An American Tragedy Chapter 5

But once in this and walking about, how different it all seemed to the world to which so recently he had been accustomed. For here, as he had thus far seen, all was on a so much smaller scale. The depot, from which only a half hour before he had stepped down, was so small and dull, untroubled, as he could plainly see, by much traffic. And the factory section which lay opposite the small city—across the Mohawk—was little more than a red and gray assemblage of buildings with here and there a smokestack projecting upward, and connected with the city by two bridges—a half dozen blocks apart—one of them directly at this depot, a wide traffic bridge across which traveled a car-line following the curves of Central Avenue, dotted here and there with stores and small homes.

But Central Avenue was quite alive with traffic, pedestrians and automobiles. Opposite diagonally from the hotel, which contained a series of wide plate-glass windows, behind which were many chairs interspersed with palms and pillars, was the dry-goods emporium of Stark and Company, a considerable affair, four stories in height, and of white brick, and at least a hundred feet long, the various windows of which seemed bright and interesting, crowded with as smart models as might be seen anywhere. Also there were other large concerns, a second hotel, various automobile showrooms, a moving picture theater.

He found himself ambling on and on until suddenly he was out of the business district again and in touch with a wide and tree-shaded thoroughfare of residences, the houses of which, each and every one, appeared to possess more room space, lawn space, general ease and repose and dignity even than any with which he had ever been in contact. In short, as he sensed it from this brief inspection of its very central portion, it seemed a very exceptional, if small city street—rich, luxurious even. So many imposing wrought-iron fences, flower-bordered walks, grouped trees and bushes, expensive and handsome automobiles either beneath porte-cochères within or speeding along the broad thoroughfare without. And in some neighboring shops—those nearest Central Avenue and the business heart where this wide and handsome thoroughfare began, were to be seen such expensive-looking and apparently smart displays of the things that might well interest people of means and comfort—motors, jewels, lingerie, leather goods and furniture.

But where now did his uncle and his family live? In which house? What street? Was it larger and finer than any of these he had seen in this street?

He must return at once, he decided, and report to his uncle. He must look up the factory address, probably in that region beyond the river, and go over there and see him. What would he say, how act, what would his uncle set him to doing? What would his cousin Gilbert be like? What would he be likely to think of him? In his last letter his uncle had mentioned his son Gilbert. He retraced his steps along Central Avenue to the depot and found himself quickly before the walls of the very large concern he was seeking. It was of red brick, six stories high—almost a thousand feet long. It was nearly all windows—at least that portion which had been most recently added and which was devoted to collars. An older section, as Clyde later learned, was connected with the newer building by various bridges. And the south walls of both these two structures, being built at the water’s edge, paralleled the Mohawk. There were also, as he now found, various entrances along River Street, a hundred feet or more apart—and each one, guarded by an employee in uniform—entrances numbered one, two and three—which were labeled “for employees only”—an entrance numbered four which read “office”—and entrances five and six appeared to be devoted to freight receipts and shipments.

Clyde made his way to the office portion and finding no one to hinder him, passed through two sets of swinging doors and found himself in the presence of a telephone girl seated at a telephone desk behind a railing, in which was set a small gate—the only entrance to the main office apparently. And this she guarded. She was short, fat, thirty-five and unattractive.

“Well?” she called as Clyde appeared.

“I want to see Mr. Gilbert Griffiths,” Clyde began a little nervously.

“What about?”

“Well, you see, I’m his cousin. Clyde Griffiths is my name. I have a letter here from my uncle, Mr. Samuel Griffiths. He’ll see me, I think.”

As he laid the letter before her, he noticed that her quite severe and decidedly indifferent expression changed and became not so much friendly as awed. For obviously she was very much impressed not only by the information but his looks, and began to examine him slyly and curiously.

“I’ll see if he’s in,” she replied much more civilly, and plugging at the same time a switch which led to Mr. Gilbert Griffiths’ private office. Word coming back to her apparently that Mr. Gilbert Griffiths was busy at the moment and could not be disturbed, she called back: “It’s Mr. Gilbert’s cousin, Mr. Clyde Griffiths. He has a letter from Mr. Samuel Griffiths.” Then she said to Clyde: “Won’t you sit down? I’m sure Mr. Gilbert Griffiths will see you in a moment. He’s busy just now.”

