An American Tragedy Chapter 15

The thoughts of Clyde at this time in regard to Roberta and his general situation in Lycurgus were for the most part confused and disturbing. For had not Gilbert warned him against associating with the help here? On the other hand, in so far as his actual daily life was concerned, his condition was socially the same as before. Apart from the fact that his move to Mrs. Peyton’s had taken him into a better street and neighborhood, he was really not so well off as he had been at Mrs. Cuppy’s. For there at least he had been in touch with those young people who would have been diverting enough had he felt that it would have been wise to indulge them. But now, aside from a bachelor brother who was as old as Mrs. Peyton herself, and a son thirty—slim and reserved, who was connected with one of the Lycurgus banks—he saw no one who could or would trouble to entertain him. Like the others with whom he came in contact, they thought him possessed of relationships which would make it unnecessary and even a bit presumptuous for them to suggest ways and means of entertaining him.

On the other hand, while Roberta was not of that high world to which he now aspired, still there was that about her which enticed him beyond measure. Day after day and because so much alone, and furthermore because of so strong a chemic or temperamental pull that was so definitely asserting itself, he could no longer keep his eyes off her—or she hers from him. There were evasive and yet strained and feverish eye-flashes between them. And after one such in his case—a quick and furtive glance on her part at times—by no means intended to be seen by him, he found himself weak and then feverish. Her pretty mouth, her lovely big eyes, her radiant and yet so often shy and evasive smile. And, oh, she had such pretty arms—such a trim, lithe, sentient, quick figure and movements. If he only dared be friendly with her—venture to talk with and then see her somewhere afterwards—if she only would and if he only dared.

Confusion. Aspiration. Hours of burning and yearning. For indeed he was not only puzzled but irritated by the anomalous and paradoxical contrasts which his life here presented—loneliness and wistfulness as against the fact that it was being generally assumed by such as knew him that he was rather pleasantly and interestingly employed socially.

Therefore in order to enjoy himself in some way befitting his present rank, and to keep out of the sight of those who were imagining that he was being so much more handsomely entertained than he was, he had been more recently, on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, making idle sightseeing trips to Gloversville, Fonda, Amsterdam and other places, as well as Gray and Crum Lakes, where there were boats, beaches and bathhouses, with bathing suits for rent. And there, because he was always thinking that if by chance he should be taken up by the Griffiths, he would need as many social accomplishments as possible, and by reason of encountering a man who took a fancy to him and who could both swim and dive, he learned to do both exceedingly well. But canoeing fascinated him really. He was pleased by the picturesque and summery appearance he made in an outing shirt and canvas shoes paddling about Crum Lake in one of the bright red or green or blue canoes that were leased by the hour. And at such times these summer scenes appeared to possess an airy, fairy quality, especially with a summer cloud or two hanging high above in the blue. And so his mind indulged itself in day dreams as to how it would feel to be a member of one of the wealthy groups that frequented the more noted resorts of the north—Racquette Lake—Schroon Lake—Lake George and Champlain—dance, golf, tennis, canoe with those who could afford to go to such places—the rich of Lycurgus.

But it was about this time that Roberta with her friend Grace found Crum Lake and had decided on it, with the approval of Mr. and Mrs. Newton, as one of the best and most reserved of all the smaller watering places about here. And so it was that they, too, were already given to riding out to the pavilion on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and once there following the west shore along which ran a well-worn footpath which led to clumps of trees, underneath which they sat and looked at the water, for neither could row a boat or swim. Also there were wild flowers and berry bushes to be plundered. And from certain marshy spots, to be reached by venturing out for a score of feet or more, it was possible to reach and take white lilies with their delicate yellow hearts. They were decidedly tempting and on two occasions already the marauders had brought Mrs. Newton large armfuls of blooms from the fields and shore line here.

On the third Sunday afternoon in July, Clyde, as lonely and rebellious as ever, was paddling about in a dark blue canoe along the south bank of the lake about a mile and a half from the boathouse. His coat and hat were off, and in a seeking and half resentful mood he was imagining vain things in regard to the type of life he would really like to lead. At different points on the lake in canoes, or their more clumsy companions the row-boats, were boys and girls, men and women. And over the water occasionally would come their laughter or bits of their conversation. And in the distance would be other canoes and other dreamers, happily in love, as Clyde invariably decided, that being to him the sharpest contrast to his own lorn state.

