An American Tragedy Chapter 15

As Hortense well knew Clyde was pressing more and more hungrily toward that ultimate condescension on her part, which, though she would never have admitted it to him, was the privilege of two others. They were never together any more without his insisting upon the real depth of her regard for him. Why was it, if she cared for him the least bit, that she refused to do this, that or the other—would not let him kiss her as much as he wished, would not let him hold her in his arms as much as he would like. She was always keeping dates with other fellows and breaking them or refusing to make them with him. What was her exact relationship toward these others? Did she really care more for them than she did for him? In fact, they were never together anywhere but what this problem of union was uppermost—and but thinly veiled.

And she liked to think that he was suffering from repressed desire for her all of the time that she tortured him, and that the power to allay his suffering lay wholly in her—a sadistic trait which had for its soil Clyde’s own masochistic yearning for her.

However, in the face of her desire for the coat, his stature and interest for her were beginning to increase. In spite of the fact that only the morning before she had informed Clyde, with quite a flourish, that she could not possibly see him until the following Monday—that all her intervening nights were taken—nevertheless, the problem of the coat looming up before her, she now most eagerly planned to contrive an immediate engagement with him without appearing too eager. For by then she had definitely decided to endeavor to persuade him, if possible, to buy the coat for her. Only of course, she would have to alter her conduct toward him radically. She would have to be much sweeter—more enticing. Although she did not actually say to herself that now she might even be willing to yield herself to him, still basically that was what was in her mind.

For quite a little while she was unable to think how to proceed. How was she to see him this day, or the next at the very latest? How should she go about putting before him the need of this gift, or loan, as she finally worded it to herself? She might hint that he could loan her enough to buy the coat and that later she would pay him back by degrees (yet once in possession of the coat she well knew that that necessity would never confront her). Or, if he did not have so much money on hand at one time, she could suggest that she might arrange with Mr. Rubenstein for a series of time payments which could be met by Clyde. In this connection her mind suddenly turned and began to consider how she could flatter and cajole Mr. Rubenstein into letting her have the coat on easy terms. She recalled that he had said he would be glad to buy the coat for her if he thought she would be nice to him.

Her first scheme in connection with all this was to suggest to Louise Ratterer to invite her brother, Clyde and a third youth by the name of Scull, who was dancing attendance upon Louise, to come to a certain dance hall that very evening to which she was already planning to go with the more favored cigar clerk. Only now she intended to break that engagement and appear alone with Louise and Greta and announce that her proposed partner was ill. That would give her an opportunity to leave early with Clyde and with him walk past the Rubenstein store.

But having the temperament of a spider that spins a web for flies, she foresaw that this might involve the possibility of Louise’s explaining to Clyde or Ratterer that it was Hortense who had instigated the party. It might even bring up some accidental mention of the coat on the part of Clyde to Louise later, which, as she felt, would never do. She did not care to let her friends know how she provided for herself. In consequence, she decided that it would not do for her to appeal to Louise nor to Greta in this fashion.

And she was actually beginning to worry as to how to bring about this encounter, when Clyde, who chanced to be in the vicinity on his way home from work, walked into the store where she was working. He was seeking for a date on the following Sunday. And to his intense delight, Hortense greeted him most cordially with a most engaging smile and a wave of the hand. She was busy at the moment with a customer. She soon finished, however, and drawing near, and keeping one eye on her floor-walker who resented callers, exclaimed: “I was just thinking about you. You wasn’t thinking about me, was you? Trade last.” Then she added, sotto voce, “Don’t act like you are talking to me. I see our floor-walker over there.”

Arrested by the unusual sweetness in her voice, to say nothing of the warm smile with which she greeted him, Clyde was enlivened and heartened at once. “Was I thinking of you?” he returned gayly. “Do I ever think of any one else? Say! Ratterer says I’ve got you on the brain.”

“Oh, him,” replied Hortense, pouting spitefully and scornfully, for Ratterer, strangely enough, was one whom she did not interest very much, and this she knew. “He thinks he’s so smart,” she added. “I know a lotta girls don’t like him.”

“Oh, Tom’s all right,” pleaded Clyde, loyally. “That’s just his way of talking. He likes you.”

“Oh, no, he don’t, either,” replied Hortense. “But I don’t want to talk about him. Whatcha doin’ around six o’clock to-night?”

