An American Tragedy Chapter 1

The home of Samuel Griffiths in Lycurgus, New York, a city of some twenty-five thousand inhabitants midway between Utica and Albany. Near the dinner hour and by degrees the family assembling for its customary meal. On this occasion the preparations were of a more elaborate nature than usual, owing to the fact that for the past four days Mr. Samuel Griffiths, the husband and father, had been absent attending a conference of shirt and collar manufacturers in Chicago, price-cutting by upstart rivals in the west having necessitated compromise and adjustment by those who manufactured in the east. He was but now returned and had telephoned earlier in the afternoon that he had arrived, and was going to his office in the factory where he would remain until dinner time.

Being long accustomed to the ways of a practical and convinced man who believed in himself and considered his judgment and his decision sound—almost final—for the most part, anyhow, Mrs. Griffiths thought nothing of this. He would appear and greet her in due order.

Knowing that he preferred leg of lamb above many other things, after due word with Mrs. Truesdale, her homely but useful housekeeper, she ordered lamb. And the appropriate vegetables and dessert having been decided upon, she gave herself over to thoughts of her eldest daughter Myra, who, having graduated from Smith College several years before, was still unmarried. And the reason for this, as Mrs. Griffiths well understood, though she was never quite willing to admit it openly, was that Myra was not very good looking. Her nose was too long, her eyes too close-set, her chin not sufficiently rounded to give her a girlish and pleasing appearance. For the most part she seemed too thoughtful and studious—as a rule not interested in the ordinary social life of that city. Neither did she possess that savoir faire, let alone that peculiar appeal for men, that characterized some girls even when they were not pretty. As her mother saw it, she was really too critical and too intellectual, having a mind that was rather above the world in which she found herself.

Brought up amid comparative luxury, without having to worry about any of the rough details of making a living, she had been confronted, nevertheless, by the difficulties of making her own way in the matter of social favor and love—two objectives which, without beauty or charm, were about as difficult as the attaining to extreme wealth by a beggar. And the fact that for twelve years now—ever since she had been fourteen—she had seen the lives of other youths and maidens in this small world in which she moved passing gayly enough, while hers was more or less confined to reading, music, the business of keeping as neatly and attractively arrayed as possible, and of going to visit friends in the hope of possibly encountering somewhere, somehow, the one temperament who would be interested in her, had saddened, if not exactly soured her. And that despite the fact that the material comfort of her parents and herself was exceptional.

Just now she had gone through her mother’s room to her own, looking as though she were not very much interested in anything. Her mother had been trying to think of something to suggest that would take her out of herself, when the younger daughter, Bella, fresh from a passing visit to the home of the Finchleys, wealthy neighbors where she had stopped on her way from the Snedeker School, burst in upon her.

Contrasted with her sister, who was tall and dark and rather sallow, Bella, though shorter, was far more gracefully and vigorously formed. She had thick brown—almost black—hair, a brown and olive complexion tinted with red, and eyes brown and genial, that blazed with an eager, seeking light. In addition to her sound and lithe physique, she possessed vitality and animation. Her arms and legs were graceful and active. Plainly she was given to liking things as she found them—enjoying life as it was—and hence, unlike her sister, she was unusually attractive to men and boys—to men and women, old and young—a fact which her mother and father well knew. No danger of any lack of marriage offers for her when the time came. As her mother saw it, too many youths and men were already buzzing around, and so posing the question of a proper husband for her. Already she had displayed a tendency to become thick and fast friends, not only with the scions of the older and more conservative families who constituted the ultra-respectable element of the city, but also, and this was more to her mother’s distaste, with the sons and daughters of some of those later and hence socially less important families of the region—the sons and daughters of manufacturers of bacon, canning jars, vacuum cleaners, wooden and wicker ware, and typewriters, who constituted a solid enough financial element in the city, but who made up what might be considered the “fast set” in the local life.

In Mrs. Griffiths’ opinion, there was too much dancing, cabareting, automobiling to one city and another, without due social supervision. Yet, as a contrast to her sister, Myra, what a relief. It was only from the point of view of proper surveillance, or until she was safely and religiously married, that Mrs. Griffiths troubled or even objected to most of her present contacts and yearnings and gayeties. She desired to protect her.

“Now, where have you been?” she demanded, as her daughter burst into the room, throwing down her books and drawing near to the open fire that burned there.