At any rate, the sight of any other youth thus romantically engaged with his girl was sufficient to set dissonantly jangling the repressed and protesting libido of his nature. And this would cause his mind to paint another picture in which, had fortune favored him in the first place by birth, he would now be in some canoe on Schroon or Racquette or Champlain Lake with Sondra Finchley or some such girl, paddling and looking at the shores of a scene more distingué than this. Or might he not be riding or playing tennis, or in the evening dancing or racing from place to place in some high-powered car, Sondra by his side? He felt so out of it, so lonely and restless and tortured by all that he saw here, for everywhere that he looked he seemed to see love, romance, contentment. What to do? Where to go? He could not go on alone like this forever. He was too miserable.

In memory as well as mood his mind went back to the few gay happy days he had enjoyed in Kansas City before that dreadful accident—Ratterer, Hegglund, Higby, Tina Kogel, Hortense, Ratterer’s sister Louise—in short, the gay company of which he was just beginning to be a part when that terrible accident had occurred. And next to Dillard, Rita, Zella,—a companionship that would have been better than this, certainly. Were the Griffiths never going to do any more for him than this? Had he only come here to be sneered at by his cousin, pushed aside, or rather completely ignored by all the bright company of which the children of his rich uncle were a part? And so plainly, from so many interesting incidents, even now in this dead summertime, he could see how privileged and relaxed and apparently decidedly happy were those of that circle. Notices in the local papers almost every day as to their coming and going here and there, the large and expensive cars of Samuel as well as Gilbert Griffiths parked outside the main office entrance on such days as they were in Lycurgus—an occasional group of young society figures to be seen before the grill of the Lycurgus Hotel, or before one of the fine homes in Wykeagy Avenue, some one having returned to the city for an hour or a night.

And in the factory itself, whenever either was there—Gilbert or Samuel—in the smartest of summer clothes and attended by either Messrs. Smillie, Latch, Gotboy or Burkey, all high officials of the company, making a most austere and even regal round of the immense plant and consulting with or listening to the reports of the various minor department heads. And yet here was he—a full cousin to this same Gilbert, a nephew to this distinguished Samuel—being left to drift and pine by himself, and for no other reason than, as he could now clearly see, he was not good enough. His father was not as able as this, his great uncle—his mother (might Heaven keep her) not as distinguished or as experienced as his cold, superior, indifferent aunt. Might it not be best to leave? Had he not made a foolish move, after all, in coming on here? What, if anything, did these high relatives ever intend to do for him?

In loneliness and resentment and disappointment, his mind now wandered from the Griffiths and their world, and particularly that beautiful Sondra Finchley, whom he recalled with a keen and biting thrill, to Roberta and the world which she as well as he was occupying here. For although a poor factory girl, she was still so much more attractive than any of these other girls with whom he was every day in contact.

How unfair and ridiculous for the Griffiths to insist that a man in his position should not associate with a girl such as Roberta, for instance, and just because she worked in the mill. He might not even make friends with her and bring her to some such lake as this or visit her in her little home on account of that. And yet he could not go with others more worthy of him, perhaps, for lack of means or contacts. And besides she was so attractive—very—and especially enticing to him. He could see her now as she worked with her swift, graceful movements at her machine. Her shapely arms and hands, her smooth skin and her bright eyes as she smiled up at him. And his thoughts were played over by exactly the same emotions that swept him so regularly at the factory. For poor or not—a working girl by misfortune only—he could see how he could be very happy with her if only he did not need to marry her. For now his ambitions toward marriage had been firmly magnetized by the world to which the Griffiths belonged. And yet his desires were most colorfully inflamed by her. If only he might venture to talk to her more—to walk home with her some day from the mill—to bring her out here to this lake on a Saturday or Sunday, and row about—just to idle and dream with her.

He rounded a point studded with a clump of trees and bushes and covering a shallow where were scores of water lilies afloat, their large leaves resting flat upon the still water of the lake. And on the bank to the left was a girl standing and looking at them. She had her hat off and one hand to her eyes for she was facing the sun and was looking down in the water. Her lips were parted in careless inquiry. She was very pretty, he thought, as he paused in his paddling to look at her. The sleeves of a pale blue waist came only to her elbows. And a darker blue skirt of flannel reconveyed to him the trimness of her figure. It wasn’t Roberta! It couldn’t be! Yes, it was!

