An American Tragedy Chapter 16

True to her promise, the following day Hortense returned to Mr. Rubenstein, and with all the cunning of her nature placed before him, with many reservations, the nature of the dilemma which confronted her. Could she, by any chance, have the coat for one hundred and fifteen dollars on an easy payment plan? Mr. Rubenstein’s head forthwith began to wag a solemn negative. This was not an easy payment store. If he wanted to do business that way he could charge two hundred for the coat and easily get it.

“But I could pay as much as fifty dollars when I took the coat,” argued Hortense.

“Very good. But who is to guarantee that I get the other sixty-five, and when?”

“Next week twenty-five, and the week after that twenty-five and the next week after that fifteen.”

“Of course. But supposin’ the next day after you take the coat an automobile runs you down and kills you. Then what? How do I get my money?”

Now that was a poser. And there was really no way that she could prove that any one would pay for the coat. And before that there would have to be all the bother of making out a contract, and getting some really responsible person—a banker, say—to endorse it. No, no, this was not an easy payment house. This was a cash house. That was why the coat was offered to her at one hundred and fifteen, but not a dollar less. Not a dollar.

Mr. Rubenstein sighed and talked on. And finally Hortense asked him if she could give him seventy-five dollars cash in hand, the other forty to be paid in one week’s time. Would he let her have the coat then—to take home with her?

“But a week—a week—what is a week then?” argued Mr. Rubenstein. “If you can bring me seventy-five next week or to-morrow, and forty more in another week or ten days, why not wait a week and bring the whole hundred and fifteen? Then the coat is yours and no bother. Leave the coat. Come back to-morrow and pay me twenty-five or thirty dollars on account and I take the coat out of the window and lock it up for you. No one can even see it then. In another week bring me the balance or in two weeks. Then it is yours.” Mr. Rubenstein explained the process as though it were a difficult matter to grasp.

But the argument once made was sound enough. It really left Hortense little to argue about. At the same time it reduced her spirit not a little. To think of not being able to take it now. And yet, once out of the place, her vigor revived. For, after all, the time fixed would soon pass and if Clyde performed his part of the agreement promptly, the coat would be hers. The important thing now was to make him give her twenty-five or thirty dollars wherewith to bind this wonderful agreement. Only now, because of the fact that she felt that she needed a new hat to go with the coat, she decided to say that it cost one hundred and twenty-five instead of one hundred and fifteen.

And once this conclusion was put before Clyde, he saw it as a very reasonable arrangement—all things considered—quite a respite from the feeling of strain that had settled upon him after his last conversation with Hortense. For, after all, he had not seen how he was to raise more than thirty-five dollars this first week anyhow. The following week would be somewhat easier, for then, as he told himself, he proposed to borrow twenty or twenty-five from Ratterer if he could, which, joined with the twenty or twenty-five which his tips would bring him, would be quite sufficient to meet the second payment. The week following he proposed to borrow at least ten or fifteen from Hegglund—maybe more—and if that did not make up the required amount to pawn his watch for fifteen dollars, the watch he had bought for himself a few months before. It ought to bring that at least; it cost fifty.

But, he now thought, there was Esta in her wretched room awaiting the most unhappy result of her one romance. How was she to make out, he asked himself, even in the face of the fact that he feared to be included in the financial problem which Esta as well as the family presented. His father was not now, and never had been, of any real financial service to his mother. And yet, if the problem were on this account to be shifted to him, how would he make out? Why need his father always peddle clocks and rugs and preach on the streets? Why couldn’t his mother and father give up the mission idea, anyhow?

But, as he knew, the situation was not to be solved without his aid. And the proof of it came toward the end of the second week of his arrangement with Hortense, when, with fifty dollars in his pocket, which he was planning to turn over to her on the following Sunday, his mother, looking into his bedroom where he was dressing, said: “I’d like to see you for a minute, Clyde, before you go out.” He noted she was very grave as she said this. As a matter of fact, for several days past, he had been sensing that she was undergoing a strain of some kind. At the same time he had been thinking all this while that with his own resources hypothecated as they were, he could do nothing. Or, if he did it meant the loss of Hortense. He dared not.

And yet what reasonable excuse could he give his mother for not helping her a little, considering especially the clothes he wore, and the manner in which he had been running here and there, always giving the excuse of working, but probably not deceiving her as much as he thought. To be sure, only two months before, he had obligated himself to pay her ten dollars a week more for five weeks, and had. But that only proved to her very likely that he had so much extra to give, even though he had tried to make it clear at the time that he was pinching himself to do it. And yet, however much he chose to waver in her favor, he could not, with his desire for Hortense directly confronting him.

He went out into the living-room after a time, and as usual his mother at once led the way to one of the benches in the mission—a cheerless, cold room these days.

“I didn’t think I’d have to speak to you about this, Clyde, but I don’t see any other way out of it. I haven’t anyone but you to depend upon now that you’re getting to be a man. But you must promise not to tell any of the others—Frank or Julia or your father. I don’t want them to know. But Esta’s back here in Kansas City and in trouble, and I don’t know quite what to do about her. I have so very little money to do with, and your father’s not very much of a help to me any more.”

She passed a weary, reflective hand across her forehead and Clyde knew what was coming. His first thought was to pretend that he did not know that Esta was in the city, since he had been pretending this way for so long. But now, suddenly, in the face of his mother’s confession, and the need of pretended surprise on his part, if he were to keep up the fiction, he said, “Yes, I know.”

“You know?” queried his mother, surprised.

“Yes, I know,” Clyde repeated. “I saw you going in that house in Beaudry Street one morning as I was going along there,” he announced calmly enough now. “And I saw Esta looking out of the window afterwards, too. So I went in after you left.”