“Just think, Mamma,” began Bella most unconcernedly and almost irrelevantly. “The Finchleys are going to give up their place out at Greenwood Lake this coming summer and go up to Twelfth Lake near Pine Point. They’re going to build a new bungalow up there. And Sondra says that this time it’s going to be right down at the water’s edge—not away from it, as it is out here. And they’re going to have a great big verandah with a hardwood floor. And a boathouse big enough for a thirty-foot electric launch that Mr. Finchley is going to buy for Stuart. Won’t that be wonderful? And she says that if you will let me, that I can come up there for all summer long, or for as long as I like. And Gil, too, if he will. It’s just across the lake from the Emery Lodge, you know, and the East Gate Hotel. And the Phants’ place, you know, the Phants of Utica, is just below theirs near Sharon. Isn’t that just wonderful? Won’t that be great? I wish you and Dad would make up your minds to build up there now sometime, Mamma. It looks to me now as though nearly everybody that’s worth anything down here is moving up there.”

She talked so fast and swung about so, looking now at the open fire burning in the grate, then out of the two high windows that commanded the front lawn and a full view of Wykeagy Avenue, lit by the electric lights in the winter dusk, that her mother had no opportunity to insert any comment until this was over. However, she managed to observe: “Yes? Well, what about the Anthonys and the Nicholsons and the Taylors? I haven’t heard of their leaving Greenwood yet.”

“Oh, I know, not the Anthonys or the Nicholsons or the Taylors. Who expects them to move? They’re too old fashioned. They’re not the kind that would move anywhere, are they? No one thinks they are. Just the same Greenwood isn’t like Twelfth Lake. You know that yourself. And all the people that are anybody down on the South Shore are going up there for sure. The Cranstons next year, Sondra says. And after that, I bet the Harriets will go, too.”

“The Cranstons and the Harriets and the Finchleys and Sondra,” commented her mother, half amused and half irritated. “The Cranstons and you and Bertine and Sondra—that’s all I hear these days.” For the Cranstons, and the Finchleys, despite a certain amount of local success in connection with this newer and faster set, were, much more than any of the others, the subject of considerable unfavorable comment. They were the people who, having moved the Cranston Wickwire Company from Albany, and the Finchley Electric Sweeper from Buffalo, and built large factories on the south bank of the Mohawk River, to say nothing of new and grandiose houses in Wykeagy Avenue and summer cottages at Greenwood, some twenty miles northwest, were setting a rather showy, and hence disagreeable, pace to all of the wealthy residents of this region. They were given to wearing the smartest clothes, to the latest novelties in cars and entertainments, and constituted a problem to those who with less means considered their position and their equipment about as fixed and interesting and attractive as such things might well be. The Cranstons and the Finchleys were in the main a thorn in the flesh of the remainder of the √©lite of Lycurgus—too showy and too aggressive.

“How often have I told you that I don’t want you to have so much to do with Bertine or that Letta Harriet or her brother either? They’re too forward. They run around and talk and show off too much. And your father feels the same as I do in regard to them. As for Sondra Finchley, if she expects to go with Bertine and you, too, then you’re not going to go with her either much longer. Besides I’m not sure that your father approves of your going anywhere without some one to accompany you. You’re not old enough yet. And as for your going to Twelfth Lake to the Finchleys, well, unless we all go together, there’ll be no going there, either.” And now Mrs. Griffiths, who leaned more to the manner and tactics of the older, if not less affluent families, stared complainingly at her daughter.

Nevertheless Bella was more abashed that she was irritated by this. On the contrary she knew her mother and knew that she was fond of her; also that she was intrigued by her physical charm as well as her assured local social success as much as was her father, who considered her perfection itself and could be swayed by her least, as well as her much practised, smile.

“Not old enough, not old enough,” commented Bella reproachfully. “Will you listen? I’ll be eighteen in July. I’d like to know when you and Papa are going to think I’m old enough to go anywhere without you both. Wherever you two go, I have to go, and wherever I want to go, you two have to go, too.”

“Bella,” censured her mother. Then after a moment’s silence, in which her daughter stood there impatiently, she added, “Of course, what else would you have us do? When you are twenty-one or two, if you are not married by then, it will be time enough to think of going off by yourself. But at your age, you shouldn’t be thinking of any such thing.” Bella cocked her pretty head, for at the moment the side door downstairs was thrown open, and Gilbert Griffiths, the only son of this family and who very much in face and build, if not in manner or lack of force, resembled Clyde, his western cousin, entered and ascended.

He was at this time a vigorous, self-centered and vain youth of twenty-three who, in contrast with his two sisters, seemed much sterner and far more practical. Also, probably much more intelligent and aggressive in a business way—a field in which neither of the two girls took the slightest interest. He was brisk in manner and impatient. He considered that his social position was perfectly secure, and was utterly scornful of anything but commercial success. Yet despite this he was really deeply interested in the movements of the local society, of which he considered himself and his family the most important part. Always conscious of the dignity and social standing of his family in this community, he regulated his action and speech accordingly. Ordinarily he struck the passing observer as rather sharp and arrogant, neither as youthful or as playful as his years might have warranted. Still he was young, attractive and interesting. He had a sharp, if not brilliant, tongue in his head—a gift at times for making crisp and cynical remarks. On account of his family and position he was considered also the most desirable of all the young eligible bachelors in Lycurgus. Nevertheless he was so much interested in himself that he scarcely found room in his cosmos for a keen and really intelligent understanding of anyone else.

