An American Tragedy Chapter 17

It quite dark when Roberta stole out on Wednesday night to meet Clyde. But before that what qualms and meditations in the face of her willingness and her agreement to do so. For not only was it difficult for her to overcome her own mental scruples within, but in addition there was all the trouble in connection with the commonplace and religious and narrow atmosphere in which she found herself imbedded at the Newtons’. For since coming here she had scarcely gone anywhere without Grace Marr. Besides on this occasion—a thing she had forgotten in talking to Clyde—she had agreed to go with the Newtons and Grace to the Gideon Baptist Church, where a Wednesday prayer meeting was to be followed by a social with games, cake, tea and ice cream.

In consequence she was troubled severely as to how to manage, until it came back to her that a day or two before Mr. Liggett, in noting how rapid and efficient she was, had observed that at any time she wanted to learn one phase of the stitching operations going on in the next room, he would have her taken in hand by Mrs. Braley, who would teach her. And now that Clyde’s invitation and this church affair fell on the same night, she decided to say that she had an appointment with Mrs. Braley at her home. Only, as she also decided, she would wait until just before dinner Wednesday and then say that Mrs. Braley had invited her to come to her house. Then she could see Clyde. And by the time the Newtons and Grace returned she could be back. Oh, how it would feel to have him talk to her—say again as he did in the boat that he never had seen any one look so pretty as she did standing on the bank and looking for water lilies. Many, many thoughts—vague, dreadful, colorful, came to her—how and where they might go—be—do—from now on, if only she could arrange to be friends with him without harm to her or him. If need be, she now decided, she could resign from the factory and get a place somewhere else—a change which would absolve Clyde from any responsibility in regard to her.

There was, however, another mental as well as emotional phase in regard to all this and that related to her clothes. For since coming to Lycurgus she had learned that the more intelligent girls here dressed better than did those about Biltz and Trippetts Mills. At the same time she had been sending a fair portion of her money to her mother—sufficient to have equipped her exceptionally well, as she now realized, had she retained it. But now that Clyde was swaying her so greatly she was troubled about her looks, and on the evening after her conversation with him at the mill, she had gone through her small wardrobe, fixing upon a soft blue hat which Clyde had not yet seen, together with a checkered blue and white flannel skirt and a pair of white canvas shoes purchased the previous summer at Biltz. Her plan was to wait until the Newtons and Grace had departed for church and then swiftly dress and leave.

At eight-thirty, when night had finally fallen, she went east along Taylor to Central Avenue, then by a circuitous route made her way west again to the trysting place. And Clyde was already there. Against an old wooden fence that enclosed a five-acre cornfield, he was leaning and looking back toward the interesting little city, the lights in so many of the homes of which were aglow through the trees. The air was laden with spices—the mingled fragrance of many grasses and flowers. There was a light wind stirring in the long swords of the corn at his back—in the leaves of the trees overhead. And there were stars—the big dipper and the little dipper and the milky way—sidereal phenomena which his mother had pointed out to him long ago.

And he was thinking how different was his position here to what it had been in Kansas City. There he had been so nervous in regard to Hortense Briggs or any girl, really—afraid almost to say a word to any of them. Whereas here, and especially since he had had charge of this stamping room, he had seemed to become aware of the fact that he was more attractive than he had ever thought he was before. Also that the girls were attracted to him and that he was not so much afraid of them. The eyes of Roberta herself showed him this day how much she was drawn to him. She was his girl. And when she came, he would put his arms around her and kiss her. And she would not be able to resist him.

He stood listening, dreaming and watching, the rustling corn behind him stirring an old recollection in him, when suddenly he saw her coming. She looked trim and brisk and yet nervous, and paused at the street end and looked about like a frightened and cautious animal. At once Clyde hurried forward toward her and called softly: “Hello. Gee, it’s nice to have you meet me. Did you have any trouble?” He was thinking how much more pleasing she was than either Hortense Briggs or Rita Dickerman, the one so calculating, the other so sensually free and indiscriminate.

“Did I have any trouble? Oh, didn’t I though?” And at once she plunged into a full and picturesque account, not only of the mistake in regard to the Newtons’ church night and her engagement with them, but of a determination on the part of Grace Marr not to go to the church social without her, and how she had to fib, oh, so terribly, about going over to Mrs. Braley’s to learn to stitch—a Liggett-Roberta development of which Clyde had heard nothing so far and concerning which he was intensely curious, because at once it raised the thought that already Liggett might be intending to remove her from under his care. He proceeded to question her about that before he would let her go on with her story, an interest which Roberta noticed and because of which she was very pleased.