And Clyde, noting the unusual deference paid him—a form of deference that never in his life before had been offered him—was strangely moved by it. To think that he should be a full cousin to this wealthy and influential family! This enormous factory! So long and wide and high—as he had seen—six stories. And walking along the opposite side of the river just now, he had seen through several open windows whole rooms full of girls and women hard at work. And he had been thrilled in spite of himself. For somehow the high red walls of the building suggested energy and very material success, a type of success that was almost without flaw, as he saw it.

He looked at the gray plaster walls of this outer waiting chamber—at some lettering on the inner door which read: “The Griffiths Collar & Shirt Company, Inc. Samuel Griffiths, Pres. Gilbert Griffiths, Sec’y.”—and wondered what it was all like inside—what Gilbert Griffiths would be like—cold or genial, friendly or unfriendly.

And then, as he sat there meditating, the woman suddenly turned to him and observed: “You can go in now. Mr. Gilbert Griffiths’ office is at the extreme rear of this floor, over toward the river. Any one of the clerks inside will show you.”

She half rose as if to open the door for him, but Clyde, sensing the intent, brushed by her. “That’s all right. Thanks,” he said most warmly, and opening the glass-plated door he gazed upon a room housing many over a hundred employees—chiefly young men and young women. And all were apparently intent on their duties before them. Most of them had green shades over their eyes. Quite all of them had on short alpaca office coats or sleeve protectors over their shirt sleeves. Nearly all of the young women wore clean and attractive gingham dresses or office slips. And all about this central space, which was partitionless and supported by round white columns, were offices labeled with the names of the various minor officials and executives of the company—Mr. Smillie, Mr. Latch, Mr. Gotboy, Mr. Burkey.

Since the telephone girl had said that Mr. Gilbert Griffiths was at the extreme rear, Clyde, without much hesitation, made his way along the railed-off aisle to that quarter, where upon a half-open door he read: “Mr. Gilbert Griffiths, Sec’y.” He paused, uncertain whether to walk in or not, and then proceeded to tap. At once a sharp, penetrating voice called: “Come,” and he entered and faced a youth who looked, if anything, smaller and a little older and certainly much colder and shrewder than himself—such a youth, in short, as Clyde would have liked to imagine himself to be—trained in an executive sense, apparently authoritative and efficient. He was dressed, as Clyde noted at once, in a bright gray suit of a very pronounced pattern, for it was once more approaching spring. His hair, of a lighter shade than Clyde’s, was brushed and glazed most smoothly back from his temples and forehead, and his eyes, which Clyde, from the moment he had opened the door had felt drilling him, were of a clear, liquid, grayish-green blue. He had on a pair of large hornrimmed glasses which he wore at his desk only, and the eyes that peered through them went over Clyde swiftly and notatively, from his shoes to the round brown felt hat which he carried in his hand.

“You’re my cousin, I believe,” he commented, rather icily, as Clyde came forward and stopped—a thin and certainly not very favorable smile playing about his lips.

“Yes, I am,” replied Clyde, reduced and confused by this calm and rather freezing reception. On the instant, as he now saw, he could not possibly have the same regard and esteem for this cousin, as he could and did have for his uncle, whose very great ability had erected this important industry. Rather, deep down in himself he felt that this young man, an heir and nothing more to this great industry, was taking to himself airs and superiorities which, but for his father’s skill before him, would not have been possible.

At the same time so groundless and insignificant were his claims to any consideration here, and so grateful was he for anything that might be done for him, that he felt heavily obligated already and tried to smile his best and most ingratiating smile. Yet Gilbert Griffiths at once appeared to take this as a bit of presumption which ought not to be tolerated in a mere cousin, and particularly one who was seeking a favor of him and his father.

However, since his father had troubled to interest himself in him and had given him no alternative, he continued his wry smile and mental examination, the while he said: “We thought you would be showing up to-day or to-morrow. Did you have a pleasant trip?”

