An American Tragedy Chapter 24

The effect of this so casual contact was really disrupting in more senses than one. For now in spite of his comfort in and satisfaction with Roberta, once more and in this positive and to him entrancing way, was posed the whole question of his social possibilities here. And that strangely enough by the one girl of this upper level who had most materialized and magnified for him the meaning of that upper level itself. The beautiful Sondra Finchley! Her lovely face, smart clothes, gay and superior demeanor! If only at the time he had first encountered her he had managed to interest her. Or could now.

The fact that his relations with Roberta were what they were now was not of sufficient import or weight to offset the temperamental or imaginative pull of such a girl as Sondra and all that she represented. Just to think the Wimblinger Finchley Electric Sweeper Company was one of the largest manufacturing concerns here. Its tall walls and stacks made a part of the striking sky line across the Mohawk. And the Finchley residence in Wykeagy Avenue, near that of the Griffiths, was one of the most impressive among that distinguished row of houses which had come with the latest and most discriminating architectural taste here—Italian Renaissance—cream hued marble and Dutchess County sandstone combined. And the Finchleys were among the most discussed of families here.

Ah, to know this perfect girl more intimately! To be looked upon by her with favor,—made, by reason of that favor, a part of that fine world to which she belonged. Was he not a Griffiths—as good looking as Gilbert Griffiths any day? And as attractive if he only had as much money—or a part of it even. To be able to dress in the Gilbert Griffiths’ fashion; to ride around in one of the handsome cars he sported! Then, you bet, a girl like this would be delighted to notice him,—mayhap, who knows, even fall in love with him. Analschar and the tray of glasses. But now, as he gloomily thought, he could only hope, hope, hope.

The devil! He would not go around to Roberta’s this evening. He would trump up some excuse—tell her in the morning that he had been called upon by his uncle or cousin to do some work. He could not and would not go, feeling as he did just now.

So much for the effect of wealth, beauty, the peculiar social state to which he most aspired, on a temperament that was as fluid and unstable as water.

On the other hand, later, thinking over her contact with Clyde, Sondra was definitely taken with what may only be described as his charm for her, all the more definite in this case since it represented a direct opposite to all that his cousin offered by way of offense. His clothes and his manner, as well as a remark he had dropped, to the effect that he was connected with the company in some official capacity, seemed to indicate that he might be better placed than she had imagined. Yet she also recalled that although she had been about with Bella all summer and had encountered Gilbert, Myra and their parents from time to time, there had never been a word about Clyde. Indeed all the information she had gathered concerning him was that originally furnished by Mrs. Griffiths, who had said that he was a poor nephew whom her husband had brought on from the west in order to help in some way. Yet now, as she viewed Clyde on this occasion, he did not seem so utterly unimportant or poverty-stricken by any means—quite interesting and rather smart and very attractive, and obviously anxious to be taken seriously by a girl like herself, as she could see. And this coming from Gilbert’s cousin—a Griffiths—was flattering.

Arriving at the Trumbull’s, a family which centered about one Douglas Trumbull, a prosperous lawyer and widower and speculator of this region, who, by reason of his children as well as his own good manners and legal subtlety, had managed to ingratiate himself into the best circles of Lycurgus society, she suddenly confided to Jill Trumbull, the elder of the lawyer’s two daughters: “You know I had a funny experience to-day.” And she proceeded to relate all that had occurred in detail. Afterward at dinner, Jill having appeared to find it most fascinating, she again repeated it to Gertrude and Tracy, the younger daughter and only son of the Trumbull family.

“Oh, yes,” observed Tracy Trumbull, a law student in his father’s office, “I’ve seen that fellow, I bet, three or four times on Central Avenue. He looks a lot like Gil, doesn’t he? Only not so swagger. I’ve nodded to him two or three times this summer because I thought he was Gil for the moment.”

“Oh, I’ve seen him, too,” commented Gertrude Trumbull. “He wears a cap and a belted coat like Gilbert Griffiths, sometimes, doesn’t he? Arabella Stark pointed him out to me once and then Jill and I saw him passing Stark’s once on a Saturday afternoon. He is better looking than Gil, any day, I think.”

This confirmed Sondra in her own thoughts in regard to Clyde and now she added: “Bertine Cranston and I met him one evening last spring at the Griffiths’. We thought he was too bashful, then. But I wish you could see him now—he’s positively handsome, with the softest eyes and the nicest smile.”

“Oh, now, Sondra,” commented Jill Trumbull, who, apart from Bertine and Bella, was as close to Sondra as any girl here, having been one of her classmates at the Snedeker School, “I know some one who would be jealous if he could hear you say that.”

