An American Tragedy Chapter 14

The result of all this on Clyde was to cause him to think more specifically on the problem of the sexes than he ever had before, and by no means in any orthodox way. For while he condemned his sister’s lover for thus ruthlessly deserting her, still he was not willing to hold her entirely blameless by any means. She had gone off with him. As he now learned from her, he had been in the city for a week the year before she ran away with him, and it was then that he had introduced himself to her. The following year when he returned for two weeks, it was she who looked him up, or so Clyde suspected, at any rate. And in view of his own interest in and mood regarding Hortense Briggs, it was not for him to say that there was anything wrong with the sex relation in itself.

Rather, as he saw it now, the difficulty lay, not in the deed itself, but in the consequences which followed upon not thinking or not knowing. For had Esta known more of the man in whom she was interested, more of what such a relationship with him meant, she would not be in her present pathetic plight. Certainly such girls as Hortense Briggs, Greta and Louise, would never have allowed themselves to be put in any such position as Esta. Or would they? They were too shrewd. And by contrast with them in his mind, at least at this time, she suffered. She ought, as he saw it, to have been able to manage better. And so, by degrees, his attitude toward her hardened in some measure, though his feeling was not one of indifference either.

But the one influence that was affecting and troubling and changing him now was his infatuation for Hortense Briggs—than which no more agitating influence could have come to a youth of his years and temperament. She seemed, after his few contacts with her, to be really the perfect realization of all that he had previously wished for in a girl. She was so bright, vain, engaging, and so truly pretty. Her eyes, as they seemed to him, had a kind of dancing fire in them. She had a most entrancing way of pursing and parting her lips and at the same time looking straightly and indifferently before her, as though she were not thinking of him, which to him was both flame and fever. It caused him, actually, to feel weak and dizzy, at times, cruelly seared in his veins with minute and wriggling threads of fire, and this could only be described as conscious lust, a torturesome and yet unescapable thing which yet in her case he was unable to prosecute beyond embracing and kissing, a form of reserve and respect in regard to her which she really resented in the very youths in whom she sought to inspire it. The type of boy for whom she really cared and was always seeking was one who could sweep away all such psuedo-ingenuousness and superiorities in her and force her, even against herself, to yield to him.

In fact she was constantly wavering between actual like and dislike of him. And in consequence, he was in constant doubt as to where he stood, a state which was very much relished by her and yet which was never permitted to become so fixed in his mind as to cause him to give her up entirely. After some party or dinner or theater to which she had permitted him to take her, and throughout which he had been particularly tactful—not too assertive—she could be as yielding and enticing in her mood as the most ambitious lover would have liked. And this might last until the evening was nearly over, when suddenly, and at her own door or the room or house of some girl with whom she was spending the night, she would turn, and without rhyme or reason, endeavor to dismiss him with a mere handclasp or a thinly flavored embrace or kiss. At such times, if Clyde was foolish enough to endeavor to force her to yield the favors he craved, she would turn on him with the fury of a spiteful cat, would tear herself away, developing for the moment, seemingly, an intense mood of opposition which she could scarcely have explained to herself. Its chief mental content appeared to be one of opposition to being compelled by him to do anything. And, because of his infatuation and his weak overtures due to his inordinate fear of losing her, he would be forced to depart, usually in a dark and despondent mood.

But so keen was her attraction for him that he could not long remain away, but must be going about to where most likely he would encounter her. Indeed, for the most part these days, and in spite of the peculiar climax which had eventuated in connection with Esta, he lived in a keen, sweet and sensual dream in regard to her. If only she would really come to care for him. At night, in his bed at home, he would lie and think of her—her face—the expressions of her mouth and eyes, the lines of her figure, the motions of her body in walking or dancing—and she would flicker before him as upon a screen. In his dreams, he found her deliciously near him, pressing against him—her delightful body all his—and then in the moment of crisis, when seemingly she was about to yield herself to him completely, he would awake to find her vanished—an illusion only.

Yet there were several things in connection with her which seemed to bode success for him. In the first place, like himself, she was part of a poor family—the daughter of a machinist and his wife, who up to this very time had achieved little more than a bare living. From her childhood she had had nothing, only such gew-gaws and fripperies as she could secure for herself by her wits. And so low had been her social state until very recently that she had not been able to come in contact with anything better than butcher and baker boys—the rather commonplace urchins and small job aspirants of her vicinity. Yet even here she had early realized that she could and should capitalize her looks and charm—and had. Not a few of these had even gone so far as to steal in order to get money to entertain her.

After reaching the age where she was old enough to go to work, and thus coming in contact with the type of boy and man in whom she was now interested, she was beginning to see that without yielding herself too much, but in acting discreetly, she could win a more interesting equipment than she had before. Only, so truly sensual and pleasure-loving was she that she was by no means always willing to divorce her self-advantages from her pleasures. On the contrary, she was often troubled by a desire to like those whom she sought to use, and per contra, not to obligate herself to those whom she could not like.

