An American Tragedy Chapter 31

Unfortunately, however, the Christmas dinner at the Griffiths’, which included the Starks and their daughter Arabella, Mr. and Mrs. Wynant, who in the absence of their daughter Constance with Gilbert were dining with the Griffiths, the Arnolds, Anthonys, Harriets, Taylors and others of note in Lycurgus, so impressed and even overawed Clyde that although five o’clock came and then six, he was incapable of breaking away or thinking clearly and compellingly of his obligation to Roberta. Even when, slightly before six, the greater portion of those who had been thus cheerfully entertained began rising and making their bows and departing (and when he, too, should have been doing the same and thinking of his appointment with Roberta), being accosted by Violet Taylor, who was part of the younger group, and who now began talking of some additional festivities to be held that same evening at the Anthonys’, and who added most urgently, “You’re coming with us, aren’t you? Sure you are,” he at once acquiesced, although his earlier promise to Roberta forced the remembrance that she was probably already back and expecting him. But still he had time even now, didn’t he?

Yet, once at the Anthonys’, and talking and dancing with various girls, the obligation faded. But at nine he began worrying a little. For by this time she must be in her room and wondering what had become of him and his promise. And on Christmas night, too. And after she had been away three days.

Inwardly he grew more and more restless and troubled, the while outwardly he maintained that same high spirit that characterized him throughout the afternoon. Fortunately for his own mood, this same group, having danced and frolicked every night for the past week until almost nervously exhausted, it now unanimously and unconsciously yielded to weariness and at eleven thirty, broke up. And after having escorted Bella Griffiths to her door, Clyde hurried around to Elm Street to see if by any chance Roberta was still awake.

As he neared the Gilpins’ he perceived through the snow-covered bushes and trees the glow of her single lamp. And for the time being, troubled as to what he should say—how excuse himself for this inexplicable lapse—he paused near one of the large trees that bordered the street, debating with himself as to just what he would say. Would he insist that he had again been to the Griffiths’, or where? For according to his previous story he had only been there the Friday before. In the months before when he had no social contacts, but was merely romanticizing in regard to them, the untruths he found himself telling her caused him no twinges of any kind. They were not real and took up no actual portion of his time, nor did they interfere with any of his desired contacts with her. But now in the face of the actuality and the fact that these new contacts meant everything to his future, as he saw it, he hesitated. His quick conclusion was to explain his absence this evening by a second invitation which had come later, also by asseverating that the Griffiths being potentially in charge of his material welfare, it was becoming more and more of a duty rather than an idle, evasive pleasure to desert her in this way at their command. Could he help it? And with this half-truth permanently fixed in his mind, he crossed the snow and gently tapped at her window.

At once the light was extinguished and a moment later the curtain lifted. Then Roberta, who had been mournfully brooding, opened the door and admitted him, having previously lit a candle as was her custom in order to avoid detection as much as possible, and at once he began in a whisper:

“Gee, but this society business here is getting to be the dizzy thing, honey. I never saw such a town as this. Once you go with these people one place to do one thing, they always have something else they want you to do. They’re on the go all the time. When I went there Friday (he was referring to his lie about having gone to the Griffiths’), I thought that would be the last until after the holidays, but yesterday, and just when I was planning to go somewhere else, I got a note saying they expected me to come there again to-day for dinner sure.”

“And to-day when I thought the dinner would begin at two,” he continued to explain, “and end in time for me to be around here by eight like I said, it didn’t start until three and only broke up a few minutes ago. Isn’t that the limit? And I just couldn’t get away for the last four hours. How’ve you been, honey? Did you have a good time? I hope so. Did they like the present I gave you?”

He rattled off these questions, to which she made brief and decidedly terse replies, all the time looking at him as much as to say, “Oh, Clyde, how can you treat me like this?”

But Clyde was so much interested in his own alibi, and how to convince Roberta of the truth of it, that neither before nor after slipping off his coat, muffler and gloves and smoothing back his hair, did he look at her directly, or even tenderly, or indeed do anything to demonstrate to her that he was truly delighted to see her again. On the contrary, he was so fidgety and in part flustered that despite his past professions and actions she could feel that apart from being moderately glad to see her again he was more concerned about himself and his own partially explained defection than he was about her. And although after a few moments he took her in his arms and pressed his lips to hers, still, as on Saturday, she could feel that he was only partially united to her in spirit. Other things—the affairs that had kept him from her on Friday and to-night—were disturbing his thoughts and hers.

She looked at him, not exactly believing and yet not entirely wishing to disbelieve him. He might have been at the Griffiths’, as he said, and they might have detained him. And yet he might not have, either. For she could not help recalling that on the previous Saturday he had said he had been there Friday and the paper on the other hand had stated that he was in Gloversville. But if she questioned him in regard to these things now, would he not get angry and lie to her still more? For after all she could not help thinking that apart from his love for her she had no real claim on him. But she could not possibly imagine that he could change so quickly.

