Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser

Chapter XXXII

The Feast of Belshazzar — A Seer to Translate

Such feelings as were generated in Carrie by this walk put her in an exceedingly receptive mood for the pathos which followed in the play. The actor whom they had gone to see had achieved his popularity by presenting a mellow type of comedy, in which sufficient sorrow was introduced to lend contrast and relief to humour. For Carrie, as we well know, the stage had a great attraction. She had never forgotten her one histrionic achievement in Chicago. It dwelt in her mind and occupied her consciousness during many long afternoons in which her rocking-chair and her latest novel contributed the only pleasures of her state. Never could she witness a play without having her own ability vividly brought to consciousness. Some scenes made her long to be a part of them — to give expression to the feelings which she, in the place of the character represented, would feel. Almost invariably she would carry the vivid imaginations away with her and brood over them the next day alone. She lived as much in these things as in the realities which made up her daily life.

It was not often that she came to the play stirred to her heart’s core by actualities. To-day a low song of longing had been set singing in her heart by the finery, the merriment, the beauty she had seen. Oh, these women who had passed her by, hundreds and hundreds strong, who were they? Whence came the rich, elegant dresses, the astonishingly coloured buttons, the knick-knacks of silver and gold? Where were these lovely creatures housed? Amid what elegancies of carved furniture, decorated walls, elaborate tapestries did they move? Where were their rich apartments, loaded with all that money could provide? In what stables champed these sleek, nervous horses and rested the gorgeous carriages? Where lounged the richly groomed footmen? Oh, the mansions, the lights, the perfume, the loaded boudoirs and tables! New York must be filled with such bowers, or the beautiful, insolent, supercilious creatures could not be. Some hothouses held them. It ached her to know that she was not one of them — that, alas, she had dreamed a dream and it had not come true. She wondered at her own solitude these two years past — her indifference to the fact that she had never achieved what she had expected.

The play was one of those drawing-room concoctions in which charmingly overdressed ladies and gentlemen suffer the pangs of love and jealousy amid gilded surroundings. Such bon-mots are ever enticing to those who have all their days longed for such material surroundings and have never had them gratified. They have the charm of showing suffering under ideal conditions. Who would not grieve upon a gilded chair? Who would not suffer amid perfumed tapestries, cushioned furniture, and liveried servants? Grief under such circumstances becomes an enticing thing. Carrie longed to be of it. She wanted to take her sufferings, whatever they were, in such a world, or failing that, at least to simulate them under such charming conditions upon the stage. So affected was her mind by what she had seen, that the play now seemed an extraordinarily beautiful thing. She was soon lost in the world it represented, and wished that she might never return. Between the acts she studied the galaxy of matinee attendants in front rows and boxes, and conceived a new idea of the possibilities of New York. She was sure she had not seen it all — that the city was one whirl of pleasure and delight.

Going out, the same Broadway taught her a sharper lesson. The scene she had witnessed coming down was now augmented and at its height. Such a crush of finery and folly she had never seen. It clinched her convictions concerning her state. She had not lived, could not lay claim to having lived, until something of this had come into her own life. Women were spending money like water; she could see that in every elegant shop she passed. Flowers, candy, jewelry, seemed the principal things in which the elegant dames were interested. And she — she had scarcely enough pin money to indulge in such outings as this a few times a month.

That night the pretty little flat seemed a commonplace thing. It was not what the rest of the world was enjoying. She saw the servant working at dinner with an indifferent eye. In her mind were running scenes of the play. Particularly she remembered one beautiful actress — the sweetheart who had been wooed and won. The grace of this woman had won Carrie’s heart. Her dresses had been all that art could suggest, her sufferings had been so real. The anguish which she had portrayed Carrie could feel. It was done as she was sure she could do it. There were places in which she could even do better. Hence she repeated the lines to herself. Oh, if she could only have such a part, how broad would be her life! She, too, could act appealingly.

When Hurstwood came, Carrie was moody. She was sitting, rocking and thinking, and did not care to have her enticing imaginations broken in upon; so she said little or nothing.

