An American Tragedy Chapter 29

Biltz and the fungoid farm land after Clyde and Lycurgus was depressing enough to Roberta, for all there was too closely identified with deprivations and repressions which discolor the normal emotions centering about old scenes.

As she stepped down from the train at the drab and aged chalet which did service for a station, she observed her father in the same old winter overcoat he had worn for a dozen years, waiting for her with the old family conveyance, a decrepit but still whole buggy and a horse as bony and weary as himself. He had, as she had always thought, the look of a tired and defeated man. His face brightened when he saw Roberta, for she had always been his favorite child, and he chatted quite cheerfully as she climbed in alongside of him and they turned around and started toward the road that led to the farmhouse, a rough and winding affair of dirt at a time when excellent automobile roads were a commonplace elsewhere.

As they rode along Roberta found herself checking off mentally every tree, curve, landmark with which she had been familiar. But with no happy thoughts. It was all too drab. The farm itself, coupled with the chronic illness and inefficiency of Titus and the inability of the youngest boy Tom or her mother to help much, was as big a burden as ever. A mortgage of $2000 that had been placed on it years before had never been paid off, the north chimney was still impaired, the steps were sagging even more than ever and the walls and fences and outlying buildings were no different—save to be made picturesque now by the snows of winter covering them. Even the furniture remained the same jumble that it had always been. And there were her mother and younger sister and brother, who knew nothing of her true relationship to Clyde—a mere name his here—and assuming that she was wholeheartedly delighted to be back with them once more. Yet because of what she knew of her own life and Clyde’s uncertain attitude toward her, she was now, if anything, more depressed than before.

Indeed, the fact that despite her seeming recent success she had really compromised herself in such a way that unless through marriage with Clyde she was able to readjust herself to the moral level which her parents understood and approved, she, instead of being the emissary of a slowly and modestly improving social condition for all, might be looked upon as one who had reduced it to a lower level still—its destroyer—was sufficient to depress and reduce her even more. A very depressing and searing thought.

Worse and more painful still was the thought in connection with all this that, by reason of the illusions which from the first had dominated her in connection with Clyde, she had not been able to make a confidant of her mother or any one else in regard to him. For she was dubious as to whether her mother would not consider that her aspirations were a bit high. And she might ask questions in regard to him and herself which might prove embarrassing. At the same time, unless she had some confidant in whom she could truly trust, all her troublesome doubts in regard to herself and Clyde must remain a secret.

After talking for a few moments with Tom and Emily, she went into the kitchen where her mother was busy with various Christmas preparations. Her thought was to pave the way with some observations of her own in regard to the farm here and her life at Lycurgus, but as she entered, her mother looked up to say: “How does it feel, Bob, to come back to the country? I suppose it all looks rather poor compared to Lycurgus,” she added a little wistfully.

Roberta could tell from the tone of her mother’s voice and the rather admiring look she cast upon her that she was thinking of her as one who had vastly improved her state. At once she went over to her and, putting her arms about her affectionately, exclaimed: “Oh, Mamma, wherever you are is just the nicest place. Don’t you know that?”

For answer her mother merely looked at her with affectionate and well-wishing eyes and patted her on the back. “Well, Bobbie,” she added, quietly, “you know how you are about me.”

Something in her mother’s voice which epitomized the long years of affectionate understanding between them—an understanding based, not only on a mutual desire for each other’s happiness, but a complete frankness in regard to all emotions and moods which had hitherto dominated both—touched her almost to the point of tears. Her throat tightened and her eyes moistened, although she sought to overcome any show of emotion whatsoever. She longed to tell her everything. At the same time the compelling passion she retained for Clyde, as well as the fact that she had compromised herself as she had, now showed her that she had erected a barrier which could not easily be torn down. The conventions of this local world were much too strong—even where her mother was concerned.

She hesitated a moment, wishing that she could quickly and clearly present to her mother the problem that was weighing upon her and receive her sympathy, if not help. But instead she merely said: “Oh, I wish you could have been with me all the time in Lycurgus, Mamma. Maybe—” She paused, realizing that she had been on the verge of speaking without due caution. Her thought was that with her mother near at hand she might have been able to have resisted Clyde’s insistent desires.

“Yes, I suppose you do miss me,” her mother went on, “but it’s better for you, don’t you think? You know how it is over here, and you like your work. You do like your work, don’t you?”

“Oh, the work is nice enough. I like that part of it. It’s been so nice to be able to help here a little, but it’s not so nice living all alone.”