“And wouldn’t Gil Griffiths like to hear that his cousin’s better looking than he is?” chimed in Tracy Trumbull. “Oh, say—”

“Oh, he,” sniffed Sondra irritably. “He thinks he’s so much. I’ll bet anything it’s because of him that the Griffiths won’t have anything to do with their cousin. I’m sure of it, now that I think of it. Bella would, of course, because I heard her say last spring that she thought he was good-looking. And Myra wouldn’t do anything to hurt anybody. What a lark if some of us were to take him up some time and begin inviting him here and there—once in a while, you know—just for fun, to see how he would do. And how the Griffiths would take it. I know well enough it would be all right with Mr. Griffiths and Myra and Bella, but Gil I’ll bet would be as peeved as anything. I couldn’t do it myself very well, because I’m so close to Bella, but I know who could and they couldn’t say a thing.” She paused, thinking of Bertine Cranston and how she disliked Gil and Mrs. Griffiths. “I wonder if he dances or rides or plays tennis or anything like that?” She stopped and meditated amusedly, the while the others studied her. And Jill Trumbull, a restless, eager girl like herself, without so much of her looks or flair, however, observed: “It would be a prank, wouldn’t it? Do you suppose the Griffiths really would dislike it very much?”

“What’s the difference if they did?” went on Sondra. “They couldn’t do anything more than ignore him, could they? And who would care about that, I’d like to know. Not the people who invited him.”

“Go on, you fellows, stir up a local scrap, will you?” put in Tracy Trumbull. “I’ll bet anything that’s what comes of it in the end. Gil Griffiths won’t like it, you can gamble on that. I wouldn’t if I were in his position. If you want to stir up a lot of feeling here, go to it, but I’ll lay a bet that’s what it comes to.”

Now Sondra Finchley’s nature was of just such a turn that a thought of this kind was most appealing to her. However, as interesting as the idea was to her at the time, nothing definite might have come of it, had it not been that subsequent to this conversation and several others held with Bertine Cranston, Jill Trumbull, Patricia Anthony, and Arabella Stark, the news of this adventure, together with some comments as to himself, finally came to the ears of Gilbert Griffiths, yet only via Constance Wynant to whom, as local gossips would have it, he was prospectively engaged. And Constance, hoping that Gilbert would marry her eventually, was herself irritated by the report that Sondra had chosen to interest herself in Clyde, and then, for no sane reason, as she saw it, proclaim that he was more attractive than Gilbert. So, as much to relieve herself as to lay some plan of avenging herself upon Sondra, if possible, she conveyed the whole matter in turn to Gilbert, who at once proceeded to make various cutting references to Clyde and Sondra. And these carried back to Sondra, along with certain embellishments by Constance, had the desired effect. It served to awaken in her the keenest desire for retaliation. For if she chose she certainly could be nice to Clyde, and have others be nice to him, too. And that would mean perhaps that Gilbert would find himself faced by a social rival of sorts—his own cousin, too, who, even though he was poor, might come to be liked better. What a lark! At the very same time there came to her a way by which she might most easily introduce Clyde, and yet without seeming so to do, and without any great harm to herself, if it did not terminate as she wished.

For in Lycurgus among the younger members of those smarter families whose children had been to the Snedeker School, existed a rather illusory and casual dinner and dance club called the “Now and Then.” It had no definite organization, officers or abode. Any one, who, because of class and social connections was eligible and chose to belong, could call a meeting of other members to give a dinner or dance or tea in their homes.

And how simple, thought Sondra in browsing around for a suitable vehicle by which to introduce Clyde, if some one other than herself who belonged could be induced to get up something and then at her suggestion invite Clyde. How easy, say, for Jill Trumbull to give a dinner and dance to the “Now and Thens,” to which Clyde might be invited. And by this ruse she would thus be able to see him again and find out just how much he did interest her and what he was like.

Accordingly a small dinner for this club and its friends was announced for the first Thursday in December, Jill Trumbull to be the hostess. To it were to be invited Sondra and her brother, Stuart, Tracy and Gertrude Trumbull, Arabella Stark, Bertine and her brother, and some others from Utica and Gloversville as well. And Clyde. But in order to safeguard Clyde against any chance of failure or even invidious comment of any kind, not only she but Bertine and Jill and Gertrude were to be attentive to and considerate of him. They were to see that his dance program was complete and that neither at dinner nor on the dance floor was he to be left to himself, but was to be passed on most artfully from one to the other until evening should be over. For, by reason of that, others might come to be interested in him, which would not only take the thorn from the thought that Sondra alone, of all the better people of Lycurgus, had been friendly to him, but would sharpen the point of this development for Gilbert, if not for Bella and the other members of the Griffiths family.

And in accordance with this plan, so it was done.

