An American Tragedy Chapter 11

The days lapsed and, although no further word came from the Griffiths, Clyde was still inclined to exaggerate the importance of this one contact and to dream from time to time of delightful meetings with those girls and how wonderful if a love affair with one of them might eventuate for him. The beauty of that world in which they moved. The luxury and charm as opposed to this of which he was a part. Dillard! Rita! Tush! They were really dead for him. He aspired to this other or nothing as he saw it now and proceeded to prove as distant to Dillard as possible, an attitude which by degrees tended to alienate that youth entirely for he saw in Clyde a snob which potentially he was if he could have but won to what he desired. However, as he began to see afterwards, time passed and he was left to work until, depressed by the routine, meager pay and commonplace shrinking-room contacts, he began to think not so much of returning to Rita or Dillard,—he could not quite think of them now with any satisfaction, but of giving up this venture here and returning to Chicago or going to New York, where he was sure that he could connect himself with some hotel if need be. But then, as if to revive his courage and confirm his earlier dreams, a thing happened which caused him to think that certainly he was beginning to rise in the estimation of the Griffiths—father and son—whether they troubled to entertain him socially or not. For it chanced that one Saturday in spring, Samuel Griffiths decided to make a complete tour of inspection of the factory with Joshua Whiggam at his elbow. Reaching the shrinking department about noon, he observed for the first time with some dismay, Clyde in his undershirt and trousers working at the feeding end of two of the shrinking racks, his nephew having by this time acquired the necessary skill to “feed” as well as “take.” And recalling how very neat and generally presentable he had appeared at his house but a few weeks before, he was decidedly disturbed by the contrast. For one thing he had felt about Clyde, both in Chicago and here at his home, was that he had presented a neat and pleasing appearance. And he, almost as much as his son, was jealous, not only of the name, but the general social appearance of the Griffiths before the employees of this factory as well as the community at large. And the sight of Clyde here, looking so much like Gilbert and in an armless shirt and trousers working among these men, tended to impress upon him more sharply than at any time before the fact that Clyde was his nephew, and that he ought not to be compelled to continue at this very menial form of work any longer. To the other employees it might appear that he was unduly indifferent to the meaning of such a relationship.

Without, however, saying a word to Whiggam or anyone else at the time, he waited until his son returned on Monday morning, from a trip that he had taken out of town, when he called him into his office and observed: “I made a tour of the factory Saturday and found young Clyde still down in the shrinking room.”

“What of it, Dad?” replied his son, curiously interested as to why his father should at this time wish to mention Clyde in this special way. “Other people before him have worked down there and it hasn’t hurt them.”

“All true enough, but they weren’t nephews of mine. And they didn’t look as much like you as he does”—a comment which irritated Gilbert greatly. “It won’t do, I tell you. It doesn’t look quite right to me, and I’m afraid it won’t look right to other people here who see how much he looks like you and know that he is your cousin and my nephew. I didn’t realize that at first, because I haven’t been down there, but I don’t think it wise to keep him down there any longer doing that kind of thing. It won’t do. We’ll have to make a change, switch him around somewhere else where he won’t look like that.”

His eyes darkened and his brow wrinkled. The impression that Clyde made in his old clothes and with beads of sweat standing out on his forehead had not been pleasant.

“But I’ll tell you how it is, Dad,” Gilbert persisted, anxious and determined because of his innate opposition to Clyde to keep him there if possible. “I’m not so sure that I can find just the right place for him now anywhere else—at least not without moving someone else who has been here a long time and worked hard to get there. He hasn’t had any training in anything so far, but just what he’s doing.”

“Don’t know or don’t care anything about that,” replied Griffiths senior, feeling that his son was a little jealous and in consequence disposed to be unfair to Clyde. “That’s no place for him and I won’t have him there any longer. He’s been there long enough. And I can’t afford to have the name of any of this family come to mean anything but just what it does around here now—reserve and ability and energy and good judgment. It’s not good for the business. And anything less than that is a liability. You get me, don’t you?”