Almost before he had decided, he was quite beside her, some twenty feet from the shore, and was looking up at her, his face lit by the radiance of one who had suddenly, and beyond his belief, realized a dream. And as though he were a pleasant apparition suddenly evoked out of nothing and nowhere, a poetic effort taking form out of smoke or vibrant energy, she in turn stood staring down at him, her lips unable to resist the wavy line of beauty that a happy mood always brought to them.

“My, Miss Alden! It is you, isn’t it?” he called. “I was wondering whether it was. I couldn’t be sure from out there.”

“Why, yes it is,” she laughed, puzzled, and again just the least bit abashed by the reality of him. For in spite of her obvious pleasure at seeing him again, only thinly repressed for the first moment or two, she was on the instant beginning to be troubled by her thoughts in regard to him—the difficulties that contact with him seemed to prognosticate. For this meant contact and friendship, maybe, and she was no longer in any mood to resist him, whatever people might think. And yet here was her friend, Grace Marr. Would she want her to know of Clyde and her interest in him? She was troubled. And yet she could not resist smiling and looking at him in a frank and welcoming way. She had been thinking of him so much and wishing for him in some happy, secure, commendable way. And now here he was. And there could be nothing more innocent than his presence here—nor hers.

“Just out for a walk?” he forced himself to say, although, because of his delight and his fear of her really, he felt not a little embarrassed now that she was directly before him. At the same time he added, recalling that she had been looking so intently at the water: “You want some of these water lilies? Is that what you’re looking for?”

“Uh, huh,” she replied, still smiling and looking directly at him, for the sight of his dark hair blown by the wind, the pale blue outing shirt he wore open at the neck, his sleeves rolled up and the yellow paddle held by him above the handsome blue boat, quite thrilled her. If only she could win such a youth for her very own self—just hers and no one else’s in the whole world. It seemed as though this would be paradise—that if she could have him she would never want anything else in all the world. And here at her very feet he sat now in this bright canoe on this clear July afternoon in this summery world—so new and pleasing to her. And now he was laughing up at her so directly and admiringly. Her girl friend was far in the rear somewhere looking for daisies. Could she? Should she?

“I was seeing if there was any way to get out to any of them,” she continued a little nervously, a tremor almost revealing itself in her voice. “I haven’t seen any before just here on this side.”

“I’ll get you all you want,” he exclaimed briskly and gayly. “You just stay where you are. I’ll bring them.” But then, bethinking him of how much more lovely it would be if she were to get in with him, he added: “But see here—why don’t you get in here with me? There’s plenty of room and I can take you anywhere you want to go. There’s lots nicer lilies up the lake here a little way and on the other side too. I saw hundreds of them over there just beyond that island.”

Roberta looked. And as she did, another canoe paddled by, holding a youth of about Clyde’s years and a girl no older than herself. She wore a white dress and a pink hat and the canoe was green. And far across the water at the point of the very island about which Clyde was talking was another canoe—bright yellow with a boy and a girl in that. She was thinking she would like to get in without her companion, if possible—with her, if need be. She wanted so much to have him all to herself. If she had only come out here alone. For if Grace Marr were included, she would know and later talk, maybe, or think, if she heard anything else in regard to them ever. And yet if she did not, there was the fear that he might not like her any more—might even come to dislike her or give up being interested in her, and that would be dreadful.

She stood staring and thinking, and Clyde, troubled and pained by her doubt on this occasion and his own loneliness and desire for her, suddenly called: “Oh, please don’t say no. Just get in, won’t you? You’ll like it. I want you to. Then we can find all the lilies you want. I can let you out anywhere you want to get out—in ten minutes if you want to.”

She marked the “I want you to.” It soothed and strengthened her. He had no desire to take any advantage of her as she could see.

“But I have my friend with me here,” she exclaimed almost sadly and dubiously, for she still wanted to go alone—never in her life had she wanted any one less than Grace Marr at this moment. Why had she brought her? She wasn’t so very pretty and Clyde might not like her, and that might spoil the occasion. “Besides,” she added almost in the same breath and with many thoughts fighting her, “maybe I’d better not. Is it safe?”

“Oh, yes, maybe you better had,” laughed Clyde seeing that she was yielding. “It’s perfectly safe,” he added eagerly. Then maneuvering the canoe next to the bank, which was a foot above the water, and laying hold of a root to hold it still, he said: “Of course you won’t be in any danger. Call your friend then, if you want to, and I’ll row the two of you. There’s room for two and there are lots of water lilies everywhere over there.” He nodded toward the east side of the lake.

