An American Tragedy Chapter 12

The import of twenty-five dollars a week! Of being the head of a department employing twenty-five girls! Of wearing a good suit of clothes again! Sitting at an official desk in a corner commanding a charming river view and feeling that at last, after almost two months in that menial department below stairs, he was a figure of some consequence in this enormous institution! And because of his relationship and new dignity, Whiggam, as well as Liggett, hovering about with advice and genial and helpful comments from time to time. And some of the managers of the other departments including several from the front office—an auditor and an advertising man occasionally pausing in passing to say hello. And the details of the work sufficiently mastered to permit him to look about him from time to time, taking an interest in the factory as a whole, its processes and supplies, such as where the great volume of linen and cotton came from, how it was cut in an enormous cutting room above this one, holding hundreds of experienced cutters receiving very high wages; how there was an employment bureau for recruiting help, a company doctor, a company hospital, a special dining room in the main building, where the officials of the company were allowed to dine—but no others—and that he, being an accredited department head could now lunch with those others in that special restaurant if he chose and could afford to. Also he soon learned that several miles out from Lycurgus, on the Mohawk, near a hamlet called Van Troup, was an inter-factory country club, to which most of the department heads of the various factories about belonged, but, alas, as he also learned, Griffiths and Company did not really favor their officials mixing with those of any other company, and for that reason few of them did. Yet he, being a member of the family, as Liggett once said to him, could probably do as he chose as to that. But he decided, because of the strong warnings of Gilbert, as well as his high blood relations with his family, that he had better remain as aloof as possible. And so smiling and being as genial as possible to all, nevertheless for the most part, and in order to avoid Dillard and others of his ilk, and although he was much more lonely than otherwise he would have been, returning to his room or the public squares of this and near-by cities on Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and even, since he thought this might please his uncle and cousin and so raise him in their esteem, beginning to attend one of the principal Presbyterian churches—the Second or High Street Church, to which on occasion, as he had already learned, the Griffiths themselves were accustomed to resort. Yet without ever coming in contact with them in person, since from June to September they spent their week-ends at Greenwood Lake, to which most of the society life of this region as yet resorted.

In fact the summer life of Lycurgus, in so far as its society was concerned, was very dull. Nothing in particular ever eventuated then in the city, although previous to this, in May, there had been various affairs in connection with the Griffiths and their friends which Clyde had either read about or saw at a distance—a graduation reception and dance at the Snedeker School, a lawn fĂȘte upon the Griffiths’ grounds, with a striped marquee tent on one part of the lawn and Chinese lanterns hung in among the trees. Clyde had observed this quite by accident one evening as he was walking alone about the city. It raised many a curious and eager thought in regard to this family, its high station and his relation to it. But having placed him comfortably in a small official position which was not arduous, the Griffiths now proceeded to dismiss him from their minds. He was doing well enough, and they would see something more of him later, perhaps.

And then a little later he read in the Lycurgus Star that there was to be staged on June twentieth the annual intercity automobile floral parade and contest (Fonda, Gloversville, Amsterdam and Schenectady), which this year was to be held in Lycurgus and which was the last local social affair of any consequence, as The Star phrased it, before the annual hegira to the lakes and mountains of those who were able to depart for such places. And the names of Bella, Bertine and Sondra, to say nothing of Gilbert, were mentioned as contestants or defendants of the fair name of Lycurgus. And since this occurred on a Saturday afternoon, Clyde, dressed in his best, yet decidedly wishing to obscure himself as an ordinary spectator, was able to see once more the girl who had so infatuated him on sight, obviously breasting a white rose-surfaced stream and guiding her craft with a paddle covered with yellow daffodils—a floral representation of some Indian legend in connection with the Mohawk River. With her dark hair filleted Indian fashion with a yellow feather and brown-eyed susans, she was arresting enough not only to capture a prize, but to recapture Clyde’s fancy. How marvelous to be of that world.

In the same parade he had seen Gilbert Griffiths accompanied by a very attractive girl chauffeuring one of four floats representing the four seasons. And while the one he drove was winter, with this local society girl posed in ermine with white roses for snow all about, directly behind came another float, which presented Bella Griffiths as spring, swathed in filmy draperies and crouching beside a waterfall of dark violets. The effect was quite striking and threw Clyde into a mood in regard to love, youth and romance which was delicious and yet very painful to him. Perhaps he should have retained Rita, after all.

