An American Tragedy Chapter 8

Nevertheless, the next day being a Saturday and half holiday the year round in this concern, Mr. Whiggam came through with the pay envelopes.

“Here you are, Mr. Griffiths,” he said, as though he were especially impressed with Clyde’s position.

Clyde, taking it, was rather pleased with this mistering, and going back toward his locker, promptly tore it open and pocketed the money. After that, taking his hat and coat, he wandered off in the direction of his room, where he had his lunch. But, being very lonely, and Dillard not being present because he had to work, he decided upon a trolley ride to Gloversville, which was a city of some twenty thousand inhabitants and reported to be as active, if not as beautiful, as Lycurgus. And that trip amused and interested him because it took him into a city very different form Lycurgus in its social texture.

But the next day—Sunday—he spent idly in Lycurgus, wandering about by himself. For, as it turned out, Dillard was compelled to return to Fonda for some reason and could not fulfill the Sunday understanding. Encountering Clyde, however, on Monday evening, he announced that on the following Wednesday evening, in the basement of the Diggby Avenue Congregational Church, there was to be held a social with refreshments. And according to young Dillard, at least this promised to prove worth while.

“We can just go out there,” was the way he put it to Clyde, “and buzz the girls a little. I want you to meet my uncle and aunt. They’re nice people all right. And so are the girls. They’re no slouches. Then we can edge out afterwards, about ten, see, and go around to either Zella or Rita’s place. Rita has more good records over at her place, but Zella has the nicest place to dance. By the way, you didn’t chance to bring along your dress suit with you, did you?” he inquired. For having already inspected Clyde’s room, which was above his own on the third floor, in Clyde’s absence and having discovered that he had only a dress suit case and no trunk, and apparently no dress suit anywhere, he had decided that in spite of Clyde’s father conducting a hotel and Clyde having worked in the Union League Club in Chicago, he must be very indifferent to social equipment. Or, if not, must be endeavoring to make his own way on some character-building plan without help from any one. This was not to his liking, exactly. A man should never neglect these social essentials. Nevertheless, Clyde was a Griffiths and that was enough to cause him to overlook nearly anything, for the present anyhow.

“No, I didn’t,” replied Clyde, who was not exactly sure as to the value of this adventure—even yet—in spite of his own loneliness,—“but I intend to get one.” He had already thought since coming here of his lack in this respect, and was thinking of taking at least thirty-five of his more recently hard-earned savings and indulging in a suit of this kind.

Dillard buzzed on about the fact that while Zella Shuman’s family wasn’t rich—they owned the house they lived in—still she went with a lot of nice girls here, too. So did Rita Dickerman. Zella’s father owned a little cottage upon Eckert Lake, near Fonda. When next summer came—and with it the holidays and pleasant week-ends, he and Clyde, supposing that Clyde liked Rita, might go up there some time for a visit, for Rita and Zella were inseparable almost. And they were pretty, too. “Zella’s dark and Rita’s light,” he added enthusiastically.

Clyde was interested by the fact that the girls were pretty and that out of a clear sky and in the face of his present loneliness, he was being made so much of by this Dillard. But, was it wise for him to become very much involved with him? That was the question—for, after all, he really knew nothing of him. And he gathered from Dillard’s manner, his flighty enthusiasm for the occasion, that he was far more interested in the girls as girls—a certain freedom or concealed looseness that characterized them—than he was in the social phase of the world which they represented. And wasn’t that what brought about his downfall in Kansas City? Here in Lycurgus, of all places, he was least likely to forget it—aspiring to something better as he now did.

None-the-less, at eight-thirty on the following Wednesday evening—they were off, Clyde full of eager anticipation. And by nine o’clock they were in the midst of one of those semi-religious, semi-social and semi-emotional church affairs, the object of which was to raise money for the church—the general service of which was to furnish an occasion for gossip among the elders, criticism and a certain amount of enthusiastic, if disguised courtship and flirtation among the younger members. There were booths for the sale of quite everything from pies, cakes and ice cream to laces, dolls and knickknacks of every description, supplied by the members and parted with for the benefit of the church. The Reverend Peter Isreals, the minister, and his wife were present. Also Dillard’s uncle and aunt, a pair of brisk and yet uninteresting people whom Clyde could sense were of no importance socially here. They were too genial and altogether social in the specific neighborhood sense, although Grover Wilson, being a buyer for Stark and Company, endeavored to assume a serious and important air at times.