“Yes, I get you all right, governor.”

“Well, then, do as I say. Get hold of Whiggam and figure out some other place for him around here, and not as piece worker or a hand either. It was a mistake to put him down there in the first place. There must be some little place in one of the departments where he can be fitted in as the head of something, first or second or third assistant to some one, and where he can wear a decent suit of clothes and look like somebody. And, if necessary, let him go home on full pay until you find something for him. But I want him changed. By the way, how much is he being paid now?”

“About fifteen, I think,” replied Gilbert blandly.

“Not enough, if he’s to make the right sort of an appearance here. Better make it twenty-five. It’s more than he’s worth, I know, but it can’t be helped now. He has to have enough to live on while he’s here, and from now on, I’d rather pay him that than have any one think we were not treating him right.”

“All right, all right, governor. Please don’t be cross about it, will you?” pleaded Gilbert, noting his father’s irritation. “I’m not entirely to blame. You agreed to it in the first place when I suggested it, didn’t you? But I guess you’re right at that. Just leave it to me. I’ll find a decent place for him,” and turning, he proceeded in search of Whiggam, although at the same time thinking how he was to effect all this without permitting Clyde to get the notion that he was at all important here—to make him feel that this was being done as a favor to him and not for any reasons of merit in connection with himself.

And at once, Whiggam appearing, he, after a very diplomatic approach on the part of Gilbert, racked his brains, scratched his head, went away and returned after a time to say that the only thing he could think of, since Clyde was obviously lacking in technical training, was that of assistant to Mr. Liggett, who was foreman in charge of five big stitching rooms on the fifth floor, but who had under him one small and very special, though by no means technical, department which required the separate supervision of either an assistant forelady or man.

This was the stamping room—a separate chamber at the west end of the stitching floor, where were received daily from the cutting room above from seventy-five to one hundred thousand dozen unstitched collars of different brands and sizes. And here they were stamped by a group of girls according to the slips or directions attached to them with the size and brand of the collar. The sole business of the assistant foreman in charge here, as Gilbert well knew, after maintaining due decorum and order, was to see that this stamping process went uninterruptedly forward. Also that after the seventy-five to one hundred thousand dozen collars were duly stamped and transmitted to the stitchers, who were just outside in the larger room, to see that they were duly credited in a book of entry. And that the number of dozens stamped by each girl was duly recorded in order that her pay should correspond with her services.

For this purpose a little desk and various entry books, according to size and brand, were kept here. Also the cutters’ slips, as taken from the bundles by the stampers were eventually delivered to this assistant in lots of a dozen or more and filed on spindles. It was really nothing more than a small clerkship, at times in the past held by young men or girls or old men or middle-aged women, according to the exigencies of the life of the place.

The thing that Whiggam feared in connection with Clyde and which he was quick to point out to Gilbert on this occasion was that because of his inexperience and youth Clyde might not, at first, prove as urgent and insistent a master of this department as the work there required. There were nothing but young girls there—some of them quite attractive. Also was it wise to place a young man of Clyde’s years and looks among so many girls? For, being susceptible, as he might well be at that age, he might prove too easy—not stern enough. The girls might take advantage of him. If so, it wouldn’t be possible to keep him there very long. Still there was this temporary vacancy, and it was the only one in the whole factory at the moment. Why not, for the time being, send him upstairs for a tryout? It might not be long before either Mr. Liggett or himself would know of something else or whether or not he was suited for the work up there. In that case it would be easy to make a re-transfer.

Accordingly, about three in the afternoon of this same Monday, Clyde was sent for and after being made to wait for some fifteen minutes, as was Gilbert’s method, he was admitted to the austere presence.

