An American Tragedy Chapter 12

Now trivial as this contact may seem to some, it was of the utmost significance to Clyde. Up to this time he had never seen a girl with so much charm who would deign to look at him, or so he imagined. And now he had found one, and she was pretty and actually interested sufficiently to accompany him to dinner and to a show. It was true, perhaps, that she was a flirt, and not really sincere with any one, and that maybe at first he could not expect her to center her attentions on him, but who knew—who could tell?

And true to her promise on the following Tuesday she met him at the corner of 14th Street and Wyandotte, near the Green-Davidson. And so excited and flattered and enraptured was he that he could scarcely arrange his jumbled thoughts and emotions in any seemly way. But to show that he was worthy of her, he had made an almost exotic toilet—hair pomaded, a butterfly tie, new silk muffler and silk socks to emphasize his bright brown shoes, purchased especially for the occasion.

But once he had re├źncountered Hortense, whether all this was of any import to her he could not tell. For, after all, it was her own appearance, not his, that interested her. And what was more—a trick with her—she chose to keep him waiting until nearly seven o’clock, a delay which brought about in him the deepest dejection of spirit for the time being. For supposing, after all, in the interval, she had decided that she did not care for him and did not wish to see him any more. Well, then he would have to do without her, of course. But that would prove that he was not interesting to a girl as pretty as she was, despite all the nice clothes he was now able to wear and the money he could spend. He was determined that, girl or no girl, he would not have one who was not pretty. Ratterer and Hegglund did not seem to mind whether the girl they knew was attractive or not, but with him it was a passion. The thought of being content with one not so attractive almost nauseated him.

And yet here he was now, on the street corner in the dark—the flare of many signs and lights about, hundreds of pedestrians hurrying hither and thither, the thought of pleasurable intentions and engagements written upon the faces of many—and he, he alone, might have to turn and go somewhere else—eat alone, go to a theater alone, go home alone, and then to work again in the morning. He had just about concluded that he was a failure when out of the crowd, a little distance away, emerged the face and figure of Hortense. She was smartly dressed in a black velvet jacket with a reddish-brown collar and cuffs, and a bulgy, round tam of the same material with a red leather buckle on the side. And her cheeks and lips were rouged a little. And her eyes sparkled. And as usual she gave herself all the airs of one very well content with herself.

“Oh, hello, I’m late, ain’t I? I couldn’t help it. You see, I forgot I had another appointment with a fella, a friend of mine—gee, a peach of a boy, too, and it was only at six I remembered that I had the two dates. Well, I was in a mess then. So I had to do something about one of you. I was just about to call you up and make a date for another night, only I remembered you wouldn’t be at your place after six. Tom never is. And Charlie always is in his place till six-thirty, anyhow, sometimes later, and he’s a peach of a fella that way—never grouchy or nothing. And he was goin’ to take me to the theater and to dinner, too. He has charge of the cigar stand over here at the Orphia. So I called him up. Well, he didn’t like it so very much. But I told him I’d make it another night. Now, aintcha glad? Dontcha think I’m pretty nice to you, disappointin’ a good-lookin’ fella like Charlie for you?”

She had caught a glimpse of the disturbed and jealous and yet fearsome look in Clyde’s eyes as she talked of another. And the thought of making him jealous was a delight to her. She realized that he was very much smitten with her. So she tossed her head and smiled, falling into step with him as he moved up the street.

“You bet it was nice of you to come,” he forced himself to say, even though the reference to Charlie as a “peach of a fella” seemed to affect his throat and his heart at the same time. What chance had he to hold a girl who was so pretty and self-willed? “Gee, you look swell to-night,” he went on, forcing himself to talk and surprising himself a little with his ability to do so. “I like the way that hat looks on you, and your coat too.” He looked directly at her, his eyes lit with admiration, an eager yearning filling them. He would have liked to have kissed her—her pretty mouth—only he did not dare here, or anywhere as yet.

“I don’t wonder you have to turn down engagements. You’re pretty enough. Don’t you want some roses to wear?” They were passing a flower store at the moment and the sight of them put the thought of the gift in his mind. He had heard Hegglund say that women liked fellows who did things for them.

“Oh, sure, I would like some roses,” she replied, turning into the place. “Or maybe some of those violets. They look pretty. They go better with this jacket, I think.”

She was pleased to think that Clyde was sporty enough to think of flowers. Also that he was saying such nice things about her. At the same time she was convinced that he was a boy who had had little, if anything, to do with girls. And she preferred youths and men who were more experienced, not so easily flattered by her—not so easy to hold. Yet she could not help thinking that Clyde was a better type of boy or man than she was accustomed to—more refined. And for that reason, in spite of his gaucheness (in her eyes) she was inclined to tolerate him—to see how he would do.

“Well, these are pretty nifty,” she exclaimed, picking up a rather large bouquet of violets and pinning them on. “I think I’ll wear these.” And while Clyde paid for them, she posed before the mirror, adjusting them to her taste. At last, being satisfied as to their effect, she turned and exclaimed, “Well, I’m ready,” and took him by the arm.

Clyde, being not a little overawed by her spirit and mannerisms, was at a loss what else to say for the moment, but he need not have worried—her chief interest in life was herself.

“Gee, I tell you I had a swift week of it last week. Out every night until three. An’ Sunday until nearly morning. My, that was some rough party I was to last night, all right. Ever been down to Burkett’s at Gifford’s Ferry? Oh, a nifty place, all right, right over the Big Blue at 39th. Dancing in summer and you can skate outside when it’s frozen in winter or dance on the ice. An’ the niftiest little orchestra.”

Clyde watched the play of her mouth and the brightness of her eyes and the swiftness of her gestures without thinking so much of what she said—very little.

