An American Tragedy Chapter 9

Apart from the momentary thrill and zest of this, the effect was to throw Clyde, as before, speculatively back upon the problem of his proper course here. For here was this girl, and she was approaching him in this direct and suggestive way. And so soon after telling himself and his mother that his course was to be so different here—no such approaches or relationships as had brought on his downfall in Kansas City. And yet—and yet—

He was sorely tempted now, for in his contact with Rita he had the feeling that she was expecting him to suggest a further step—and soon. But just how and where? Not in connection with this large, strange house. There were other rooms apart from the kitchen to which Dillard and Zella had ostensibly departed. But even so, such a relationship once established! What then? Would he not be expected to continue it, or let himself in for possible complications in case he did not? He danced with and fondled her in a daring and aggressive fashion, yet thinking as he did so, “But this is not what I should be doing either, is it? This is Lycurgus. I am a Griffiths, here. I know how these people feel toward me—their parents even. Do I really care for her? Is there not something about her quick and easy availability which, if not exactly dangerous in so far as my future here is concerned, is not quite satisfactory,—too quickly intimate?” He was experiencing a sensation not unrelated to his mood in connection with the lupanar in Kansas City—attracted and yet repulsed. He could do no more than kiss and fondle her here in a somewhat restrained way until at last Dillard and Zella returned, whereupon the same degree of intimacy was no longer possible.

A clock somewhere striking two, it suddenly occurred to Rita that she must be going—her parents would object to her staying out so late. And since Dillard gave no evidence of deserting Zella, it followed, of course, that Clyde was to see her home, a pleasure that now had been allayed by a vague suggestion of disappointment or failure on the part of both. He had not risen to her expectations, he thought. Obviously he lacked the courage yet to follow up the proffer of her favors, was the way she explained it to herself.

At her own door, not so far distant, and with a conversation which was still tinctured with intimations of some future occasions which might prove more favorable,—her attitude was decidedly encouraging, even here. They parted, but with Clyde still saying to himself that this new relationship was developing much too swiftly. He was not sure that he should undertake a relationship such as this here—so soon, anyhow. Where now were all his fine decisions made before coming here? What was he going to decide? And yet because of the sensual warmth and magnetism of Rita, he was irritated by his resolution and his inability to proceed as he otherwise might.

Two things which eventually decided him in regard to this came quite close together. One related to the attitude of the Griffiths themselves, which, apart from that of Gilbert, was not one of opposition or complete indifference, so much as it was a failure on the part of Samuel Griffiths in the first instance and the others largely because of him to grasp the rather anomalous, if not exactly lonely position in which Clyde would find himself here unless the family chose to show him at least some little courtesy or advise him cordially from time to time. Yet Samuel Griffiths, being always very much pressed for time, had scarcely given Clyde a thought during the first month, at least. He was here, properly placed, as he heard, would be properly looked after in the future,—what more, just now, at least?

And so for all of five weeks before any action of any kind was taken, and with Gilbert Griffiths comforted thereby, Clyde was allowed to drift along in his basement world wondering what was being intended in connection with himself. The attitude of others, including Dillard and these girls, finally made his position here seem strange.

However, about a month after Clyde had arrived, and principally because Gilbert seemed so content to say nothing regarding him, the elder Griffiths inquired one day:

“Well, what about your cousin? How’s he doing by now?” And Gilbert, only a little worried as to what this might bode, replied, “Oh, he’s all right. I started him off in the shrinking room. Is that all right?”

“Yes, I think so. That’s as good a place as any for him to begin, I believe. But what do you think of him by now?”

“Oh,” answered Gilbert very conservatively and decidedly independently—a trait for which his father had always admired him—“Not so much. He’s all right, I guess. He may work out. But he does not strike me as a fellow who would ever make much of a stir in this game. He hasn’t had much of an education of any kind, you know. Any one can see that. Besides, he’s not so very aggressive or energetic-looking. Too soft, I think. Still I don’t want to knock him. He may be all right. You like him and I may be wrong. But I can’t help but think that his real idea in coming here is that you’ll do more for him than you would for someone else, just because he is related to you.”

“Oh, you think he does. Well, if he does, he’s wrong.” But at the same time, he added, and that with a bantering smile: “He may not be as impractical as you think, though. He hasn’t been here long enough for us to really tell, has he? He didn’t strike me that way in Chicago. Besides there are a lot of little corners into which he might fit, aren’t there, without any great waste, even if he isn’t the most talented fellow in the world? If he’s content to take a small job in life, that’s his business. I can’t prevent that. But at any rate, I don’t want him sent away yet, anyhow, and I don’t want him put on piece work. It wouldn’t look right. After all, he is related to us. Just let him drift along for a little while and see what he does for himself.”

