An American Tragedy Chapter 13

The reasons why a girl of Roberta’s type should be seeking employment with Griffiths and Company at this time and in this capacity are of some point. For, somewhat after the fashion of Clyde in relation to his family and his life, she too considered her life a great disappointment. She was the daughter of Titus Alden, a farmer—of near Biltz, a small town in Mimico County, some fifty miles north. And from her youth up she had seen little but poverty. Her father—the youngest of three sons of Ephraim Alden, a farmer in this region before him—was so unsuccessful that at forty-eight he was still living in a house which, though old and much in need of repair at the time his father willed it to him, was now bordering upon a state of dilapidation. The house itself, while primarily a charming example of that excellent taste which produced those delightful gabled homes which embellish the average New England town and street, had been by now so reduced for want of paint, shingles, and certain flags which had once made a winding walk from a road gate to the front door, that it presented a decidedly melancholy aspect to the world, as though it might be coughing and saying: “Well, things are none too satisfactory with me.”

The interior of the house corresponded with the exterior. The floor boards and stair boards were loose and creaked most eerily at times. Some of the windows had shades—some did not. Furniture of both an earlier and a later date, but all in a somewhat decayed condition, intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.

As for the parents of Roberta, they were excellent examples of that native type of Americanism which resists facts and reveres illusion. Titus Alden was one of that vast company of individuals who are born, pass through and die out of the world without ever quite getting any one thing straight. They appear, blunder, and end in a fog. Like his two brothers, both older and almost as nebulous, Titus was a farmer solely because his father had been a farmer. And he was here on this farm because it had been willed to him and because it was easier to stay here and try to work this than it was to go elsewhere. He was a Republican because his father before him was a Republican and because this county was Republican. It never occurred to him to be otherwise. And, as in the case of his politics and his religion, he had borrowed all his notions of what was right and wrong from those about him. A single, serious, intelligent or rightly informing book had never been read by any member of this family—not one. But they were nevertheless excellent, as conventions, morals and religions go—honest, upright, God-fearing and respectable.

In so far as the daughter of these parents was concerned, and in the face of natural gifts which fitted her for something better than this world from which she derived, she was still, in part, at least, a reflection of the religious and moral notions there and then prevailing,—the views of the local ministers and the laity in general. At the same time, because of a warm, imaginativÄ“, sensuous temperament, she was filled—once she reached fifteen and sixteen—with the world-old dream of all of Eve’s daughters from the homeliest to the fairest—that her beauty or charm might some day and ere long smite bewitchingly and so irresistibly the soul of a given man or men.

So it was that although throughout her infancy and girlhood she was compelled to hear of and share a depriving and toilsome poverty, still, because of her innate imagination, she was always thinking of something better. Maybe, some day, who knew, a larger city like Albany or Utica! A newer and greater life.

And then what dreams! And in the orchard of a spring day later, between her fourteenth and eighteenth years when the early May sun was making pink lamps of every aged tree and the ground was pinkly carpeted with the falling and odorous petals, she would stand and breathe and sometimes laugh, or even sigh, her arms upreached or thrown wide to life. To be alive! To have youth and the world before one. To think of the eyes and the smile of some youth of the region who by the merest chance had passed her and looked, and who might never look again, but who, nevertheless, in so doing, had stirred her young soul to dreams.

None the less she was shy, and hence recessive—afraid of men, especially the more ordinary types common to this region. And these in turn, repulsed by her shyness and refinement, tended to recede from her, for all of her physical charm, which was too delicate for this region. Nevertheless, at the age of sixteen, having repaired to Biltz, in order to work in Appleman’s Dry Goods Store for five dollars a week, she saw many young men who attracted her. But here because of her mood in regard to her family’s position, as well as the fact that to her inexperienced eyes they appeared so much better placed than herself, she was convinced that they would not be interested in her. And here again it was her own mood that succeeded in alienating them almost completely. Nevertheless she remained working for Mr. Appleman until she was between eighteen and nineteen, all the while sensing that she was really doing nothing for herself because she was too closely identified with her home and her family, who appeared to need her.

And then about this time, an almost revolutionary thing for this part of the world occurred. For because of the cheapness of labor in such an extremely rural section, a small hosiery plant was built at Trippetts Mills. And though Roberta, because of the views and standards that prevailed hereabout, had somehow conceived of this type of work as beneath her, still she was fascinated by the reports of the high wages to be paid. Accordingly she repaired to Trippetts Mills, where, boarding at the house of a neighbor who had previously lived in Biltz, and returning home every Saturday afternoon, she planned to bring together the means for some further form of practical education—a course at a business college at Homer or Lycurgus or somewhere which might fit her for something better—bookkeeping or stenography.

And in connection with this dream and this attempted saving two years went by. And in the meanwhile, although she earned more money (eventually twelve dollars a week), still, because various members of her family required so many little things and she desired to alleviate to a degree the privations of these others from which she suffered, nearly all that she earned went to them.

And again here, as at Biltz, most of the youths of the town who were better suited to her intellectually and temperamentally—still looked upon the mere factory type as beneath them in many ways. And although Roberta was far from being that type, still having associated herself with them she was inclined to absorb some of their psychology in regard to themselves. Indeed by then she was fairly well satisfied that no one of these here in whom she was interested would be interested in her—at least not with any legitimate intentions.

