An American Tragedy Chapter 39

Opposing views such as these, especially where no real skill to meet such a situation existed, could only spell greater difficulty and even eventual disaster unless chance in some form should aid. And chance did not aid. And the presence of Roberta in the factory was something that would not permit him to dismiss it from his mind. If only he could persuade her to leave and go somewhere else to live and work so that he should not always see her, he might then think more calmly. For with her asking continuously, by her presence if no more, what he intended to do, it was impossible for him to think. And the fact that he no longer cared for her as he had, tended to reduce his normal consideration of what was her due. He was too infatuated with, and hence disarranged by his thoughts of Sondra.

For in the very teeth of this grave dilemma he continued to pursue the enticing dream in connection with Sondra—the dark situation in connection with Roberta seeming no more at moments than a dark cloud which shadowed this other. And hence nightly, or as often as the exigencies of his still unbroken connection with Roberta would permit, he was availing himself of such opportunities as his flourishing connections now afforded. Now, and to his great pride and satisfaction, it was a dinner at the Harriets’ or Taylors’ to which he was invited; or a party at the Finchleys’ or the Cranstons’, to which he would either escort Sondra or be animated by the hope of encountering her. And now, also without so many of the former phases or attempts at subterfuge, which had previously characterized her curiosity in regard to him, she was at times openly seeking him out and making opportunities for social contact. And, of course, these contacts being identical with this typical kind of group gathering, they seemed to have no special significance with the more conservative elders.

For although Mrs. Finchley, who was of an especially shrewd and discerning turn socially, had at first been dubious over the attentions being showered upon Clyde by her daughter and others, still observing that Clyde was more and more being entertained, not only in her own home by the group of which her daughter was a part, but elsewhere, everywhere, was at last inclined to imagine that he must be more solidly placed in this world than she had heard, and later to ask her son and even Sondra concerning him. But receiving from Sondra only the equivocal information that, since he was Gil and Bella Griffiths’ cousin, and was being taken up by everybody because he was so charming—even if he didn’t have any money—she couldn’t see why she and Stuart should not be allowed to entertain him also, her mother rested on that for the time being—only cautioning her daughter under no circumstances to become too friendly. And Sondra, realizing that in part her mother was right, yet being so drawn to Clyde was now determined to deceive her, at least to the extent of being as clandestinely free with Clyde as she could contrive. And was, so much so that every one who was privy to the intimate contacts between Clyde and Sondra might have reported that the actual understanding between them was assuming an intensity which most certainly would have shocked the elder Finchleys, could they have known. For apart from what Clyde had been, and still was dreaming in regard to her, Sondra was truly being taken with thoughts and moods in regard to him which were fast verging upon the most destroying aspects of the very profound chemistry of love. Indeed, in addition to handclasps, kisses and looks of intense admiration always bestowed when presumably no one was looking, there were those nebulous and yet strengthening and lengthening fantasies concerning a future which in some way or other, not clear to either as yet, was still always to include each other.

Summer days perhaps, and that soon, in which he and she would be in a canoe at Twelfth Lake, the long shadows of the trees on the bank lengthening over the silvery water, the wind rippling the surface while he paddled and she idled and tortured him with hints of the future; a certain forest path, grass-sodden and sun-mottled to the south and west of the Cranston and Phant estates, near theirs, through which they might canter in June and July to a wonderful view known as Inspiration Point some seven miles west; the country fair at Sharon, at which, in a gypsy costume, the essence of romance itself, she would superintend a booth, or, in her smartest riding habit, give an exhibition of her horsemanship—teas, dances in the afternoon and in the moonlight at which, languishing in his arms, their eyes would speak.

None of the compulsion of the practical. None of the inhibitions which the dominance and possible future opposition of her parents might imply. Just love and summer, and idyllic and happy progress toward an eventual secure and unopposed union which should give him to her forever.