“Well, how are you getting along down where you are now?” asked Gilbert coldly and inquisitorially. And Clyde, who invariably experienced a depression whenever he came anywhere near his cousin, replied, with a poorly forced smile, “Oh, just about the same, Mr. Griffiths. I can’t complain. I like it well enough. I’m learning a little something, I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Well, I know I’ve learned a few things, of course,” added Clyde, flushing slightly and feeling down deep within himself a keen resentment at the same time that he achieved a half-ingratiating and half-apologetic smile.

“Well, that’s a little better. A man could hardly be down there as long as you’ve been and not know whether he had learned anything or not.” Then deciding that he was being too severe, perhaps, he modified his tone slightly, and added: “But that’s not why I sent for you. There’s another matter I want to talk to you about. Tell me, did you ever have charge of any people or any other person than yourself, at any time in your life?”

“I don’t believe I quite understand,” replied Clyde, who, because he was a little nervous and flustered, had not quite registered the question accurately.

“I mean have you ever had any people work under you—been given a few people to direct in some department somewhere? Been a foreman or an assistant foreman in charge of anything?”

“No, sir, I never have,” answered Clyde, but so nervous that he almost stuttered. For Gilbert’s tone was very severe and cold—highly contemptuous. At the same time, now that the nature of the question was plain, its implication came to him. In spite of his cousin’s severity, his ill manner toward him, still he could see his employers were thinking of making a foreman of him—putting him in charge of somebody—people. They must be! At once his ears and fingers began to titillate—the roots of his hair to tingle: “But I’ve seen how it’s done in clubs and hotels,” he added at once. “And I think I might manage if I were given a trial.” His cheeks were now highly colored—his eyes crystal clear.

“Not the same thing. Not the same thing,” insisted Gilbert sharply. “Seeing and doing are two entirely different things. A person without any experience can think a lot, but when it comes to doing, he’s not there. Anyhow, this is one business that requires people who do know.”

He stared at Clyde critically and quizzically while Clyde, feeling that he must be wrong in his notion that something was going to be done for him, began to quiet himself. His cheeks resumed their normal pallor and the light died from his eyes.

“Yes, sir, I guess that’s true, too,” he commented.

“But you don’t need to guess in this case,” insisted Gilbert. “You know. That’s the trouble with people who don’t know. They’re always guessing.”

The truth was that Gilbert was so irritated to think that he must now make a place for his cousin, and that despite his having done nothing at all to deserve it, that he could scarcely conceal the spleen that now colored his mood.

“You’re right, I know,” said Clyde placatingly, for he was still hoping for this hinted-at promotion.

“Well, the fact is,” went on Gilbert, “I might have placed you in the accounting end of the business when you first came if you had been technically equipped for it.” (The phrase “technically equipped” overawed and terrorized Clyde, for he scarcely understood what that meant.) “As it was,” went on Gilbert, nonchalantly, “we had to do the best we could for you. We knew it was not very pleasant down there, but we couldn’t do anything more for you at the time.” He drummed on his desk with his fingers. “But the reason I called you up here to-day is this. I want to discuss with you a temporary vacancy that has occurred in one of our departments upstairs and which we are wondering—my father and I—whether you might be able to fill.” Clyde’s spirits rose amazingly. “Both my father and I,” he went on, “have been thinking for some little time that we would like to do a little something for you, but as I say, your lack of practical training of any kind makes it very difficult for both of us. You haven’t had either a commercial or a trade education of any kind, and that makes it doubly hard.” He paused long enough to allow that to sink in—give Clyde the feeling that he was an interloper indeed. “Still,” he added after a moment, “so long as we have seen fit to bring you on here, we have decided to give you a tryout at something better than you are doing. It won’t do to let you stay down there indefinitely. Now, let me tell you a little something about what I have in mind,” and he proceeded to explain the nature of the work on the fifth floor.

And when after a time Whiggam was sent for and appeared and had acknowledged Clyde’s salutation, he observed: “Whiggam, I’ve just been telling my cousin here about our conversation this morning and what I told you about our plan to try him out as the head of that department. So if you’ll just take him up to Mr. Liggett and have him or some one explain the nature of the work up there, I’ll be obliged to you.” He turned to his desk. “After that you can send him back to me,” he added. “I want to talk to him again.”