“What’s the matter, Carrie?” said Hurstwood after a time, noticing her quiet, almost moody state.

“Nothing,” said Carrie. “I don’t feel very well tonight.”

“Not sick, are you?” he asked, approaching very close.

“Oh, no,” she said, almost pettishly, “I just don’t feel very good.”

“That’s too bad,” he said, stepping away and adjusting his vest after his slight bending over. “I was thinking we might go to a show to-night.”

“I don’t want to go,” said Carrie, annoyed that her fine visions should have thus been broken into and driven out of her mind. “I’ve been to the matinee this afternoon.”

“Oh, you have?” said Hurstwood. “What was it?”

“A Gold Mine.”

“How was it?”

“Pretty good,” said Carrie.

“And you don’t want to go again to night?”

“I don’t think I do,” she said.

Nevertheless, wakened out of her melancholia and called to the dinner table, she changed her mind. A little food in the stomach does wonders. She went again, and in so doing temporarily recovered her equanimity. The great awakening blow had, however, been delivered. As often as she might recover from these discontented thoughts now, they would occur again. Time and repetition — ah, the wonder of it! The dropping water and the solid stone — how utterly it yields at last!

Not long after this matinee experience — perhaps a month — Mrs. Vance invited Carrie to an evening at the theatre with them. She heard Carrie say that Hurstwood was not coming home to dinner.

“Why don’t you come with us? Don’t get dinner for yourself. We’re going down to Sherry’s for dinner and then over to the Lyceum. Come along with us.”

“I think I will,” answered Carrie.

She began to dress at three o’clock for her departure at half-past five for the noted dining-room which was then crowding Delmonico’s for position in society. In this dressing Carrie showed the influence of her association with the dashing Mrs. Vance. She had constantly had her attention called by the latter to novelties in everything which pertains to a woman’s apparel.

“Are you going to get such and such a hat?” or, “Have you seen the new gloves with the oval pearl buttons?” were but sample phrases out of a large selection.

“The next time you get a pair of shoes, dearie,” said Mrs. Vance, “get button, with thick soles and patent-leather tips. They’re all the rage this fall.”

“I will,” said Carrie.

“Oh, dear, have you seen the new shirtwaists at Altman’s? They have some of the loveliest patterns. I saw one there that I know would look stunning on you. I said so when I saw it.”

Carrie listened to these things with considerable interest, for they were suggested with more of friendliness than is usually common between pretty women. Mrs. Vance liked Carrie’s stable good-nature so well that she really took pleasure in suggesting to her the latest things.

“Why don’t you get yourself one of those nice serge skirts they’re selling at Lord & Taylor’s?” she said one day. “They’re the circular style, and they’re going to be worn from now on. A dark blue one would look so nice on you.”

Carrie listened with eager ears. These things never came up between her and Hurstwood. Nevertheless, she began to suggest one thing and another, which Hurstwood agreed to without any expression of opinion. He noticed the new tendency on Carrie’s part, and finally, hearing much of Mrs. Vance and her delightful ways, suspected whence the change came. He was not inclined to offer the slightest objection so soon, but he felt that Carrie’s wants were expanding. This did not appeal to him exactly, but he cared for her in his own way, and so the thing stood. Still, there was something in the details of the transactions which caused Carrie to feel that her requests were not a delight to him. He did not enthuse over the purchases. This led her to believe that neglect was creeping in, and so another small wedge was entered.

Nevertheless, one of the results of Mrs. Vance’s suggestions was the fact that on this occasion Carrie was dressed somewhat to her own satisfaction. She had on her best, but there was comfort in the thought that if she must confine herself to a best, it was neat and fitting. She looked the well-groomed woman of twenty-one, and Mrs. Vance praised her, which brought colour to her plump cheeks and a noticeable brightness into her large eyes. It was threatening rain, and Mr. Vance, at his wife’s request, had called a coach. “Your husband isn’t coming?” suggested Mr. Vance, as he met Carrie in his little parlour.