“Why did you leave the Newtons, Bob? Was Grace so disagreeable? I should have thought she would have been company for you.”

“Oh, she was at first,” replied Roberta. “Only she didn’t have any men friends of her own, and she was awfully jealous of anybody that paid the least attention to me. I couldn’t go anywhere but she had to go along, or if it wasn’t that then she always wanted me to be with her, so I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. You know how it is, Mamma. Two girls can’t go with one young man.”

“Yes, I know how it is, Bob.” Her mother laughed a little, then added: “Who is he?”

“It’s Mr. Griffiths, Mother,” she added, after a moment’s hesitation, a sense of the exceptional nature of her contact as contrasted with this very plain world here passing like a light across her eyes. For all her fears, even the bare possibility of joining her life with Clyde’s was marvelous. “But I don’t want you to mention his name to anybody yet,” she added. “He doesn’t want me to. His relatives are so very rich, you know. They own the company—that is, his uncle does. But there’s a rule there about any one who works for the company—any one in charge of a department. I mean not having anything to do with any of the girls. And he wouldn’t with any of the others. But he likes me—and I like him, and it’s different with us. Besides I’m going to resign pretty soon and get a place somewhere else, I think, and then it won’t make any difference. I can tell anybody, and so can he.”

Roberta was thinking now that, in the face of her recent treatment at the hands of Clyde, as well as because of the way in which she had given herself to him without due precaution as to her ultimate rehabilitation via marriage, that perhaps this was not exactly true. He might not—a vague, almost formless, fear this, as yet—want her to tell anybody now—ever. And unless he were going to continue to love her and marry her, she might not want any one to know of it, either. The wretched, shameful, difficult position in which she had placed herself by all this.

On the other hand, Mrs. Alden, learning thus casually of the odd and seemingly clandestine nature of this relationship, was not only troubled but puzzled, so concerned was she for Roberta’s happiness. For, although, as she now said to herself, Roberta was such a good, pure and careful girl—the best and most unselfish and wisest of all her children—still might it not be possible—? But, no, no one was likely to either easily or safely compromise or betray Roberta. She was too conservative and good, and so now she added: “A relative of the owner, you say—the Mr. Samuel Griffiths you wrote about?”

“Yes, Mamma. He’s his nephew.”

“The young man at the factory?” her mother asked, at the same time wondering just how Roberta had come to attract a man of Clyde’s position, for, from the very first she had made it plain that he was a member of the family who owned the factory. This in itself was a troublesome fact. The traditional result of such relationships, common the world over, naturally caused her to be intensely fearful of just such an association as Roberta seemed to be making. Nevertheless she was not at all convinced that a girl of Roberta’s looks and practicality would not be able to negotiate an association of the sort without harm to herself.

“Yes,” Roberta replied simply.

“What’s he like, Bob?”

“Oh, awfully nice. So good-looking, and he’s been so nice to me. I don’t think the place would be as nice as it is except that he is so refined, he keeps those factory girls in their place. He’s a nephew of the president of the company, you see, and the girls just naturally have to respect him.”

“Well, that is nice, isn’t it? I think it’s so much better to work for refined people than just anybody. I know you didn’t think so much of the work over at Trippetts Mills. Does he come to see you often, Bob?”

“Well, yes, pretty often,” Roberta replied, flushing slightly, for she realized that she could not be entirely frank with her mother.

Mrs. Alden, looking up at the moment, noticed this, and, mistaking it for embarrassment, asked teasingly: “You like him, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do, Mother,” Roberta replied, simply and honestly.

“What about him? Does he like you?”

Roberta crossed to the kitchen window. Below it at the base of the slope which led to the springhouse, and the one most productive field of the farm, were ranged all the dilapidated buildings which more than anything else about the place bespoke the meager material condition to which the family had fallen. In fact, during the last ten years these things had become symbols of inefficiency and lack. Somehow at this moment, bleak and covered with snow, they identified themselves in her mind as the antithesis of all to which her imagination aspired. And, not strangely either, the last was identified with Clyde. Somberness as opposed to happiness—success in love or failure in love. Assuming that he truly loved her now and would take her away from all this, then possibly the bleakness of it all for her and her mother would be broken. But assuming that he did not, then all the results of her yearning, but possibly mistaken, dreams would be not only upon her own head, but upon those of these others, her mother’s first. She troubled what to say, but finally observed: “Well, he says he does.”

