An American Tragedy Chapter 17

In with the automobile ride suggested and arranged for the following Sunday by Hegglund through his chauffeur friend, a change of plan was announced. The car—an expensive Packard, no less—could not be had for that day, but must be used by this Thursday or Friday, or not at all. For, as had been previously explained to all, but not with the strictest adherence to the truth, the car belonged to a certain Mr. Kimbark, an elderly and very wealthy man who at the time was traveling in Asia. Also, what was not true was that this particular youth was not Mr. Kimbark’s chauffeur at all, but rather the rakish, ne’er-do-well son of Sparser, the superintendent of one of Mr. Kimbark’s stock farms. This son being anxious to pose as something more than the son of a superintendent of a farm, and as an occasional watchman, having access to the cars, had decided to take the very finest of them and ride in it.

It was Hegglund who proposed that he and his hotel friends be included on some interesting trip. But since the general invitation had been given, word had come that within the next few weeks Mr. Kimbark was likely to return. And because of this, Willard Sparser had decided at once that it might be best not to use the car any more. He might be taken unawares, perhaps, by Mr. Kimbark’s unexpected arrival. Laying this difficulty before Hegglund, who was eager for the trip, the latter had scouted the idea. Why not use it once more anyhow? He had stirred up the interest of all of his friends in this and now hated to disappoint them. The following Friday, between noon and six o’clock, was fixed upon as the day. And since Hortense had changed in her plans she now decided to accompany Clyde, who had been invited, of course.

But as Hegglund had explained to Ratterer and Higby since it was being used without the owner’s consent, they must meet rather far out—the men in one of the quiet streets near Seventeenth and West Prospect, from which point they could proceed to a meeting place more convenient for the girls, namely, Twentieth and Washington. From thence they would speed via the west Parkway and the Hannibal Bridge north and east to Harlem, North Kansas City, Minaville and so through Liberty and Moseby to Excelsior Springs. Their chief objective there was a little inn—the Wigwam—a mile or two this side of Excelsior which was open the year around. It was really a combination of restaurant and dancing parlor and hotel. A Victrola and Wurlitzer player-piano furnished the necessary music. Such groups as this were not infrequent, and Hegglund as well as Higby, who had been there on several occasions, described it as dandy. The food was good and the road to it excellent. There was a little river just below it where in the summer time at least there was rowing and fishing. In winter some people skated when there was ice. To be sure, at this time—January—the road was heavily packed with snow, but easy to get over, and the scenery fine. There was a little lake, not so far from Excelsior, at this time of year also frozen over, and according to Hegglund, who was always unduly imaginative and high-spirited, they might go there and skate.

“Will you listen to who’s talkin’ about skatin’ on a trip like this?” commented Ratterer, rather cynically, for to his way of thinking this was no occasion for any such side athletics, but for love-making exclusively.

“Aw, hell, can’t a fellow have a funny idea even widout bein’ roasted for it?” retorted the author of the idea.

The only one, apart from Sparser, who suffered any qualms in connection with all this was Clyde himself. For to him, from the first, the fact that the car to be used did not belong to Sparser, but to his employer, was disturbing, almost irritatingly so. He did not like the idea of taking anything that belonged to any one else, even for temporary use. Something might happen. They might be found out.

“Don’t you think it’s dangerous for us to be going out in this car?” he asked of Ratterer a few days before the trip and when he fully understood the nature of the source of the car.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Ratterer, who being accustomed to such ideas and devices as this was not much disturbed by them. “I’m not taking the car and you’re not, are you? If he wants to take it, that’s his lookout, ain’t it? If he wants me to go, I’ll go. Why wouldn’t I? All I want is to be brought back here on time. That’s the only thing that would ever worry me.”

And Higby, coming up at the moment, had voiced exactly the same sentiments. Yet Clyde remained troubled. It might not work out right; he might lose his job through a thing like this. But so fascinated was he by the thought of riding in such a fine car with Hortense and with all these other girls and boys that he could not resist the temptation to go.