“So that was why you didn’t come to-night, was it?” she asked, with more spirit and irritation than she had ever used with him before. “I thought you told me sure you wouldn’t let anything interfere,” she went on, a little heavily.

“Well, so I did,” he admitted. “And I wouldn’t have either, except for the letter I got. You know I wouldn’t let any one but my uncle interfere, but I couldn’t turn them down when they asked me to come there on Christmas Day. It’s too important. It wouldn’t look right, would it, especially when you weren’t going to be here in the afternoon?”

The manner and tone in which he said this conveyed to Roberta more clearly than anything that he had ever said before how significant he considered this connection with his relatives to be and how unimportant anything she might value in regard to this relationship was to him. It came to her now that in spite of all his enthusiasm and demonstrativeness in the first stages of this affair, possibly she was much more trivial in his estimation than she had seemed to herself. And that meant that her dreams and sacrifices thus far had been in vain. She became frightened.

“Well, anyhow,” she went on dubiously in the face of this, “don’t you think you might have left a note here, Clyde, so I would have got it when I got in?” She asked this mildly, not wishing to irritate him too much.

“But didn’t I just tell you, honey, I didn’t expect to be so late. I thought the thing would all be over by six, anyhow.”

“Yes—well—anyhow—I know—but still—”

Her face wore a puzzled, troubled, nervous look, in which was mingled fear, sorrow, depression, distrust, a trace of resentment and a trace of despair, all of which, coloring and animating her eyes, which were now fixed on him in round orblike solemnity, caused him to suffer from a sense of having misused and demeaned her not a little. And because her eyes seemed to advertise this, he flushed a dark red flush that colored deeply his naturally very pale cheeks. But without appearing to notice this or lay any stress on it in any way at the time, Roberta added after a moment: “I notice that The Star mentioned that Gloversville party Sunday, but it didn’t say anything about your cousins being over there. Were they?”

For the first time in all her questioning of him, she asked this as though she might possibly doubt him—a development which Clyde had scarcely anticipated in connection with her up to this time, and more than anything else, it troubled and irritated him.

“Of course they were,” he replied falsely. “Why do you want to ask a thing like that when I told you they were?”

“Well, dear, I don’t mean anything by it. I only wanted to know. But I did notice that it mentioned all those other people from Lycurgus that you are always talking about, Sondra Finchley, Bertine Cranston. You know you never mentioned anybody but the Trumbulls.”

Her tone tended to make him bristle and grow cross, as she saw.

“Yes, I saw that, too, but it ain’t so. If they were there, I didn’t see them. The papers don’t always get everything right.” In spite of a certain crossness and irritation at being trapped in this fashion, his manner did not carry conviction, and he knew it. And he began to resent the fact that she should question him so. Why should she? Wasn’t he of sufficient importance to move in this new world without her holding him back in this way?

Instead of denying or reproaching him further, she merely looked at him, her expression one of injured wistfulness. She did not believe him now entirely and she did not utterly disbelieve him. A part of what he said was probably true. More important was it that he should care for her enough not to want to lie to her or to treat her badly. But how was that to be effected if he did not want to be kind or truthful? She moved back from him a few steps and with a gesture of helplessness said: “Oh, Clyde, you don’t have to story to me. Don’t you know that? I wouldn’t care where you went if you would just tell me beforehand and not leave me like this all alone on Christmas night. It’s just that that hurts so.”

“But I’m not storying to you, Bert,” he reiterated crossly. “I can’t help how things look even if the paper did say so. The Griffiths were over there, and I can prove it. I got around here as soon as I could to-day. What do you want to get so mad about all at once? I’ve told you how things are. I can’t do just as I want to here. They call me up at the last minute and want me to go. And I just can’t get out of it. What’s the use of being so mad about it?”

He stared defiantly while Roberta, checkmated in this general way, was at a loss as to how to proceed. The item about New Year’s Eve was in her mind, but she felt that it might not be wise to say anything more now. More poignantly than ever now she was identifying him with that gay life of which he, but not she, was a part. And yet she hesitated even now to let him know how sharp were the twinges of jealousy that were beginning to assail her. They had such a good time in that fine world—he and those he knew—and she had so little. And besides, now he was always talking about that Sondra Finchley and that Bertine Cranston, or the papers were. Was it in either of those that he was most interested?

“Do you like that Miss Finchley very much?” she suddenly asked, looking up at him in the shadow, her desire to obtain some slight satisfaction—some little light on all this trouble—still torturing her.

At once Clyde sensed the importance of the question—a suggestion of partially suppressed interest and jealousy and helplessness, more in her voice even than in the way she looked. There was something so soft, coaxing and sad about her voice at times, especially when she was most depressed. At the same time he was slightly taken back by the shrewd or telepathic way in which she appeared to fix on Sondra. Immediately he felt that she should not know—that it would irritate her. At the same time, vanity in regard to his general position here, which hourly was becoming more secure apparently, caused him to say:

“Oh, I like her some, sure. She’s very pretty, and a dandy dancer. And she has lots of money and dresses well.” He was about to add that outside of that Sondra appealed to him in no other way, when Roberta, sensing something of the true interest he felt in this girl perhaps and the wide gulf that lay between herself and all his world, suddenly exclaimed: “Yes, and who wouldn’t, with all the money she has? If I had as much money as that, I could too.”