“Oh, gee!” exclaimed Clyde disappointedly. “You don’t mean to say you got to-night free, have you? Well, ain’t that tough? I thought you were all dated up. I got to work!” He actually sighed, so depressed was he by the thought that she might be willing to spend the evening with him and he not able to avail himself of the opportunity, while Hortense, noting his intense disappointment, was pleased.

“Well, I gotta date, but I don’t want to keep it,” she went on with a contemptuous gathering of the lips. “I don’t have to break it. I would though if you was free.” Clyde’s heart began to beat rapidly with delight.

“Gee, I wish I didn’t have to work now,” he went on, looking at her. “You’re sure you couldn’t make it to-morrow night? I’m off then. And I was just coming up here to ask you if you didn’t want to go for an automobile ride next Sunday afternoon, maybe. A friend of Hegglund’s got a car—a Packard—and Sunday we’re all off. And he wanted me to get a bunch to run out to Excelsior Springs. He’s a nice fellow” (this because Hortense showed signs of not being so very much interested). “You don’t know him very well, but he is. But say, I can talk to you about that later. How about to-morrow night? I’m off then.”

Hortense, who, because of the hovering floor-walker, was pretending to show Clyde some handkerchiefs, was now thinking how unfortunate that a whole twenty-four hours must intervene before she could bring him to view the coat with her—and so have an opportunity to begin her machinations. At the same time she pretended that the proposed meeting for the next night was a very difficult thing to bring about—more difficult than he could possibly appreciate. She even pretended to be somewhat uncertain as to whether she wanted to do it.

“Just pretend you’re examining these handkerchiefs here,” she continued, fearing the floor-walker might interrupt. “I gotta nother date for then,” she continued thoughtfully, “and I don’t know whether I can break it or not. Let me see.” She feigned deep thought. “Well, I guess I can,” she said finally. “I’ll try, anyhow. Just for this once. You be here at Fifteenth and Main at 6.15—no, 6.30’s the best you can do, ain’t it?—and I’ll see if I can’t get there. I won’t promise, but I’ll see and I think I can make it. Is that all right?” She gave him one of her sweetest smiles and Clyde was quite beside himself with satisfaction. To think that she would break a date for him, at last. Her eyes were warm with favor and her mouth wreathed with a smile.

“Surest thing you know,” he exclaimed, voicing the slang of the hotel boys. “You bet I’ll be there. Will you do me a favor?”

“What is it?” she asked cautiously.

“Wear that little black hat with the red ribbon under your chin, will you? You look so cute in that.”

“Oh, you,” she laughed. It was so easy to kid Clyde. “Yes, I’ll wear it,” she added. “But you gotta go now. Here comes that old fish. I know he’s going to kick. But I don’t care. Six-thirty, eh? So long.” She turned to give her attention to a new customer, an old lady who had been patiently waiting to inquire if she could tell her where the muslins were sold. And Clyde, tingling with pleasure because of this unexpected delight vouchsafed him, made his way most elatedly to the nearest exit.

He was not made unduly curious because of this sudden favor, and the next evening, promptly at six-thirty, and in the glow of the overhanging arc-lights showering their glistening radiance like rain, she appeared. As he noted, at once, she had worn the hat he liked. Also she was enticingly ebullient and friendly, more so than at any time he had known her. Before he had time to say that she looked pretty, or how pleased he was because she wore that hat, she began:

“Some favorite you’re gettin’ to be, I’ll say, when I’ll break an engagement and then wear an old hat I don’t like just to please you. How do I get that way is what I’d like to know.”

He beamed as though he had won a great victory. Could it be that at last he might be becoming a favorite with her?

“If you only knew how cute you look in that hat, Hortense, you wouldn’t knock it,” he urged admiringly. “You don’t know how sweet you do look.”

“Oh, ho. In this old thing?” she scoffed. “You certainly are easily pleased, I’ll say.”

“An’ your eyes are just like soft, black velvet,” he persisted eagerly. “They’re wonderful.” He was thinking of an alcove in the Green-Davidson hung with black velvet.

