An American Tragedy Chapter 32

Clyde now was actually part and parcel of this local winter social scene. The Griffiths having introduced him to their friends and connections, it followed as a matter of course that he would be received in most homes here. But in this very limited world, where quite every one who was anything at all knew every one else, the state of one’s purse was as much, and in some instances even more, considered than one’s social connections. For these local families of distinction were convinced that not only one’s family but one’s wealth was the be-all and end-all of every happy union meant to include social security. And in consequence, while considering Clyde as one who was unquestionably eligible socially, still, because it had been whispered about that his means were very slender, they were not inclined to look upon him as one who might aspire to marriage with any of their daughters. Hence, while they were to the fore with invitations, still in so far as their own children and connections were concerned they were also to the fore with precautionary hints as to the inadvisability of too numerous contacts with him.

However, the mood of Sondra and her group being friendly toward him, and the observations and comments of their friends and parents not as yet too definite, Clyde continued to receive invitations to the one type of gathering that most interested him—that which began and ended with dancing. And although his purse was short, he got on well enough. For once Sondra had interested herself in him, it was not long before she began to realize what his financial state was and was concerned to make his friendship for her at least as inexpensive as possible. And because of this attitude on her part, which in turn was conveyed to Bertine, Grant Cranston and others, it became possible on most occasions for Clyde, especially when the affair was local, to go here and there without the expenditure of any money. Even when the affair was at any point beyond Lycurgus and he consented to go, the car of another was delegated to pick him up.

Frequently after the New Year’s Eve trip to Schenectady, which proved to be an outing of real import to both Clyde and Sondra—seeing that on that occasion she drew nearer to him affectionately than ever before—it was Sondra herself who chose to pick him up in her car. He had actually succeeded in impressing her, and in a way that most flattered her vanity at the same time that it appealed to the finest trait in her—a warm desire to have some one, some youth like Clyde, who was at once attractive and of good social station, dependent upon her. She knew that her parents would not countenance an affair between her and Clyde because of his poverty. She had originally not contemplated any, though now she found herself wishing that something of the kind might be.

However, no opportunity for further intimacies occurred until one night about two weeks after the New Year’s party. They were returning from a similar affair at Amsterdam, and after Bella Griffiths and Grant and Bertine Cranston had been driven to their respective homes, Stuart Finchley had called back: “Now we’ll take you home, Griffiths.” At once Sondra, swayed by the delight of contact with Clyde and not willing to end it so soon, said: “If you want to come over to our place, I’ll make some hot chocolate before you go home. Would you like that?”

“Oh, sure I would,” Clyde had answered gayly.

“Here goes then,” called Stuart, turning the car toward the Finchley home. “But as for me, I’m going to turn in. It’s way after three now.”

“That’s a good brother. Your beauty sleep, you know,” replied Sondra.

And having turned the car into the garage, the three made their way through the rear entrance into the kitchen. Her brother having left them, Sondra asked Clyde to be seated at a servants’ table while she brought the ingredients. But he, impressed by this culinary equipment, the like of which he had never seen before, gazed about wondering at the wealth and security which could sustain it.

“My, this is a big kitchen, isn’t it?” he remarked. “What a lot of things you have here to cook with, haven’t you?”

And she, realizing from this that he had not been accustomed to equipment of this order before coming to Lycurgus and hence was all the more easily to be impressed, replied: “Oh, I don’t know. Aren’t all kitchens as big as this?”

Clyde, thinking of the poverty he knew, and assuming from this that she was scarcely aware of anything less than this, was all the more overawed by the plethora of the world to which she belonged. What means! Only to think of being married to such a girl, when all such as this would become an everyday state. One would have a cook and servants, a great house and car, no one to work for, and only orders to give, a thought which impressed him greatly. It made her various self-conscious gestures and posings all the more entrancing. And she, sensing the import of all this to Clyde, was inclined to exaggerate her own inseparable connection with it. To him, more than any one else, as she now saw, she shone as a star, a paragon of luxury and social supremacy.

Having prepared the chocolate in a commonplace aluminum pan, to further impress him she sought out a heavily chased silver service which was in another room. She poured the chocolate into a highly ornamented urn and then carried it to the table and put it down before him. Then swinging herself up beside him, she said: “Now, isn’t this chummy? I just love to get out in the kitchen like this, but I can only do it when the cook’s out. He won’t let any one near the place when he’s here.”

“Oh, is that so?” asked Clyde, who was quite unaware of the ways of cooks in connection with private homes—an inquiry which quite convinced Sondra that there must have been little if any real means in the world from which he sprang. Nevertheless, because he had come to mean so much to her, she was by no means inclined to turn back. And so when he finally exclaimed: “Isn’t it wonderful to be together like this, Sondra? Just think, I hardly got a chance to say a word to you all evening, alone,” she replied, without in any way being irritated by the familiarity, “You think so? I’m glad you do,” and smiled in a slightly supercilious though affectionate way.