He was an undersized and stocky man who did not seem to know how to dress very well or could not afford it. In contrast to his nephew’s almost immaculate garb, his own suit was far from perfect-fitting. It was unpressed and slightly soiled. And his tie the same. He had a habit of rubbing his hands in a clerkly fashion, of wrinkling his brows and scratching the back of his head at times, as though something he was about to say had cost him great thought and was of the utmost importance. Whereas, nothing that he uttered, as even Clyde could see, was of the slightest importance.

And so, too, with the stout and large Mrs. Wilson, who stood beside him while he was attempting to rise to the importance of Clyde. She merely beamed a fatty beam. She was almost ponderous, and pink, with a tendency to a double chin. She smiled and smiled, largely because she was naturally genial and on her good behavior here, but incidentally because Clyde was who he was. For as Clyde himself could see, Walter Dillard had lost no time in impressing his relatives with the fact that he was a Griffiths. Also that he had encountered and made a friend of him and that he was now chaperoning him locally.

“Walter has been telling us that you have just come on here to work for your uncle. You’re at Mrs. Cuppy’s now, I understand. I don’t know her but I’ve always heard she keeps such a nice, refined place. Mr. Parsley, who lives here with her, used to go to school with me. But I don’t see much of him any more. Did you meet him yet?”

“No, I didn’t,” said Clyde in return.

“Well, you know, we expected you last Sunday to dinner, only Walter had to go home. But you must come soon. Any time at all. I would love to have you.” She beamed and her small grayish brown eyes twinkled.

Clyde could see that because of the fame of his uncle he was looked upon as a social find, really. And so it was with the remainder of this company, old and young—the Rev. Peter Isreals and his wife; Mr. Micah Bumpus, a local vendor of printing inks, and his wife and son; Mr. and Mrs. Maximilian Pick, Mr. Pick being a wholesale and retail dealer in hay, grain and feed; Mr. Witness, a florist, and Mrs. Throop, a local real estate dealer. All knew Samuel Griffiths and his family by reputation and it seemed not a little interesting and strange to all of them that Clyde, a real nephew of so rich a man, should be here in their midst. The only trouble with this was that Clyde’s manner was very soft and not as impressive as it should be—not so aggressive and contemptuous. And most of them were of that type of mind that respects insolence even where it pretends to condemn it.

In so far as the young girls were concerned, it was even more noticeable. For Dillard was making this important relationship of Clyde’s perfectly plain to every one. “This is Clyde Griffiths, the nephew of Samuel Griffiths, Mr. Gilbert Griffiths’ cousin, you know. He’s just come on here to study the collar business in his uncle’s factory.” And Clyde, who realized how shallow was this pretense, was still not a little pleased and impressed by the effect of it all. This Dillard’s effrontery. The brassy way in which, because of Clyde, he presumed to patronize these people. On this occasion, he kept guiding Clyde here and there, refusing for the most part to leave him alone for an instant. In fact he was determined that all whom he knew and liked among the girls and young men should know who and what Clyde was and that he was presenting him. Also that those whom he did not like should see as little of him as possible—not be introduced at all. “She don’t amount to anything. Her father only keeps a small garage here. I wouldn’t bother with her if I were you.” Or, “He isn’t much around here. Just a clerk in our store.” At the same time, in regard to some others, he was all smiles and compliments, or at worst apologetic for their social lacks.

And then he was introduced to Zella Shuman and Rita Dickerman, who, for reasons of their own, not the least among which was a desire to appear a little wise and more sophisticated than the others here, came a little late. And it was true, as Clyde was to find out afterwards, that they were different, too—less simple and restricted than quite all of the girls whom Dillard had thus far introduced him to. They were not as sound religiously and morally as were these others. And as even Clyde noted on meeting them, they were as keen for as close an approach to pagan pleasure without admitting it to themselves, as it was possible to be and not be marked for what they were. And in consequence, there was something in their manner, the very spirit of the introduction, which struck him as different from the tone of the rest of this church group—not exactly morally or religiously unhealthy but rather much freer, less repressed, less reserved than were these others.