In the meantime he was living on as before, only more spaciously in so far as his own thoughts were concerned. For his first thought after receiving this larger allowance was that he had better leave Mrs. Cuppy’s and secure a better room in some private home which, if less advantageously situated for him, would be in a better street. It took him out of all contact with Dillard. And now, since his uncle had promoted him, some representative of his or Gilbert’s might wish to stop by to see him about something. And what would one such think if he found him living in a small room such as he now occupied?

Ten days after his salary was raised, therefore, and because of the import of his name, he found it possible to obtain a room in one of the better houses and streets—Jefferson Avenue, which paralleled Wykeagy Avenue, only a few blocks farther out. It was the home of a widow whose husband had been a mill manager and who let out two rooms without board in order to be able to maintain this home, which was above the average for one of such position in Lycurgus. And Mrs. Peyton, having long been a resident of the city and knowing much about the Griffiths, recognized not only the name but the resemblance of Clyde to Gilbert. And being intensely interested by this, as well as his general appearance, she at once offered him an exceptional room for so little as five dollars a week, which he took at once.

In connection with his work at the factory, however, and in spite of the fact that he had made such drastic resolutions in regard to the help who were beneath him, still it was not always possible for him to keep his mind on the mere mechanical routine of the work or off of this company of girls as girls, since at least a few of them were attractive. For it was summer—late June. And over all the factory, especially around two, three and four in the afternoon, when the endless repetition of the work seemed to pall on all, a practical indifference not remote from languor and in some instances sensuality, seemed to creep over the place. There were so many women and girls of so many different types and moods. And here they were so remote from men or idle pleasure in any form, all alone with just him, really. Again the air within the place was nearly always heavy and physically relaxing, and through the many open windows that reached from floor to ceiling could be seen the Mohawk swirling and rippling, its banks carpeted with green grass and in places shaded by trees. Always it seemed to hint of pleasures which might be found by idling along its shores. And since these workers were employed so mechanically as to leave their minds free to roam from one thought of pleasure to another, they were for the most part thinking of themselves always and what they would do, assuming that they were not here chained to this routine.

And because their moods were so brisk and passionate, they were often prone to fix on the nearest object. And since Clyde was almost always the only male present—and in these days in his best clothes—they were inclined to fix on him. They were, indeed, full of all sorts of fantastic notions in regard to his private relations with the Griffiths and their like, where he lived and how, whom in the way of a girl he might be interested in. And he, in turn, when not too constrained by the memory of what Gilbert Griffiths had said to him, was inclined to think of them—certain girls in particular—with thoughts that bordered on the sensual. For, in spite of the wishes of the Griffiths Company, and the discarded Rita or perhaps because of her, he found himself becoming interested in three different girls here. They were of a pagan and pleasure-loving turn—this trio—and they thought Clyde very handsome. Ruza Nikoforitch—a Russian-American girl—big and blonde and animal, with swimming brown eyes, a snub fat nose and chin, was very much drawn to him. Only, such was the manner with which he carried himself always, that she scarcely dared to let herself think so. For to her, with his hair so smoothly parted, torsoed in a bright-striped shirt, the sleeves of which in this weather were rolled to the elbows, he seemed almost too perfect to be real. She admired his clean, brown polished shoes, his brightly buckled black leather belt, and the loose four-in-hand tie he wore.

Again there was Martha Bordaloue, a stocky, brisk Canadian-French girl of trim, if rotund, figure and ankles, hair of a reddish gold and eyes of greenish blue with puffy pink cheeks and hands that were plump and yet small. Ignorant and pagan, she saw in Clyde some one whom, even for so much as an hour, assuming that he would, she would welcome—and that most eagerly. At the same time, being feline and savage, she hated all or any who even so much as presumed to attempt to interest him, and despised Ruza for that reason. For as she could see Ruza tried to nudge or lean against Clyde whenever he came sufficiently near. At the same time she herself sought by every single device known to her—her shirtwaist left open to below the borders of her white breast, her outer skirt lifted trimly above her calves when working, her plump round arms displayed to the shoulders to show him that physically at least she was worth his time. And the sly sighs and languorous looks when he was near, which caused Ruza to exclaim one day: “That French cat! He should look at her!” And because of Clyde she had an intense desire to strike her.

And yet again there was the stocky and yet gay Flora Brandt, a decidedly low class American type of coarse and yet enticing features, black hair, large, swimming and heavily-lashed black eyes, a snub nose and full and sensuous and yet pretty lips, and a vigorous and not ungraceful body, who, from day to day, once he had been there a little while, had continued to look at him as if to say—“What! You don’t think I’m attractive?” and with a look which said: “How can you continue to ignore me? There are lots of fellows who would be delighted to have your chance, I can tell you.”

