An American Tragedy Chapter 11

The effect of this adventure on Clyde was such as might have been expected in connection with one so new and strange to such a world as this. In spite of all that deep and urgent curiosity and desire that had eventually led him to that place and caused him to yield, still, because of the moral precepts with which he had so long been familiar, and also because of the nervous esthetic inhibitions which were characteristic of him, he could not but look back upon all this as decidedly degrading and sinful. His parents were probably right when they preached that this was all low and shameful. And yet this whole adventure and the world in which it was laid, once it was all over, was lit with a kind of gross, pagan beauty or vulgar charm for him. And until other and more interesting things had partially effaced it, he could not help thinking back upon it with considerable interest and pleasure, even.

In addition he kept telling himself that now, having as much money as he was making, he could go and do about as he pleased. He need not go there any more if he did not want to, but he could go to other places that might not be as low, maybe—more refined. He wouldn’t want to go with a crowd like that again. He would rather have just one girl somewhere if he could find her—a girl such as those with whom he had seen Sieberling and Doyle associate. And so, despite all of his troublesome thoughts of the night before, he was thus won quickly over to this new source of pleasure if not its primary setting. He must find a free pagan girl of his own somewhere if he could, like Doyle, and spend his money on her. And he could scarcely wait until opportunity should provide him with the means of gratifying himself in this way.

But more interesting and more to his purpose at the time was the fact that both Hegglund and Ratterer, in spite of, or possibly because of, a secret sense of superiority which they detected in Clyde, were inclined to look upon him with no little interest and to court him and to include him among all their thoughts of affairs and pleasures. Indeed, shortly after his first adventure, Ratterer invited him to come to his home, where, as Clyde most quickly came to see, was a life very different from his own. At the Griffiths’ all was so solemn and reserved, the still moods of those who feel the pressure of dogma and conviction. In Ratterer’s home, the reverse of this was nearly true. The mother and sister with whom he lived, while not without some moral although no particular religious convictions, were inclined to view life with a great deal of generosity or, as a moralist would have seen it, laxity. There had never been any keen moral or characterful direction there at all. And so it was that Ratterer and his sister Louise, who was two years younger than himself, now did about as they pleased, and without thinking very much about it. But his sister chanced to be shrewd or individual enough not to wish to cast herself away on just any one.

The interesting part of all this was that Clyde, in spite of a certain strain of refinement which caused him to look askance at most of this, was still fascinated by the crude picture of life and liberty which it offered. Among such as these, at least, he could go, do, be as he had never gone or done or been before. And particularly was he pleased and enlightened—or rather dubiously liberated—in connection with his nervousness and uncertainty in regard to his charm or fascination for girls of his own years. For up to this very time, and in spite of his recent first visit to the erotic temple to which Hegglund and the others had led him, he was still convinced that he had no skill with or charm where girls were concerned. Their mere proximity or approach was sufficient to cause him to recede mentally, to chill or palpitate nervously, and to lose what little natural skill he had for conversation or poised banter such as other youths possessed. But now, in his visits to the home of Ratterer, as he soon discovered, he was to have ample opportunity to test whether this shyness and uncertainty could be overcome.

For it was a center for the friends of Ratterer and his sister, who were more or less of one mood in regard to life. Dancing, card-playing, love-making rather open and unashamed, went on there. Indeed, up to this time, Clyde would not have imagined that a parent like Mrs. Ratterer could have been as lackadaisical or indifferent as she was, apparently, to conduct and morals generally. He would not have imagined that any mother would have countenanced the easy camaraderie that existed between the sexes in Mrs. Ratterer’s home.

And very soon, because of several cordial invitations which were extended to him by Ratterer, he found himself part and parcel of this group—a group which from one point of view—the ideas held by its members, the rather wretched English they spoke—he looked down upon. From another point of view—the freedom they possessed, the zest with which they managed to contrive social activities and exchanges—he was drawn to them. Because, for the first time, these permitted him, if he chose, to have a girl of his own, if only he could summon the courage. And this, owing to the well-meant ministrations of Ratterer and his sister and their friends, he soon sought to accomplish. Indeed the thing began on the occasion of his first visit to the Ratterers.

