An American Tragedy Chapter 19

The return of Roberta and Clyde, as well as their outing together, was quite unobserved, as they thought. On the car from Fonda they recognized no one. And at the Newtons’ Grace was already in bed. She merely awakened sufficiently to ask a few questions about the trip—and those were casual and indifferent. How was Roberta’s sister? Had she stayed all day in Homer or had she gone to Biltz or Trippetts Mills? (Roberta explained that she had remained at her sister’s.) She herself must be going up pretty soon to see her parents at Trippetts Mills. Then she fell asleep.

But at dinner the next night the Misses Opal Feliss and Olive Pope, who had been kept from the breakfast table by a too late return from Fonda and the very region in which Roberta had spent Saturday afternoon, now seated themselves and at once, as Roberta entered, interjected a few genial and well-meant but, in so far as Roberta was concerned, decidedly troubling observations.

“Oh, there you are! Look who’s back from Starlight Park. Howja like the dancing over there, Miss Alden? We saw you, but you didn’t see us.” And before Roberta had time to think what to reply, Miss Feliss had added: “We tried to get your eye, but you couldn’t see any one but him, I guess. I’ll say you dance swell.”

At once Roberta, who had never been on very intimate terms with either of these girls and who had neither the effrontery nor the wit to extricate herself from so swift and complete and so unexpected an exposure, flushed. She was all but speechless and merely stared, bethinking her at once that she had explained to Grace that she was at her sister’s all day. And opposite sat Grace, looking directly at her, her lips slightly parted as though she would exclaim: “Well, of all things! And dancing! A man!” And at the head of the table, George Newton, thin and meticulous and curious, his sharp eyes and nose and pointed chin now turned in her direction.

But on the instant, realizing that she must say something, Roberta replied: “Oh, yes, that’s so. I did go over there for a little while. Some friends of my sister’s were coming over and I went with them.” She was about to add, “We didn’t stay very long,” but stopped herself. For at that moment a certain fighting quality which she had inherited from her mother, and which had asserted itself in the case of Grace before this, now came to her rescue. After all, why shouldn’t she be at Starlight Park if she chose? And what right had the Newtons or Grace or anyone else to question her for that matter? She was paying her way. Nevertheless, as she realized, she had been caught in a deliberate lie and all because she lived here and was constantly being questioned and looked after in regard to her very least move. Miss Pope added curiously, “I don’t suppose he’s a Lycurgus boy. I don’t remember ever seeing him around here.”

“No, he isn’t from here,” returned Roberta shortly and coldly, for by now she was fairly quivering with the realization that she had been caught in a falsehood before Grace. Also that Grace would resent intensely this social secrecy and desertion of her. At once she felt as though she would like to get up from the table and leave and never return. But instead she did her best to compose herself, and now gave the two girls with whom she had never been familiar, a steady look. At the same time she looked at Grace and Mr. Newton with defiance. If anything more were said she proposed to give a fictitious name or two—friends of her brother-in-law in Homer, or better yet to refuse to give any information whatsoever. Why should she?

Nevertheless, as she learned later that evening, she was not to be spared the refusing of it. Grace, coming to their room immediately afterward, reproached her with: “I thought you said you stayed out at your sister’s all the time you were gone?”

“Well, what if I did say it?” replied Roberta defiantly and even bitterly, but without a word in extenuation, for her thought was now that unquestionably Grace was pretending to catechize her on moral grounds, whereas in reality the real source of her anger and pique was that Roberta was slipping away from and hence neglecting her.

“Well, you don’t have to lie to me in order to go anywhere or see anybody without me in the future. I don’t want to go with you. And what’s more I don’t want to know where you go or who you go with. But I do wish you wouldn’t tell me one thing and then have George and Mary find out that it ain’t so, and that you’re just trying to slip away from me or that I’m lying to them in order to protect myself. I don’t want you to put me in that position.”

She was very hurt and sad and contentious and Roberta could see for herself that there was no way out of this trying situation other than to move. Grace was a leech—a hangeron. She had no life of her own and could contrive none. As long as she was anywhere near her she would want to devote herself to her—to share her every thought and mood with her. And yet if she told her about Clyde she would be shocked and critical and would unquestionably eventually turn on her or even expose her. So she merely replied: “Oh, well, have it that way if you want to. I don’t care. I don’t propose to tell anything unless I choose to.”

And at once Grace conceived the notion that Roberta did not like her any more and would have nothing to do with her. She arose immediately and walked out of the room—her head very high and her spine very stiff. And Roberta, realizing that she had made an enemy of her, now wished that she was out of here. They were all too narrow here anyway. They would never understand or tolerate this clandestine relationship with Clyde—so necessary to him apparently, as he had explained—so troublesome and even disgraceful to her from one point of view, and yet so precious. She did love him, so very, very much. And she must now find some way to protect herself and him—move to another room.