Roberta could no longer resist and seized an overhanging branch by which to steady herself. At the same time she began to call: “Oh, Gray-ace! Gray-ace! Where are you?” for she had at last decided that it was best to include her.

A far-off voice as quickly answered: “Hello-o! What do you want?”

“Come up here. Come on. I got something I want to tell you.”

“Oh, no, you come on down here. The daisies are just wonderful.”

“No, you come on up here. There’s some one here that wants to take us boating.” She intended to call this loudly, but somehow her voice failed and her friend went on gathering flowers. Roberta frowned. She did not know just what to do. “Oh, very well, then,” she suddenly decided, and straightening up added: “We can row down to where she is, I guess.”

And Clyde, delighted, exclaimed: “Oh, that’s just fine. Sure. Do get in. We’ll pick these here first and then if she hasn’t come, I’ll paddle down nearer to where she is. Just step square in the center and that will balance it.”

He was leaning back and looking up at her and Roberta was looking nervously and yet warmly into his eyes. Actually it was as though she were suddenly diffused with joy, enveloped in a rosy mist.

She balanced one foot. “Will it be perfectly safe?”

“Sure, sure,” emphasized Clyde. “I’ll hold it safe. Just take hold of that branch there and steady yourself by that.” He held the boat very still as she stepped. Then, as the canoe careened slightly to one side, she dropped to the cushioned seat with a little cry. It was like that of a baby to Clyde.

“It’s all right,” he reassured her. “Just sit in the center there. It won’t tip over. Gee, but this is funny. I can’t make it out quite. You know just as I was coming around that point I was thinking of you—how maybe you might like to come out to a place like this sometime. And now here you are and here I am, and it all happened just like that.” He waved his hand and snapped his fingers.

And Roberta, fascinated by this confession and yet a little frightened by it, added: “Is that so?” She was thinking of her own thoughts in regard to him.

“Yes, and what’s more,” added Clyde, “I’ve been thinking of you all day, really. That’s the truth. I was wishing I might see you somewhere this morning and bring you out here.”

“Oh, now, Mr. Griffiths. You know you don’t mean that,” pleaded Roberta, fearful lest this sudden contact should take too intimate and sentimental a turn too quickly. She scarcely liked that because she was afraid of him and herself, and now she looked at him, trying to appear a little cold or at least disinterested, but it was a very weak effort.

“That’s the truth, though, just the same,” insisted Clyde.

“Well, I think it is beautiful myself,” admitted Roberta. “I’ve been out here, too, several times now. My friend and I.” Clyde was once more delighted. She was smiling now and full of wonder.

“Oh, have you?” he exclaimed, and there was more talk as to why he liked to come out and how he had learned to swim here. “And to think I turned in here and there you were on the bank, looking at those water lilies. Wasn’t that queer? I almost fell out of the boat. I don’t think I ever saw you look as pretty as you did just now standing there.”

“Oh, now, Mr. Griffiths,” again pleaded Roberta cautiously. “You mustn’t begin that way. I’ll be afraid you’re a dreadful flatterer. I’ll have to think you are if you say anything like that so quickly.”

Clyde once more gazed at her weakly, and she smiled because she thought he was more handsome than ever. But what would he think, she added to herself, if she were to tell him that just before he came around that point she was thinking of him too, and wishing that he were there with her, and not Grace. And how they might sit and talk, and hold hands perhaps. He might even put his arms around her waist, and she might let him. That would be terrible, as some people here would see it, she knew. And it would never do for him to know that—never. That would be too intimate—too bold. But just the same it was so. Yet what would these people here in Lycurgus think of her and him now if they should see her, letting him paddle her about in this canoe! He a factory manager and she an employee in his department. The conclusion! The scandal, maybe, even. And yet Grace Marr was along—or soon would be. And she could explain to her—surely. He was out rowing and knew her, and why shouldn’t he help her get some lilies if he wanted to? It was almost unavoidable—this present situation, wasn’t it?

Already Clyde had maneuvered the canoe around so that they were now among the water lilies. And as he talked, having laid his paddle aside, he had been reaching over and pulling them up, tossing them with their long, wet stems at her feet as she lay reclining in the seat, one hand over the side of the canoe in the water, as she had seen other girls holding theirs. And for the moment her thoughts were allayed and modified by the beauty of his head and arms and the tousled hair that now fell over his eyes. How handsome he was!