And so it was that Clyde, returning from the factory one early December evening about two weeks after his encounter with Sondra, was surprised by the sight of a cream-colored note leaning against the mirror of his dresser. It was addressed in a large, scrawly and unfamiliar hand. He picked it up and turned it over without being able in any way to fix upon the source. On the back were the initials B. T. or J. T., he could not decide which, so elaborately intertwined was the engraved penmanship. He tore it open and drew out a card which read:

The Now and Then Club

Will Hold Its First

Winter Dinner Dance

At the Home of

Douglas Trumbull

135 Wykeagy Ave.

On Thursday, December 4

You Are Cordially Invited

Will You Kindly Reply to Miss Jill Trumbull?

On the back of this, though, in the same scrawly hand that graced the envelope was written: “Dear Mr. Griffiths: Thought you might like to come. It will be quite informal. And I’m sure you’ll like it. If so, will you let Jill Trumbull know? Sondra Finchley.”

Quite amazed and thrilled, Clyde stood and stared. For ever since that second contact with her, he had been more definitely fascinated than at any time before by the dream that somehow, in some way, he was to be lifted from the lowly state in which he now dwelt. He was, as he now saw it, really too good for the commonplace world by which he was environed. And now here was this—a social invitation issued by the “Now and Then Club,” of which, even though he had never heard of it, must be something, since it was sponsored by such exceptional people. And on the back of it, was there not the writing of Sondra herself? How marvelous, really!

So astonished was he that he could scarcely contain himself for joy, but now on the instant must walk to and fro, looking at himself in the mirror, washing his hands and face, then deciding that his tie was not just right, perhaps, and changing to another—thinking forward to what he should wear and back upon how Sondra had looked at him on that last occasion. And how she had smiled. At the same time he could not help wondering even at this moment of what Roberta would think, if now, by some extra optical power of observation she could note his present joy in connection with this note. For plainly, and because he was no longer governed by the conventional notions of his parents, he had been allowing himself to drift into a position in regard to her which would certainly spell torture to her in case she should discover the nature of his present mood, a thought which puzzled him not a little, but did not serve to modify his thoughts in regard to Sondra in the least.

That wonderful girl!

That beauty!

That world of wealth and social position she lived in!

At the same time so innately pagan and unconventional were his thoughts in regard to all this that he could now ask himself, and that seriously enough, why should he not be allowed to direct his thoughts toward her and away from Roberta, since at the moment Sondra supplied the keener thought of delight. Roberta could not know about this. She could not see into his mind, could she—become aware of any such extra experience as this unless he told her. And most assuredly he did not intend to tell her. And what harm, he now asked himself, was there in a poor youth like himself aspiring to such heights? Other youths as poor as himself had married girls as rich as Sondra.

For in spite of all that had occurred between him and Roberta he had not, as he now clearly recalled, given her his word that he would marry her except under one condition. And such a condition, especially with the knowledge that he had all too clearly acquired in Kansas City, was not likely to happen as he thought.

And Sondra, now that she had thus suddenly burst upon him again in this way was the same as a fever to his fancy. This goddess in her shrine of gilt and tinsel so utterly enticing to him, had deigned to remember him in this open and direct way and to suggest that he be invited. And no doubt she, herself, was going to be there, a thought which thrilled him beyond measure.

And what would not Gilbert and the Griffiths think if they were to hear of his going to this affair now, as they surely would? Or meet him later at some other party to which Sondra might invite him? Think of that! Would it irritate or please them? Make them think less or more of him? For, after all, this certainly was not of his doing. Was he not properly invited by people of their own station here in Lycurgus whom most certainly they were compelled to respect? And by no device of his, either—sheer accident—the facts concerning which would most certainly not reflect on him as pushing. As lacking as he was in some of the finer shades of mental discrimination, a sly and ironic pleasure lay in the thought that now Gilbert and the Griffiths might be compelled to countenance him whether they would or not—invite him to their home, even. For, if these others did, how could they avoid it, really? Oh, joy! And that in the face of Gilbert’s high contempt for him. He fairly chuckled as he thought of it, feeling that however much Gilbert might resent it, neither his uncle nor Myra were likely to, and that hence he would be fairly safe from any secret desire on the part of Gilbert to revenge himself on him for this.

But how wonderful this invitation! Why that intriguing scribble of Sondra’s unless she was interested in him some? Why? The thought was so thrilling that Clyde could scarcely eat his dinner that night. He took up the card and kissed the handwriting. And instead of going to see Roberta as usual, he decided as before on first re├źncountering her, to walk a bit, then return to his room, and retire early. And on the morrow as before he could make some excuse—say that he had been over to the Griffiths’ home, or some one of the heads of the factory, in order to listen to an explanation in regard to something in connection with the work, since there were often such conferences. For, in the face of this, he did not care to see or talk to Roberta this night. He could not. The other thought—that of Sondra and her interest in him—was too enticing.