Louise Ratterer worked in a dry-goods store and often came home a little late for dinner. On this occasion she did not appear until seven, and the eating of the family meal was postponed accordingly. In the meantime, two girl friends of Louise arrived to consult her in connection with something, and finding her delayed, and Ratterer and Clyde there, they made themselves at home, rather impressed and interested by Clyde and his new finery. For he, at once girl-hungry and girl-shy, held himself nervously aloof, a manifestation which they mistook for a conviction of superiority on his part. And in consequence, arrested by this, they determined to show how really interesting they were—vamp him—no less. And he found their crude briskness and effrontery very appealing—so much so that he was soon taken by the charms of one, a certain Hortense Briggs, who, like Louise, was nothing more than a crude shop girl in one of the large stores, but pretty and dark and self-appreciative. And yet from the first, he realized that she was not a little coarse and vulgar—a very long way removed from the type of girl he had been imagining in his dreams that he would like to have.

“Oh, hasn’t she come in yet?” announced Hortense, on first being admitted by Ratterer and seeing Clyde near one of the front windows, looking out. “Isn’t that too bad? Well, we’ll just have to wait a little bit if you don’t mind”—this last with a switch and a swagger that plainly said, who would mind having us around? And forthwith she began to primp and admire herself before a mirror which surmounted an ocher-colored mantelpiece that graced a fireless grate in the dining-room. And her friend, Greta Miller, added: “Oh, dear, yes. I hope you won’t make us go before she comes. We didn’t come to eat. We thought your dinner would be all over by now.”

“Where do you get that stuff—‘put you out’?” replied Ratterer cynically. “As though anybody could drive you two outa here if you didn’t want to go. Sit down and play the victrola or do anything you like. Dinner’ll soon be ready and Louise’ll be here any minute.” He returned to the dining room to look at a paper which he had been reading, after pausing to introduce Clyde. And the latter, because of the looks and the airs of these two, felt suddenly as though he had been cast adrift upon a chartless sea in an open boat.

“Oh, don’t say eat to me!”, exclaimed Greta Miller, who was surveying Clyde calmly as though she were debating with herself whether he was worth-while game or not, and deciding that he was: “With all the ice-cream and cake and pie and sandwiches we’ll have to eat yet to-night. We was just going to warn Louise not to fill up too much. Kittie Keane’s givin’ a birthday party, you know, Tom, and she’ll have a big cake an’ everythin’. You’re comin’ down, ain’t you, afterwards?” she concluded, with a thought of Clyde and his possible companionship in mind.

“I wasn’t thinkin’ of it,” calmly observed Ratterer. “Me and Clyde was thinkin’ of goin’ to a show after dinner.”

“Oh, how foolish,” put in Hortense Briggs, more to attract attention to herself and take it away from Greta than anything else. She was still in front of the mirror, but turned now to cast a fetching smile on all, particularly Clyde, for whom she fancied her friend might be angling, “When you could come along and dance. I call that silly.”

“Sure, dancing is all you three ever think of—you and Louise,” retorted Ratterer. “It’s a wonder you don’t give yourselves a rest once in a while. I’m on my feet all day an’ I like to sit down once in a while.” He could be most matter-of-fact at times.

“Oh, don’t say sit down to me,” commented Greta Miller with a lofty smile and a gliding, dancing motion of her left foot, “with all the dates we got ahead of us this week. Oh, gee!” Her eyes and eyebrows went up and she clasped her hands dramatically before her. “It’s just terrible, all the dancin’ we gotta do yet, this winter, don’t we, Hortense? Thursday night and Friday night and Saturday and Sunday nights.” She counted on her fingers most archly. “Oh, gee! It is terrible, really.” She gave Clyde an appealing, sympathy-seeking smile. “Guess where we were the other night, Tom. Louise and Ralph Thorpe and Hortense and Bert Gettler, me and Willie Bassick—out at Pegrain’s on Webster Avenue. Oh, an’ you oughta seen the crowd out there. Sam Shaffer and Tillie Burns was there. And we danced until four in the morning. I thought my knees would break. I ain’t been so tired in I don’t know when.”

“Oh, gee!” broke in Hortense, seizing her turn and lifting her arms dramatically. “I thought I never would get to work the next morning. I could just barely see the customers moving around. And, wasn’t my mother fussy! Gee! She hasn’t gotten over it yet. She don’t mind so much about Saturdays and Sundays, but all these week nights and when I have to get up the next morning at seven—gee—how she can pick!”