“Oh, yes, very,” replied Clyde, a little confused by this inquiry.

“So you think you’d like to learn something about the manufacture of collars, do you?” Tone and manner were infiltrated by the utmost condescension.

“I would certainly like to learn something that would give me a chance to work up, have some future in it,” replied Clyde, genially and with a desire to placate his young cousin as much as possible.

“Well, my father was telling me of his talk with you in Chicago. From what he told me I gather that you haven’t had much practical experience of any kind. You don’t know how to keep books, do you?”

“No, I don’t,” replied Clyde a little regretfully.

“And you’re not a stenographer or anything like that?”

“No, sir, I’m not.”

Most sharply, as Clyde said this, he felt that he was dreadfully lacking in every training. And now Gilbert Griffiths looked at him as though he were rather a hopeless proposition indeed from the viewpoint of this concern.

“Well, the best thing to do with you, I think,” he went on, as though before this his father had not indicated to him exactly what was to be done in this case, “is to start you in the shrinking room. That’s where the manufacturing end of this business begins, and you might as well be learning that from the ground up. Afterwards, when we see how you do down there, we can tell a little better what to do with you. If you had any office training it might be possible to use you up here.” (Clyde’s face fell at this and Gilbert noticed it. It pleased him.) “But it’s just as well to learn the practical side of the business, whatever you do,” he added rather coldly, not that he desired to comfort Clyde any but merely to be saying it as a fact. And seeing that Clyde said nothing, he continued: “The best thing, I presume, before you try to do anything around here is for you to get settled somewhere. You haven’t taken a room anywhere yet, have you?”

“No, I just came in on the noon train,” replied Clyde. “I was a little dirty and so I just went up to the hotel to brush up a little. I thought I’d look for a place afterwards.”

“Well, that’s right. Only don’t look for any place. I’ll have our superintendent see that you’re directed to a good boarding house. He knows more about the town than you do.” His thought here was that after all Clyde was a full cousin and that it wouldn’t do to have him live just anywhere. At the same time, he was greatly concerned lest Clyde get the notion that the family was very much concerned as to where he did live, which most certainly it was not, as he saw it. His final feeling was that he could easily place and control Clyde in such a way as to make him not very important to any one in any way—his father, the family, all the people who worked here.

He reached for a button on his desk and pressed it. A trim girl, very severe and reserved in a green gingham dress, appeared.

“Ask Mr. Whiggam to come here.”

She disappeared and presently there entered a medium-sized and nervous, yet moderately stout, man who looked as though he were under a great strain. He was about forty years of age—repressed and noncommittal—and looked curiously and suspiciously about as though wondering what new trouble impended. His head, as Clyde at once noticed, appeared chronically to incline forward, while at the same time he lifted his eyes as though actually he would prefer not to look up.

“Whiggam,” began young Griffiths authoritatively, “this is Clyde Griffiths, a cousin of ours. You remember I spoke to you about him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, he’s to be put in the shrinking department for the present. You can show him what he’s to do. Afterwards you had better have Mrs. Braley show him where he can get a room.” (All this had been talked over and fixed upon the week before by Gilbert and Whiggam, but now he gave it the ring of an original suggestion.) “And you’d better give his name in to the timekeeper as beginning to-morrow morning, see?”

“Yes, sir,” bowed Whiggam deferentially. “Is that all?”

“Yes, that’s all,” concluded Gilbert smartly. “You go with Whiggam, Mr. Griffiths. He’ll tell you what to do.”

Whiggam turned. “If you’ll just come with me, Mr. Griffiths,” he observed deferentially, as Clyde could see—and that for all of his cousin’s apparently condescending attitude—and marched out with Clyde at his heels. And young Gilbert as briskly turned to his own desk, but at the same time shaking his head. His feeling at the moment was that mentally Clyde was not above a good bell-boy in a city hotel probably. Else why should he come on here in this way. “I wonder what he thinks he’s going to do here,” he continued to think, “where he thinks he’s going to get?”