“Wallace Trone was along with us—gee, he’s a scream of a kid—and afterwards when we was sittin’ down to eat ice cream, he went out in the kitchen and blacked up an’ put on a waiter’s apron and coat and then comes back and serves us. That’s one funny boy. An’ he did all sorts of funny stuff with the dishes and spoons.” Clyde sighed because he was by no means as gifted as the gifted Trone.

“An’ then, Monday morning, when we all got back it was nearly four, and I had to get up again at seven. I was all in. I coulda chucked my job, and I woulda, only for the nice people down at the store and Mr. Beck. He’s the head of my department, you know, and say, how I do plague that poor man. I sure am hard on that store. One day I comes in late after lunch; one of the other girls punched the clock for me with my key, see, and he was out in the hall and he saw her, and he says to me afterwards, about two in the afternoon, ‘Say look here, Miss Briggs’ (he always calls me Miss Briggs, ’cause I won’t let him call me nothing else. He’d try to get fresh if I did), ‘that loanin’ that key stuff don’t go. Cut that stuff out now. This ain’t no Follies.’ I had to laugh. He does get so sore at times at all of us. But I put him in his place just the same. He’s kinda soft on me, you know—he wouldn’t fire me for worlds, not him. So I says to him, ‘See here, Mr. Beck, you can’t talk to me in any such style as that. I’m not in the habit of comin’ late often. An’ wot’s more, this ain’t the only place I can work in K.C. If I can’t be late once in a while without hearin’ about it, you can just send up for my time, that’s all, see.’ I wasn’t goin’ to let him get away with that stuff. And just as I thought, he weakened. All he says was, ‘Well, just the same, I’m warnin’ you. Next time maybe Mr. Tierney’ll see you an’ then you’ll get a chance to try some other store, all right.’ He knew he was bluffing and that I did, too. I had to laugh. An’ I saw him laughin’ with Mr. Scott about two minutes later. But, gee, I certainly do pull some raw stuff around there at times.”

By then she and Clyde, with scarcely a word on his part, and much to his ease and relief, had reached Frissell’s. And for the first time in his life he had the satisfaction of escorting a girl to a table in such a place. Now he really was beginning to have a few experiences worthy of the name. He was quite on edge with the romance of it. Because of her very high estimate of herself, her very emphatic picture of herself as one who was intimate with so many youths and girls who were having a good time, he felt that up to this hour he had not lived at all. Swiftly he thought of the different things she had told him—Burkett’s on the Big Blue, skating and dancing on the ice—Charlie Trone—the young tobacco clerk with whom she had had the engagement for to-night—Mr. Beck at the store who was so struck on her that he couldn’t bring himself to fire her. And as he saw her order whatever she liked, without any thought of his purse, he contemplated quickly her face, figure, the shape of her hands, so suggestive always of the delicacy or roundness of the arm, the swell of her bust, already very pronounced, the curve of her eyebrows, the rounded appeal of her smooth cheeks and chin. There was something also about the tone of her voice, unctuous, smooth, which somehow appealed to and disturbed him. To him it was delicious. Gee, if he could only have such a girl all for himself!

And in here, as without, she clattered on about herself, not at all impressed, apparently, by the fact that she was dining here, a place that to him had seemed quite remarkable. When she was not looking at herself in a mirror, she was studying the bill of fare and deciding what she liked—lamb with mint jelly—no omelette, no beef—oh, yes, filet of mignon with mushrooms. She finally compromised on that with celery and cauliflower. And she would like a cocktail. Oh, yes, Clyde had heard Hegglund say that no meal was worth anything without a few drinks, so now he had mildly suggested a cocktail. And having secured that and a second, she seemed warmer and gayer and more gossipy than ever.

But all the while, as Clyde noticed, her attitude in so far as he was concerned was rather distant—impersonal. If for so much as a moment, he ventured to veer the conversation ever so slightly to themselves, his deep personal interest in her, whether she was really very deeply concerned about any other youth, she threw him off by announcing that she liked all the boys, really. They were all so lovely—so nice to her. They had to be. When they weren’t, she didn’t have anything more to do with them. She “tied a can to them,” as she once expressed it. Her quick eyes clicked and she tossed her head defiantly.

And Clyde was captivated by all this. Her gestures, her poses, moues and attitudes were sensuous and suggestive. She seemed to like to tease, promise, lay herself open to certain charges and conclusions and then to withhold and pretend that there was nothing to all of this—that she was very unconscious of anything save the most reserved thoughts in regard to herself. In the main, Clyde was thrilled and nourished by this mere proximity to her. It was torture, and yet a sweet kind of torture. He was full of the most tantalizing thoughts about how wonderful it would be if only he were permitted to hold her close, kiss her mouth, bite her, even. To cover her mouth with his! To smother her with kisses! To crush and pet her pretty figure! She would look at him at moments with deliberate, swimming eyes, and he actually felt a little sick and weak—almost nauseated. His one dream was that by some process, either of charm or money, he could make himself interesting to her.

And yet after going with her to the theater and taking her home again, he could not see that he had made any noticeable progress. For throughout the performance of “The Corsair” at Libby’s, Hortense, who, because of her uncertain interest in him was really interested in the play, talked of nothing but similar shows she had seen, as well as of actors and actresses and what she thought of them, and what particular youth had taken her. And Clyde, instead of leading her in wit and defiance and matching her experiences with his own, was compelled to content himself with approving of her.

And all the time she was thinking that she had made another real conquest. And because she was no longer virtuous, and she was convinced that he had some little money to spend, and could be made to spend it on her, she conceived the notion of being sufficiently agreeable—nothing more—to hold him, keep him attentive, if possible, while at the same time she went her own way, enjoying herself as much as possible with others and getting Clyde to buy and do such things for her as might fill gaps—when she was not sufficiently or amusingly enough engaged elsewhere.