An American Tragedy Chapter 18

The culmination of this meeting was but the prelude, as both Clyde and Roberta realized, to a series of contacts and rejoicings which were to extend over an indefinite period. They had found love. They were deliciously happy, whatever the problems attending its present realization might be. But the ways and means of continuing with it were a different matter. For not only was her connection with the Newtons a bar to any normal procedure in so far as Clyde was concerned, but Grace Marr herself offered a distinct and separate problem. Far more than Roberta she was chained, not only by the defect of poor looks, but by the narrow teachings and domestic training of her early social and religious life. Yet she wanted to be gay and free, too. And in Roberta, who, while gay and boastful at times, was still well within the conventions that chained Grace, she imagined that she saw one who was not so bound. And so it was that she clung to her closely and as Roberta saw it a little wearisomely. She imagined that they could exchange ideas and jests and confidences in regard to the love life and their respective dreams without injury to each other. And to date this was her one solace in an otherwise gray world.

But Roberta, even before the arrival of Clyde in her life, did not want to be so clung to. It was a bore. And afterwards she developed an inhibition in regard to him where Grace was concerned. For she not only knew that Grace would resent this sudden desertion, but also that she had no desire to face out within herself the sudden and revolutionary moods which now possessed her. Having at once met and loved him, she was afraid to think what, if anything, she proposed to permit herself to do in regard to him. Were not such contacts between the classes banned here? She knew they were. Hence she did not care to talk about him at all.

In consequence on Monday evening following the Sunday on the lake when Grace had inquired most gayly and familiarly after Clyde, Roberta had as instantly decided not to appear nearly as interested in him as Grace might already be imagining. Accordingly, she said little other than that he was very pleasant to her and had inquired after Grace, a remark which caused the latter to eye her slyly and to wonder if she were really telling what had happened since. “He was so very friendly I was beginning to think he was struck on you.”

“Oh, what nonsense!” Roberta replied shrewdly, and a bit alarmed. “Why, he wouldn’t look at me. Besides, there’s a rule of the company that doesn’t permit him to, as long as I work there.”

This last, more than anything else, served to allay Grace’s notions in regard to Clyde and Roberta, for she was of that conventional turn of mind which would scarcely permit her to think of any one infringing upon a company rule. Nevertheless Roberta was nervous lest Grace should be associating her and Clyde in her mind in some clandestine way, and she decided to be doubly cautious in regard to Clyde—to feign a distance she did not feel.

But all this was preliminary to troubles and strains and fears which had nothing to do with what had gone before, but took their rise from difficulties which sprang up immediately afterwards. For once she had come to this complete emotional understanding with Clyde, she saw no way of meeting him except in this very clandestine way and that so very rarely and uncertainly that she could not say when there was likely to be another meeting.

“You see, it’s this way,” she explained to Clyde when, a few evenings later, she had managed to steal out for an hour and they walked from the region at the end of Taylor Street down to the Mohawk, where were some open fields and a low bank rising above the pleasant river. “The Newtons never go any place much without inviting me. And even if they didn’t, Grace’d never go unless I went along. It’s just because we were together so much in Trippetts Mills that she feels that way, as though I were a part of the family. But now it’s different, and yet I don’t see how I am going to get out of it so soon. I don’t know where to say I’m going or whom I am going with.”

“I know that, honey,” he replied softly and sweetly. “That’s all true enough. But how is that going to help us now? You can’t expect me to get along with just looking at you in the factory, either, can you?”

He gazed at her so solemnly and yearningly that she was moved by her sympathy for him, and in order to assuage his depression added: “No, I don’t want you to do that, dear. You know I don’t. But what am I to do?” She laid a soft and pleading hand on the back of one of Clyde’s thin, long and nervous ones.

“I’ll tell you what, though,” she went on after a period of reflection, “I have a sister living in Homer, New York. That’s about thirty-five miles north of here. I might say I was going up there some Saturday afternoon or Sunday. She’s been writing me to come up, but I hadn’t thought of it before. But I might go—that is—I might—”

“Oh, why not do that?” exclaimed Clyde eagerly. “That’s fine! A good idea!”

“Let me see,” she added, ignoring his exclamation. “If I remember right you have to go to Fonda first, then change cars there. But I could leave here any time on the trolley and there are only two trains a day from Fonda, one at two, and one at seven on Saturday. So I might leave here any time before two, you see, and then if I didn’t make the two o’clock train, it would be all right, wouldn’t it? I could go on the seven. And you could be over there, or meet me on the way, just so no one here saw us. Then I could go on and you could come back. I could arrange that with Agnes, I’m sure. I would have to write her.”