Immediately after noon on the Friday of this particular week the several participants of the outing were gathered at the points agreed upon. Hegglund, Ratterer, Higby and Clyde at Eighteenth and West Prospect near the railroad yards. Maida Axelrod, Hegglund’s girl, Lucille Nickolas, a friend of Ratterer’s, and Tina Kogel, a friend of Higby’s, also Laura Sipe, another girl who was brought by Tina Kogel to be introduced to Sparser for the occasion, at Twentieth and Washington. Only since Hortense had sent word at the last moment to Clyde that she had to go out to her house for something, and that they were to run out to Forty-ninth and Genesee, where she lived, they did so, but not without grumbling.

The day, a late January one, was inclined to be smoky with lowering clouds, especially within the environs of Kansas City. It even threatened snow at times—a most interesting and picturesque prospect to those within. They liked it.

“Oh, gee, I hope it does,” Tina Kogel exclaimed when some one commented on the possibility, and Lucille Nickolas added: “Oh, I just love to see it snow at times.” Along the West Bluff Road, Washington and Second Streets, they finally made their way across the Hannibal Bridge to Harlem, and from thence along the winding and hill-sentineled river road to Randolph Heights and Minaville. And beyond that came Moseby and Liberty, to and through which the road bed was better, with interesting glimpses of small homesteads and the bleak snow-covered hills of January.

Clyde, who for all his years in Kansas City had never ventured much beyond Kansas City, Kansas, on the west or the primitive and natural woods of Swope Park on the east, nor farther along the Kansas or Missouri Rivers than Argentine on the one side and Randolph Heights on the other, was quite fascinated by the idea of travel which appeared to be suggested by all this—distant travel. It was all so different from his ordinary routine. And on this occasion Hortense was inclined to be very genial and friendly. She snuggled down beside him on the seat, and when he, noting that the others had already drawn their girls to them in affectionate embraces, put his arm about her and drew her to him, she made no particular protest. Instead she looked up and said: “I’ll have to take my hat off, I guess.” The others laughed. There was something about her quick, crisp way which was amusing at times. Besides she had done her hair in a new way which made her look decidedly prettier, and she was anxious to have the others see it.

“Can we dance anywhere out here?” she called to the others, without looking around.

“Surest thing you know,” said Higby, who by now had persuaded Tina Kogel to take her hat off and was holding her close. “They got a player-piano and a Victrola out there. If I’d ’a’ thought, I’d ’a’ brought my cornet. I can play Dixie on that.”

The car was speeding at breakneck pace over a snowy white road and between white fields. In fact, Sparser, considering himself a master of car manipulation as well as the real owner of it for the moment, was attempting to see how fast he could go on such a road.

Dark vignettes of wood went by to right and left. Fields away, sentinel hills rose and fell like waves. A wide-armed scarecrow fluttering in the wind, its tall decayed hat awry, stood near at hand in one place. And from near it a flock of crows rose and winged direct toward a distant wood lightly penciled against a foreground of snow.

In the front seat sat Sparser, guiding the car beside Laura Sipe with the air of one to whom such a magnificent car was a commonplace thing. He was really more interested in Hortense, yet felt it incumbent on him, for the time being, anyhow, to show some attention to Laura Sipe. And not to be outdone in gallantry by the others, he now put one arm about Laura Sipe while he guided the car with the other, a feat which troubled Clyde, who was still dubious about the wisdom of taking the car at all. They might all be wrecked by such fast driving. Hortense was only interested by the fact that Sparser had obviously manifested his interest in her; that he had to pay some attention to Laura Sipe whether he wanted to or not. And when she saw him pull her to him and asked her grandly if she had done much automobiling about Kansas City, she merely smiled to herself.

But Ratterer, noting the move, nudged Lucille Nickolas, and she in turn nudged Higby, in order to attract his attention to the affectional development ahead.