And, in connection with these three, the thought came to him after a time that since they were so different, more common as he thought, less well-guarded and less sharply interested in the conventional aspects of their contacts, it might be possible and that without detection on the part of any one for him to play with one or another of them—or all three in turn if his interest should eventually carry him so far—without being found out, particularly if beforehand he chose to impress on them the fact that he was condescending when he noticed them at all. Most certainly, if he could judge by their actions, they would willingly reward him by letting him have his way with them somewhere, and think nothing of it afterward if he chose to ignore them, as he must to keep his position here. Nevertheless, having given his word as he had to Gilbert Griffiths, he was still in no mood to break it. These were merely thoughts which from time to time were aroused in him by a situation which for him was difficult in the extreme. His was a disposition easily and often intensely inflamed by the chemistry of sex and the formula of beauty. He could not easily withstand the appeal, let alone the call, of sex. And by the actions and approaches of each in turn he was surely tempted at times, especially in these warm and languorous summer days, with no place to go and no single intimate to commune with. From time to time he could not resist drawing near to these very girls who were most bent on tempting him, although in the face of their looks and nudges, not very successfully concealed at times, he maintained an aloofness and an assumed indifference which was quite remarkable for him.

But just about this time there was a rush of orders, which necessitated, as both Whiggam and Liggett advised, Clyde taking on a few extra “try-out” girls who were willing to work for the very little they could earn at the current piece work rate until they had mastered the technique, when of course they would be able to earn more. There were many such who applied at the employment branch of the main office on the ground floor. In slack times all applications were rejected or the sign hung up “No Help Wanted.”

And since Clyde was relatively new to this work, and thus far had neither hired nor discharged any one, it was agreed between Whiggam and Liggett that all the help thus sent up should first be examined by Liggett, who was looking for extra stitchers also. And in case any were found who promised to be satisfactory as stampers, they were to be turned over to Clyde with the suggestion that he try them. Only before bringing any one back to Clyde, Liggett was very careful to explain that in connection with this temporary hiring and discharging there was a system. One must not ever give a new employee, however well they did, the feeling that they were doing anything but moderately well until their capacity had been thoroughly tested. It interfered with their proper development as piece workers, the greatest results that could be obtained by any one person. Also one might freely take on as many girls as were needed to meet any such situation, and then, once the rush was over, as freely drop them—unless, occasionally, a very speedy worker was found among the novices. In that case it was always advisable to try to retain such a person, either by displacing a less satisfactory person or transferring some one from some other department, to make room for new blood and new energy.

The next day, after this notice of a rush, back came four girls at different times and escorted always by Liggett, who in each instance explained to Clyde: “Here’s a girl who might do for you. Miss Tyndal is her name. You might give her a try-out.” Or, “You might see if this girl will be of any use to you.” And Clyde, after he had questioned them as to where they had worked, what the nature of the general working experiences were, and whether they lived at home here in Lycurgus or alone (the bachelor girl was not much wanted by the factory) would explain the nature of the work and pay, and then call Miss Todd, who in her turn would first take them to the rest room where were lockers for their coats, and then to one of the tables where they would be shown what the process was. And later it was Miss Todd’s and Clyde’s business to discover how well they were getting on and whether it was worth while to retain them or not.

Up to this time, apart from the girls to whom he was so definitely drawn, Clyde was not so very favorably impressed with the type of girl who was working here. For the most part, as he saw them, they were of a heavy and rather unintelligent company, and he had been thinking that smarter-looking girls might possibly be secured. Why not? Were there none in Lycurgus in the factory world? So many of these had fat hands, broad faces, heavy legs and ankles. Some of them even spoke with an accent, being Poles or the children of Poles, living in that slum north of the mill. And they were all concerned with catching a “feller,” going to some dancing place with him afterwards, and little more. Also, Clyde had noticed that the American types who were here were of a decidedly different texture, thinner, more nervous and for the most part more angular, and with a general reserve due to prejudices, racial, moral and religious, which would not permit them to mingle with these others or with any men, apparently.

But among the extras or try-outs that were brought to him during this and several succeeding days, finally came one who interested Clyde more than any girl whom he had seen here so far. She was, as he decided on sight, more intelligent and pleasing—more spiritual—though apparently not less vigorous, if more gracefully proportioned. As a matter of fact, as he saw her at first, she appeared to him to possess a charm which no one else in this room had, a certain wistfulness and wonder combined with a kind of self-reliant courage and determination which marked her at once as one possessed of will and conviction to a degree. Nevertheless, as she said, she was inexperienced in this kind of work, and highly uncertain as to whether she would prove of service here or anywhere.