“How about all the time between then and now, though?” he queried peevishly. “It’s a long time till then, you know.”

“Well, I’ll have to see what I can think of, but I’m not sure, dear. I’ll have to see. And you think too. But I ought to be going back now,” she added nervously. She at once arose, causing Clyde to rise, too, and consult his watch, thereby discovering that it was already near ten.

“But what about us!” he continued persistently. “Why couldn’t you pretend next Sunday that you’re going to some other church than yours and meet me somewhere instead? Would they have to know?”

At once Clyde noted Roberta’s face darken slightly, for here he was encroaching upon something that was still too closely identified with her early youth and convictions to permit infringement.

“Hump, uh,” she replied quite solemnly. “I wouldn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t feel right about it. And it wouldn’t be right, either.”

Immediately Clyde sensed that he was treading on dangerous ground and withdrew the suggestion because he did not care to offend or frighten her in any way. “Oh, well. Just as you say. I only thought since you don’t seem to be able to think of any other way.”

“No, no, dear,” she pleaded softly, because she noted that he felt that she might be offended. “It’s all right, only I wouldn’t want to do that. I couldn’t.”

Clyde shook his head. A recollection of his own youthful inhibitions caused him to feel that perhaps it was not right for him to have suggested it.

They returned in the direction of Taylor Street without, apart from the proposed trip to Fonda, either having hit upon any definite solution. Instead, after kissing her again and again and just before letting her go, the best he could suggest was that both were to try and think of some way by which they could meet before, if possible. And she, after throwing her arms about his neck for a moment, ran east along Taylor Street, her little figure swaying in the moonlight.

However, apart from another evening meeting which was made possible by Roberta’s announcing a second engagement with Mrs. Braley, there was no other encounter until the following Saturday when Roberta departed for Fonda. And Clyde, having ascertained the exact hour, left by the car ahead, and joined Roberta at the first station west. From that point on until evening, when she was compelled to take the seven o’clock train, they were unspeakably happy together, loitering near the little city comparatively strange to both.

For outside of Fonda a few miles they came to a pleasure park called Starlight where, in addition to a few clap-trap pleasure concessions such as a ring of captive aeroplanes, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, an old mill and a dance floor, was a small lake with boats. It was after its fashion an idyllic spot with a little band-stand out on an island near the center of the lake and on the shore a grave and captive bear in a cage. Since coming to Lycurgus Roberta had not ventured to visit any of the rougher resorts near there, which were very much like this, only much more strident. On sight of this both exclaimed: “Oh, look!” And Clyde added at once: “Let’s get off here, will you—shall we? What do you say? We’re almost to Fonda anyhow. And we can have more fun here.”

At once they climbed down. And having disposed of her bag for the time being, he led the way first to the stand of a man who sold frankfurters. Then, since the merry-go-round was in full blast, nothing would do but that Roberta should ride with him. And in the gayest of moods, they climbed on, and he placed her on a zebra, and then stood close in order that he might keep his arm about her, and both try to catch the brass ring. And as commonplace and noisy and gaudy as it all was, the fact that at last he had her all to himself unseen, and she him, was sufficient to evoke in both a kind of ecstasy which was all out of proportion to the fragile, gimcrack scene. Round and round they spun on the noisy, grinding machine, surveying now a few idle pleasure seekers who were in boats upon the lake, now some who were flying round in the gaudy green and white captive aeroplanes or turning upward and then down in the suspended cages of the Ferris wheel.

Both looked at the woods and sky beyond the lake; the idlers and dancers in the dancing pavilion dreaming and thrilling, and then suddenly Clyde asked: “You dance, don’t you, Roberta?”

“Why, no, I don’t,” she replied, a little sadly, for at the very moment she had been looking at the happy dancers rather ruefully and thinking how unfortunate it was that she had never been allowed to dance. It might not be right or nice, perhaps—her own church said it was not—but still, now that they were here and in love like this—these others looked so gay and happy—a pretty medley of colors moving round and round in the green and brown frame—it did not seem so bad to her. Why shouldn’t people dance, anyway? Girls like herself and boys like Clyde? Her younger brother and sister, in spite of the views of her parents, were already declaring that when the opportunity offered, they were going to learn.

“Oh, isn’t that too bad!” he exclaimed, thinking how delightful it would be to hold Roberta in his arms. “We could have such fun now if you could. I could teach you in a few minutes if you wanted me to.”

“I don’t know about that,” she replied quizzically, her eyes showing that his suggestion appealed to her. “I’m not so clever that way. And you know dancing isn’t considered so very nice in my part of the country. And my church doesn’t approve of it, either. And I know my parents wouldn’t like me to.”