“Oh, so you’re Mr. Clyde Griffiths,” observed Zella Shuman. “My, you look a lot like your cousin, don’t you? I see him driving down Central Avenue ever so often. Walter has been telling us all about you. Do you like Lycurgus?”

The way she said “Walter,” together with something intimate and possessive in the tone of her voice, caused Clyde to feel at once that she must feel rather closer to and freer with Dillard than he himself had indicated. A small scarlet bow of velvet ribbon at her throat, two small garnet earrings in her ears, a very trim and tight-fitting black dress, with a heavily flounced skirt, seemed to indicate that she was not opposed to showing her figure, and prized it, a mood which except for a demure and rather retiring poise which she affected, would most certainly have excited comment in such a place as this.

Rita Dickerman, on the other hand, was lush and blonde, with pink cheeks, light chestnut hair, and bluish gray eyes. Lacking the aggressive smartness which characterized Zella Shuman, she still radiated a certain something which to Clyde seemed to harmonize with the liberal if secret mood of her friend. Her manner, as Clyde could see, while much less suggestive of masked bravado was yielding and to him designedly so, as well as naturally provocative. It had been arranged that she was to intrigue him. Very much fascinated by Zella Shuman and in tow of her, they were inseparable. And when Clyde was introduced to her, she beamed upon him in a melting and sensuous way which troubled him not a little. For here in Lycurgus, as he was telling himself at the time, he must be very careful with whom he became familiar. And yet, unfortunately, as in the case of Hortense Briggs, she evoked thoughts of intimacy, however unproblematic or distant, which troubled him. But he must be careful. It was just such a free attitude as this suggested by Dillard as well as these girls’ manners that had gotten him into trouble before.

“Now we’ll just have a little ice cream and cake,” suggested Dillard, after the few preliminary remarks were over, “and then we can get out of here. You two had better go around together and hand out a few hellos. Then we can meet at the ice cream booth. After that, if you say so, we’ll leave, eh? What do you say?”

He looked at Zella Shuman as much as to say: “You know what is the best thing to do,” and she smiled and replied:

“That’s right. We can’t leave right away. I see my cousin Mary over there. And Mother. And Fred Bruckner. Rita and I’ll just go around by ourselves for a while and then we’ll meet you, see.” And Rita Dickerman forthwith bestowed upon Clyde an intimate and possessive smile.

After about twenty minutes of drifting and browsing, Dillard received some signal from Zella, and he and Clyde paused near the ice cream booth with its chairs in the center of the room. In a few moments they were casually joined by Zella and Rita, with whom they had some ice cream and cake. And then, being free of all obligations and as some of the others were beginning to depart, Dillard observed: “Let’s beat it. We can go over to your place, can’t we?”

“Sure, sure,” whispered Zella, and together they made their way to the coat room. Clyde was still so dubious as to the wisdom of all this that he was inclined to be a little silent. He did not know whether he was fascinated by Rita or not. But once out in the street out of view of the church and the homing amusement seekers, he and Rita found themselves together, Zella and Dillard having walked on ahead. And although Clyde had taken her arm, as he thought fit, she maneuvered it free and laid a warm and caressing hand on his elbow. And she nudged quite close to him, shoulder to shoulder, and half leaning on him, began pattering of the life of Lycurgus.

There was something very furry and caressing about her voice now. Clyde liked it. There was something heavy and languorous about her body, a kind of ray or electron that intrigued and lured him in spite of himself. He felt that he would like to caress her arm and might if he wished—that he might even put his arm around her waist, and so soon. Yet here he was, a Griffiths, he was shrewd enough to think—a Lycurgus Griffiths—and that was what now made a difference—that made all those girls at this church social seem so much more interested in him and so friendly. Yet in spite of this thought, he did squeeze her arm ever so slightly and without reproach or comment from her.

And once in the Shuman home, which was a large old-fashioned square frame house with a square cupola, very retired among some trees and a lawn, they made themselves at home in a general living room which was much more handsomely furnished than any home with which Clyde had been identified heretofore. Dillard at once began sorting the records, with which he seemed most familiar, and to pull two rather large rugs out of the way, revealing a smooth, hardwood floor.