But that in this instance required almost more courage and decision than she could muster. The anomalous and unprotected nature of a room where one was not known. The look of it. Subsequent explanation to her mother and sister maybe. Yet to remain here after this was all but impossible, too, for the attitude of Grace as well as the Newtons—particularly Mrs. Newton, Grace’s sister—was that of the early Puritans or Friends who had caught a “brother” or “sister” in a great sin. She was dancing—and secretly! There was the presence of that young man not quite adequately explained by her trip home, to say nothing of her presence at Starlight Park. Besides, in Roberta’s mind was the thought that under such definite espionage as must now follow, to say nothing of the unhappy and dictatorial attitude of Grace, she would have small chance to be with Clyde as much as she now most intensely desired. And accordingly, after two days of unhappy thought and then a conference with Clyde who was all for her immediate independence in a new room where she would not be known or spied upon, she proceeded to take an hour or two off; and having fixed upon the southeast section of the city as one most likely to be free from contact with either the Newtons or those whom thus far she had encountered at the Newtons’, she inquired there, and after little more than an hour’s search found one place which pleased her. This was in an old brick house in Elm Street occupied by an upholsterer and his wife and two daughters, one a local milliner and another still in school. The room offered was on the ground floor to the right of a small front porch and overlooking the street. A door off this same porch gave into a living room which separated this room from the other parts of the house and permitted ingress and egress without contact with any other portion of the house. And since she was still moved to meet Clyde clandestinely this as she now saw was important.

Besides, as she gathered from her one conversation with Mrs. Gilpin, the mother of this family, the character of this home was neither so strict nor inquisitive as that of the Newtons. Mrs. Gilpin was large, passive, cleanly, not so very alert and about fifty. She informed Roberta that as a rule she didn’t care to take boarders or roomers at all, since the family had sufficient means to go on. However, since the family scarcely ever used the front room, which was rather set off from the remainder of the house, and since her husband did not object, she had made up her mind to rent it. And again she preferred some one who worked like Roberta—a girl, not a man—and one who would be glad to have her breakfast and dinner along with her family. Since she asked no questions as to her family or connections, merely looking at her interestedly and seeming to be favorably impressed by her appearance, Roberta gathered that here were no such standards as prevailed at the Newtons.

And yet what qualms in connection with the thought of moving thus. For about this entire clandestine procedure there hung, as she saw it, a sense of something untoward and even sinful, and then on top of it all, quarreling and then breaking with Grace Marr, her one girl friend here thus far, and the Newtons on account of it, when, as she well knew, it was entirely due to Grace that she was here at all. Supposing her parents or her sister in Homer should hear about this through some one whom Grace knew and think strangely of her going off by herself in Lycurgus in this way? Was it right? Was it possible that she could do things like this—and so soon after her coming here? She was beginning to feel as though her hitherto impeccable standards were crumbling.

And yet there was Clyde now. Could she give him up?

After many emotional aches she decided that she could not. And accordingly after paying a deposit and arranging to occupy the room within the next few days, she returned to her work and after dinner the same evening announced to Mrs. Newton that she was going to move. Her premeditated explanation was that recently she had been thinking of having her younger brother and sister come and live with her and since one or both were likely to come soon, she thought it best to prepare for them.

And the Newtons, as well as Grace, feeling that this was all due to the new connections which Roberta had recently been making and which were tending to alienate her from Grace, were now content to see her go. Plainly she was beginning to indulge in a type of adventure of which they could not approve. Also it was plain that she was not going to prove as useful to Grace as they had at first imagined. Possibly she knew what she was doing. But more likely she was being led astray by notions of a good time not consistent with the reserved life led by her at Trippetts Mills.

And Roberta herself, once having made this move and settled herself in this new atmosphere (apart from the fact that it gave her much greater freedom in connection with Clyde) was dubious as to her present course. Perhaps—perhaps—she had moved hastily and in anger and might be sorry. Still she had done it now, and it could not be helped. So she proposed to try it for a while.

To salve her own conscience more than anything else, she at once wrote her mother and her sister a very plausible version of why she had been compelled to leave the Newtons. Grace had grown too possessive, domineering and selfish. It had become unendurable. However, her mother need not worry. She was satisfactorily placed. She had a room to herself and could now entertain Tom and Emily or her mother or Agnes, in case they should ever visit her here. And she would be able to introduce them to the Gilpins whom she proceeded to describe.

Nevertheless, her underlying thought in connection with all this, in so far as Clyde and his great passion for her was concerned—and hers for him—was that she was indeed trifling with fire and perhaps social disgrace into the bargain. For, although consciously at this time she was scarcely willing to face the fact that this room—its geometric position in relation to the rest of the house—had been of the greatest import to her at the time she first saw it, yet subconsciously she knew it well enough. The course she was pursuing was dangerous—that she knew. And yet how, as she now so often asked herself at moments when she was confronted by some desire which ran counter to her sense of practicability and social morality, was she to do?