“Getting comfortable up front there, Willard?” called Ratterer, genially, in order to make friends with him.

“I’ll say I am,” replied Sparser, gayly and without turning. “How about you, girlie?”

“Oh, I’m all right,” Laura Sipe replied.

But Clyde was thinking that of all the girls present none was really so pretty as Hortense—not nearly. She had come garbed in a red and black dress with a very dark red poke bonnet to match. And on her left cheek, just below her small rouged mouth, she had pasted a minute square of black court plaster in imitation of some picture beauty she had seen. In fact, before the outing began, she had been determined to outshine all the others present, and distinctly she was now feeling that she was succeeding. And Clyde, for himself, was agreeing with her.

“You’re the cutest thing here,” whispered Clyde, hugging her fondly.

“Gee, but you can pour on the molasses, kid, when you want to,” she called out loud, and the others laughed. And Clyde flushed slightly.

Beyond Minaville about six miles the car came to a bend in a hollow where there was a country store and here Hegglund, Higby and Ratterer got out to fetch candy, cigarettes and ice cream cones and ginger ale. And after that came Liberty, and then several miles this side of Excelsior Springs, they sighted the Wigwam which was nothing more than an old two-story farmhouse snuggled against a rise of ground behind it. There was, however, adjoining it on one side a newer and larger one-story addition consisting of the dining-room, the dance floor, and concealed by a partition at one end, a bar. An open fire flickered cheerfully here in a large fireplace. Down in a hollow across the road might be seen the Benton River or creek, now frozen solid.

“There’s your river,” called Higby cheerfully as he helped Tina Kogel out of the car, for he was already very much warmed by several drinks he had taken en route. They all paused for a moment to admire the stream, winding away among the trees. “I wanted dis bunch to bring dere skates and go down dere,” sighed Hegglund, “but dey wouldn’t. Well, dat’s all right.”

By then Lucille Nickolas, seeing a flicker of flame reflected in one of the small windows of the inn, called, “Oh, see, they gotta fire.”

The car was parked, and they all trooped into the inn, and at once Higby briskly went over and started the large, noisy, clattery, tinny Nickelodeon with a nickel. And to rival him, and for a prank, Hegglund ran to the Victrola which stood in one corner and put on a record of “The Grizzly Bear,” which he found lying there.

At the first sounds of this strain, which they all knew, Tina Kogel called: “Oh, let’s all dance to that, will you? Can’t you stop that other old thing?” she added.

“Sure, after it runs down,” explained Ratterer, laughingly. “The only way to stop that thing is not to feed it any nickels.”

But now a waiter coming in, Higby began to inquire what everybody wanted. And in the meantime, to show off her charms, Hortense had taken the center of the floor and was attempting to imitate a grizzly bear walking on its hind legs, which she could do amusingly enough—quite gracefully. And Sparser, seeing her alone in the center of the floor was anxious to interest her now, followed her and tried to imitate her motions from behind. Finding him clever at it, and anxious to dance, she finally abandoned the imitation and giving him her arms went one-stepping about the room most vividly. At once, Clyde, who was by no means as good a dancer, became jealous—painfully so. In his eagerness for her, it seemed unfair to him that he should be deserted by her so early—at the very beginning of things. But she, becoming interested in Sparser, who seemed more worldly-wise, paid no attention at all to Clyde for the time being, but went dancing with her new conquest, his rhythmic skill seeming charmingly to match her own. And then, not to be out of it, the others at once chose partners, Hegglund dancing with Maida, Ratterer with Lucille and Higby with Tina Kogel. This left Laura Sipe for Clyde, who did not like her very much. She was not as perfect as she might be—a plump, pudgy-faced girl with inadequate sensual blue eyes—and Clyde, lacking any exceptional skill, they danced nothing but the conventional one-step while the others were dipping and lurching and spinning.