And Clyde, as he followed Mr. Whiggam, was thinking what a wonderful place Mr. Gilbert Griffiths enjoyed. No doubt he came and went as he chose—arrived at the office late, departed early, and somewhere in this very interesting city dwelt with his parents and sisters in a very fine house—of course. And yet here he was—Gilbert’s own cousin, and the nephew of his wealthy uncle, being escorted to work in a very minor department of this great concern.

Nevertheless, once they were out of the sight and hearing of Mr. Gilbert Griffiths, he was somewhat diverted from this mood by the sights and sounds of the great manufactory itself. For here on this very same floor, but beyond the immense office room through which he had passed, was another much larger room filled with rows of bins, facing aisles not more than five feet wide, and containing, as Clyde could see, enormous quantities of collars boxed in small paper boxes, according to sizes. These bins were either being refilled by stock boys who brought more boxed collars from the boxing room in large wooden trucks, or were being as rapidly emptied by order clerks who, trundling small box trucks in front of them, were filling orders from duplicate check lists which they carried in their hands.

“Never worked in a collar factory before, Mr. Griffiths, I presume?” commented Mr. Whiggam with somewhat more spirit, once he was out of the presence of Gilbert Griffiths. Clyde noticed at once the Mr. Griffiths.

“Oh, no,” he replied quickly. “I never worked at anything like this before.”

“Expect to learn all about the manufacturing end of the game in the course of time, though, I suppose.” He was walking briskly along one of the long aisles as he spoke, but Clyde noticed that he shot sly glances in every direction.

“I’d like to,” he answered.

“Well, there’s a little more to it than some people think, although you often hear there isn’t very much to learn.” He opened another door, crossed a gloomy hall and entered still another room which, filled with bins as was the other, was piled high in every bin with bolts of white cloth.

“You might as well know a little about this as long as you’re going to begin in the shrinking room. This is the stuff from which the collars are cut, the collars and the lining. They are called webs. Each of these bolts is a web. We take these down in the basement and shrink them because they can’t be used this way. If they are, the collars would shrink after they were cut. But you’ll see. We tub them and then dry them afterwards.”

He marched solemnly on and Clyde sensed once more that this man was not looking upon him as an ordinary employee by any means. His Mr. Griffiths, his supposition to the effect that Clyde was to learn all about the manufacturing end of the business, as well as his condescension in explaining about these webs of cloth, had already convinced Clyde that he was looked upon as one to whom some slight homage at least must be paid.

He followed Mr. Whiggam, curious as to the significance of this, and soon found himself in an enormous basement which had been reached by descending a flight of steps at the end of a third hall. Here, by the help of four long rows of incandescent lamps, he discerned row after row of porcelain tubs or troughs, lengthwise of the room, and end to end, which reached from one exterior wall to the other. And in these, under steaming hot water apparently, were any quantity of those same webs he had just seen upstairs, soaking. And near-by, north and south of these tubs, and paralleling them for the length of this room, all of a hundred and fifty feet in length, were enormous drying racks or moving skeleton platforms, boxed, top and bottom and sides, with hot steam pipes, between which on rolls, but festooned in such a fashion as to take advantage of these pipes, above, below and on either side, were more of these webs, but unwound and wet and draped as described, yet moving along slowly on these rolls from the east end of the room to the west. This movement, as Clyde could see, was accompanied by an enormous rattle and clatter of ratchet arms which automatically shook and moved these lengths of cloth forward from east to west. And as they moved they dried, and were then automatically re-wound at the west end of these racks into bolt form once more upon a wooden spool and then lifted off by a youth whose duty it was to “take” from these moving platforms. One youth, as Clyde saw, “took” from two of these tracks at the west end, while at the east end another youth of about his own years “fed.” That is, he took bolts of this now partially shrunk yet still wet cloth and attaching one end of it to some moving hooks, saw that it slowly and properly unwound and fed itself over the drying racks for the entire length of these tracks. As fast as it had gone the way of all webs, another was attached.