In Clyde’s case, liking him but a little, she still could not resist the desire to use him. She liked his willingness to buy her any little thing in which she appeared interested—a bag, a scarf, a purse, a pair of gloves—anything that she could reasonably ask or take without obligating herself too much. And yet from the first, in her smart, tricky way, she realized that unless she could bring herself to yield to him—at some time or other offer him the definite reward which she knew he craved—she could not hold him indefinitely.

One thought that stirred her more than anything else was that the way Clyde appeared to be willing to spend his money on her she might easily get some quite expensive things from him—a pretty and rather expensive dress, perhaps, or a hat, or even a fur coat such as was then being shown and worn in the city, to say nothing of gold earrings, or a wrist watch, all of which she was constantly and enviously eyeing in the different shop windows.

One day not so long after Clyde’s discovery of his sister Esta, Hortense, walking along Baltimore Street near its junction with Fifteenth—the smartest portion of the shopping section of the city—at the noon hour—with Doris Trine, another shop girl in her department store, saw in the window of one of the smaller and less exclusive fur stores of the city, a fur jacket of beaver that to her, viewed from the eye-point of her own particular build, coloring and temperament, was exactly what she needed to strengthen mightily her very limited personal wardrobe. It was not such an expensive coat, worth possibly a hundred dollars—but fashioned in such an individual way as to cause her to imagine that, once invested with it, her own physical charm would register more than it ever had.

Moved by this thought, she paused and exclaimed: “Oh, isn’t that just the classiest, darlingest little coat you ever saw! Oh, do look at those sleeves, Doris.” She clutched her companion violently by the arm. “Lookit the collar. And the lining! And those pockets! Oh, dear!” She fairly vibrated with the intensity of her approval and delight. “Oh, isn’t that just too sweet for words? And the very kind of coat I’ve been thinking of since I don’t know when. Oh, you pity sing!” she exclaimed, affectedly, thinking all at once as much of her own pose before the window and its effect on the passer-by as of the coat before her. “Oh, if I could only have ’oo.”

She clapped her hands admiringly, while Isadore Rubenstein, the elderly son of the proprietor, who was standing somewhat out of the range of her gaze at the moment, noted the gesture and her enthusiasm and decided forthwith that the coat must be worth at least twenty-five or fifty dollars more to her, anyhow, in case she inquired for it. The firm had been offering it at one hundred. “Oh, ha!” he grunted. But being of a sensual and somewhat romantic turn, he also speculated to himself rather definitely as to the probable trading value, affectionally speaking, of such a coat. What, say, would the poverty and vanity of such a pretty girl as this cause her to yield for such a coat?

In the meantime, however, Hortense, having gloated as long as her noontime hour would permit, had gone away, still dreaming and satiating her flaming vanity by thinking of how devastating she would look in such a coat. But she had not stopped to ask the price. Hence, the next day, feeling that she must look at it once more, she returned, only this time alone, and yet with no idea of being able to purchase it herself. On the contrary, she was only vaguely revolving the problem of how, assuming that the coat was sufficiently low in price, she could get it. At the moment she could think of no one. But seeing the coat once more, and also seeing Mr. Rubenstein, Jr., inside eyeing her in a most propitiatory and genial manner, she finally ventured in.

“You like the coat, eh?” was Rubenstein’s ingratiating comment as she opened the door. “Well, that shows you have good taste, I’ll say. That’s one of the nobbiest little coats we’ve ever had to show in this store yet. A real beauty, that. And how it would look on such a beautiful girl as you!” He took it out of the window and held it up. “I seen you when you was looking at it yesterday.” A gleam of greedy admiration was in his eye.

And noting this, and feeling that a remote and yet not wholly unfriendly air would win her more consideration and courtesy than a more intimate one, Hortense merely said, “Yes?”

“Yes, indeed. And I said right away, there’s a girl that knows a really swell coat when she sees it.”

The flattering unction soothed, in spite of herself.

“Look at that! Look at that!” went on Mr. Rubinstein, turning the coat about and holding it before her. “Where in Kansas City will you find anything to equal that to-day? Look at this silk lining here—genuine Mallinson silk—and these slant pockets. And the buttons. You think those things don’t make a different-looking coat? There ain’t another one like it in Kansas City to-day—not one. And there won’t be. We designed it ourselves and we never repeat our models. We protect our customers. But come back here.” (He led the way to a triple mirror at the back.) “It takes the right person to wear a coat like this—to get the best effect out of it. Let me try it on you.”

And by the artificial light Hortense was now privileged to see how really fetching she did look in it. She cocked her head and twisted and turned and buried one small ear in the fur, while Mr. Rubenstein stood by, eyeing her with not a little admiration and almost rubbing his hands.