“Oh, shucks,” replied Clyde foolishly and gayly, “what nonsense, Roberta. Why, everybody dances these days or nearly everybody. How can you think there’s anything wrong with it?”

“Oh, I know,” replied Roberta oddly and quaintly, “maybe they do in your set. I know most of those factory girls do, of course. And I suppose where you have money and position, everything’s right. But with a girl like me, it’s different. I don’t suppose your parents were as strict as mine, either.”

“Oh, weren’t they, though?” laughed Clyde who had not failed to catch the “your set”; also the “where you have money and position.”

“Well, that’s all you know about it,” he went on. “They were as strict as yours and stricter, I’ll bet. But I danced just the same. Why, there’s no harm in it, Roberta. Come on, let me teach you. It’s wonderful, really. Won’t you, dearest?”

He put his arm around her and looked into her eyes and she half relented, quite weakened by her desire for him.

Just then the merry-go-round stopped and without any plan or suggestion they seemed instinctively to drift to the side of the pavilion where the dancers—not many but avid—were moving briskly around. Fox-trots and one-steps were being supplied by an orchestrelle of considerable size. At a turnstile, all the remaining portions of the pavilion being screened in, a pretty concessionaire was sitting and taking tickets—ten cents per dance per couple. But the color and the music and the motions of the dancers gliding rhythmically here and there quite seized upon both Clyde and Roberta.

The orchestrelle stopped and the dancers were coming out. But no sooner were they out than five-cent admission checks were once more sold for the new dance.

“I don’t believe I can,” pleaded Roberta, as Clyde led her to the ticket-stile. “I’m afraid I’m too awkward, maybe. I never danced, you know.”

“You awkward, Roberta,” he exclaimed. “Oh, how crazy. Why, you’re as graceful and pretty as you can be. You’ll see. You’ll be a wonderful dancer.”

Already he had paid the coin and they were inside.

Carried away by a bravado which was three-fourths her conception of him as a member of the Lycurgus upper crust and possessor of means and position, he led the way into a corner and began at once to illustrate the respective movements. They were not difficult and for a girl of Roberta’s natural grace and zest, easy. Once the music started and Clyde drew her to him, she fell into the positions and steps without effort, and they moved rhythmically and instinctively together. It was the delightful sensation of being held by him and guided here and there that so appealed to her—the wonderful rhythm of his body coinciding with hers.

“Oh, you darling,” he whispered. “Aren’t you the dandy little dancer, though. You’ve caught on already. If you aren’t the wonderful kid. I can hardly believe it.”

They went about the floor once more, then a third time, before the music stopped and by the time it did, Roberta was lost in a sense of delight such as had never come to her before. To think she had been dancing! And it should be so wonderful! And with Clyde! He was so slim, graceful—quite the handsomest of any of the young men on the floor, she thought. And he, in turn, was now thinking that never had he known any one as sweet as Roberta. She was so gay and winsome and yielding. She would not try to work him for anything. And as for Sondra Finchley, well, she had ignored him and he might as well dismiss her from his mind—and yet even here, and with Roberta, he could not quite forget her.

At five-thirty when the orchestrelle was silenced for lack of customers and a sign reading “Next Concert 7.30” hung up, they were still dancing. After that they went for an icecream soda, then for something to eat, and by then, so swiftly had sped the time, it was necessary to take the very next car for the depot at Fonda.

As they neared this terminal, both Clyde and Roberta were full of schemes as to how they were to arrange for to-morrow. For Roberta would be coming back then and if she could arrange to leave her sister’s a little early Sunday he could come over from Lycurgus to meet her. They could linger around Fonda until eleven at least, when the last train south from Homer was due. And pretending she had arrived on that they could then, assuming there was no one whom they knew on the Lycurgus car, journey to that city.

And as arranged so they met. And in the dark outlying streets of that city, walked and talked and planned, and Roberta told Clyde something—though not much—of her home life at Biltz.

But the great thing, apart from their love for each other and its immediate expression in kisses and embraces, was the how and where of further contacts. They must find some way, only, really, as Roberta saw it, she must be the one to find the way, and that soon. For while Clyde was obviously very impatient and eager to be with her as much as possible, still he did not appear to be very ready with suggestions—available ones.

But that, as she also saw, was not easy. For the possibility of another visit to her sister in Homer or her parents in Biltz was not even to be considered under a month. And apart from them what other excuses were there? New friends at the factory—the post-office—the library—the Y. W. C. A.—all suggestions of Clyde’s at the moment. But these spelled but an hour or two together at best, and Clyde was thinking of other week-ends like this. And there were so few remaining summer week-ends.