Between each two rows of tubs in the center of the room were enormous whirling separators or dryers, into which these webs of cloth, as they came from the tubs in which they had been shrinking for twenty-four hours, were piled and as much water as possible centrifugally extracted before they were spread out on the drying racks.

Primarily little more than this mere physical aspect of the room was grasped by Clyde—its noise, its heat, its steam, the energy with which a dozen men and boys were busying themselves with various processes. They were, without exception, clothed only in armless undershirts, a pair of old trousers belted in at the waist, and with canvas-topped and rubber-soled sneakers on their bare feet. The water and the general dampness and the heat of the room seemed obviously to necessitate some such dressing as this.

“This is the shrinking room,” observed Mr. Whiggam, as they entered. “It isn’t as nice as some of the others, but it’s where the manufacturing process begins. Kemerer!” he called.

A short, stocky, full-chested man, with a pale, full face and white, strong-looking arms, dressed in a pair of dirty and wrinkled trousers and an armless flannel shirt, now appeared. Like Whiggam in the presence of Gilbert, he appeared to be very much overawed in the presence of Whiggam.

“This is Clyde Griffiths, the cousin of Gilbert Griffiths. I spoke to you about him last week, you remember?”

“Yes, sir.”

“He’s to begin down here. He’ll show up in the morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Better put his name down on your check list. He’ll begin at the usual hour.”

“Yes, sir.”

Mr. Whiggam, as Clyde noticed, held his head higher and spoke more directly and authoritatively than at any time so far. He seemed to be master, not underling, now.

“Seven-thirty is the time every one goes to work here in the morning,” went on Mr. Whiggam to Clyde informatively, “but they all ring in a little earlier—about seven-twenty or so, so as to have time to change their clothes and get to the machines.

“Now, if you want to,” he added, “Mr. Kemerer can show you what you’ll have to do to-morrow before you leave today. It might save a little time. Or, you can leave it until then if you want to. It don’t make any difference to me. Only, if you’ll come back to the telephone girl at the main entrance about five-thirty I’ll have Mrs. Braley there for you. She’s to show you about your room, I believe. I won’t be there myself, but you just ask the telephone girl for her. She’ll know.” He turned and added, “Well, I’ll leave you now.”

He lowered his head and started to go away just as Clyde began. “Well, I’m very much obliged to you, Mr. Whiggam.” Instead of answering, he waved one fishy hand slightly upward and was gone—down between the tubs toward the west door. And at once Mr. Kemerer—still nervous and overawed apparently—began.

“Oh, that’s all right about what you have to do, Mr. Griffiths. I’ll just let you bring down webs on the floor above to begin with to-morrow. But if you’ve got any old clothes, you’d better put ’em on. A suit like that wouldn’t last long here.” He eyed Clyde’s very neat, if inexpensive suit, in an odd way. His manner quite like that of Mr. Whiggam before him, was a mixture of uncertainty and a very small authority here in Clyde’s case—of extreme respect and yet some private doubt, which only time might resolve. Obviously it was no small thing to be a Griffiths here, even if one were a cousin and possibly not as welcome to one’s powerful relatives as one might be.

At first sight, and considering what his general dreams in connection with this industry were, Clyde was inclined to rebel. For the type of youth and man he saw here were in his estimation and at first glance rather below the type of individuals he hoped to find here—individuals neither so intelligent nor alert as those employed by the Union League and the Green-Davidson by a long distance. And still worse he felt them to be much more subdued and sly and ignorant—mere clocks, really. And their eyes, as he entered with Mr. Whiggam, while they pretended not to be looking, were very well aware, as Clyde could feel, of all that was going on. Indeed, he and Mr. Whiggam were the center of all their secret looks. At the same time, their spare and practical manner of dressing struck dead at one blow any thought of refinement in connection with the work in here. How unfortunate that his lack of training would not permit his being put to office work or something like that upstairs.

He walked with Mr. Kemerer, who troubled to say that these were the tubs in which the webs were shrunk over night—these the centrifugal dryers—these the rack dryers. Then he was told that he could go. And by then it was only three o’clock.

