An American Tragedy Chapter 10

Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable. And there were no difficulties of mood or inhibitions to overcome in connection with any of these girls. One of them, a quite pretty brunette in a black and red costume with a band of red ribbon across her forehead, seemed to be decidedly at home with Higby, for already she was dancing with him in the back room to a jazz melody most irrationally hammered out upon the piano.

And Ratterer, to Clyde’s surprise, was already seated upon one of the gilt chairs and upon his knees was lounging a tall young girl with very light hair and blue eyes. And she was smoking a cigarette and tapping her gold slippers to the melody of the piano. It was really quite an amazing and Aladdin-like scene to him. And here was Hegglund, before whom was standing a German or Scandinavian type, plump and pretty, her arms akimbo and her feet wide apart. And she was asking—with an upward swell of the voice, as Clyde could hear: “You make love to me to-night?” But Hegglund, apparently not very much taken with these overtures, calmly shook his head, after which she went on to Kinsella.

And even as he was looking and thinking, a quite attractive blonde girl of not less than twenty-four, but who seemed younger to Clyde, drew up a chair beside him and seating herself, said: “Don’t you dance?” He shook his head nervously. “Want me to show you?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to try here,” he said.

“Oh, it’s easy,” she continued. “Come on!” But since he would not, though he was rather pleased with her for being agreeable to him, she added: “Well, how about something to drink then?”

“Sure,” he agreed, gallantly, and forthwith she signaled the young Negress who had returned as waitress, and in a moment a small table was put before them and a bottle of whisky with soda on the side—a sight that so astonished and troubled Clyde that he could scarcely speak. He had forty dollars in his pocket, and the cost of drinks here, as he had heard from the others, would not be less than two dollars each, but even so, think of him buying drinks for such a woman at such a price! And his mother and sisters and brother at home with scarcely the means to make ends meet. And yet he bought and paid for several, feeling all the while that he had let himself in for a terrifying bit of extravagance, if not an orgy, but now that he was here, he must go through with it.

And besides, as he now saw, this girl was really pretty. She had on a Delft blue evening gown of velvet, with slippers and stockings to match. In her ears were blue earrings and her neck and shoulders and arms were plump and smooth. The most disturbing thing about her was that her bodice was cut very low—he dared scarcely look at her there—and her cheeks and lips were painted—most assuredly the marks of the scarlet woman. Yet she did not seem very aggressive, in fact quite human, and she kept looking rather interestedly at his deep and dark and nervous eyes.

“You work over at the Green-Davidson, too, don’t you?” she asked.

“Yes,” replied Clyde trying to appear as if all this were not new to him—as if he had often been in just such a place as this, amid such scenes. “How did you know?”

“Oh, I know Oscar Hegglund,” she replied. “He comes around here once in a while. Is he a friend of yours?”

“Yes. That is, he works over at the hotel with me.”

“But you haven’t been here before.”

“No,” said Clyde, swiftly, and yet with a trace of inquiry in his own mood. Why should she say he hadn’t been here before?

“I thought you hadn’t. I’ve seen most of these other boys before, but I never saw you. You haven’t been working over at the hotel very long, have you?”

“No,” said Clyde, a little irritated by this, his eyebrows and the skin of his forehead rising and falling as he talked—a form of contraction and expansion that went on involuntarily whenever he was nervous or thought deeply. “What of it?”

“Oh, nothing. I just knew you hadn’t. You don’t look very much like these other boys—you look different.” She smiled oddly and rather ingratiatingly, a smile and a mood which Clyde failed to interpret.

“How different?” he inquired, solemnly and contentiously, taking up a glass and drinking from it.

“I’ll bet you one thing,” she went on, ignoring his inquiry entirely. “You don’t care for girls like me very much, do you?”?

“Oh, yes, I do, too,” he said, evasively.

“Oh, no, you don’t either. I can tell. But I like you just the same. I like your eyes. You’re not like those other fellows. You’re more refined, kinda. I can tell. You don’t look like them.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Clyde, very much pleased and flattered, his forehead wrinkling and clearing as before. This girl was certainly not as bad as he thought, maybe. She was more intelligent—a little more refined than the others. Her costume was not so gross. And she hadn’t thrown herself upon him as had these others upon Hegglund, Higby, Kinsella and Ratterer. Nearly all of the group by now were seated upon chairs or divans about the room and upon their knees were girls. And in front of every couple was a little table with a bottle of whisky upon it.

“Look who’s drinking whisky!” called Kinsella to such of the others as would pay any attention to him, glancing in Clyde’s direction.

“Well, you needn’t be afraid of me,” went on the girl, while Clyde glanced at her arms and neck, at her too much revealed bosom, which quite chilled and yet enticed him. “I haven’t been so very long in this business. And I wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t been for all the bad luck I’ve had. I’d rather live at home with my family if I could, only they wouldn’t have me, now.” She looked rather solemnly at the floor, thinking mainly of the little inexperienced dunce Clyde was—so raw and green. Also of the money she had seen him take out of his pocket—plainly quite a sum. Also how really good-looking he was, not handsome or vigorous, but pleasing. And he was thinking at the instant of Esta, as to where she had gone or was now. What might have befallen her—who could say? What might have been done to her? Had this girl, by any chance, ever had any such unfortunate experience as she had had? He felt a growing, if somewhat grandiose, sympathy, and looked at her as much as to say: “You poor thing.” Yet for the moment he would not trust himself to say anything or make any further inquiries.

“You fellows who come into a place like this always think so hard of everybody. I know how you are. But we’re not as bad as you think.”

Clyde’s brows knit and smoothed again. Perhaps she was not as bad as he thought. She was a low woman, no doubt—evil but pretty. In fact, as he looked about the room from time to time, none of the girls appealed to him more. And she thought him better than these other boys—more refined—she had detected that. The compliment stuck. Presently she was filling his glass for him and urging him to drink with her. Another group of young men arrived about then—and other girls coming out of the mysterious portals at the rear to greet them—Hegglund and Ratterer and Kinsella and Higby, as he saw, mysteriously disappeared up that back stairs that was heavily curtained from the general room. And as these others came in, this girl invited him to come and sit upon a divan in the back room where the lights were dimmer.

And now, seated here, she had drawn very close to him and touched his hands and finally linking an arm in his and pressing close to him, inquired if he didn’t want to see how pretty some of the rooms on the second floor were furnished. And seeing that he was quite alone now—not one of all the group with whom he had come around to observe him—and that this girl seemed to lean to him warmly and sympathetically, he allowed himself to be led up that curtained back stair and into a small pink and blue furnished room, while he kept saying to himself that this was an outrageous and dangerous proceeding on his part, and that it might well end in misery for him. He might contract some dreadful disease. She might charge him more than he could afford. He was afraid of her—himself—everything, really—quite nervous and almost dumb with his several fears and qualms. And yet he went, and, the door locked behind him, this interestingly well-rounded and graceful Venus turned the moment they were within and held him to her, then calmly, and before a tall mirror which revealed her fully to herself and him, began to disrobe….