“An’ I don’t blame her, either,” commented Mrs. Ratterer, who was just then entering with a plate of potatoes and some bread. “You two’ll get sick and Louise, too, if you don’t get more rest. I keep tellin’ her she won’t be able to keep her place or stand it if she don’t get more sleep. But she don’t pay no more attention to me than Tom does, and that’s just none at all.”

“Oh, well, you can’t expect a fellow in my line to get in early always, Ma,” was all Ratterer said. And Hortense Briggs added: “Gee, I’d die if I had to stay in one night. You gotta have a little fun when you work all day.”

What an easy household, thought Clyde. How liberal and indifferent. And the sexy, gay way in which these two girls posed about. And their parents thought nothing of it, evidently. If only he could have a girl as pretty as this Hortense Briggs, with her small, sensuous mouth and her bright hard eyes.

“To bed twice a week early is all I need,” announced Greta Miller archly. “My father thinks I’m crazy, but more’n that would do me harm.” She laughed jestingly, and Clyde, in spite of the “we was’es” and “I seen’s,” was most vividly impressed. Here was youth and geniality and freedom and love of life.

And just then the front door opened and in hurried Louise Ratterer, a medium-sized, trim, vigorous little girl in a red-lined cape and a soft blue felt hat pulled over her eyes. Unlike her brother, she was brisk and vigorous and more lithe and as pretty as either of these others.

“Oh, look who’s here!” she exclaimed. “You two birds beat me home, didnja? Well, I got stuck to-night on account of some mix-up in my sales-book. And I had to go up to the cashier’s office. You bet it wasn’t my fault, though. They got my writin’ wrong,” then noting Clyde for the first time, she announced: “I bet I know who this is—Mr. Griffiths. Tom’s talked about you a lot. I wondered why he didn’t bring you around here before.” And Clyde, very much flattered, mumbled that he wished he had.

But the two visitors, after conferring with Louise in a small front bedroom to which they all retired, reappeared presently and because of strenuous invitations, which were really not needed, decided to remain. And Clyde, because of their presence, was now intensely wrought up and alert—eager to make a pleasing impression and to be received upon terms of friendship here. And these three girls, finding him attractive, were anxious to be agreeable to him, so much so that for the first time in his life they put him at his ease with the opposite sex and caused him to find his tongue.

“We was just going to warn you not to eat so much,” laughed Greta Miller, turning to Louise, “and now, see, we are all trying to eat again.” She laughed heartily. “And they’ll have pies and cakes and everythin’ at Kittie’s.”

“Oh, gee, and we’re supposed to dance, too, on top of all this. Well, heaven help me, is all I have to say,” put in Hortense.

The peculiar sweetness of her mouth, as he saw it, as well as the way she crinkled it when she smiled, caused Clyde to be quite beside himself with admiration and pleasure. She looked quite delightful—wonderful to him. Indeed her effect on him made him swallow quickly and half choke on the coffee he had just taken. He laughed and felt irrepressibly gay.

At that moment she turned on him and said: “See, what I’ve done to him now.”

“Oh, that ain’t all you’ve done to me,” exclaimed Clyde, suddenly being seized with an inspiration and a flow of thought and courage. Of a sudden, because of her effect on him, he felt bold and courageous, albeit a little foolish and added, “Say, I’m gettin’ kinda woozy with all the pretty faces I see around here.”

“Oh, gee, you don’t want to give yourself away that quick around here, Clyde,” cautioned Ratterer, genially. “These high-binders’ll be after you to make you take ’em wherever they want to go. You better not begin that way.” And, sure enough, Louise Ratterer, not to be abashed by what her brother had just said, observed: “You dance, don’t you, Mr. Griffiths?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Clyde, suddenly brought back to reality by this inquiry and regretting most violently the handicap this was likely to prove in this group. “But you bet I wish I did now,” he added gallantly and almost appealingly, looking first at Hortense and then at Greta Miller and Louise. But all pretended not to notice his preference, although Hortense titillated with her triumph. She was not convinced that she was so greatly taken with him, but it was something to triumph thus easily and handsomely over these others. And the others felt it. “Ain’t that too bad?” she commented, a little indifferently and superiorly now that she realized that she was his preference. “You might come along with us, you and Tom, if you did. There’s goin’ to be mostly dancing at Kittie’s.”

