An American Tragedy Chapter 16

The outcome of that afternoon was so wonderful for both that for days thereafter neither could cease thinking about it or marveling that anything so romantic and charming should have brought them together so intimately when both were considering that it was not wise for either to know the other any better than employee and superior.

After a few moments of badinage in the boat in which he had talked about the beauty of the lilies and how glad he was to get them for her, they picked up her friend, Grace, and eventually returned to the boathouse.

Once on the land again there developed not a little hesitation on her part as well as his as to how farther to proceed, for they were confronted by the problem of returning into Lycurgus together. As Roberta saw it, it would not look right and might create talk. And on his part, he was thinking of Gilbert and other people he knew. The trouble that might come of it. What Gilbert would say if he did hear. And so both he and she, as well as Grace, were dubious on the instant about the wisdom of riding back together. Grace’s own reputation, as well as the fact that she knew Clyde was not interested in her, piqued her. And Roberta, realizing this from her manner, said: “What do you think we had better do, excuse ourselves?”

At once Roberta tried to think just how they could extricate themselves gracefully without offending Clyde. Personally she was so enchanted that had she been alone she would have preferred to have ridden back with him. But with Grace here and in this cautious mood, never. She must think up some excuse.

And at the same time, Clyde was wondering just how he was to do now—ride in with them and brazenly face the possibility of being seen by some one who might carry the news to Gilbert Griffiths or evade doing so on some pretext or other. He could think of none, however, and was about to turn and accompany them to the car when the young electrician, Shurlock, who lived in the Newton household and who had been on the balcony of the pavilion, hailed them. He was with a friend who had a small car, and they were ready to return to the city.

“Well, here’s luck,” he exclaimed. “How are you, Miss Alden? How do you do, Miss Marr? You two don’t happen to be going our way, do you? If you are, we can take you in with us.”

Not only Roberta but Clyde heard. And at once she was about to say that, since it was a little late and she and Grace were scheduled to attend church services with the Newtons, it would be more convenient for them to return this way. She was, however, half hoping that Shurlock would invite Clyde and that he would accept. But on his doing so, Clyde instantly refused. He explained that he had decided to stay out a little while longer. And so Roberta left him with a look that conveyed clearly enough the gratitude and delight she felt. They had had such a good time. And he in turn, in spite of many qualms as to the wisdom of all this, fell to brooding on how sad it was that just he and Roberta might not have remained here for hours longer. And immediately after they had gone, he returned to the city alone.

The next morning he was keener than ever to see Roberta again. And although the peculiarly exposed nature of the work at the factory made it impossible for him to demonstrate his feelings, still by the swift and admiring and seeking smiles that played over his face and blazed in his eyes, she knew that he was as enthusiastic, if not more so, as on the night before. And on her part, although she felt that a crisis of some sort was impending, and in spite of the necessity of a form of secrecy which she resented, she could not refrain from giving him a warm and quite yielding glance in return. The wonder of his being interested in her! The wonder and the thrill!

Clyde decided at once that his attentions were still welcome. Also that he might risk saying something to her, supposing that a suitable opportunity offered. And so, after waiting an hour and seeing two fellow workers leave from either side of her, he seized the occasion to drift near and to pick up one of the collars she had just stamped, saying, as though talking about that: “I was awfully sorry to have to leave you last night. I wish we were out there again to-day instead of here, just you and me, don’t you?”

Roberta turned, conscious that now was the time to decide whether she would encourage or discourage any attention on his part. At the same time she was almost faintingly eager to accept his attentions regardless of the problem in connection with them. His eyes! His hair! His hands! And then instead of rebuking or chilling him in any way, she only looked, but with eyes too weak and melting to mean anything less than yielding and uncertainty. Clyde saw that she was hopelessly and helplessly drawn to him, as indeed he was to her. On the instant he was resolved to say something more, when he could, as to where they could meet when no one was along, for it was plain that she was no more anxious to be observed than he was. He well knew more sharply to-day than ever before that he was treading on dangerous ground.