Her name was Roberta Alden, and, as she at once explained, previous to this she had been working in a small hosiery factory in a town called Trippetts Mills fifty miles north of Lycurgus. She had on a small brown hat that did not look any too new, and was pulled low over a face that was small and regular and pretty and that was haloed by bright, light brown hair. Her eyes were of a translucent gray blue. Her little suit was commonplace, and her shoes were not so very new-looking and quite solidly-soled. She looked practical and serious and yet so bright and clean and willing and possessed of so much hope and vigor that along with Liggett, who had first talked with her, he was at once taken with her. Distinctly she was above the average of the girls in this room. And he could not help wondering about her as he talked to her, for she seemed so tense, a little troubled as to the outcome of this interview, as though this was a very great adventure for her.

She explained that up to this time she had been living with her parents near a town called Biltz, but was now living with friends here. She talked so honestly and simply that Clyde was very much moved by her, and for this reason wished to help her. At the same time he wondered if she were not really above the type of work she was seeking. Her eyes were so round and blue and intelligent—her lips and nose and ears and hands so small and pleasing.

“You’re going to live in Lycurgus, then, if you can get work here?” he said, more to be talking to her than anything else.

“Yes,” she said, looking at him most directly and frankly.

“And the name again?” He took down a record pad.

“Roberta Alden.”

“And your address here?”

“228 Taylor Street.”

“I don’t even know where that is myself,” he informed her because he liked talking to her. “I haven’t been here so very long, you see.” He wondered just why afterwards he had chosen to tell her as much about himself so swiftly. Then he added: “I don’t know whether Mr. Liggett has told you all about the work here. But it’s piece work, you know, stamping collars. I’ll show you if you’ll just step over here,” and he led the way to a near-by table where the stampers were. After letting her observe how it was done, and without calling Miss Todd, he picked up one of the collars and proceeded to explain all that had been previously explained to him.

At the same time, because of the intentness with which she observed him and his gestures, the seriousness with which she appeared to take all that he said, he felt a little nervous and embarrassed. There was something quite searching and penetrating about her glance. After he had explained once more what the bundle rate was, and how much some made and how little others, and she had agreed that she would like to try, he called Miss Todd, who took her to the locker room to hang up her hat and coat. Then presently he saw her returning, a fluff of light hair about her forehead, her cheeks slightly flushed, her eyes very intent and serious. And as advised by Miss Todd, he saw her turn back her sleeves, revealing a pretty pair of forearms. Then she fell to, and by her gestures Clyde guessed that she would prove both speedy and accurate. For she seemed most anxious to obtain and keep this place.

After she had worked a little while, he went to her side and watched her as she picked up and stamped the collars piled beside her and threw them to one side. Also the speed and accuracy with which she did it. Then, because for a second she turned and looked at him, giving him an innocent and yet cheerful and courageous smile, he smiled back, most pleased.

“Well, I guess you’ll make out all right,” he ventured to say, since he could not help feeling that she would. And instantly, for a second only, she turned and smiled again. And Clyde, in spite of himself, was quite thrilled. He liked her on the instant, but because of his own station here, of course, as he now decided, as well as his promise to Gilbert, he must be careful about being congenial with any of the help in this room—even as charming a girl as this. It would not do. He had been guarding himself in connection with the others and must with her too, a thing which seemed a little strange to him then, for he was very much drawn to her. She was so pretty and cute. Yet she was a working girl, as he remembered now, too—a factory girl, as Gilbert would say, and he was her superior. But she was so pretty and cute.

Instantly he went on to others who had been put on this same day, and finally coming to Miss Todd asked her to report pretty soon on how Miss Alden was getting along—that he wanted to know.

But at the same time that he had addressed Roberta, and she had smiled back at him, Ruza Nikoforitch, who was working two tables away, nudged the girl working next her, and without any one noting it, first winked, then indicated with a slight movement of the head both Clyde and Roberta. Her friend was to watch them. And after Clyde had gone away and Roberta was working as before, she leaned over and whispered: “He says she’ll do already.” Then she lifted her eyebrows and compressed her lips. And her friend replied, so softly that no one could hear her: “Pretty quick, eh? And he didn’t seem to see any one else at all before.”

Then the twain smiled most wisely, a choice bit between them. Ruza Nikoforitch was jealous.