And at the sight of her now in her white satin and crystal evening gown, her slippered feet swinging so intimately near, a faint perfume radiating to his nostrils, he was stirred. In fact, his imagination in regard to her was really inflamed. Youth, beauty, wealth such as this—what would it not mean? And she, feeling the intensity of his admiration and infected in part at least by the enchantment and fervor that was so definitely dominating him, was swayed to the point where she was seeing him as one for whom she could care—very much. Weren’t his eyes bright and dark—very liquid and eager? And his hair! It looked so enticing, lying low upon his white forehead. She wished that she could touch it now—smooth it with her hands and touch his cheeks. And his hands—they were thin and sensitive and graceful. Like Roberta, and Hortense and Rita before her, she noticed them.

But he was silent now with a tightly restrained silence which he was afraid to liberate in words. For he was thinking: “Oh, if only I could say to her how beautiful I really think she is. If I could just put my arms around her and kiss her, and kiss her, and kiss her, and have her kiss me in the same way.” And strangely, considering his first approaches toward Roberta, the thought was without lust, just the desire to constrain and fondle a perfect object. Indeed, his eyes fairly radiated this desire and intensity. And while she noted this and was in part made dubious by it, since it was the thing in Clyde she most feared—still she was intrigued by it to the extent of wishing to know its further meaning.

And so she now said, teasingly: “Was there anything very important you wanted to say?”

“I’d like to say a lot of things to you, Sondra, if you would only let me,” he returned eagerly. “But you told me not to.”

“Oh, so I did. Well, I meant that, too. I’m glad you mind so well.” There was a provoking smile upon her lips and she looked at him as much as to say: “But you don’t really believe I meant all of that, do you?”

Overcome by the suggestion of her eyes, Clyde got up and, taking both her hands in his and looking directly into her eyes, said: “You didn’t mean all of it, then, did you, Sondra? Not all of it, anyhow. Oh, I wish I could tell you all that I am thinking.” His eyes spoke, and now sharply conscious again of how easy it was to inflame him, and yet anxious to permit him to proceed as he wished, she leaned back from him and said, “Oh, yes, I’m sure I did. You take almost everything too seriously, don’t you?” But at the same time, and in spite of herself, her expression relaxed and she once more smiled.

“I can’t help it, Sondra. I can’t! I can’t!” he began, eagerly and almost vehemently. “You don’t know what effect you have on me. You’re so beautiful. Oh, you are. You know you are. I think about you all the time. Really I do, Sondra. You’ve made me just crazy about you, so much so that I can hardly sleep for thinking about you. Gee, I’m wild! I never go anywhere or see you any place but what I think of you all the time afterward. Even to-night when I saw you dancing with all those fellows I could hardly stand it. I just wanted you to be dancing with me—no one else. You’ve got such beautiful eyes, Sondra, and such a lovely mouth and chin, and such a wonderful smile.”

He lifted his hands as though to caress her gently, yet holding them back, and at the same time dreamed into her eyes as might a devotee into those of a saint, then suddenly put his arms about her and drew her close to him. She, thrilled and in part seduced by his words, instead of resisting as definitely as she would have in any other case, now gazed at him, fascinated by his enthusiasms. She was so trapped and entranced by his passion for her that it seemed to her now as though she might care for him as much as he wished. Very, very much, if she only dared. He, too, was beautiful and alluring to her. He, too, was really wonderful, even if he were poor—so much more intense and dynamic than any of these other youths that she knew here. Would it not be wonderful if, her parents and her state permitting, she could share with him completely such a mood as this? Simultaneously the thought came to her that should her parents know of this it might not be possible for her to continue this relationship in any form, let alone to develop it or enjoy it in the future. Yet regardless of this thought now, which arrested and stilled her for a moment, she continued to yearn toward him. Her eyes were warm and tender—her lips wreathed with a gracious smile.

“I’m sure I oughtn’t to let you say all these things to me. I know I shouldn’t,” she protested weakly, yet looking at him affectionately. “It isn’t the right thing to do, I know, but still—”

“Why not? Why isn’t it right, Sondra? Why mayn’t I when I care for you so much?” His eyes became clouded with sadness, and she, noting it, exclaimed: “Oh, well,” then paused, “I—I—” She was about to add, “Don’t think they would ever let us go on with it,” but instead she only replied, “I guess I don’t know you well enough.”

“Oh, Sondra, when I love you so much and I’m so crazy about you! Don’t you care at all like I care for you?”

Because of the uncertainty expressed by her, his eyes were now seeking, frightened, sad. The combination had an intense appeal for her. She merely looked at him dubiously, wondering what could be the result of such an infatuation as this. And he, noting the wavering something in her own eyes, pulled her closer and kissed her. Instead of resenting it she lay for a moment willingly, joyously, in his arms, then suddenly sat up, the thought of what she was permitting him to do—kiss her in this way—and what it must mean to him, causing her on the instant to recover all her poise. “I think you’d better go now,” she said definitely, yet not unkindly. “Don’t you?”

And Clyde, who himself had been surprised and afterwards a little startled, and hence reduced by his own boldness, now pleaded rather weakly, and yet submissively. “Angry?”

And she, in turn sensing his submissiveness, that of the slave for the master, and in part liking and in part resenting it, since like Roberta and Hortense, even she preferred to be mastered rather than to master, shook her head negatively and a little sadly.

“It’s very late,” was all she said, and smiled tenderly.

And Clyde, realizing that for some reason he must not say more, had not the courage or persistence or the background to go further with her now, went for his coat and, looking sadly but obediently back at her, departed.