He began to make mistakes in his calculations, to feel that, with her so near him, he was by no means concentrating on the various tasks before him. She was too enticing, too compelling in so many ways to him. There was something so warm and gay and welcome about her that he felt that if he could persuade her to love him he would be among the most fortunate of men. Yet there was that rule, and although on the lake the day before he had been deciding that his position here was by no means as satisfactory as it should be, still with Roberta in it, as now it seemed she well might be, would it not be much more delightful for him to stay? Could he not, for the time being at least, endure the further indifference of the Griffiths? And who knows, might they not yet become interested in him as a suitable social figure if only he did nothing to offend them? And yet here he was attempting to do exactly the thing he had been forbidden to do. What kind of an injunction was this, anyhow, wherewith Gilbert had enjoined him? If he could come to some understanding with her, perhaps she would meet him in some clandestine way and thus obviate all possibility of criticism.

It was thus that Clyde, seated at his desk or walking about, was thinking. For now his mind, even in the face of his duties, was almost entirely engaged by her, and he could think of nothing else. He had decided to suggest that they meet for the first time, if she would, in a small park which was just west of the first outlying resort on the Mohawk. But throughout the day, so close to each other did the girls work, he had no opportunity to communicate with her. Indeed noontime came and he went below to his lunch, returning a little early in the hope of finding her sufficiently detached to permit him to whisper that he wished to see her somewhere. But she was surrounded by others at the time and so the entire afternoon went by without a single opportunity.

However, as he was going out, he bethought him that if he should chance to meet her alone somewhere in the street, he would venture to speak to her. For she wanted him to—that he knew, regardless of what she might say at any time. And he must find some way that would appear as accidental and hence as innocent to her as to others. But as the whistle blew and she left the building she was joined by another girl, and he was left to think of some other way.

That same evening, however, instead of lingering about the Peyton house or going to a moving picture theater, as he so often did now, or walking alone somewhere in order to allay his unrest and loneliness, he chose now instead to seek out the home of Roberta on Taylor Street. It was not a pleasing house, as he now decided, not nearly so attractive as Mrs. Cuppy’s or the house in which he now dwelt. It was too old and brown, the neighborhood too nondescript, if conservative. But the lights in different rooms glowing at this early hour gave it a friendly and genial look. And the few trees in front were pleasant. What was Roberta doing now? Why couldn’t she have waited for him in the factory? Why couldn’t she sense now that he was outside and come out? He wished intensely that in some way he could make her feel that he was out here, and so cause her to come out. But she didn’t. On the contrary, he observed Mr. Shurlock issue forth and disappear toward Central Avenue. And, after that, pedestrian after pedestrian making their way out of different houses along the street and toward Central, which caused him to walk briskly about the block in order to avoid being seen. At the same time he sighed often, because it was such a fine night—a full moon rising about nine-thirty and hanging heavy and yellow over the chimney tops. He was so lonely.

But at ten, the moon becoming too bright, and no Roberta appearing, he decided to leave. It was not wise to be hanging about here. But the night being so fine he resented the thought of his room and instead walked up and down Wykeagy Avenue, looking at the fine houses there—his uncle Samuel’s among them. Now, all their occupants were away at their summer places. The houses were dark. And Sondra Finchley and Bertine Cranston and all that company—what were they doing on a night like this? Where dancing? Where speeding? Where loving? It was so hard to be poor, not to have money and position and to be able to do in life exactly as you wished.

And the next morning, more eager than usual, he was out of Mrs. Peyton’s by six-forty-five, anxious to find some way of renewing his attentions to Roberta. For there was that crowd of factory workers that proceeded north along Central Avenue. And she would be a unit in it, of course, at about 7.10. But his trip to the factory was fruitless. For, after swallowing a cup of coffee at one of the small restaurants near the post-office and walking the length of Central Avenue toward the mill, and pausing at a cigar store to see if Roberta should by any chance come along alone, he was rewarded by the sight of her with Grace Marr again. What a wretched, crazy world this was, he at once decided, and how difficult it was in this miserable town for anyone to meet anyone else alone. Everyone, nearly, knew everyone else. Besides, Roberta knew that he was trying to get a chance to talk to her. Why shouldn’t she walk alone then? He had looked at her enough yesterday. And yet here she was walking with Grace Marr and appeared seemingly contented. What was the matter with her anyhow?