And in the meantime, in so far as Roberta was concerned, two more long, dreary, terrifying months going by without that meditated action on her part which must result once it was taken in Clyde’s undoing. For, as convinced as she was that apart from meditating and thinking of some way to escape his responsibility, Clyde had no real intention of marrying her, still, like Clyde, she drifted, fearing to act really. For in several conferences following that in which she had indicated that she expected him to marry her, he had reiterated, if vaguely, a veiled threat that in case she appealed to his uncle he would not be compelled to marry her, after all, for he could go elsewhere.

The way he put it was that unless left undisturbed in his present situation he would be in no position to marry her and furthermore could not possibly do anything to aid her at the coming time when most of all she would stand in need of aid—a hint which caused Roberta to reflect on a hitherto not fully developed vein of hardness in Clyde, although had she but sufficiently reflected, it had shown itself at the time that he compelled her to admit him to her room.

In addition and because she was doing nothing and yet he feared that at any moment she might, he shifted in part at least from the attitude of complete indifference, which had availed him up to the time that she had threatened him, to one of at least simulated interest and good-will and friendship. For the very precarious condition in which he found himself was sufficiently terrifying to evoke more diplomacy than ever before had characterized him. Besides he was foolish enough to hope, if not exactly believe, that by once more conducting himself as though he still entertained a lively sense of the problem that afflicted her and that he was willing, in case no other way was found, to eventually marry her (though he could never definitely be persuaded to commit himself as to this), he could reduce her determination to compel him to act soon at least to a minimum, and so leave him more time in which to exhaust every possibility of escape without marriage, and without being compelled to run away.

And although Roberta sensed the basis of this sudden shift, still she was so utterly alone and distrait that she was willing to give ear to Clyde’s mock genial, if not exactly affectionate observations and suggestions. It caused her, at his behest, to wait a while longer, the while, as he now explained, he would not only have saved up some money, but devised some plan in connection with his work which would permit him to leave for a time anyhow, marry her somewhere and then establish her and the baby as a lawful married woman somewhere else, while, although he did not explain this just now, he returned to Lycurgus and sent her such aid as he could. But on condition, of course, that never anywhere, unless he gave her permission, must she assert that he had married her, or point to him in any way as the father of her child. Also it was understood that she, as she herself had asserted over and over that she would, if only he would do this—marry her—take steps to free herself on the ground of desertion, or something, in some place sufficiently removed from Lycurgus for no one to hear. And that within a reasonable time after her marriage to him, although he was not at all satisfied that, assuming that he did marry her, she would.

But Clyde, of course, was insincere in regard to all his overtures at this time, and really not concerned as to her sincerity or insincerity. Nor did he have any intention of leaving Lycurgus even for the moderate length of time that her present extrication would require unless he had to. For that meant that he would be separated from Sondra, and such absence, for whatever period, would most definitely interfere with his plans. And so, on the contrary, he drifted—thinking most idly at times of some possible fake or mock marriage such as he had seen in some melodramatic movie—a fake minister and witnesses combining to deceive some simple country girl such as Roberta was not, but at such expense of time, resources, courage and subtlety as Clyde himself, after a little reflection, was wise enough to see was beyond him.

Again, knowing that, unless some hitherto unforeseen aid should eventuate, he was heading straight toward a disaster which could not much longer be obviated, he even allowed himself to dream that, once the fatal hour was at hand and Roberta, no longer to be put off by any form of subterfuge, was about to expose him, he might even flatly deny that he had ever held any such relationship with her as then she would be charging—rather that at all times his relationship with her had been that of a department manager to employee—no more. Terror—no less!