“No; he said he wouldn’t be home for dinner.”

“Better leave a little note for him, telling him where we are. He might turn up.”

“I will,” said Carrie, who had not thought of it before.

“Tell him we’ll be at Sherry’s until eight o’clock. He knows, though I guess.”

Carrie crossed the hall with rustling skirts, and scrawled the note, gloves on. When she returned a newcomer was in the Vance flat.

“Mrs. Wheeler, let me introduce Mr. Ames, a cousin of mine,” said Mrs. Vance. “He’s going along with us, aren’t you, Bob?”

“I’m very glad to meet you,” said Ames, bowing politely to Carrie.

The latter caught in a glance the dimensions of a very stalwart figure. She also noticed that he was smooth-shaven, good looking, and young, but nothing more.

“Mr. Ames is just down in New York for a few days,” put in Vance, “and we’re trying to show him around a little.”

“Oh, are you?” said Carrie, taking another glance at the newcomer.

“Yes; I am just on here from Indianapolis for a week or so,” said young Ames, seating himself on the edge of a chair to wait while Mrs. Vance completed the last touches of her toilet.

“I guess you find New York quite a thing to see, don’t you?” said Carrie, venturing something to avoid a possible deadly silence.

“It is rather large to get around in a week,” answered Ames, pleasantly.

He was an exceedingly genial soul, this young man, and wholly free of affectation. It seemed to Carrie he was as yet only overcoming the last traces of the bashfulness of youth. He did not seem apt at conversation, but he had the merit of being well dressed and wholly courageous. Carrie felt as if it were not going to be hard to talk to him.

“Well, I guess we’re ready now. The coach is outside.”

“Come on, people,” said Mrs. Vance, coming in smiling. “Bob, you’ll have to look after Mrs. Wheeler.”

“I’ll try to,” said Bob smiling, and edging closer to Carrie. “You won’t need much watching, will you?” he volunteered, in a sort of ingratiating and help-me-out kind of way.

“Not very, I hope,” said Carrie.

They descended the stairs, Mrs. Vance offering suggestions, and climbed into the open coach.

“All right,” said Vance, slamming the coach door, and the conveyance rolled away.

“What is it we’re going to see?” asked Ames.

“Sothern,” said Vance, “in ‘Lord Chumley.’”

“Oh, he is so good!” said Mrs. Vance. “He’s just the funniest man.”

“I notice the papers praise it,” said Ames.

“I haven’t any doubt,” put in Vance, “but we’ll all enjoy it very much.”

Ames had taken a seat beside Carrie, and accordingly he felt it his bounden duty to pay her some attention. He was interested to find her so young a wife, and so pretty, though it was only a respectful interest. There was nothing of the dashing lady’s man about him. He had respect for the married state, and thought only of some pretty marriageable girls in Indianapolis.

“Are you a born New Yorker?” asked Ames of Carrie.

“Oh, no; I’ve only been here for two years.”

“Oh, well, you’ve had time to see a great deal of it, anyhow.”

“I don’t seem to have,” answered Carrie. “It’s about as strange to me as when I first came here.”

“You’re not from the West, are you?”

“Yes. I’m from Wisconsin,” she answered.

“Well, it does seem as if most people in this town haven’t been here so very long. I hear of lots of Indiana people in my line who are here.”

“What is your line?” asked Carrie.

“I’m connected with an electrical company,” said the youth.

Carrie followed up this desultory conversation with occasional interruptions from the Vances. Several times it became general and partially humorous, and in that manner the restaurant was reached.

Carrie had noticed the appearance of gayety and pleasure-seeking in the streets which they were following. Coaches were numerous, pedestrians many, and in Fifty-ninth Street the street cars were crowded. At Fifty-ninth Street and Fifth Avenue a blaze of lights from several new hotels which bordered the Plaza Square gave a suggestion of sumptuous hotel life. Fifth Avenue, the home of the wealthy, was noticeably crowded with carriages, and gentlemen in evening dress. At Sherry’s an imposing doorman opened the coach door and helped them out. Young Ames held Carrie’s elbow as he helped her up the steps. They entered the lobby already swarming with patrons, and then, after divesting themselves of their wraps, went into a sumptuous dining-room.