“Do you think he intends to marry you?” Mrs. Alden asked, timidly and hopefully, because of all her children her heart and hopes rested most with Roberta.

“Well, I’ll tell you, Mamma…” The sentence was not finished, for just then Emily, hurrying in from the front door, called: “Oh, Gif’s here. He came in an automobile. Somebody drove him over, I guess, and he’s got four or five big bundles.”

And immediately after came Tom with the elder brother, who, in a new overcoat, the first result of his career with the General Electric Company in Schenectady, greeted his mother affectionately, and after her, Roberta.

“Why, Gifford,” his mother exclaimed. “We didn’t expect you until the nine o’clock. How did you get here so soon?”

“Well, I didn’t think I would be. I ran into Mr. Rearick down in Schenectady and he wanted to know if I didn’t want to drive back with him. I see old Pop Myers over at Trippetts Mills has got the second story to his house at last, Bob,” he turned and added to Roberta: “I suppose it’ll be another year before he gets the roof on.”

“I suppose so,” replied Roberta, who knew the old Trippetts Mills character well. In the meantime she had relieved him of his coat and packages which, piled on the dining-room table, were being curiously eyed by Emily.

“Hands off, Em!” called Gifford to his little sister. “Nothing doing with those until Christmas morning. Has anybody cut a Christmas tree yet? That was my job last year.”

“It still is, Gifford,” his mother replied. “I told Tom to wait until you came, ’cause you always get such a good one.”

And just then through the kitchen door Titus entered, bearing an armload of wood, his gaunt face and angular elbows and knees contributing a sharp contrast to the comparative hopefulness of the younger generation. Roberta noticed it as he stood smiling upon his son, and, because she was so eager for something better than ever had been to come to all, now went over to her father and put her arms around him. “I know something Santy has brought my Dad that he’ll like.” It was a dark red plaid mackinaw that she was sure would keep him warm while executing his chores about the house, and she was anxious for Christmas morning to come so that he could see it.

She then went to get an apron in order to help her mother with the evening meal. No additional moment for complete privacy occurring, the opportunity to say more concerning that which both were so interested in—the subject of Clyde—did not come up again for several hours, after which length of time she found occasion to say: “Yes, but you mustn’t ever say anything to anybody yet. I told him I wouldn’t tell, and you mustn’t.”

“No, I won’t, dear. But I was just wondering. But I suppose you know what you’re doing. You’re old enough now to take care of yourself, Bob, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am, Ma. And you mustn’t worry about me, dear,” she added, seeing a shadow, not of distrust but worry, passing over her beloved mother’s face. How careful she must be not to cause her to worry when she had so much else to think about here on the farm.

Sunday morning brought the Gabels with full news of their social and material progress in Homer. Although her sister was not as attractive as she, and Fred Gabel was not such a man as at any stage in her life Roberta could have imagined herself interested in, still, after her troublesome thoughts in regard to Clyde, the sight of Agnes emotionally and materially content and at ease in the small security which matrimony and her none-too-efficient husband provided, was sufficient to rouse in her that flapping, doubtful mood that had been assailing her since the previous morning. Was it not better, she thought, to be married to a man even as inefficient and unattractive but steadfast as Fred Gabel, than to occupy the anomalous position in which she now found herself in her relations with Clyde? For here was Gabel now talking briskly of the improvements that had come to himself and Agnes during the year in which they had been married. In that time he had been able to resign his position as teacher in Homer and take over on shares the management of a small book and stationery store whose principal contributory features were a toy department and soda fountain. They had been doing a good business. Agnes, if all went well, would be able to buy a mission parlor suite by next summer. Fred had already bought her a phonograph for Christmas. In proof of their well-being, they had brought satisfactory remembrances for all of the Aldens.

But Gabel had with him a copy of the Lycurgus Star, and at breakfast, which because of the visitors this morning was unusually late, was reading the news of that city, for in Lycurgus was located the wholesale house from which he secured a portion of his stock.

“Well, I see things are going full blast in your town, Bob,” he observed. “The Star here says the Griffiths Company have got an order for 120,000 collars from the Buffalo trade alone. They must be just coining money over there.”

“There’s always plenty to do in my department, I know that,” replied Roberta, briskly. “We never seem to have any the less to do whether business is good or bad. I guess it must be good all the time.”

“Pretty soft for those people. They don’t have to worry about anything. Some one was telling me they’re going to build a new factory in Ilion to manufacture shirts alone. Heard anything about that down there?”

