Oh, Stella, you don't talk over our affairs with your women friends, do you?"

"Oh, no! Of course not. We talk just about the weather!"

"But, Stella, surely your sense of good taste would prevent you from telling any one of our differences of opinion?"

"Our 'squabbles,' you mean? Oh, Stephen, a saint couldn't please you. Finding fault with the things I talk about with my girl friends! Honestly!"

"They'll only ridicule you afterwards. I don't like those women. I wish you'd avoid them. I don't think they're real friends of yours."

"That's right. Run them down. Have friends of your own, you lunch with and play cards with, and golf with, and have a regular good time with, but don't let me have anybody! Myrtle says some men are like that—jealous even of their wives' women friends. Oh, Stephen, why will you try to take the joy out of everything so? Why don't you let me have a little fun in life without all this argument? I get sick to death of it."

"Oh, very well."

"Yes, you say 'very well,' but you'll be at me again to-morrow. I don't find fault with you, do I?"

"No."

"Well—?"

Stephen was silent.

"That's right, now get glum and sulky, and don't say anything to me but stiff formal things for a week. Oh, gracious!"

Stella could forget all about such a discussion as this by the following morning. "I'm blessed with a good disposition," she was fond of boasting. "Dad used to say it was almost impossible to worry me cross when I was a kid. Come on, Stephen, cheer up."

If Stephen didn't, if he couldn't "cheer up," Stella would fling down her comb, or slam a door, and five minutes later be heard humming a song in her bath. Stephen suffered.

6

"Why did you ever marry me, Stella?" once despairingly he inquired.

"Why, because I was crazy about you. I thought you were perfectly great."

"How can a woman be crazy about a man—care for a man, and not be willing to adapt herself somewhat to him, to give up a few things for him?"

"How would it do for you to do a little of the adapting, Stephen, a little of the giving up? Why did you ever marry me?" she retorted.