In all Carrie’s experience she had never seen anything like this. In the whole time she had been in New York Hurstwood’s modified state had not permitted his bringing her to such a place. There was an almost indescribable atmosphere about it which convinced the newcomer that this was the proper thing. Here was the place where the matter of expense limited the patrons to the moneyed or pleasure-loving class. Carrie had read of it often in the “Morning” and “Evening World.” She had seen notices of dances, parties, balls, and suppers at Sherry’s. The Misses So-and-so would give a party on Wednesday evening at Sherry’s. Young Mr. So-and-So would entertain a party of friends at a private luncheon on the sixteenth, at Sherry’s. The common run of conventional, perfunctory notices of the doings of society, which she could scarcely refrain from scanning each day, had given her a distinct idea of the gorgeousness and luxury of this wonderful temple of gastronomy. Now, at last, she was really in it. She had come up the imposing steps, guarded by the large and portly doorman. She had seen the lobby, guarded by another large and portly gentleman, and been waited upon by uniformed youths who took care of canes, overcoats, and the like. Here was the splendid dining-chamber, all decorated and aglow, where the wealthy ate. Ah, how fortunate was Mrs. Vance; young, beautiful, and well off — at least, sufficiently so to come here in a coach. What a wonderful thing it was to be rich.

Vance led the way through lanes of shining tables, at which were seated parties of two, three, four, five, or six. The air of assurance and dignity about it all was exceedingly noticeable to the novitiate. Incandescent lights, the reflection of their glow in polished glasses, and the shine of gilt upon the walls, combined into one tone of light which it requires minutes of complacent observation to separate and take particular note of. The white shirt fronts of the gentlemen, the bright costumes of the ladies, diamonds, jewels, fine feathers — all were exceedingly noticeable.

Carrie walked with an air equal to that of Mrs. Vance, and accepted the seat which the head waiter provided for her. She was keenly aware of all the little things that were done — the little genuflections and attentions of the waiters and head waiter which Americans pay for. The air with which the latter pulled out each chair, and the wave of the hand with which he motioned them to be seated, were worth several dollars in themselves.

Once seated, there began that exhibition of showy, wasteful, and unwholesome gastronomy as practised by wealthy Americans, which is the wonder and astonishment of true culture and dignity the world over. The large bill of fare held an array of dishes sufficient to feed an army, sidelined with prices which made reasonable expenditure a ridiculous impossibility — an order of soup at fifty cents or a dollar, with a dozen kinds to choose from; oysters in forty styles and at sixty cents the half-dozen; entrees, fish, and meats at prices which would house one over night in an average hotel. One dollar fifty and two dollars seemed to be the most common figures upon this most tastefully printed bill of fare.

Carrie noticed this, and in scanning it the price of spring chicken carried her back to that other bill of fare and far different occasion when, for the first time, she sat with Drouet in a good restaurant in Chicago. It was only momentary — a sad note as out of an old song — and then it was gone. But in that flash was seen the other Carrie — poor, hungry, drifting at her wits’ ends, and all Chicago a cold and closed world, from which she only wandered because she could not find work.

On the walls were designs in colour, square spots of robin’s-egg blue, set in ornate frames of gilt, whose corners were elaborate mouldings of fruit and flowers, with fat cupids hovering in angelic comfort. On the ceilings were coloured traceries with more gilt, leading to a centre where spread a cluster of lights — incandescent globes mingled with glittering prisms and stucco tendrils of gilt. The floor was of a reddish hue, waxed and polished, and in every direction were mirrors — tall, brilliant, bevel-edged mirrors — reflecting and re-reflecting forms, faces, and candelabra a score and a hundred times.