But at the same time, early in May, when Roberta, because of various gestative signs and ailments, was beginning to explain, as well as insist, to Clyde that by no stretch of the imagination or courage could she be expected to retain her position at the factory or work later than June first, because by then the likelihood of the girls there beginning to notice something, would be too great for her to endure, Sondra was beginning to explain that not so much later than the fourth or fifth of June she and her mother and Stuart, together with some servants, would be going to their new lodge at Twelfth Lake in order to supervise certain installations then being made before the regular season should begin. And after that, not later than the eighteenth, at which time the Cranstons, Harriets, and some others would have arrived, including very likely visits from Bella and Myra, he might expect a week-end invitation from the Cranstons, with whom, through Bertine, she would arrange as to this. And after that, the general circumstances proving fairly propitious, there would be, of course, other week-end invitations to the Harriets’, Phants’ and some others who dwelt there, as well as to the Griffiths’ at Greenwood, to which place, on account of Bella, he could easily come. And during his two weeks’ vacation in July, he could either stop at the Casino, which was at Pine Point, or perhaps the Cranstons or Harriets, at her suggestion, might choose to invite him. At any rate, as Clyde could see, and with no more than such expenditures as, with a little scrimping during his ordinary working days here, he could provide for, he might see not a little of that lake life of which he had read so much in the local papers, to say nothing of Sondra at one and another of the lodges, the masters of which were not so inimical to his presence and overtures as were Sondra’s parents.

For now it was, and for the first time, as she proceeded to explain to him that her mother and father, because of his continued and reported attentions to her, were already beginning to talk of an extended European tour which might keep her and Stuart and her mother abroad for at least the next two years. But since, at news of this, Clyde’s face as well as his spirits darkened, and she herself was sufficiently enmeshed to suffer because of this, she at once added that he must not feel so bad—he must not; things would work out well enough, she knew. For at the proper time, and unless between then and now, something—her own subtle attack if not her at present feverish interest in Clyde—should have worked to alter her mother’s viewpoint in regard to him—she might be compelled to take some steps of her own in order to frustrate her mother. Just what, she was not willing to say at this time, although to Clyde’s overheated imagination it took the form of an elopement and marriage, which could not then be gainsaid by her parents whatever they might think. And it was true that in a vague and as yet repressed way some such thought was beginning to form in Sondra’s mind. For, as she now proceeded to explain to Clyde, it was so plain that her mother was attempting to steer her in the direction of a purely social match—the one with the youth who had been paying her such marked attention the year before. But because of her present passion for Clyde, as she now gayly declared, it was not easy to see how she was to be made to comply. “The only trouble with me is that I’m not of age yet,” she here added briskly and slangily. “They’ve got me there, of course. But I will be by next October and they can’t do very much with me after that, I want to let you know. I can marry the person I want, I guess. And if I can’t do it here, well, there are more ways than one to kill a cat.”

The thought was like some sweet, disarranging poison to Clyde. It fevered and all but betrayed him mentally. If only—if only—it were not for Roberta now. That terrifying and all but insoluble problem. But for that, and the opposition of Sondra’s parents which she was thinking she would be able to overcome, did not heaven itself await him? Sondra, Twelfth Lake, society, wealth, her love and beauty. He grew not a little wild in thinking of it all. Once he and she were married, what could Sondra’s relatives do? What, but acquiesce and take them into the glorious bosom of their resplendent home at Lycurgus or provide for them in some other way—he to no doubt eventually take some place in connection with the Finchley Electric Sweeper Company. And then would he not be the equal, if not the superior, of Gilbert Griffiths himself and all those others who originally had ignored him here—joint heir with Stuart to all the Finchley means. And with Sondra as the central or crowning jewel to so much sudden and such Aladdin-like splendor.

No thought as to how he was to overcome the time between now and October. No serious consideration of the fact that Roberta then and there was demanding that he marry her. He could put her off, he thought. And yet, at the same time, he was painfully and nervously conscious of the fact that at no period in his life before had he been so treacherously poised at the very brink of disaster. It might be his duty as the world would see it—his mother would say so—to at least extricate Roberta. But in the case of Esta, who had come to her rescue? Her lover? He had walked off from her without a qualm and she had not died. And why, when Roberta was no worse off than his sister had been, why should she seek to destroy him in this way? Force him to do something which would be little less than social, artistic, passional or emotional assassination? And when later, if she would but spare him for this, he could do so much more for her—with Sondra’s money of course. He could not and would not let her do this to him. His life would be ruined!