An American Tragedy Chapter 14

In same way Clyde, on encountering her, was greatly stirred. Since the abortive contact with Dillard, Rita and Zella, and afterwards the seemingly meaningless invitation to the Griffiths with its introduction to and yet only passing glimpse of such personages as Bella, Sondra Finchley and Bertine Cranston, he was lonely indeed. That high world! But plainly he was not to be allowed to share in it. And yet because of his vain hope in connection with it, he had chosen to cut himself off in this way. And to what end? Was he not if anything more lonely than ever? Mrs. Peyton! Going to and from his work but merely nodding to people or talking casually—or however sociably with one or another of the storekeepers along Central Avenue who chose to hail him—or even some of the factory girls here in whom he was not interested or with whom he did not dare to develop a friendship. What was that? Just nothing really. And yet as an offset to all this, of course, was he not a Griffiths and so entitled to their respect and reverence even on this account? What a situation really! What to do!

And at the same time, this Roberta Alden, once she was placed here in this fashion and becoming more familiar with local conditions, as well as the standing of Clyde, his charm, his evasive and yet sensible interest in her, was becoming troubled as to her state too. For once part and parcel of this local home she had joined she was becoming conscious of various local taboos and restrictions which made it seem likely that never at any time here would it be possible to express an interest in Clyde or any one above her officially. For there was a local taboo in regard to factory girls aspiring toward or allowing themselves to become interested in their official superiors. Religious, moral and reserved girls didn’t do it. And again, as she soon discovered, the line of demarcation and stratification between the rich and the poor in Lycurgus was as sharp as though cut by a knife or divided by a high wall. And another taboo in regard to all the foreign family girls and men,—ignorant, low, immoral, un-American! One should—above all—have nothing to do with them.

But among these people as she could see—the religious and moral, lower middle-class group to which she and all of her intimates belonged—dancing or local adventurous gayety, such as walking the streets or going to a moving picture theater—was also taboo. And yet she, herself, at this time, was becoming interested in dancing. Worse than this, the various young men and girls of the particular church which she and Grace Marr attended at first, were not inclined to see Roberta or Grace as equals, since they, for the most part, were members of older and more successful families of the town. And so it was that after a very few weeks of attendance of church affairs and services, they were about where they had been when they started—conventional and acceptable, but without the amount of entertainment and diversion which was normally reaching those who were of their same church but better placed.

And so it was that Roberta, after encountering Clyde and sensing the superior world in which she imagined he moved, and being so taken with the charm of his personality, was seized with the very virus of ambition and unrest that afflicted him. And every day that she went to the factory now she could not help but feel that his eyes were upon her in a quiet, seeking and yet doubtful way. Yet she also felt that he was too uncertain as to what she would think of any overture that he might make in her direction to risk a repulse or any offensive interpretation on her part. And yet at times, after the first two weeks of her stay here, she wishing that he would speak to her—that he would make some beginning—at other times that he must not dare—that it would be dreadful and impossible. The other girls there would see at once. And since they all plainly felt that he was too good or too remote for them, they would at once note that he was making an exception in her case and would put their own interpretation on it. And she knew the type of a girl who worked in the Griffiths stamping room would put but one interpretation on it,—that of looseness.

At the same time in so far as Clyde and his leaning toward her was concerned there was that rule laid down by Gilbert. And although, because of it, he had hitherto appeared not to notice or to give any more attention to one girl than another, still, once Roberta arrived, he was almost unconsciously inclined to drift by her table and pause in her vicinity to see how she was progressing. And, as he saw from the first, she was a quick and intelligent worker, soon mastering without much advice of any kind all the tricks of the work, and thereafter earning about as much as any of the others—fifteen dollars a week. And her manner was always that of one who enjoyed it and was happy to have the privilege of working here. And pleased to have him pay any little attention to her.

At the same time he noted to his surprise and especially since to him she seemed so refined and different, a certain exuberance and gayety that was not only emotional, but in a delicate poetic way, sensual. Also that despite her difference and reserve she was able to make friends with and seemed to be able to understand the viewpoint of most of the foreign girls who were essentially so different from her. For, listening to her discuss the work here, first with Lena Schlict, Hoda Petkanas, Angelina Pitti and some others who soon chose to speak to her, he reached the conclusion that she was not nearly so conventional or standoffish as most of the other American girls. And yet she did not appear to lose their respect either.

Thus, one noontime, coming back from the office lunch downstairs a little earlier than usual, he found her and several of the foreign-family girls, as well as four of the American girls, surrounding Polish Mary, one of the gayest and roughest of the foreign-family girls, who was explaining in rather a high key how a certain “feller” whom she had met the night before had given her a beaded bag, and for what purpose.

“I should go with heem to be his sweetheart,” she announced with a flourish, the while she waved the bag before the interested group. “And I say, I tack heem an’ think on heem. Pretty nice bag, eh?” she added, holding it aloft and turning it about. “Tell me,” she added with provoking and yet probably only mock serious eyes and waving the bag toward Roberta, “what shall I do with heem? Keep heem an’ go with heem to be his sweetheart or give heem back? I like heem pretty much, that bag, you bet.”