“There’s one thing about this house and these trees and these soft-toned needles,” he commented for Clyde’s benefit, of course, since he was still under the impression that Clyde might be and probably was a very shrewd person who was watching his every move here. “You can’t hear a note of this Victrola out in the street, can you, Zell? Nor upstairs, either, really, not with the soft needles. We’ve played it down here and danced to it several times, until three and four in the morning and they didn’t even know it upstairs, did they, Zell?”

“That’s right. But then Father’s a little hard of hearing. And Mother don’t hear anything, either, when she gets in her room and gets to reading. But it is hard to hear at that.”

“Why do people object so to dancing here?” asked Clyde.

“Oh, they don’t—not the factory people—not at all,” put in Dillard, “but most of the church people do. My uncle and aunt do. And nearly everyone else we met at the church to-night, except Zell and Rita.” He gave them a most approving and encouraging glance. “And they’re too broad-minded to let a little thing like that bother them. Ain’t that right, Zell?”

This young girl, who was very much fascinated by him, laughed and nodded, “You bet, that’s right. I can’t see any harm in it.”

“Nor me, either,” put in Rita, “nor my father and mother. Only they don’t like to say anything about it or make me feel that they want me to do too much of it.”

Dillard by then had started a piece entitled “Brown Eyes” and immediately Clyde and Rita and Dillard and Zella began to dance, and Clyde found himself insensibly drifting into a kind of intimacy with this girl which boded he could scarcely say what. She danced so warmly and enthusiastically—a kind of weaving and swaying motion which suggested all sorts of repressed enthusiasms. And her lips were at once wreathed with a kind of lyric smile which suggested a kind of hunger for this thing. And she was very pretty, more so dancing and smiling than at any other time.

“She is delicious,” thought Clyde, “even if she is a little soft. Any fellow would do almost as well as me, but she likes me because she thinks I’m somebody.” And almost at the same moment she observed: “Isn’t it just too gorgeous? And you’re such a good dancer, Mr. Griffiths.”

“Oh, no,” he replied, smiling into her eyes, “you’re the one that’s the dancer. I can dance because you’re dancing with me.”

He could feel now that her arms were large and soft, her bosom full for one so young. Exhilarated by dancing, she was quite intoxicating, her gestures almost provoking.

“Now we’ll put on ‘The Love Boat,’” called Dillard the moment “Brown Eyes” was ended, “and you and Zella can dance together and Rita and I will have a spin, eh, Rita?”

He was so fascinated by his own skill as a dancer, however, as well as his natural joy in the art, that he could scarcely wait to begin another, but must take Rita by the arms before putting on another record, gliding here and there, doing steps and executing figures which Clyde could not possibly achieve and which at once established Dillard as the superior dancer. Then, having done so, he called to Clyde to put on “The Love Boat.”

But as Clyde could see after dancing with Zella once, this was planned to be a happy companionship of two mutually mated couples who would not interfere with each other in any way, but rather would aid each other in their various schemes to enjoy one another’s society. For while Zella danced with Clyde, and danced well and talked to him much, all the while he could feel that she was interested in Dillard and Dillard only and would prefer to be with him. For, after a few dances, and while he and Rita lounged on a settee and talked, Zella and Dillard left the room to go to the kitchen for a drink. Only, as Clyde observed, they stayed much longer than any single drink would have required.

And similarly, during this interval, it seemed as though it was intended even, by Rita, that he and she should draw closer to one another. For, finding the conversation on the settee lagging for a moment, she got up and apropos of nothing—no music and no words—motioned him to dance some more with her. She had danced certain steps with Dillard which she pretended to show Clyde. But because of their nature, these brought her and Clyde into closer contact than before—very much so. And standing so close together and showing Clyde by elbow and arm how to do, her face and cheek came very close to him—too much for his own strength of will and purpose. He pressed his cheek to hers and she turned smiling and encouraging eyes upon him. On the instant, his self-possession was gone and he kissed her lips. And then again—and again. And instead of withdrawing them, as he thought she might, she let him—remained just as she was in order that he might kiss her more.

And suddenly now, as he felt this yielding of her warm body so close to him, and the pressure of her lips in response to his own, he realized that he had let himself in for a relationship which might not be so very easy to modify or escape. Also that it would be a very difficult thing for him to resist, since he now liked her and obviously she liked him.