Then he arose and dismissed them both with an air, and Whiggam, still somewhat dubious as to the experiment, but now very anxious to be pleasant to Clyde since he could not tell what he might become, led the way to Mr. Liggett’s floor. And there, amid a thunderous hum of machines, Clyde was led to the extreme west of the building and into a much smaller department which was merely railed off from the greater chamber by a low fence. Here were about twenty-five girls and their assistants with baskets, who apparently were doing their best to cope with a constant stream of unstitched collar bundles which fell through several chutes from the floor above.

And now at once, after being introduced to Mr. Liggett, he was escorted to a small railed-off desk at which sat a short, plump girl of about his own years, not so very attractive, who arose as they approached. “This is Miss Todd,” began Whiggam. “She’s been in charge for about ten days now in the absence of Mrs. Angier. And what I want you to do now, Miss Todd, is to explain to Mr. Griffiths here just as quickly and clearly as you can what it is you do here. And then later in the day when he comes up here, I want you to help him to keep track of things until he sees just what is wanted and can do it himself. You’ll do that, won’t you?”

“Why, certainly, Mr. Whiggam. I’ll be only too glad to,” complied Miss Todd, and at once she began to take down the books of records and to show Clyde how the entry and discharge records were kept—also later how the stamping was done—how the basket girls took the descending bundles from the chutes and distributed them evenly according to the needs of the stamper and how later, as fast as they were stamped, other basket girls carried them to the stitchers outside. And Clyde, very much interested, felt that he could do it, only among so many women on a floor like this he felt very strange. There were so very, very many women—hundreds of them—stretching far and away between white walls and white columns to the eastern end of the building. And tall windows that reached from floor to ceiling let in a veritable flood of light. These girls were not all pretty. He saw them out of the tail of his eye as first Miss Todd and later Whiggam, and even Liggett, volunteered to impress points on him.

“The important thing,” explained Whiggam after a time, “is to see that there is no mistake as to the number of thousands of dozens of collars that come down here and are stamped, and also that there’s no delay in stamping them and getting them out to the stitchers. Also that the records of these girls’ work is kept accurately so that there won’t be any mistakes as to their time.”

At last Clyde saw what was required of him and the conditions under which he was about to work and said so. He was very nervous but quickly decided that if this girl could do the work, he could. And because Liggett and Whiggam, interested by his relationship to Gilbert, appeared very friendly and persisted in delaying here, saying that there was nothing he could not manage they were sure, he returned after a time with Whiggam to Gilbert who, on seeing him enter, at once observed: “Well, what’s the answer? Yes or no. Do you think you can do it or do you think you can’t?”

“Well, I know that I can do it,” replied Clyde with a great deal of courage for him, yet with the private feeling that he might not make good unless fortune favored him some even now. There were so many things to be taken into consideration—the favor of those above as well as about him—and would they always favor him?

“Very good, then. Just be seated for a moment,” went on Gilbert. “I want to talk to you some more in connection with that work up there. It looks easy to you, does it?”

“No, I can’t say that it looks exactly easy,” replied Clyde, strained and a little pale, for because of his inexperience he felt the thing to be a great opportunity—one that would require all his skill and courage to maintain. “Just the same I think I can do it. In fact I know I can and I’d like to try.”

“Well, now, that sounds a little better,” replied Gilbert crisply and more graciously. “And now I want to tell you something more about it. I don’t suppose you ever thought there was a floor with that many women on it, did you?”

“No, sir, I didn’t,” replied Clyde. “I knew they were somewhere in the building, but I didn’t know just where.”