He made his way out of the nearest door and once outside he congratulated himself on being connected with this great company, while at the same time wondering whether he was going to prove satisfactory to Mr. Kemerer and Mr. Whiggam. Supposing he didn’t. Or supposing he couldn’t stand all this? It was pretty rough. Well, if worst came to worst, as he now thought, he could go back to Chicago, or on to New York, maybe, and get work.

But why hadn’t Samuel Griffiths had the graciousness to receive and welcome him? Why had that young Gilbert Griffiths smiled so cynically? And what sort of a woman was this Mrs. Braley? Had he done wisely to come on here? Would this family do anything for him now that he was here?

It was thus that, strolling west along River Street on which were a number of other kinds of factories, and then north through a few other streets that held more factories—tinware, wickwire, a big vacuum carpet cleaning plant, a rug manufacturing company, and the like—that he came finally upon a miserable slum, the like of which, small as it was, he had not seen outside of Chicago or Kansas City. He was so irritated and depressed by the poverty and social angularity and crudeness of it—all spelling but one thing, social misery, to him—that he at once retraced his steps and recrossing the Mohawk by a bridge farther west soon found himself in an area which was very different indeed—a region once more of just such homes as he had been admiring before he left for the factory. And walking still farther south, he came upon that same wide and tree-lined avenue—which he had seen before—the exterior appearance of which alone identified it as the principal residence thoroughfare of Lycurgus. It was so very broad and well-paved and lined by such an arresting company of houses. At once he was very much alive to the personnel of this street, for it came to him immediately that it must be in this street very likely that his uncle Samuel lived. The houses were nearly all of French, Italian or English design, and excellent period copies at that, although he did not know it.

Impressed by their beauty and spaciousness, however, he walked along, now looking at one and another, and wondering which, if any, of these was occupied by his uncle, and deeply impressed by the significance of so much wealth. How superior and condescending his cousin Gilbert must feel, walking out of some such place as this in the morning.

Then pausing before one which, because of trees, walks, newly-groomed if bloomless flower beds, a large garage at the rear, a large fountain to the left of the house as he faced it, in the center of which was a boy holding a swan in his arms, and to the right of the house one lone cast iron stag pursued by some cast iron dogs, he felt especially impelled to admire, and charmed by the dignity of this place, which was a modified form of old English, he now inquired of a stranger who was passing—a middle-aged man of a rather shabby working type, “Whose house is that, mister?” and the man replied: “Why, that’s Samuel Griffiths’ residence. He’s the man who owns the big collar factory over the river.”

At once Clyde straightened up, as though dashed with cold water. His uncle’s! His residence! Then that was one of his automobiles standing before the garage at the rear there. And there was another visible through the open door of the garage.

Indeed in his immature and really psychically unilluminated mind it suddenly evoked a mood which was as of roses, perfumes, lights and music. The beauty! The ease! What member of his own immediate family had ever even dreamed that his uncle lived thus! The grandeur! And his own parents so wretched—so poor, preaching on the streets of Kansas City and no doubt Denver. Conducting a mission! And although thus far no single member of this family other than his chill cousin had troubled to meet him, and that at the factory only, and although he had been so indifferently assigned to the menial type of work that he had, still he was elated and uplifted. For, after all, was he not a Griffiths, a full cousin as well as a full nephew to the two very important men who lived here, and now working for them in some capacity at least? And must not that spell a future of some sort, better than any he had known as yet? For consider who the Griffiths were here, as opposed to “who” the Griffiths were in Kansas City, say—or Denver. The enormous difference! A thing to be as carefully concealed as possible. At the same time, he was immediately reduced again, for supposing the Griffiths here—his uncle or his cousin or some friend or agent of theirs—should now investigate his parents and his past? Heavens! The matter of that slain child in Kansas City! His parents’ miserable makeshift life! Esta! At once his face fell, his dreams being so thickly clouded over. If they should guess! If they should sense!

Oh, the devil—who was he anyway? And what did he really amount to? What could he hope for from such a great world as this really, once they knew why he had troubled to come here?

A little disgusted and depressed he turned to retrace his steps, for all at once he felt himself very much of a nobody.