“All right, governor,” replied his son, who was hoping that his father would absent-mindedly let him stay where he was—in the lowest of all the positions the factory had to offer.

But, now, and to his dissatisfaction, Samuel Griffiths proceeded to add, “We’ll have to have him out to the house for dinner pretty soon, won’t we? I have thought of that but I haven’t been able to attend to it before. I should have spoken to Mother about it before this. He hasn’t been out yet, has he?”

“No, sir, not that I know of,” replied Gilbert dourly. He did not like this at all, but was too tactful to show his opposition just here. “We’ve been waiting for you to say something about it, I suppose.”

“Very well,” went on Samuel, “you’d better find out where he’s stopping and have him out. Next Sunday wouldn’t be a bad time, if we haven’t anything else on.” Noting a flicker of doubt or disapproval in his son’s eyes, he added: “After all, Gil, he’s my nephew and your cousin, and we can’t afford to ignore him entirely. That wouldn’t be right, you know, either. You’d better speak to your mother to-night, or I will, and arrange it.” He closed the drawer of a desk in which he had been looking for certain papers, got up and took down his hat and coat and left the office.

In consequence of this discussion, an invitation was sent to Clyde for the following Sunday at six-thirty to appear and participate in a Griffiths family meal. On Sunday at one-thirty was served the important family dinner to which usually was invited one or another of the various local or visiting friends of the family. At six-thirty nearly all of these guests had departed, and sometimes one or two of the Griffiths themselves, the cold collation served being partaken of by Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths and Myra—Bella and Gilbert usually having appointments elsewhere.

On this occasion, however, as Mrs. Griffiths and Myra and Bella decided in conference, they would all be present with the exception of Gilbert, who, because of his opposition as well as another appointment, explained that he would stop in for only a moment before leaving. Thus Clyde as Gilbert was pleased to note would be received and entertained without the likelihood of contacts, introductions and explanations to such of their more important connections who might chance to stop in during the afternoon. They would also have an opportunity to study him for themselves and see what they really did think without committing themselves in any way.

But in the meantime in connection with Dillard, Rita and Zella there had been a development which, because of the problem it had posed, was to be affected by this very decision on the part of the Griffiths. For following the evening at the Shuman home, and because, in spite of Clyde’s hesitation at the time, all three including Rita herself, were still convinced that he must or would be smitten with her charms, there had been various hints, as well as finally a direct invitation or proposition on the part of Dillard to the effect that because of the camaraderie which had been established between himself and Clyde and these two girls, they make a week-end trip somewhere—preferably to Utica or Albany. The girls would go, of course. He could fix that through Zella with Rita for Clyde if he had any doubts or fears as to whether it could be negotiated or not. “You know she likes you. Zell was telling me the other day that she said she thought you were the candy. Some ladies’ man, eh?” And he nudged Clyde genially and intimately,—a proceeding in this newer and grander world in which he now found himself,—and considering who he was here, was not as appealing to Clyde as it otherwise might have been. These fellows who were so pushing where they thought a fellow amounted to something more than they did! He could tell.

At the same time, the proposition he was now offering—as thrilling and intriguing as it might be from one point of view—was likely to cause him endless trouble—was it not? In the first place he had no money—only fifteen dollars a week here so far—and if he was going to be expected to indulge in such expensive outings as these, why, of course, he could not manage. Carfare, meals, a hotel bill, maybe an automobile ride or two. And after that he would be in close contact with this Rita whom he scarcely knew. And might she not take it on herself to become intimate here in Lycurgus, maybe—expect him to call on her regularly—and go places—and then—well, gee—supposing the Griffiths—his cousin Gilbert, heard of or saw this. Hadn’t Zella said that she saw him often on the street here and there in Lycurgus? And wouldn’t they be likely to encounter him somewhere—sometime—when they were all together? And wouldn’t that fix him as being intimate with just another store clerk like Dillard who didn’t amount to so much after all? It might even mean the end of his career here! Who could tell what it might lead to?