The tables were not so remarkable in themselves, and yet the imprint of Sherry upon the napery, the name of Tiffany upon the silverware, the name of Haviland upon the china, and over all the glow of the small, red-shaded candelabra and the reflected tints of the walls on garments and faces, made them seem remarkable. Each waiter added an air of exclusiveness and elegance by the manner in which he bowed, scraped, touched, and trifled with things. The exclusively personal attention which he devoted to each one, standing half bent, ear to one side, elbows akimbo, saying: “Soup — green turtle, yes. One portion, yes. Oysters — certainly — half-dozen — yes. Asparagus. Olives — yes.”

It would be the same with each one, only Vance essayed to order for all, inviting counsel and suggestions. Carrie studied the company with open eyes. So this was high life in New York. It was so that the rich spent their days and evenings. Her poor little mind could not rise above applying each scene to all society. Every fine lady must be in the crowd on Broadway in the afternoon, in the theatre at the matinee, in the coaches and dining-halls at night. It must be glow and shine everywhere, with coaches waiting, and footmen attending, and she was out of it all. In two long years she had never even been in such a place as this.

Vance was in his element here, as Hurstwood would have been in former days. He ordered freely of soup, oysters, roast meats, and side dishes, and had several bottles of wine brought, which were set down beside the table in a wicker basket.

Ames was looking away rather abstractedly at the crowd and showed an interesting profile to Carrie. His forehead was high, his nose rather large and strong, his chin moderately pleasing. He had a good, wide, well-shaped mouth, and his dark-brown hair was parted slightly on one side. He seemed to have the least touch of boyishness to Carrie, and yet he was a man full grown.

“Do you know,” he said, turning back to Carrie, after his reflection, “I sometimes think it is a shame for people to spend so much money this way.”

Carrie looked at him a moment with the faintest touch of surprise at his seriousness. He seemed to be thinking about something over which she had never pondered.

“Do you?” she answered, interestedly.

“Yes,” he said, “they pay so much more than these things are worth. They put on so much show.”

“I don’t know why people shouldn’t spend when they have it,” said Mrs. Vance.

“It doesn’t do any harm,” said Vance, who was still studying the bill of fare, though he had ordered.

Ames was looking away again, and Carrie was again looking at his forehead. To her he seemed to be thinking about strange things. As he studied the crowd his eye was mild.

“Look at that woman’s dress over there,” he said, again turning to Carrie, and nodding in a direction.

“Where?” said Carrie, following his eyes.

“Over there in the corner — way over. Do you see that brooch?”

“Isn’t it large?” said Carrie.

“One of the largest clusters of jewels I have ever seen,” said Ames.

“It is, isn’t it?” said Carrie. She felt as if she would like to be agreeable to this young man, and also there came with it, or perhaps preceded it, the slightest shade of a feeling that he was better educated than she was — that his mind was better. He seemed to look it, and the saving grace in Carrie was that she could understand that people could be wiser. She had seen a number of people in her life who reminded her of what she had vaguely come to think of as scholars. This strong young man beside her, with his clear, natural look, seemed to get a hold of things which she did not quite understand, but approved of. It was fine to be so, as a man, she thought.

The conversation changed to a book that was having its vogue at the time — “Moulding a Maiden,” by Albert Ross. Mrs. Vance had read it. Vance had seen it discussed in some of the papers.

“A man can make quite a strike writing a book,” said Vance. “I notice this fellow Ross is very much talked about.” He was looking at Carrie as he spoke.

“I hadn’t heard of him,” said Carrie, honestly.

“Oh, I have,” said Mrs. Vance. “He’s written lots of things. This last story is pretty good.”

“He doesn’t amount to much,” said Ames.

Carrie turned her eyes toward him as to an oracle.

“His stuff is nearly as bad as ‘Dora Thorne,’” concluded Ames.

Carrie felt this as a personal reproof. She read “Dora Thorne,” or had a great deal in the past. It seemed only fair to her, but she supposed that people thought it very fine. Now this clear-eyed, fine-headed youth, who looked something like a student to her, made fun of it. It was poor to him, not worth reading. She looked down, and for the first time felt the pain of not understanding.