Clyde began to feel and look crushed at once. To think that this girl, to whom of all those here he was most drawn, could dismiss him and his dreams and desires thus easily, and all because he couldn’t dance. And his accursed home training was responsible for all this. He felt broken and cheated. What a boob he must seem not to be able to dance. And Louise Ratterer looked a little puzzled and indifferent, too. But Greta Miller, whom he liked less than Hortense, came to his rescue with: “Oh, it ain’t so hard to learn. I could show you in a few minutes after dinner if you wanted to. It’s only a few steps you have to know. And then you could go, anyhow, if you wanted to.”

Clyde was grateful and said so—determined to learn here or elsewhere at the first opportunity. Why hadn’t he gone to a dancing school before this, he asked himself. But the thing that pained him most was the seeming indifference of Hortense now that he had made it clear that he liked her. Perhaps it was that Bert Gettler, previously mentioned, with whom she had gone to the dance, who was making it impossible for him to interest her. So he was always to be a failure this way. Oh, gee!

But the moment the dinner was over and while the others were still talking, the first to put on a dance record and come over with hands extended was Hortense, who was determined not to be outdone by her rival in this way. She was not particularly interested or fascinated by Clyde, at least not to the extent of troubling about him as Greta did. But if her friend was going to attempt a conquest in this manner, was it not just as well to forestall her? And so, while Clyde misread her change of attitude to the extent of thinking that she liked him better than he had thought, she took him by the hands, thinking at the same time that he was too bashful. However, placing his right arm about her waist, his other clasped in hers at her shoulder, she directed his attention to her feet and his and began to illustrate the few primary movements of the dance. But so eager and grateful was he—almost intense and ridiculous—she did not like him very much, thought him a little unsophisticated and too young. At the same time, there was a charm about him which caused her to wish to assist him. And soon he was moving about with her quite easily—and afterwards with Greta and then Louise, but wishing always it was Hortense. And finally he was pronounced sufficiently skillful to go, if he would.

And now the thought of being near her, being able to dance with her again, drew him so greatly that, despite the fact that three youths, among them that same Bert Gettler, appeared on the scene to escort them, and although he and Ratterer had previously agreed to go to a theater together, he could not help showing how much he would prefer to follow those others—so much so that Ratterer finally agreed to abandon the theater idea. And soon they were off, Clyde grieving that he could not walk with Hortense, who was with Gettler, and hating his rival because of this; but still attempting to be civil to Louise and Greta, who bestowed sufficient attention on him to make him feel at ease. Ratterer, having noticed his extreme preference and being alone with him for a moment, said: “You better not get too stuck on that Hortense Briggs. I don’t think she’s on the level with anybody. She’s got that fellow Gettler and others. She’ll only work you an’ you might not get anything, either.”

But Clyde, in spite of this honest and well-meant caution, was not to be dissuaded. On sight, and because of the witchery of a smile, the magic and vigor of motion and youth, he was completely infatuated and would have given or done anything for an additional smile or glance or hand pressure. And that despite the fact that he was dealing with a girl who no more knew her own mind than a moth, and who was just reaching the stage where she was finding it convenient and profitable to use boys of her own years or a little older for whatever pleasures or clothes she desired.


The party proved nothing more than one of those ebullitions of the youthful mating period. The house of Kittie Keane was little more than a cottage in a poor street under bare December trees. But to Clyde, because of the passion for a pretty face that was suddenly lit in him, it had the color and the form and gayety of romance itself. And the young girls and boys that he met there—girls and boys of the Ratterer, Hegglund, Hortense stripe—were still of the very substance and texture of that energy, ease and forwardness which he would have given his soul to possess. And curiously enough, in spite of a certain nervousness on his part, he was by reason of his new companions made an integral part of the gayeties.

And on this occasion he was destined to view a type of girl and youth in action such as previously it had not been his fortune or misfortune, as you will, to see. There was, for instance, a type of sensual dancing which Louise and Hortense and Greta indulged in with the greatest nonchalance and assurance. At the same time, many of these youths carried whisky in a hip flask, from which they not only drank themselves, but gave others to drink—boys and girls indiscriminately.