He coughed and made various excuses. Just now he had a lot of work to do. Besides—a venture like that—he would have to see first. His relatives, you know. Besides next Sunday and the Sunday after, some extra work in connection with the factory was going to hold him in Lycurgus. After that time he would see. Actually, in his wavering way—and various disturbing thoughts as to Rita’s charm returning to him at moments, he was wondering if it was not desirable—his other decision to the contrary notwithstanding, to skimp himself as much as possible over two or three weeks and so go anyhow. He had been saving something toward a new dress suit and collapsible silk hat. Might he not use some of that—even though he knew the plan to be all wrong?

The fair, plump, sensuous Rita!

But then, not at that very moment—but in the interim following, the invitation from the Griffiths. Returning from his work one evening very tired and still cogitating this gay adventure proposed by Dillard, he found lying on the table in his room a note written on very heavy and handsome paper which had been delivered by one of the servants of the Griffiths in his absence. It was all the more arresting to him because on the flap of the envelope was embossed in high relief the initials “E. G.” He at once tore it open and eagerly read:


“Since your arrival my husband has been away most of the time, and although we have wished to have you with us before, we have thought it best to await his leisure. He is freer now and we will be very glad if you can find it convenient to come to supper with us at six o’clock next Sunday. We dine very informally—just ourselves—so in case you can or cannot come, you need not bother to write or telephone. And you need not dress for this occasion either. But come if you can. We will be happy to see you.

“Sincerely, your aunt,


On reading this Clyde, who, during all this silence and the prosecution of a task in the shrinking room which was so eminently distasteful to him, was being more and more weighed upon by the thought that possibly, after all, this quest of his was going to prove a vain one and that he was going to be excluded from any real contact with his great relatives, was most romantically and hence impractically heartened. For only see—here was this grandiose letter with its “very happy to see you,” which seemed to indicate that perhaps, after all, they did not think so badly of him. Mr. Samuel Griffiths had been away all the time. That was it. Now he would get to see his aunt and cousins and the inside of that great house. It must be very wonderful. They might even take him up after this—who could tell? But how remarkable that he should be taken up now, just when he had about decided that they would not.

And forthwith his interest in, as well as his weakness for, Rita, if not Zella and Dillard began to evaporate. What! Mix with people so far below him—a Griffiths—in the social scale here and at the cost of endangering his connection with that important family. Never! It was a great mistake. Didn’t this letter coming just at this time prove it? And fortunately—(how fortunately!)—he had had the good sense not to let himself in for anything as yet. And so now, without much trouble, and because, most likely from now on it would prove necessary for him so to do he could gradually eliminate himself from this contact with Dillard—move away from Mrs. Cuppy’s—if necessary, or say that his uncle had cautioned him—anything, but not go with this crowd any more, just the same. It wouldn’t do. It would endanger his prospects in connection with this new development. And instead of troubling over Rita and Utica now, he began to formulate for himself once more the essential nature of the private life of the Griffiths, the fascinating places they must go, the interesting people with whom they must be in contact. And at once he began to think of the need of a dress suit, or at least a tuxedo and trousers. Accordingly the next morning, he gained permission from Mr. Kemerer to leave at eleven and not return before one, and in that time he managed to find coat, trousers and a pair of patent leather shoes, as well as a white silk muffler for the money he had already saved. And so arrayed he felt himself safe. He must make a good impression.

And for the entire time between then and Sunday evening, instead of thinking of Rita or Dillard or Zella any more, he was thinking of this opportunity. Plainly it was an event to be admitted to the presence of such magnificence.

The only drawback to all this, as he well sensed now, was this same Gilbert Griffiths, who surveyed him always whenever he met him anywhere with such hard, cold eyes. He might be there, and then he would probably assume that superior attitude, to make him feel his inferior position, if he could—and Clyde had the weakness at times of admitting to himself that he could. And no doubt, if he (Clyde) sought to carry himself with too much of an air in the presence of this family, Gilbert most likely would seek to take it out of him in some way later in connection with the work in the factory. He might see to it, for instance, that his father heard only unfavorable things about him. And, of course, if he were retained in this wretched shrinking room, and given no show of any kind, how could he expect to get anywhere or be anybody? It was just his luck that on arriving here he should find this same Gilbert looking almost like him and being so opposed to him for obviously no reason at all.