Yet there was nothing sarcastic or supercilious in the way Ames spoke. He had very little of that in him. Carrie felt that it was just kindly thought of a high order — the right thing to think, and wondered what else was right, according to him. He seemed to notice that she listened and rather sympathised with him, and from now on he talked mostly to her.

As the waiter bowed and scraped about, felt the dishes to see if they were hot enough, brought spoons and forks, and did all those little attentive things calculated to impress the luxury of the situation upon the diner, Ames also leaned slightly to one side and told her of Indianapolis in an intelligent way. He really had a very bright mind, which was finding its chief development in electrical knowledge. His sympathies for other forms of information, however, and for types of people, were quick and warm. The red glow on his head gave it a sandy tinge and put a bright glint in his eye. Carrie noticed all these things as he leaned toward her and felt exceedingly young. This man was far ahead of her. He seemed wiser than Hurstwood, saner and brighter than Drouet. He seemed innocent and clean, and she thought that he was exceedingly pleasant. She noticed, also, that his interest in her was a far-off one. She was not in his life, nor any of the things that touched his life, and yet now, as he spoke of these things, they appealed to her.

“I shouldn’t care to be rich,” he told her, as the dinner proceeded and the supply of food warmed up his sympathies; “not rich enough to spend my money this way.”

“Oh, wouldn’t you?” said Carrie, the, to her, new attitude forcing itself distinctly upon her for the first time.

“No,” he said. “What good would it do? A man doesn’t need this sort of thing to be happy.”

Carrie thought of this doubtfully; but, coming from him, it had weight with her.

“He probably could be happy,” she thought to herself, “all alone. He’s so strong.”

Mr. and Mrs. Vance kept up a running fire of interruptions, and these impressive things by Ames came at odd moments. They were sufficient, however, for the atmosphere that went with this youth impressed itself upon Carrie without words. There was something in him, or the world he moved in, which appealed to her. He reminded her of scenes she had seen on the stage — the sorrows and sacrifices that always went with she knew not what. He had taken away some of the bitterness of the contrast between this life and her life, and all by a certain calm indifference which concerned only him.

As they went out, he took her arm and helped her into the coach, and then they were off again, and so to the show.

During the acts Carrie found herself listening to him very attentively. He mentioned things in the play which she most approved of — things which swayed her deeply.

“Don’t you think it rather fine to be an actor?” she asked once.

“Yes, I do,” he said, “to be a good one. I think the theatre a great thing.”

Just this little approval set Carrie’s heart bounding. Ah, if she could only be an actress — a good one! This man was wise — he knew — and he approved of it. If she were a fine actress, such men as he would approve of her. She felt that he was good to speak as he had, although it did not concern her at all. She did not know why she felt this way.

At the close of the show it suddenly developed that he was not going back with them.

“Oh, aren’t you?” said Carrie, with an unwarrantable feeling.

“Oh, no,” he said; “I’m stopping right around here in Thirty-third Street.”

Carrie could not say anything else, but somehow this development shocked her. She had been regretting the wane of a pleasant evening, but she had thought there was a half-hour more. Oh, the half-hours, the minutes of the world; what miseries and griefs are crowded into them!

She said good-bye with feigned indifference. What matter could it make? Still, the coach seemed lorn.

When she went into her own flat she had this to think about. She did not know whether she would ever see this man any more. What difference could it make — what difference could it make?

Hurstwood had returned, and was already in bed. His clothes were scattered loosely about. Carrie came to the door and saw him, then retreated. She did not want to go in yet a while. She wanted to think. It was disagreeable to her.

Back in the dining-room she sat in her chair and rocked. Her little hands were folded tightly as she thought. Through a fog of longing and conflicting desires she was beginning to see. Oh, ye legions of hope and pity — of sorrow and pain! She was rocking, and beginning to see.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37