By the time he reached the factory he was very sour. But the sight of Roberta taking her place at her bench and tossing him a genial “good morning” with a cheerful smile, caused him to feel better and that all was not lost.

It was three o’clock in the afternoon and a lull due to the afternoon heat, the fag of steadily continued work, and the flare of reflected light from the river outside was over all. The tap, tap, tap of metal stamps upon scores of collars at once—nearly always slightly audible above the hum and whirr of the sewing machines beyond was, if anything, weaker than usual. And there was Ruza Nikoforitch, Hoda Petkanas, Martha Bordaloue, Angelina Pitti and Lena Schlict, all joining in a song called “Sweethearts” which some one had started. And Roberta, perpetually conscious of Clyde’s eyes, as well as his mood, was thinking how long it would be before he would come around with some word in regard to something. For she wished him to—and because of his whispered words of the day before, she was sure that it would not be long, because he would not be able to resist it. His eyes the night before had told her that. Yet because of the impediments of this situation she knew that he must be having a difficult time thinking of any way by which he could say anything to her. And still at certain moments she was glad, for there were such moments when she felt she needed the security which the presence of so many girls gave her.

And as she thought of all this, stamping at her desk along with the others, she suddenly discovered that a bundle of collars which she had already stamped as sixteens were not of that size but smaller. She looked at it quickly and nervously, then decided that there was but one thing to do—lay the bundle aside and await comment from one of the foremen, including Clyde, or take it directly to him now—really the better way, because it prevented any of the foremen seeing it before he did. That was what all the girls did when they made mistakes of any kind. And all trained girls were supposed to catch all possible errors of that kind.

And yet now and in the face of all her very urgent desires she hesitated, for this would take her direct to Clyde and give him the opportunity he was seeking. But, more terrifying, it was giving her the opportunity she was seeking. She wavered between loyalty to Clyde as a superintendent, loyalty to her old conventions as opposed to her new and dominating desire and her repressed wish to have Clyde speak to her—then went over with the bundle and laid it on his desk. But her hands, as she did so, trembled. Her face was white—her throat taut. At the moment, as it chanced, he was almost vainly trying to calculate the scores of the different girls from the stubs laid before him, and was having a hard time of it because his mind was not on what he was doing. And then he looked up. And there was Roberta bending toward him. His nerves became very taut, his throat and lips, dry, for here and now was his opportunity. And, as he could see, Roberta was almost suffocating from the strain which her daring and self-deception was putting upon her nerves and heart.

“There’s been a distake” (she meant to say mistake) “in regard to this bundle upstairs,” she began. “I didn’t notice it either until I’d stamped nearly all of them. They’re fifteen-and-a-half and I’ve stamped nearly all of them sixteen. I’m sorry.”

Clyde noticed, as she said this, that she was trying to smile a little and appear calm, but her cheeks were quite blanched and her hands, particularly the one that held the bundle, trembled. On the instant he realized that although loyalty and order were bringing her with this mistake to him, still there was more than that to it. In a weak, frightened, and yet love-driven way, she was courting him, giving him the opportunity he was seeking, wishing him to take advantage of it. And he, embarrassed and shaken for the moment by this sudden visitation, was still heartened and hardened into a kind of effrontery and gallantry such as he had not felt as yet in regard to her. She was seeking him—that was plain. She was interested, and clever enough to make the occasion which permitted him to speak. Wonderful! The sweetness of her daring.

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said, pretending a courage and a daring in regard to her which he did not feel even now. “I’ll just send them down to the wash room and then we’ll see if we can’t restamp them. It’s not our mistake, really.”