In a kind of sick fury, Clyde noticed that Sparser, who was still with Hortense, was by now holding her close and looking straight into her eyes. And she was permitting him. It gave him a feeling of lead at the pit of his stomach. Was it possible she was beginning to like this young upstart who had this car? And she had promised to like him for the present. It brought to him a sense of her fickleness—the probability of her real indifference to him. He wanted to do something—stop dancing and get her away from Sparser, but there was no use until this particular record ran out.

And then, just at the end of this, the waiter returned with a tray and put down cocktails, ginger ale and sandwiches upon three small tables which had been joined together. All but Sparser and Hortense quit and came toward it—a fact which Clyde was quick to note. She was a heartless flirt! She really did not care for him after all. And after making him think that she did, so recently—and getting him to help her with that coat. She could go to the devil now. He would show her. And he waiting for her! Wasn’t that the limit? Yet, finally seeing that the others were gathering about the tables, which had been placed near the fire, Hortense and Sparser ceased dancing and approached. Clyde was white and glum. He stood to one side, seemingly indifferent. And Laura Sipe, who had already noted his rage and understood the reason now moved away from him to join Tina Kogel, to whom she explained why he was so angry.

And then noting his glumness, Hortense came over, executing a phase of the “Grizzly” as she did so.

“Gee, wasn’t that swell?” she began. “Gee, how I do love to dance to music like that!”

“Sure, it’s swell for you,” returned Clyde, burning with envy and disappointment.

“Why, what’s the trouble?” she asked, in a low and almost injured tone, pretending not to guess, yet knowing quite well why he was angry. “You don’t mean to say that you’re mad because I danced with him first, do you? Oh, how silly! Why didn’t you come over then and dance with me? I couldn’t refuse to dance with him when he was right there, could I?”

“Oh, no, of course, you couldn’t,” replied Clyde sarcastically, and in a low, tense tone, for he, no more than Hortense, wanted the others to hear. “But you didn’t have to fall all over him and dream in his eyes, either, did you?” He was fairly blazing. “You needn’t say you didn’t, because I saw you.”

At this she glanced at him oddly, realizing not only the sharpness of his mood, but that this was the first time he had shown so much daring in connection with her. It must be that he was getting to feel too sure of her. She was showing him too much attention. At the same time she realized that this was not the time to show him that she did not care for him as much as she would like to have him believe, since she wanted the coat, already agreed upon.

“Oh, gee, well, ain’t that the limit?” she replied angrily, yet more because she was irritated by the fact that what he said was true than anything else. “If you aren’t the grouch. Well, I can’t help it, if you’re going to be as jealous as that. I didn’t do anything but dance with him just a little. I didn’t think you’d be mad.” She moved as if to turn away, but realizing that there was an understanding between them, and that he must be placated if things were to go on, she drew him by his coat lapels out of the range of the hearing of the others, who were already looking and listening, and began.

“Now, see here, you. Don’t go acting like this. I didn’t mean anything by what I did. Honest, I didn’t. Anyhow, everybody dances like that now. And nobody means anything by it. Aren’t you goin’ to let me be nice to you like I said, or are you?”

And now she looked him coaxingly and winsomely and calculatingly straight in the eye, as though he were the one person among all these present whom she really did like. And deliberately, and of a purpose, she made a pursy, sensuous mouth—the kind she could make—and practised a play of the lips that caused them to seem to want to kiss him—a mouth that tempted him to distraction.

“All right,” he said, looking at her weakly and yieldingly. “I suppose I am a fool, but I saw what you did, all right. You know I’m crazy about you, Hortense—just wild! I can’t help it. I wish I could sometimes. I wish I wouldn’t be such a fool.” And he looked at her and was sad. And she, realizing her power over him and how easy it was to bring him around, replied: “Oh, you—you don’t, either. I’ll kiss you after a while, when the others aren’t looking if you’ll be good.” At the same time she was conscious of the fact that Sparser’s eyes were upon her. Also that he was intensely drawn to her and that she liked him more than any one she had recently encountered.