However, despite all his doubts, he decided to make the best of this opportunity, and accordingly on Sunday evening at six set out for the Griffiths’ residence, his nerves decidedly taut because of the ordeal before him. And when he reached the main gate, a large, arched wrought iron affair which gave in on a wide, winding brick walk which led to the front entrance, he lifted the heavy latch which held the large iron gates in place, with almost a quaking sense of adventure. And as he approached along the walk, he felt as though he might well be the object of observant and critical eyes. Perhaps Mr. Samuel or Mr. Gilbert Griffiths or one or the other of the two sisters was looking at him now from one of those heavily curtained windows. On the lower floor several lights glowed with a soft and inviting radiance.

This mood, however, was brief. For soon the door was opened by a servant who took his coat and invited him into the very large living room, which was very impressive. To Clyde, even after the Green-Davidson and the Union League, it seemed a very beautiful room. It contained so many handsome pieces of furniture and such rich rugs and hangings. A fire burned in the large, high fireplace before which was circled a number of divans and chairs. There were lamps, a tall clock, a great table. No one was in the room at the moment, but presently as Clyde fidgeted and looked about he heard a rustling of silk to the rear, where a great staircase descended from the rooms above. And from there he saw Mrs. Griffiths approaching him, a bland and angular and faded-looking woman. But her walk was brisk, her manner courteous, if non-committal, as was her custom always, and after a few moments of conversation he found himself peaceful and fairly comfortable in her presence.

“My nephew, I believe,” she smiled.

“Yes,” replied Clyde simply, and because of his nervousness, with unusual dignity. “I am Clyde Griffiths.”

“I’m very glad to see you and to welcome you to our home,” began Mrs. Griffiths with a certain amount of aplomb which years of contact with the local high world had given her at last. “And my children will be, too, of course. Bella is not here just now or Gilbert, either, but then they will be soon, I believe. My husband is resting, but I heard him stirring just now, and he’ll be down in a moment. Won’t you sit here?” She motioned to a large divan between them. “We dine nearly always alone here together on Sunday evening, so I thought it would be nice if you came just to be alone with us. How do you like Lycurgus now?”

She arranged herself on one of the large divans before the fire and Clyde rather awkwardly seated himself at a respectful distance from her.

“Oh, I like it very much,” he observed, exerting himself to be congenial and to smile. “Of course I haven’t seen so very much of it yet, but what I have I like. This street is one of the nicest I have ever seen anywhere,” he added enthusiastically. “The houses are so large and the grounds so beautiful.”

“Yes, we here in Lycurgus pride ourselves on Wykeagy Avenue,” smiled Mrs. Griffiths, who took no end of satisfaction in the grace and rank of her own home in this street. She and her husband had been so long climbing up to it. “Every one who sees it seems to feel the same way about it. It was laid out many years ago when Lycurgus was just a village. It is only within the last fifteen years that it has come to be as handsome as it is now.

“But you must tell me something about your mother and father. I never met either of them, you know, though, of course, I have heard my husband speak of them often—that is, of his brother, anyhow,” she corrected. “I don’t believe he ever met your mother. How is your father?”

“Oh, he’s quite well,” replied Clyde, simply. “And Mother, too. They’re living in Denver now. We did live for a while in Kansas City, but for the last three years they’ve been out there. I had a letter from Mother only the other day. She says everything is all right.”

“Then you keep up a correspondence with her, do you? That’s nice.” She smiled, for by now she had become interested by and, on the whole, rather taken with Clyde’s appearance. He looked so neat and generally presentable, so much like her own son that she was a little startled at first and intrigued on that score. If anything, Clyde was taller, better built and hence better looking, only she would never have been willing to admit that. For to her Gilbert, although he was intolerant and contemptuous even to her at times, simulating an affection which was as much a custom as a reality, was still a dynamic and aggressive person putting himself and his conclusions before everyone else. Whereas Clyde was more soft and vague and fumbling. Her son’s force must be due to the innate ability of her husband as well as the strain of some relatives in her own line who had not been unlike Gilbert, while Clyde probably drew his lesser force from the personal unimportance of his parents.

But having settled this problem in her son’s favor, Mrs. Griffiths was about to ask after his sisters and brothers, when they were interrupted by Samuel Griffiths who now approached. Measuring Clyde, who had risen, very sharply once more, and finding him very satisfactory in appearance at least, he observed: “Well, so here you are, eh? They’ve placed you, I believe, without my ever seeing you.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, very deferentially and half bowing in the presence of so great a man.