“Exactly,” went on Gilbert. “This plant is practically operated by women from cellar to roof. In the manufacturing department, I venture to say there are ten women to every man. On that account every one in whom we entrust any responsibility around here must be known to us as to their moral and religious character. If you weren’t related to us, and if we didn’t feel that because of that we knew a little something about you, we wouldn’t think of putting you up there or anywhere in this factory over anybody until we did know. But don’t think because you’re related to us that we won’t hold you strictly to account for everything that goes on up there and for your conduct. We will, and all the more so because you are related to us. You understand that, do you? And why—the meaning of the Griffiths name here?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde.

“Very well, then,” went on Gilbert. “Before we place any one here in any position of authority, we have to be absolutely sure that they’re going to behave themselves as gentlemen always—that the women who are working here are going to receive civil treatment always. If a young man, or an old one for that matter, comes in here at any time and imagines that because there are women here he’s going to be allowed to play about and neglect his work and flirt or cut up, that fellow is doomed to a short stay here. The men and women who work for us have got to feel that they are employees first, last and all the time—and they have to carry that attitude out into the street with them. And unless they do it, and we hear anything about it, that man or woman is done for so far as we are concerned. We don’t want ’em and we won’t have ’em. And once we’re through with ’em, we’re through with ’em.”

He paused and stared at Clyde as much as to say: “Now I hope I have made myself clear. Also that we will never have any trouble in so far as you are concerned.”

And Clyde replied: “Yes, I understand. I think that’s right. In fact I know that’s the way it has to be.”

“And ought to be,” added Gilbert.

“And ought to be,” echoed Clyde.

At the same time he was wondering whether it was really true as Gilbert said. Had he not heard the mill girls already spoken about in a slighting way? Yet consciously at the moment he did not connect himself in thought with any of these girls upstairs. His present mood was that, because of his abnormal interest in girls, it would be better if he had nothing to do with them at all, never spoke to any of them, kept a very distant and cold attitude, such as Gilbert was holding toward him. It must be so, at least if he wished to keep his place here. And he was now determined to keep it and to conduct himself always as his cousin wished.

“Well, now, then,” went on Gilbert as if to supplement Clyde’s thoughts in this respect, “what I want to know of you is, if I trouble to put you in that department, even temporarily, can I trust you to keep a level head on your shoulders and go about your work conscientiously and not have your head turned or disturbed by the fact that you’re working among a lot of women and girls?”

“Yes, sir, I know you can,” replied Clyde very much impressed by his cousin’s succinct demand, although, after Rita, a little dubious.

“If I can’t, now is the time to say so,” persisted Gilbert. “By blood you’re a member of this family. And to our help here, and especially in a position of this kind, you represent us. We can’t have anything come up in connection with you at any time around here that won’t be just right. So I want you to be on your guard and watch your step from now on. Not the least thing must occur in connection with you that any one can comment on unfavorably. You understand, do you?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde most solemnly. “I understand that. I’ll conduct myself properly or I’ll get out.” And he was thinking seriously at the moment that he could and would. The large number of girls and women upstairs seemed very remote and of no consequence just then.

“Very good. Now, I’ll tell you what else I want you to do. I want you to knock off for the day and go home and sleep on this and think it over well. Then come back in the morning and go to work up there, if you still feel the same. Your salary from now on will be twenty-five dollars, and I want you to dress neat and clean so that you will be an example to the other men who have charge of departments.”

He arose coldly and distantly, but Clyde, very much encouraged and enthused by the sudden jump in salary, as well as the admonition in regard to dressing well, felt so grateful toward his cousin that he longed to be friendly with him. To be sure, he was hard and cold and vain, but still he must think something of him, and his uncle too, or they would not choose to do all this for him and so speedily. And if ever he were able to make friends with him, win his way into his good graces, think how prosperously he would be placed here, what commercial and social honors might not come to him?

So elated was he at the moment that he bustled out of the great plant with a jaunty stride, resolved among other things that from now on, come what might, and as a test of himself in regard to life and work, he was going to be all that his uncle and cousin obviously expected of him—cool, cold even, and if necessary severe, where these women or girls of this department were concerned. No more relations with Dillard or Rita or anybody like that for the present anyhow.