Hearing him ascend from below and enter his room, which was at the rear of the house next to hers, Bella at once left her mother’s room, and coming to the door, called: “Oh, Gil, can I come in?”

“Sure.” He was whistling briskly and already, in view of some entertainment somewhere, preparing to change to evening clothes.

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere, for dinner. To the Wynants afterwards.”

“Oh, Constance to be sure.”

“No, not Constance, to be sure. Where do you get that stuff?”

“As though I didn’t know.”

“Lay off. Is that what you came in here for?”

“No, that isn’t what I came in here for. What do you think? The Finchleys are going to build a place up at Twelfth Lake next summer, right on the lake, next to the Phants, and Mr. Finchley’s going to buy Stuart a thirty-foot launch and build a boathouse with a sun-parlor right over the water to hold it. Won’t that be swell, huh?”

“Don’t say ‘swell.’ And don’t say ‘huh.’ Can’t you learn to cut out the slang? You talk like a factory girl. Is that all they teach you over at that school?”

“Listen to who’s talking about cutting out slang. How about yourself? You set a fine example around here, I notice.”

“Well, I’m five years older than you are. Besides I’m a man. You don’t notice Myra using any of that stuff.”

“Oh, Myra. But don’t let’s talk about that. Only think of that new house they’re going to build and the fine time they’re going to have up there next summer. Don’t you wish we could move up there, too? We could if we wanted to—if Papa and Mamma would agree to it.”

“Oh, I don’t know that it would be so wonderful,” replied her brother, who was really very much interested just the same. “There are other places besides Twelfth Lake.”

“Who said there weren’t? But not for the people that we know around here. Where else do the best people from Albany and Utica go but there now, I’d like to know. It’s going to become a regular center, Sondra says, with all the finest houses along the west shore. Just the same, the Cranstons, the Lamberts, and the Harriets are going to move up there pretty soon, too,” Bella added most definitely and defiantly. “That won’t leave so many out at Greenwood Lake, nor the very best people, either, even if the Anthonys and Nicholsons do stay here.”

“Who says the Cranstons are going up there?” asked Gilbert, now very much interested.

“Why, Sondra!”

“Who told her?”

“Bertine.”

“Gee, they’re getting gayer and gayer,” commented her brother oddly and a little enviously. “Pretty soon Lycurgus’ll be too small to hold ’em.” He jerked at a bow tie he was attempting to center and grimaced oddly as his tight neckband pinched him slightly.

For although Gilbert had recently entered into the collar and shirt industry with his father as general supervisor of manufacturing, and with every prospect of managing and controlling the entire business eventually, still he was jealous of young Grant Cranston, a youth of his own age, very appealing and attractive physically, who was really more daring with and more attractive to the girls of the younger set. Cranston seemed to be satisfied that it was possible to combine a certain amount of social pleasure with working for his father with which Gilbert did not agree. In fact, young Griffiths would have preferred, had it been possible, so to charge young Cranston with looseness, only thus far the latter had managed to keep himself well within the bounds of sobriety. And the Cranston Wickwire Company was plainly forging ahead as one of the leading industries of Lycurgus.

“Well,” he added, after a moment, “they’re spreading out faster than I would if I had their business. They’re not the richest people in the world, either.” Just the same he was thinking that, unlike himself and his parents, the Cranstons were really more daring if not socially more avid of life. He envied them.

“And what’s more,” added Bella interestedly, “the Finchleys are to have a dance floor over the boathouse. And Sondra says that Stuart was hoping that you would come up there and spend a lot of time this summer.”

“Oh, did he?” replied Gilbert, a little enviously and sarcastically. “You mean he said he was hoping you would come up and spend a lot of time. I’ll be working this summer.”

“He didn’t say anything of the kind, smarty. Besides it wouldn’t hurt us any if we did go up there. There’s nothing much out at Greenwood any more that I can see. A lot of old hen parties.”

“Is that so? Mother would like to hear that.”

“And you’ll tell her, of course.”

“Oh, no, I won’t either. But I don’t think we’re going to follow the Finchleys or the Cranstons up to Twelfth Lake just yet, either. You can go up there if you want, if Dad’ll let you.”

Just then the lower door clicked again, and Bella, forgetting her quarrel with her brother, ran down to greet her father.