“Well, that’s all right. Sit down! Sit down! I’m very glad they did. I hear you’re working down in the shrinking room at present. Not exactly a pleasant place, but not such a bad place to begin, either—at the bottom. The best people start there sometimes.” He smiled and added: “I was out of the city when you came on or I would have seen you.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, who had not ventured to seat himself again until Mr. Griffiths had sunk into a very large stuffed chair near the divan. And the latter, now that he saw Clyde in an ordinary tuxedo with a smart pleated shirt and black tie, as opposed to the club uniform in which he had last seen him in Chicago, was inclined to think him even more attractive than before—not quite as negligible and unimportant as his son Gilbert had made out. Still, not being dead to the need of force and energy in business and sensing that Clyde was undoubtedly lacking in these qualities, he did now wish that Clyde had more vigor and vim in him. It would reflect more handsomely on the Griffiths end of the family and please his son more, maybe.

“Like it where you are now?” he observed condescendingly.

“Well, yes, sir, that is, I wouldn’t say that I like it exactly,” replied Clyde quite honestly. “But I don’t mind it. It’s as good as any other way to begin, I suppose.” The thought in his mind at the moment was that he would like to impress on his uncle that he was cut out for something better. And the fact that his cousin Gilbert was not present at the moment gave him the courage to say it.

“Well, that’s the proper spirit,” commented Samuel Griffiths, pleased. “It isn’t the most pleasant part of the process, I will admit, but it’s one of the most essential things to know, to begin with. And it takes a little time, of course, to get anywhere in any business these days.”

From this Clyde wondered how long he was to be left in that dim world below stairs.

But while he was thinking this Myra came forward, curious about him and what he would be like, and very pleased to see that he was not as uninteresting as Gilbert had painted him. There was something, as she now saw, about Clyde’s eyes—nervous and somewhat furtive and appealing or seeking—that at once interested her, and reminded her, perhaps, since she was not much of a success socially either, of something in herself.

“Your cousin, Clyde Griffiths, Myra,” observed Samuel rather casually, as Clyde arose. “My daughter Myra,” he added, to Clyde. “This is the young man I’ve been telling you about.”

Clyde bowed and then took the cool and not very vital hand that Myra extended to him, but feeling it just the same to be more friendly and considerate than the welcome of the others.

“Well, I hope you’ll like it, now that you’re here,” she began, genially. “We all like Lycurgus, only after Chicago I suppose it will not mean so very much to you.” She smiled and Clyde, feeling very formal and stiff in the presence of all these very superior relatives, now returned a stiff “thank you,” and was just about to seat himself when the outer door opened and Gilbert Griffiths strode in. The whirring of a motor had preceded this—a motor that had stopped outside the large east side entrance. “Just a minute, Dolge,” he called to some one outside. “I won’t be long.” Then turning to the family, he added: “Excuse me, folks, I’ll be back in a minute.” He dashed up the rear stairs, only to return after a time and confront Clyde, if not the others, with that same rather icy and inconsiderate air that had so far troubled him at the factory. He was wearing a light, belted motoring coat of a very pronounced stripe, and a dark leather cap and gauntlets which gave him almost a military air. After nodding to Clyde rather stiffly, and adding, “How do you do,” he laid a patronizing hand on his father’s shoulder and observed: “Hi, Dad. Hello, Mother. Sorry I can’t be with you to-night. But I just came over from Amsterdam with Dolge and Eustis to get Constance and Jacqueline. There’s some doings over at the Bridgemans’. But I’ll be back again before morning. Or at the office, anyhow. Everything all right with you, Mr. Griffiths?” he observed to his father.

“Yes, I have nothing to complain of,” returned his father. “But it seems to me you’re making a pretty long night of it, aren’t you?”

“Oh, I don’t mean that,” returned his son, ignoring Clyde entirely. “I just mean that if I can’t get back by two, I’ll stay over, that’s all, see.” He tapped his father genially on the shoulder again.

“I hope you’re not driving that car as fast as usual,” complained his mother. “It’s not safe at all.”

“Fifteen miles an hour, Mother. Fifteen miles an hour. I know the rules.” He smiled loftily.

Clyde did not fail to notice the tone of condescension and authority that went with all this. Plainly here, as at the factory, he was a person who had to be reckoned with. Apart from his father, perhaps, there was no one here to whom he offered any reverence. What a superior attitude, thought Clyde!

How wonderful it must be to be a son who, without having had to earn all this, could still be so much, take oneself so seriously, exercise so much command and authority. It might be, as it plainly was, that this youth was very superior and indifferent in tone toward him. But think of being such a youth, having so much power at one’s command!