“But I can’t stay very long, you know,” she explained briskly and warmly at the first opportunity, the while Clyde laid hold of her arm and turned toward the river, which was to the north and untenanted this far out. “The Baptist Church socials never last much beyond ten-thirty or eleven, and they’ll be back soon. So I’ll have to manage to be back before they are.”

Then she gave many reasons why it would be unwise for her to be out after ten, reasons which annoyed yet convinced Clyde by their wisdom. He had been hoping to keep her out longer. But seeing that the time was to be brief, he was all the keener for a closer contact with her now, and fell to complimenting her on her pretty hat and cape and how becoming they were. At once he tried putting his arm about her waist, but feeling this to be a too swift advance she removed his arm, or tried to, saying in the softest and most coaxing voice “Now, now—that’s not nice, is it? Can’t you just hold my arm or let me hold yours?” But he noted, once she persuaded him to disengage her waist, she took his arm in a clinging, snuggling embrace and measured her stride to his. On the instant he was thinking how natural and unaffected her manner was now that the ice between them had been broken.

And how she went on babbling! She liked Lycurgus, only she thought it was the most religious town she had ever been in—worse than Biltz or Trippetts Mills that way. And then she had to explain to Clyde what Biltz and Trippetts Mills were like—and her home—a very little, for she did not care to talk about that. And then back to the Newtons and Grace Marr and how they watched her every move. Clyde was thinking as she talked how different she was from Hortense Briggs or Rita, or any other girl he had ever known—so much more simple and confiding—not in any way mushy as was Rita, or brash or vain or pretentious, as was Hortense, and yet really as pretty and so much sweeter. He could not help thinking if she were smartly dressed how sweet she would be. And again he was wondering what she would think of him and his attitude toward Hortense in contrast to his attitude toward her now, if she knew.

“You know,” he said at the very first opportunity, “I’ve been trying to talk to you ever since you came to work at the factory but you see how very watchful every one is. They’re the limit. They told me when I came up there that I mustn’t interest myself in any girl working there and so I tried not to. But I just couldn’t help this, could I?” He squeezed her arm affectionately, then stopped suddenly and, disengaging his arm from hers, put both his about her. “You know, Roberta, I’m crazy about you. I really am. I think you’re the dearest, sweetest thing. Oh, say! Do you mind my telling you? Ever since you showed up there, I haven’t been able to sleep, nearly. You’ve got such nice eyes and hair. To-night you look just too cute—lovely, I think. Oh, Roberta,” suddenly he caught her face between his two hands and kissed her, before really she could evade him. Then having done this he held her while she resisted him, although it was almost impossible for her to do so. Instead she felt as though she wanted to put her arms around him or have him hold her tight, and this mood in regard to him and herself puzzled and troubled her. It was awful. What would people think—say—if they knew? She was a bad girl, really, and yet she wanted to be this way—near him—now as never before.

“Oh, you mustn’t, Mr. Griffiths,” she pleaded. “You really mustn’t, you know. Please. Some one might see us. I think I hear some one coming. Please, now.” She looked about quite frightened, apparently, while Clyde laughed ecstatically. Life had presented him a delicious sweet at last. “You know I never did anything like this before,” she went on. “Honest, I didn’t. Please. It’s only because you said—”

Clyde was pressing her close, not saying anything in reply—his pale face and dark hungry eyes held very close to hers. He kissed her again and again despite her protests, her little mouth and chin and cheeks seeming too beautiful—too irresistible—then murmured pleadingly, for he was too overcome to speak vigorously.

“Oh, Roberta, dearest, please, please, say that you love me. Please do! I know that you do, Roberta. I can tell. Please, tell me now. I’m crazy about you. We have so little time.”

He kissed her again upon the cheek and mouth, and suddenly he felt her relax. She stood quite still and unresisting in his arms. He felt a wonder of something—he could not tell what. All of a sudden he felt tears upon her face, her head sunk to his shoulder, and then he heard her say: “Yes, yes, yes. I do love you. Yes, yes. I do. I do.”

There was a sob—half of misery, half of delight—in her voice and Clyde caught that. He was so touched by her honesty and simplicity that tears sprang to his own eyes. “It’s all right, Roberta. It’s all right. Please don’t cry. Oh, I think you’re so sweet. I do. I do, Roberta.”

He looked up and before him in the east over the low roofs of the city was the thinnest, yellowest topmost arc of the rising July moon. It seemed at the moment as though life had given him all—all—that he could possibly ask of it.