“Why, no, I haven’t. Maybe it’s some other company.”

“By the way, what’s the name of that young man you said was the head of your department? Wasn’t he a Griffiths, too?” he asked briskly, turning to the editorial page, which also carried news of local Lycurgus society.

“Yes, his name is Griffiths—Clyde Griffiths. Why?”

“I think I saw his name in here a minute ago. I just wanted to see if it ain’t the same fellow. Sure, here you are. Ain’t this the one?” He passed the paper to Roberta with his finger on an item which read:

“Miss Vanda Steele, of Gloversville, was hostess at an informal dance held at her home in that city Friday night, at which were present several prominent members of Lycurgus society, among them the Misses Sondra Finchley, Bertine Cranston, Jill and Gertrude Trumbull and Perley Haynes, and Messrs. Clyde Griffiths, Frank Harriet, Tracy Trumbull, Grant Cranston and Scott Nicholson. The party, as is usual whenever the younger group assembles, did not break up until late, the Lycurgus members motoring back just before dawn. It is already rumored that most of this group will gather at the Ellerslies’, in Schenectady, New Year’s Eve for another event of this same gay nature.”

“He seems to be quite a fellow over there,” Gabel remarked, even as Roberta was reading.

The first thing that occurred to Roberta on reading this item was that it appeared to have little, if anything, to do with the group which Clyde had said was present. In the first place there was no mention of Myra or Bella Griffiths. On the other hand, all those names with which, because of recent frequent references on the part of Clyde, she was becoming most familiar were recorded as present. Sondra Finchley, Bertine Cranston, the Trumbull girls, Perley Haynes. He had said it had not been very interesting, and here it was spoken of as gay and he himself was listed for another engagement of the same character New Year’s Eve, when, as a matter of fact, she had been counting on being with him. He had not even mentioned this New Year’s engagement. And perhaps he would now make some last minute excuse for that, as he had for the previous Friday evening. Oh, dear! What did all this mean, anyhow!

Immediately what little romantic glamour this Christmas homecoming had held for her was dissipated. She began to wonder whether Clyde really cared for her as he had pretended. The dark state to which her incurable passion for him had brought her now pained her terribly. For without him and marriage and a home and children, and a reasonable place in such a local world as she was accustomed to, what was there for a girl like her in the world? And apart from his own continuing affection for her—if it was really continuing, what assurance had she, in the face of such incidents as these, that he would not eventually desert her? And if this was true, here was her future, in so far as marriage with any one else was concerned, compromised or made impossible, maybe, and with no reliance to be placed on him.

She fell absolutely silent. And although Gabel inquired: “That’s the fellow, isn’t it?” she arose without answering and said: “Excuse me, please, a moment. I want to get something out of my bag,” and hurried once more to her former room upstairs. Once there she sat down on the bed, and, resting her chin in her hands, a habit when troublesome or necessary thoughts controlled her, gazed at the floor.

Where was Clyde now?

What one, if any, of those girls did he take to the Steele party? Was he very much interested in her? Until this very day, because of Clyde’s unbroken devotion to her, she had not even troubled to think there could be any other girl to whom his attentions could mean anything.

But now—now!

She got up and walked to the window and looked out on that same orchard where as a girl so many times she had been thrilled by the beauty of life. The scene was miserably bleak and bare. The thin, icy arms of the trees—the gray, swaying twigs—a lone, rustling leaf somewhere. And snow. And wretched outbuildings in need of repair. And Clyde becoming indifferent to her. And the thought now came to her swiftly and urgently that she must not stay here any longer than she could help—not even this day, if possible. She must return to Lycurgus and be near Clyde, if no more than to persuade him to his old affection for her, or if not that, then by her presence to prevent him from devoting himself too wholly to these others. Decidedly, to go away like this, even for the holidays, was not good. In her absence he might desert her completely for another girl, and if so, then would it not be her fault? At once she pondered as to what excuse she could make in order to return this day. But realizing that in view of all these preliminary preparations this would seem inexplicably unreasonable, to her mother most of all, she decided to endure it as she had planned until Christmas afternoon, then to return, never to leave for so long a period again.

But ad interim, all her thoughts were on how and in what way she could make more sure, if at all, of Clyde’s continued interest and social and emotional support, as well as marriage in the future. Supposing he had lied to her, how could she influence him, if at all, not to do so again? How to make him feel that lying between them was not right? How to make herself securely first in his heart against the dreams engendered by the possible charms of another?