“How long ago was that?” she asked, more to gain time than anything else.

“Oh, about five or six weeks ago, I think. I been around to see her a coupla times since then, only Esta didn’t want me to say anything about that either.”

“Tst! Tst! Tst!” clicked Mrs. Griffiths, with her tongue. “Then you know what the trouble is.”

“Yes,” replied Clyde.

“Well, what is to be will be,” she said resignedly. “You haven’t mentioned it to Frank or Julia, have you?”

“No,” replied Clyde, thoughtfully, thinking of what a failure his mother had made of her attempt to be secretive. She was no one to deceive any one, or his father, either. He thought himself far, far shrewder.

“Well, you mustn’t,” cautioned his mother solemnly. “It isn’t best for them to know, I think. It’s bad enough as it is this way,” she added with a kind of wry twist to her mouth, the while Clyde thought of himself and Hortense.

“And to think,” she added, after a moment, her eyes filling with a sad, all-enveloping gray mist, “she should have brought all this on herself and on us. And when we have so little to do with, as it is. And after all the instruction she has had—the training. ‘The way of the transgressor—’”

She shook her head and put her two large hands together and gripped them firmly, while Clyde stared, thinking of the situation and all that it might mean to him.

She sat there, quite reduced and bewildered by her own peculiar part in all this. She had been as deceiving as any one, really. And here was Clyde, now, fully informed as to her falsehoods and strategy, and herself looking foolish and untrue. But had she not been trying to save him from all this—him and the others? And he was old enough to understand that now. Yet she now proceeded to explain why, and to say how dreadful she felt it all to be. At the same time, as she also explained, now she was compelled to come to him for aid in connection with it.

“Esta’s about to be very sick,” she went on suddenly and stiffly, not being able, or at least willing, apparently, to look at Clyde as she said it, and yet determined to be as frank as possible. “She’ll need a doctor very shortly and some one to be with her all the time when I’m not there. I must get money somewhere—at least fifty dollars. You couldn’t get me that much in some way, from some of your young men friends, could you, just a loan for a few weeks? You could pay it back, you know, soon, if you would. You wouldn’t need to pay me anything for your room until you had.”

She looked at Clyde so tensely, so urgently, that he felt quite shaken by the force of the cogency of the request. And before he could add anything to the nervous gloom which shadowed her face, she added: “That other money was for her, you know, to bring her back here after her—her”—she hesitated over the appropriate word but finally added—“husband left her there in Pittsburgh. I suppose she told you that.”

“Yes, she did,” replied Clyde, heavily and sadly. For after all, Esta’s condition was plainly critical, which was something that he had not stopped to meditate on before.

“Gee, Ma,” he exclaimed, the thought of the fifty dollars in his pocket and its intended destination troubling him considerably—the very sum his mother was seeking. “I don’t know whether I can do that or not. I don’t know any of the boys down there well enough for that. And they don’t make any more than I do, either. I might borrow a little something, but it won’t look very good.” He choked and swallowed a little, for lying to his mother in this way was not easy. In fact, he had never had occasion to lie in connection with anything so trying—and so despicably. For here was fifty dollars in his pocket at the moment, with Hortense on the one hand and his mother and sister on the other, and the money would solve his mother’s problem as fully as it would Hortense’s, and more respectably. How terrible it was not to help her. How could he refuse her, really? Nervously he licked his lips and passed a hand over his brow, for a nervous moisture had broken out upon his face. He felt strained and mean and incompetent under the circumstances.

“And you haven’t any money of your own right now that you could let me have, have you?” his mother half pleaded. For there were a number of things in connection with Esta’s condition which required immediate cash and she had so little.

“No, I haven’t, Ma,” he said, looking at his mother shamefacedly, for a moment, then away, and if it had not been that she herself was so distrait, she might have seen the falsehood on his face. As it was, he suffered a pang of commingled self-commiseration and self-contempt, based on the distress he felt for his mother. He could not bring himself to think of losing Hortense. He must have her. And yet his mother looked so lone and so resourceless. It was shameful. He was low, really mean. Might he not, later, be punished for a thing like this?

He tried to think of some other way—some way of getting a little money over and above the fifty that might help. If only he had a little more time—a few weeks longer. If only Hortense had not brought up this coat idea just now.

“I’ll tell you what I might do,” he went on, quite foolishly and dully the while his mother gave vent to a helpless “Tst! Tst! Tst!” “Will five dollars do you any good?”

“Well, it will be something, anyhow,” she replied. “I can use it.”

“Well, I can let you have that much,” he said, thinking to replace it out of his next week’s tips and trust to better luck throughout the week. “And I’ll see what I can do next week. I might let you have ten then. I can’t say for sure. I had to borrow some of that other money I gave you, and I haven’t got through paying for that yet, and if I come around trying to get more, they’ll think—well, you know how it is.”

His mother sighed, thinking of the misery of having to fall back on her one son thus far. And just when he was trying to get a start, too. What would he think of all this in after years? What would he think of her—of Esta—the family? For, for all his ambition and courage and desire to be out and doing, Clyde always struck her as one who was not any too powerful physically or rock-ribbed morally or mentally. So far as his nerves and emotions were concerned, at times he seemed to take after his father more than he did after her. And for the most part it was so easy to excite him—to cause him to show tenseness and strain—as though he were not so very well fitted for either. And it was she, because of Esta and her husband and their joint and unfortunate lives, that was and had been heaping the greater part of this strain on him.

“Well, if you can’t, you can’t,” she said. “I must try and think of some other way.” But she saw no clear way at the moment.