He smiled most warmly and she met his look with a repressed smile of her own, already turning and fearing that she had manifested too clearly what had brought her.

“But don’t go,” he added quickly. “I want to ask you something. I’ve been trying to get a word with you ever since Sunday. I want you to meet me somewhere, will you? There’s a rule here that says a head of a department can’t have anything to do with a girl who works for him—outside I mean. But I want you to see me just the same, won’t you? You know,” and he smiled winsomely and coaxingly into her eyes, “I’ve been just nearly crazy over you ever since you came in here and Sunday made it worse. And now I’m not going to let any old rule come between me and you, if I can help it. Will you?”

“Oh, I don’t know whether I can do that or not,” replied Roberta, who, now that she had succeeded in accomplishing what she had wished, was becoming terrorized by her own daring. She began looking around nervously and feeling that every eye in the room must be upon her. “I live with Mr. and Mrs. Newton, my friend’s sister and brother-in-law, you know, and they’re very strict. It isn’t the same as if—” She was going to add “I was home,” but Clyde interrupted her.

“Oh, now please don’t say no, will you? Please don’t. I want to see you. I don’t want to cause you any trouble, that’s all. Otherwise I’d be glad to come round to your house. You know how it is.”

“Oh, no, you mustn’t do that,” cautioned Roberta. “Not yet anyhow.” She was so confused that quite unconsciously she was giving Clyde to understand that she was expecting him to come around some time later.

“Well,” smiled Clyde, who could see that she was yielding in part. “We could just walk out near the end of some street here—that street you live in, if you wish. There are no houses out there. Or there’s a little park—Mohawk—just west of Dreamland on the Mohawk Street line. It’s right on the river. You might come out there. I could meet you where the car stops. Will you do that?”

“Oh, I’d be afraid to do that I think—go so far, I mean. I never did anything like that before.” She looked so innocent and frank as she said this that Clyde was quite carried away by the sweetness of her. And to think he was making a clandestine appointment with her. “I’m almost afraid to go anywhere here alone, you know. People talk so here, they say, and some one would be sure to see me. But—”

“Yes, but what?”

“I’m afraid I’m staying too long at your desk here, don’t you think?” She actually gasped as she said it. And Clyde realizing the openness of it, although there was really nothing very unusual about it, now spoke quickly and forcefully.

“Well, then, how about the end of that street you live in? Couldn’t you come down there for just a little while to-night—a half hour or so, maybe?”

“Oh, I couldn’t make it to-night, I think—not so soon. I’ll have to see first, you know. Arrange, that is. But another day.” She was so excited and troubled by this great adventure of hers that her face, like Clyde’s at times, changed from a half smile to a half frown without her realizing that it was registering these changes.

“Well, then, how about Wednesday night at eight-thirty or nine? Couldn’t you do that? Please, now.”

Roberta considered most sweetly, nervously. Clyde was enormously fascinated by her manner at the moment, for she looked around, conscious, or so she seemed, that she was being observed and that her stay here for a first visit was very long.

“I suppose I’d better be going back to my work now,” she replied without really answering him.

“Wait a minute,” pled Clyde. “We haven’t fixed on the time for Wednesday. Aren’t you going to meet me? Make it nine or eight-thirty, or any time you want to. I’ll be there waiting for you after eight if you wish. Will you?”

“All right, then, say eight-thirty or between eight-thirty and nine, if I can. Is that all right? I’ll come if I can, you know, and if anything does happen I’ll tell you the next morning, you see.” She flushed and then looked around once more, a foolish, flustered look, then hurried back to her bench, fairly tingling from head to toe, and looking as guilty as though she had been caught red-handed in some dreadful crime. And Clyde at his desk was almost choking with excitement. The wonder of her agreeing, of his talking to her like that, of her venturing to make a date with him at all here in Lycurgus, where he was so well-known! Thrilling!

For her part, she was thinking how wonderful it would be just to walk and talk with him in the moonlight, to feel the pressure of his arm and hear his soft appealing voice.