“Gee, you certainly have got ’em to-night,” she laughed, teasingly. “I’ll have to do something about you.” Then, before he could make any reply to this, she went off into an entirely fictional account of how, having had a previous engagement with a certain alleged young society man—Tom Keary by name—who was dogging her steps these days in order to get her to dine and dance, she had only this evening decided to “ditch” him, preferring Clyde, of course, for this occasion, anyhow. And she had called Keary up and told him that she could not see him to-night—called it all off, as it were. But just the same, on coming out of the employee’s entrance, who should she see there waiting for her but this same Tom Keary, dressed to perfection in a bright gray raglan and spats, and with his closed sedan, too. And he would have taken her to the Green-Davidson, if she had wanted to go. He was a real sport. But she didn’t. Not to-night, anyhow. Yet, if she had not contrived to avoid him, he would have delayed her. But she espied him first and ran the other way.

“And you should have just seen my little feet twinkle up Sargent and around the corner into Bailey Place,” was the way she narcissistically painted her flight. And so infatuated was Clyde by this picture of herself and the wonderful Keary that he accepted all of her petty fabrications as truth.

And then, as they were walking in the direction of Gaspie’s, a restaurant in Wyandotte near Tenth which quite lately he had learned was much better than Frissell’s, Hortense took occasion to pause and look in a number of windows, saying as she did so that she certainly did wish that she could find a little coat that was becoming to her—that the one she had on was getting worn and that she must have another soon—a predicament which caused Clyde to wonder at the time whether she was suggesting to him that he get her one. Also whether it might not advance his cause with her if he were to buy her a little jacket, since she needed it.

But Rubenstein’s coming into view on this same side of the street, its display window properly illuminated and the coat in full view, Hortense paused as she had planned.

“Oh, do look at that darling little coat there,” she began, ecstatically, as though freshly arrested by the beauty of it, her whole manner suggesting a first and unspoiled impression. “Oh, isn’t that the dearest, sweetest, cutest little thing you ever did see?” she went on, her histrionic powers growing with her desire for it. “Oh, just look at the collar, and those sleeves and those pockets. Aren’t they the snappiest things you ever saw? Couldn’t I just warm my little hands in those?” She glanced at Clyde out of the tail of her eye to see if he was being properly impressed.

And he, aroused by her intense interest, surveyed the coat with not a little curiosity. Unquestionably it was a pretty coat—very. But, gee, what would a coat like that cost, anyhow? Could it be that she was trying to interest him in the merits of a coat like that in order that he might get it for her? Why, it must be a two-hundred-dollar coat at least. He had no idea as to the value of such things, anyhow. He certainly couldn’t afford a coat like that. And especially at this time when his mother was taking a good portion of his extra cash for Esta. And yet something in her manner seemed to bring it to him that that was exactly what she was thinking. It chilled and almost numbed him at first.

And yet, as he now told himself sadly, if Hortense wanted it, she could most certainly find some one who would get it for her—that young Tom Keary, for instance, whom she had just been describing. And, worse luck, she was just that kind of a girl. And if he could not get it for her, some one else could and she would despise him for not being able to do such things for her.

To his intense dismay and dissatisfaction she exclaimed: “Oh, what wouldn’t I give for a coat like that!” She had not intended at the moment to put the matter so bluntly, for she wanted to convey the thought that was deepest in her mind to Clyde tactfully.

And Clyde, inexperienced as he was, and not subtle by any means, was nevertheless quite able to gather the meaning of that. It meant—it meant—for the moment he was not quite willing to formulate to himself what it did mean. And now—now—if only he had the price of that coat. He could feel that she was thinking of some one certain way to get the coat. And yet how was he to manage it? How? If he could only arrange to get this coat for her—if he only could promise her that he would get it for her by a certain date, say, if it didn’t cost too much, then what? Did he have the courage to suggest to her to-night, or to-morrow, say, after he had learned the price of the coat, that if she would—why then—why then, well, he would get her the coat or anything else she really wanted. Only he must be sure that she was not really fooling him as she was always doing in smaller ways. He wouldn’t stand for getting her the coat and then get nothing in return—never!

As he thought of it, he actually thrilled and trembled beside her. And she, standing there and looking at the coat, was thinking that unless he had sense enough now to get her this thing and to get what she meant—how she intended to pay for it—well then, this was the last. He need not think she was going to fool around with any one who couldn’t or wouldn’t do that much for her. Never.

They resumed their walk toward Gaspie’s. And throughout the dinner, she talked of little else—how attractive the coat was, how wonderful it would look on her.