And then two things occurred which caused her to think, not only seriously of marriage, but of her own future, whether she married or not. For her sister, Agnes, now twenty, and three years her junior, having recently reĂ«ncountered a young schoolmaster who some time before had conducted the district school near the Alden farm, and finding him more to her taste now than when she had been in school, had decided to marry him. And this meant, as Roberta saw it, that she was about to take on the appearance of a spinster unless she married soon. Yet she did not quite see what was to be done until the hosiery factory at Trippetts Mills suddenly closed, never to reopen. And then, in order to assist her mother, as well as help with her sister’s wedding, she returned to Biltz.

But then there came a third thing which decidedly affected her dreams and plans. Grace Marr, a girl whom she had met at Trippetts Mills, had gone to Lycurgus and after a few weeks there had managed to connect herself with the Finchley Vacuum Cleaner Company at a salary of fifteen dollars a week and at once wrote to Roberta telling her of the opportunities that were then present in Lycurgus. For in passing the Griffiths Company, which she did daily, she had seen a large sign posted over the east employment door reading “Girls Wanted.” And inquiry revealed the fact that girls at this company were always started at nine or ten dollars, quickly taught some one of the various phases of piece work and then, once they were proficient, were frequently able to earn as much as from fourteen to sixteen dollars, according to their skill. And since board and room were only consuming seven of what she earned, she was delighted to communicate to Roberta, whom she liked very much, that she might come and room with her if she wished.

Roberta, having reached the place where she felt that she could no longer endure farm life but must act for herself once more, finally arranged with her mother to leave in order that she might help her more directly with her wages.

But once in Lycurgus and employed by Clyde, her life, after the first flush of self-interest which a change so great implied for her, was not so much more enlarged socially or materially either, for that matter, over what it had been in Biltz and Trippetts Mills. For, despite the genial intimacy of Grace Marr—a girl not nearly as attractive as Roberta, and who, because of Roberta’s charm and for the most part affected gayety, counted on her to provide a cheer and companionship which otherwise she would have lacked—still the world into which she was inducted here was scarcely any more liberal or diversified than that from which she sprang.

For, to begin with, the Newtons, sister and brother-in-law of Grace Marr, with whom she lived, and who, despite the fact that they were not unkindly, proved to be, almost more so than were the types with whom, either in Biltz or Trippets Mills, she had been in constant contact, the most ordinary small town mill workers—religious and narrow to a degree. George Newton, as every one could see and feel, was a pleasant if not very emotional or romantic person who took his various small plans in regard to himself and his future as of the utmost importance. Primarily he was saving what little cash he could out of the wages he earned as threadman in the Cranston Wickwire factory to enable him to embark upon some business for which he thought himself fitted. And to this end, and to further enhance his meager savings, he had joined with his wife in the scheme of taking over an old house in Taylor Street which permitted the renting of enough rooms to carry the rent and in addition to supply the food for the family and five boarders, counting their labor and worries in the process as nothing. And on the other hand, Grace Marr, as well as Newton’s wife, Mary, were of that type that here as elsewhere find the bulk of their social satisfaction in such small matters as relate to the organization of a small home, the establishing of its import and integrity in a petty and highly conventional neighborhood and the contemplation of life and conduct through the lens furnished by a purely sectarian creed.

And so, once part and parcel of this particular household, Roberta found after a time, that it, if not Lycurgus, was narrow and restricted—not wholly unlike the various narrow and restricted homes at Biltz. And these lines, according to the Newtons and their like, to be strictly observed. No good could come of breaking them. If you were a factory employee you should accommodate yourself to the world and customs of the better sort of Christian factory employees. Every day therefore—and that not so very long after she had arrived—she found herself up and making the best of a not very satisfactory breakfast in the Newton dining room, which was usually shared by Grace and two other girls of nearly their own age—Opal Feliss and Olive Pope—who were connected with the Cranston Wickwire Company. Also by a young electrician by the name of Fred Shurlock, who worked for the City Lighting Plant. And immediately after breakfast joining a long procession that day after day at this hour made for the mills across the river. For just outside her own door she invariably met with a company of factory girls and women, boys and men, of the same relative ages, to say nothing of many old and weary-looking women who looked more like wraiths than human beings, who had issued from the various streets and houses of this vicinity. And as the crowd, because of the general inpour into it from various streets, thickened at Central Avenue, there was much ogling of the prettier girls by a certain type of factory man, who, not knowing any of them, still sought, as Roberta saw it, unlicensed contacts and even worse. Yet there was much giggling and simpering on the part of girls of a certain type who were by no means as severe as most of those she had known elsewhere. Shocking!

And at night the same throng, re-forming at the mills, crossing the bridge at the depot and returning as it had come. And Roberta, because of her social and moral training and mood, and in spite of her decided looks and charm and strong desires, feeling alone and neglected. Oh, how sad to see the world so gay and she so lonely. And it was always after six when she reached home. And after dinner there was really nothing much of anything to do unless she and Grace attended one or another of the moving picture theaters or she could bring herself to consent to join the Newtons and Grace at a meeting of the Methodist Church.

None the less once part and parcel of this household and working for Clyde she was delighted with the change. This big city. This fine Central Avenue with its stores and moving picture theaters. These great mills. And again this Mr. Griffiths, so young, attractive, smiling and interested in her.