And to his astonishment and dismay even, at this point her voice grew suddenly vibrant and then broke, as on a sob. And as he could both see and feel, she was deeply hurt—terribly and painfully hurt—heartsore and jealous; and at once, although his first impulse was to grow angry and defiant again, his mood as suddenly softened. For it now pained him not a little to think that some one of whom he had once been so continuously fond up to this time should be made to suffer through jealousy of him, for he himself well knew the pangs of jealousy in connection with Hortense. He could for some reason almost see himself in Roberta’s place. And for this reason, if no other, he now said, and quite softly: “Oh, now, Bert, as though I couldn’t tell you about her or any one else without your getting mad about it! I didn’t mean that I was especially interested in her. I was just telling you what I thought you wanted to know because you asked me if I liked her, that’s all.”

“Oh, yes, I know,” replied Roberta, standing tensely and nervously before him, her face white, her hands suddenly clenched, and looking up at him dubiously and yet pleadingly. “But they’ve got everything. You know they have. And I haven’t got anything, really. And it’s so hard for me to keep up my end and against all of them, too, and with all they have.” Her voice shook, and she ceased talking, her eyes filling and her lips beginning to quiver. And as swiftly she concealed her face with her hands and turned away, her shoulders shaking as she did so. Indeed her body was now torn for the moment by the most desperate and convulsive sobs, so much so that Clyde, perplexed and astonished and deeply moved by this sudden display of a pent-up and powerful emotion, as suddenly was himself moved deeply. For obviously this was no trick or histrionic bit intended to influence him, but rather a sudden and overwhelming vision of herself, as he himself could sense, as a rather lorn and isolated girl without friends or prospects as opposed to those others in whom he was now so interested and who had so much more—everything in fact. For behind her in her vision lay all the lorn and detached years that had marred her youth, now so vivid because of her recent visit. She was really intensely moved—overwhelmingly and helplessly.

And now from the very bottom of her heart she exclaimed: “If I’d ever had a chance like some girls—if I’d ever been anywhere or seen anything! But just to be brought up in the country and without any money or clothes or anything—and nobody to show you. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh!”

The moment she said these things she was actually ashamed of having made so weak and self-condemnatory a confession, since that was what really was troubling him in connection with her, no doubt.

“Oh, Roberta, darling,” he said instantly and tenderly, putting his arms around her, genuinely moved by his own dereliction. “You mustn’t cry like that, dearest. You mustn’t. I didn’t mean to hurt you, honest I didn’t. Truly, I didn’t, dear. I know you’ve had a hard time, honey. I know how you feel, and how you’ve been up against things in one way and another. Sure I do, Bert, and you mustn’t cry, dearest. I love you just the same. Truly I do, and I always will. I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you, honest I am. I couldn’t help it to-night if I didn’t come, honest, or last Friday either. Why, it just wasn’t possible. But I won’t be so mean like that any more, if I can help it. Honest I won’t. You’re the sweetest, dearest girl. And you’ve got such lovely hair and eyes, and such a pretty little figure. Honest you have, Bert. And you can dance too, as pretty as anybody. And you look just as nice, honest you do, dear. Won’t you stop now, honey? Please do. I’m so sorry, honey, if I’ve hurt you in any way.”

There was about Clyde at times a certain strain of tenderness, evoked by experiences, disappointments, and hardships in his own life, which came out to one and another, almost any other, under such circumstances as these. At such times he had a soft and melting voice. His manner was as tender and gentle almost as that of a mother with a baby. It drew a girl like Roberta intensely to him. At the same time, such emotion in him, though vivid, was of brief duration. It was like the rush and flutter of a summer storm—soon come and soon gone. Yet in this instance it was sufficient to cause Roberta to feel that he fully understood and sympathized with her and perhaps liked her all the better for it. Things were not so bad for the moment, anyhow. She had him and his love and sympathy to a very marked degree at any rate, and because of this and her very great comfort in it, and his soothing words, she began to dry her eyes, to say that she was sorry to think that she was such a cry-baby and that she hoped he would forgive her, because in crying she had wet the bosom of his spotless white shirt with her tears. And she would not do it any more if Clyde would just forgive her this once—the while, touched by a passion he scarcely believed was buried in her in any such volume, he now continued to kiss her hands, cheeks, and finally her lips.

And between these pettings and coaxings and kissings it was that he reaffirmed to her, most foolishly and falsely in this instance (since he was really caring for Sondra in a way which, while different, was just as vital—perhaps even more so), that he regarded her as first, last and most in his heart, always—a statement which caused her to feel that perhaps after all she might have misjudged him. Also that her position, if anything, was more secure, if not more wonderful than ever it had been before—far superior to that of these other girls who might see him socially perhaps, but who did not have him to love them in this wonderful way.