“There now,” he continued. “Look at that. What do you say to that, eh? Didn’t I tell you it was the very thing for you? A find for you. A pick-up. You’ll never get another coat like that in this city. If you do, I’ll make you a present of this one.” He came very near, extending his plump hands, palms up.

“Well, I must say it does look smart on me,” commented Hortense, her vainglorious soul yearning for it. “I can wear anything like this, though.” She twisted and turned the more, forgetting him entirely and the effect her interest would have on his cost price. Then she added: “How much is it?”

“Well, it’s really a two-hundred-dollar coat,” began Mr. Rubenstein artfully. Then noting a shadow of relinquishment pass swiftly over Hortense’s face, he added quickly: “That sounds like a lot of money, but of course we don’t ask so much for it down here. One hundred and fifty is our price. But if that coat was at Jarek’s, that’s what you’d pay for it and more. We haven’t got the location here and we don’t have to pay the high rents. But it’s worth every cent of two hundred.”

“Why, I think that’s a terrible price to ask for it, just awful,” exclaimed Hortense sadly, beginning to remove the coat. She was feeling as though life were depriving her of nearly all that was worth while. “Why, at Biggs and Beck’s they have lots of three-quarter mink and beaver coats for that much, and classy styles, too.”

“Maybe, maybe. But not that coat,” insisted Mr. Rubenstein stubbornly. “Just look at it again. Look at the collar. You mean to say you can find a coat like that up there? If you can, I’ll buy the coat for you and sell it to you again for a hundred dollars. Actually, this is a special coat. It’s copied from one of the smartest coats that was in New York last summer before the season opened. It has class. You won’t find no coat like this coat.”

“Oh, well, just the same, a hundred and fifty dollars is more than I can pay,” commented Hortense dolefully, at the same time slipping on her old broadcloth jacket with the fur collar and cuffs, and edging toward the door.

“Wait! You like the coat?” wisely observed Mr. Rubenstein, after deciding that even a hundred dollars was too much for her purse, unless it could be supplemented by some man’s. “It’s really a two-hundred-dollar coat. I’m telling you that straight. Our regular price is one hundred and fifty. But if you could bring me a hundred and twenty-five dollars, since you want it so much, well, I’ll let you have it for that. And that’s like finding it. A stunning-looking girl like you oughtn’t to have no trouble in finding a dozen fellows who would be glad to buy that coat and give it to you. I know I would, if I thought you would be nice to me.”

He beamed ingratiatingly up at her, and Hortense, sensing the nature of the overture and resenting it—from him—drew back slightly. At the same time she was not wholly displeased by the compliment involved. But she was not coarse enough, as yet, to feel that just any one should be allowed to give her anything. Indeed not. It must be some one she liked, or at least some one that was enslaved by her.

And yet, even as Mr. Rubenstein spoke, and for some time afterwards, her mind began running upon possible individuals—favorites—who, by the necromancy of her charm for them, might be induced to procure this coat for her. Charlie Wilkens for instance—he of the Orphia cigar store—who was most certainly devoted to her after his fashion, but a fashion, however, which did not suggest that he might do much for her without getting a good deal in return.

And then there was Robert Kain, another youth—very tall, very cheerful and very ambitious in regard to her, who was connected with one of the local electric company’s branch offices, but his position was not sufficiently lucrative—a mere entry clerk. Also he was too saving—always talking about his future.

And again, there was Bert Gettler, the youth who had escorted her to the dance the night Clyde first met her, but who was little more than a giddy-headed dancing soul, one not to be relied upon in a crisis like this. He was only a shoe salesman, probably twenty dollars a week, and most careful with his pennies.

But there was Clyde Griffiths, the person who seemed to have real money and to be willing to spend it on her freely. So ran her thoughts swiftly at the time. But could she now, she asked herself, offhand, inveigle him into making such an expensive present as this? She had not favored him so very much—had for the most part treated him indifferently. Hence she was not sure, by any means. Nevertheless as she stood there, debating the cost and the beauty of the coat, the thought of Clyde kept running through her mind. And all the while Mr. Rubenstein stood looking at her, vaguely sensing, after his fashion, the nature of the problem that was confronting her.

“Well, little girl,” he finally observed, “I see you’d like to have this coat, all right, and I’d like to have you have it, too. And now I’ll tell you what I’ll do, and better than that I can’t do, and wouldn’t for nobody else—not a person in this city. Bring me a hundred and fifteen dollars any time within the next few days—Monday or Wednesday or Friday, if the coat is still here, and you can have it. I’ll do even better. I’ll save it for you. How’s that? Until next Wednesday or Friday. More’n that no one would do for you, now, would they?”

He smirked and shrugged his shoulders and acted as though he were indeed doing her a great favor. And Hortense, going away, felt that if only—only she could take that coat at one hundred and fifteen dollars, she would be capturing a marvelous bargain. Also that she would be the smartest-dressed girl in Kansas City beyond the shadow of a doubt. If only she could in some way get a hundred and fifteen dollars before next Wednesday, or Friday.