And the general hilarity for this reason being not a little added to, they fell into more intimate relations—spooning with one and another—Hortense and Louise and Greta included. Also to quarreling at times. And it appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary, as Clyde saw, for one youth or another to embrace a girl behind a door, to hold her on his lap in a chair in some secluded corner, to lie with her on a sofa, whispering intimate and unquestionably welcome things to her. And although at no time did he espy Hortense doing this—still, as he saw, she did not hesitate to sit on the laps of various boys or to whisper with rivals behind doors. And this for a time so discouraged and at the same time incensed him that he felt he could not and would not have anything more to do with her—she was too cheap, vulgar, inconsiderate.

At the same time, having partaken of the various drinks offered him—so as not to seem less worldly wise than the others—until brought to a state of courage and daring not ordinarily characteristic of him, he ventured to half plead with and at the same time half reproach her for her too lax conduct.

“You’re a flirt, you are. You don’t care who you jolly, do you?” This as they were dancing together after one o’clock to the music of a youth named Wilkens, at the none too toneful piano. She was attempting to show him a new step in a genial and yet coquettish way, and with an amused, sensuous look.

“What do you mean, flirt? I don’t get you.”

“Oh, don’t you?” replied Clyde, a little crossly and still attempting to conceal his real mood by a deceptive smile. “I’ve heard about you. You jolly ’em all.”

“Oh, do I?” she replied quite irritably. “Well, I haven’t tried to jolly you very much, have I?”

“Well, now, don’t get mad,” he half pleaded and half scolded, fearing, perhaps, that he had ventured too far and might lose her entirely now. “I don’t mean anything by it. You don’t deny that you let a lot of these fellows make love to you. They seem to like you, anyway.”

“Oh, well, of course they like me, I guess. I can’t help that, can I?”

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” he blurted boastfully and passionately. “I could spend a lot more on you than they could. I got it.” He had been thinking only the moment before of fifty-five dollars in bills that snuggled comfortably in his pocket.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she retorted, not a little intrigued by this cash offer, as it were, and at the same time not a little set up in her mood by the fact that she could thus inflame nearly all youths in this way. She was really a little silly, very lightheaded, who was infatuated by her own charms and looked in every mirror, admiring her eyes, her hair, her neck, her hands, her figure, and practising a peculiarly fetching smile.

At the same time, she was not unaffected by the fact that Clyde was not a little attractive to look upon, although so very green. She liked to tease such beginners. He was a bit of a fool, as she saw him. But he was connected with the Green-Davidson, and he was well-dressed, and no doubt he had all the money he said and would spend it on her. Some of those whom she liked best did not have much money to spend.

“Lots of fellows with money would like to spend it on me.” She tossed her head and flicked her eyes and repeated her coyest smile.

At once Clyde’s countenance darkened. The witchery of her look was too much for him. The skin of his forehead crinkled and then smoothed out. His eyes burned lustfully and bitterly, his old resentment of life and deprivation showing. No doubt all she said was true. There were others who had more and would spend more. He was boasting and being ridiculous and she was laughing at him.

After a moment, he added, weakly, “I guess that’s right, too. But they couldn’t want you more than I do.”

The uncalculated honesty of it flattered her not a little. He wasn’t so bad after all. They were gracefully gliding about as the music continued.

“Oh, well, I don’t flirt everywhere like I do here. These fellows and girls all know each other. We’re always going around together. You mustn’t mind what you see here.”

She was lying artfully, but it was soothing to him none the less. “Gee, I’d give anything if you’d only be nice to me,” he pleaded, desperately and yet ecstatically. “I never saw a girl I’d rather have than you. You’re swell. I’m crazy about you. Why won’t you come out to dinner with me and let me take you to a show afterwards? Don’t you want to do that, tomorrow night or Sunday? Those are my two nights off. I work other nights.”

She hesitated at first, for even now she was not so sure that she wished to continue this contact. There was Gettler, to say nothing of several others, all jealous and attentive. Even though he spent money on her, she might not wish to bother with him. He was already too eager and he might become troublesome. At the same time, the natural coquetry of her nature would not permit her to relinquish him. He might fall into the hands of Greta or Louise. In consequence she finally arranged a meeting for the following Tuesday. But he could not come to the house, or take her home to-night—on account of her escort, Mr. Gettler. But on the following Tuesday, at six-thirty, near the Green-Davidson. And he assured her that they would dine first at Frissell’s, and then see “The Corsair,” a musical comedy at Libby’s, only two blocks away.