“Believe me,” she said at one point, defiantly, feeling that Clyde was perhaps uncertain at the moment about his ability to buy it for her, “I’m going to find some way to get that coat. I think, maybe, that Rubenstein store would let me have it on time if I were to go in there and see him about it, make a big enough payment down. Another girl out of our store got a coat that way once,” she lied promptly, hoping thus to induce Clyde to assist her with it. But Clyde, disturbed by the fear of some extraordinary cost in connection with it, hesitated to say just what he would do. He could not even guess the price of such a thing—it might cost two or three hundred, even—and he feared to obligate himself to do something which later he might not be able to do.

“You don’t know what they might want for that, do you?” he asked, nervously, at the same time thinking if he made any cash gift to her at this time without some guarantee on her part, what right would he have to expect anything more in return than he had ever received? He knew how she cajoled him into getting things for her and then would not even let him kiss her. He flushed and churned a little internally with resentment at the thought of how she seemed to feel that she could play fast and loose with him. And yet, as he now recalled, she had just said she would do anything for any one who would get that coat for her—or nearly that.

“No-o,” she hesitated at first, for the moment troubled as to whether to give the exact price or something higher. For if she asked for time, Mr. Rubenstein might want more. And yet if she said much more, Clyde might not want to help her. “But I know it wouldn’t be more than a hundred and twenty-five. I wouldn’t pay more than that for it.”

Clyde heaved a sigh of relief. After all, it wasn’t two or three hundred. He began to think now that if she could arrange to make any reasonable down payment—say, fifty or sixty dollars—he might manage to bring it together within the next two or three weeks anyhow. But if the whole hundred and twenty-five were demanded at once, Hortense would have to wait, and besides he would have to know whether he was to be rewarded or not—definitely.

“That’s a good idea, Hortense,” he exclaimed without, however, indicating in any way why it appealed to him so much. “Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you find out first what they want for it, and how much they want down? Maybe I could help you with it.”

“Oh, won’t that be just too wonderful!” Hortense clapped her hands. “Oh, will you? Oh, won’t that be just dandy? Now I just know I can get that coat. I just know they’ll let me have it, if I talk to them right.”

She was, as Clyde saw and feared, quite forgetting the fact that he was the one who was making the coat possible, and now it would be just as he thought. The fact that he was paying for it would be taken for granted.

But a moment later, observing his glum face, she added: “Oh, aren’t you the sweetest, dearest thing, to help me in this way. You just bet I won’t forget this either. You just wait and see. You won’t be sorry. Now you just wait.” Her eyes fairly snapped with gayety and even generosity toward him.

He might be easy and young, but he wasn’t mean, and she would reward him, too, she now decided. Just as soon as she got the coat, which must be in a week or two at the latest, she was going to be very nice to him—do something for him. And to emphasize her own thoughts and convey to him what she really meant, she allowed her eyes to grow soft and swimming and to dwell on him promisingly—a bit of romantic acting which caused him to become weak and nervous. The gusto of her favor frightened him even a little, for it suggested, as he fancied, a disturbing vitality which he might not be able to match. He felt a little weak before her now—a little cowardly—in the face of what he assumed her real affection might mean.

Nevertheless, he now announced that if the coat did not cost more than one hundred and twenty-five dollars, that sum to be broken into one payment of twenty-five dollars down and two additional sums of fifty dollars each, he could manage it. And she on her part replied that she was going the very next day to see about it. Mr. Rubenstein might be induced to let her have it at once on the payment of twenty-five dollars down; if not that, then at the end of the second week, when nearly all would be paid.

And then in real gratitude to Clyde she whispered to him, coming out of the restaurant and purring like a cat, that she would never forget this and that he would see—and that she would wear it for him the very first time. If he were not working they might go somewhere to dinner. Or, if not that, then she would have it surely in time for the day of the proposed automobile ride which he, or rather Hegglund, had suggested for the following Sunday, but which might be postponed.

She suggested that they go to a certain dance hall, and there she clung to him in the dances in a suggestive way and afterwards hinted of a mood which made Clyde a little quivery and erratic.

He finally went home, dreaming of the day, satisfied that he would have no trouble in bringing together the first payment, if it were so much as fifty, even. For now, under the spur of this promise, he proposed to borrow as much as twenty-five from either Ratterer or Hegglund, and to repay it after the coat was paid for.

But, ah, the beautiful Hortense. The charm of her, the enormous, compelling, weakening delight. And to think that at last, and soon, she was to be his. It was, plainly, of such stuff as dreams are made of—the unbelievable become real.