And although, according to the laws of her upbringing, as Clyde suspected, Roberta should have been shocked by all this, she was not, as he noticed—far from it. If one might have judged from her face, she was very much amused.

Instantly she replied with a gay smile: “Well, it all depends on how handsome he is, Mary. If he’s very attractive, I think I’d string him along for a while, anyhow, and keep the bag as long as I could.”

“Oh, but he no wait,” declared Mary archly, and with plainly a keen sense of the riskiness of the situation, the while she winked at Clyde who had drawn near. “I got to give heem bag or be sweetheart to-night, and so swell bag I never can buy myself.” She eyed the bag archly and roguishly, her own nose crinkling with the humor of the situation. “What I do then?”

“Gee, this is pretty strong stuff for a little country girl like Miss Alden. She won’t like this, maybe,” thought Clyde to himself.

However, Roberta, as he now saw, appeared to be equal to the situation, for she pretended to be troubled. “Gee, you are in a fix,” she commented. “I don’t know what you’ll do now.” She opened her eyes wide and pretended to be greatly concerned. However, as Clyde could see, she was merely acting, but carrying it off very well.

And frizzled-haired Dutch Lena now leaned over to say: “I take it and him too, you bet, if you don’t want him. Where is he? I got no feller now.” She reached over as if to take the bag from Mary, who as quickly withdrew it. And there were squeals of delight from nearly all the girls in the room, who were amused by this eccentric horseplay. Even Roberta laughed loudly, a fact which Clyde noted with pleasure, for he liked all this rough humor, considering it mere innocent play.

“Well, maybe you’re right, Lena,” he heard her add just as the whistle blew and the hundreds of sewing machines in the next room began to hum. “A good man isn’t to be found every day.” Her blue eyes were twinkling and her lips, which were most temptingly modeled, were parted in a broad smile. There was much banter and more bluff in what she said than anything else, as Clyde could see, but he felt that she was not nearly as narrow as he had feared. She was human and gay and tolerant and good-natured. There was decidedly a very liberal measure of play in her. And in spite of the fact that her clothes were poor, the same little round brown hat and blue cloth dress that she had worn on first coming to work here, she was prettier than anyone else. And she never needed to paint her lips and cheeks like the foreign girls, whose faces at times looked like pink-frosted cakes. And how pretty were her arms and neck—plump and gracefully designed! And there was a certain grace and abandon about her as she threw herself into her work as though she really enjoyed it. As she worked fast during the hottest portions of the day, there would gather on her upper lip and chin and forehead little beads of perspiration which she was always pausing in her work to touch with her handkerchief, while to him, like jewels, they seemed only to enhance her charm.

Wonderful days, these, now for Clyde. For once more and here, where he could be near her the long day through, he had a girl whom he could study and admire and by degrees proceed to crave with all of the desire of which he seemed to be capable—and with which he had craved Hortense Briggs—only with more satisfaction, since as he saw it she was simpler, more kindly and respectable. And though for quite a while at first Roberta appeared or pretended to be quite indifferent to or unconscious of him, still from the very first this was not true. She was only troubled as to the appropriate attitude for her. The beauty of his face and hands—the blackness and softness of his hair, the darkness and melancholy and lure of his eyes. He was attractive—oh, very. Beautiful, really, to her.

And then one day shortly thereafter, Gilbert Griffiths walking through here and stopping to talk to Clyde, she was led to imagine by this that Clyde was really much more of a figure socially and financially than she had previously thought. For just as Gilbert was approaching, Lena Schlict, who was working beside her, leaned over to say: “Here comes Mr. Gilbert Griffiths. His father owns this whole factory and when he dies, he’ll get it, they say. And he’s his cousin,” she added, nodding toward Clyde. “They look a lot alike, don’t they?”

“Yes, they do,” replied Roberta, slyly studying not only Clyde but Gilbert, “only I think Mr. Clyde Griffiths is a little nicer looking, don’t you?”

Hoda Petkanas, sitting on the other side of Roberta and overhearing this last remark, laughed. “That’s what every one here thinks. He’s not stuck up like that Mr. Gilbert Griffiths, either.”

“Is he rich, too?” inquired Roberta, thinking of Clyde.

“I don’t know. They say not,” she pursed her lips dubiously, herself rather interested in Clyde along with the others. “He worked down in the shrinking room before he came up here. He was just working by the day, I guess. But he only came on here a little while ago to learn the business. Maybe he won’t work in here much longer.”

Roberta was suddenly troubled by this last remark. She had not been thinking, or so she had been trying to tell herself, of Clyde in any romantic way, and yet the thought that he might suddenly go at any moment, never to be seen by her any more, disturbed her now. He was so youthful, so brisk, so attractive. And so interested in her, too. Yes, that was plain. It was wrong to think that he would be interested in her—or to try to attract him by any least gesture of hers, since he was so important a person here—far above her.

For, true to her complex, the moment she heard that Clyde was so highly connected and might even have money, she was not so sure that he could have any legitimate interest in her. For was she not a poor working girl? And was he not a very rich man’s nephew? He would not marry her, of course. And what other legitimate thing would he want with her? She must be on her guard in regard to him.