An American Tragedy Chapter 20

However, as both Roberta and Clyde soon found, after several weeks in which they met here and there, such spots as could be conveniently reached by interurban lines, there were still drawbacks and the principal of these related to the attitude of both Roberta and Clyde in regard to this room, and what, if any, use of it was to be made by them jointly. For in spite of the fact that thus far Clyde had never openly agreed with himself that his intentions in relation to Roberta were in any way different to those normally entertained by any youth toward any girl for whom he had a conventional social regard, still, now that she had moved into this room, there was that ineradicable and possibly censurable, yet very human and almost unescapable, desire for something more—the possibility of greater and greater intimacy with and control of Roberta and her thoughts and actions in everything so that in the end she would be entirely his. But how his? By way of marriage and the ordinary conventional and durable existence which thereafter must ordinarily ensue? He had never said so to himself thus far. For in flirting with her or any girl of a lesser social position than that of the Griffiths here (Sondra Finchley, Bertine Cranston, for instance) he would not—and that largely due to the attitude of his newly-found relatives, their very high position in this city—have deemed marriage advisable. And what would they think if they should come to know? For socially, as he saw himself now, if not before coming here, he was supposed to be above the type of Roberta and should of course profit by that notion. Besides there were all those that knew him here, at least to speak to. On the other hand, because of the very marked pull that her temperament had for him, he had not been able to say for the time being that she was not worthy of him or that he might not be happy in case it were possible or advisable for him to marry her.

And there was another thing now that tended to complicate matters. And that was that fall with its chilling winds and frosty nights was drawing near. Already it was near October first and most of those out-of-door resorts which, up to the middle of September at least, had provided diversion, and that at a fairly safe distance from Lycurgus, were already closed for the season. And dancing, except in the halls of the near-by cities and which, because of a mood of hers in regard to them, were unacceptable, was also for the time being done away with. As for the churches, moving pictures, and restaurants of Lycurgus, how under the circumstances, owing to Clyde’s position here, could they be seen in them? They could not, as both reasoned between them. And so now, while her movements were unrestrained, there was no place to go unless by some readjustment of their relations he might be permitted to call on her at the Gilpins’. But that, as he knew, she would not think of and, at first, neither had he the courage to suggest it.

However they were at a street-end one early October night about six weeks after she had moved to her new room. The stars were sharp. The air cool. The leaves were beginning to turn. Roberta had returned to a three-quarter green-and-cream-striped winter coat that she wore at this season of the year. Her hat was brown, trimmed with brown leather and of a design that became her. There had been kisses over and over—that same fever that had been dominating them continuously since first they met—only more pronounced if anything.

“It’s getting cold, isn’t it?” It was Clyde who spoke. And it was eleven o’clock and chill.

“Yes, I should say it is. I’ll soon have to get a heavier coat.”

“I don’t see how we are to do from now on, do you? There’s no place to go any more much, and it won’t be very pleasant walking the streets this way every night. You don’t suppose we could fix it so I could call on you at the Gilpins’ once in a while, do you? It isn’t the same there now as it was at the Newtons’.”

“Oh, I know, but then they use their sitting room every night nearly until ten-thirty or eleven. And besides their two girls are in and out all hours up to twelve, anyhow, and they’re in there often. I don’t see how I can. Besides, I thought you said you didn’t want to have any one see you with me that way, and if you came there I couldn’t help introducing you.”

“Oh, but I don’t mean just that way,” replied Clyde audaciously and yet with the feeling that Roberta was much too squeamish and that it was high time she was taking a somewhat more liberal attitude toward him if she cared for him as much as she appeared to. “Why wouldn’t it be all right for me to stop in for a little while? They wouldn’t need to know, would they?” He took out his watch and discovered with the aid of a match that it was eleven-thirty. He showed the time to her. “There wouldn’t be anybody there now, would there?”

She shook her head in opposition. The thought not only terrified but sickened her. Clyde was getting very bold to even suggest anything like that. Besides this suggestion embodied in itself all the secret fears and compelling moods which hitherto, although actual in herself, she was still unwilling to face. There was something sinful, low, dreadful about it. She would not. That was one thing sure. At the same time within her was that overmastering urge of repressed and feared desire now knocking loudly for recognition.

“No, no, I can’t let you do that. It wouldn’t be right. I don’t want to. Some one might see us. Somebody might know you.” For the moment the moral repulsion was so great that unconsciously she endeavored to relinquish herself from his embrace.

Clyde sensed how deep was this sudden revolt. All the more was he flagellated by the desire for possession of that which now he half feared to be unobtainable. A dozen seductive excuses sprang to his lips. “Oh, who would be likely to see us anyhow, at this time of night? There isn’t any one around. Why shouldn’t we go there for a few moments if we want to? No one would be likely to hear us. We needn’t talk so loud. There isn’t any one on the street, even. Let’s walk by the house and see if anybody is up.”

Since hitherto she had not permitted him to come within half a block of the house, her protest was not only nervous but vigorous. Nevertheless on this occasion Clyde was proving a little rebellious and Roberta, standing somewhat in awe of him as her superior, as well as her lover, was unable to prevent their walking within a few feet of the house where they stopped. Except for a barking dog there was not a sound to be heard anywhere. And in the house no light was visible.

“See, there’s no one up,” protested Clyde reassuringly. “Why shouldn’t we go in for a little while if we want to? Who will know? We needn’t make any noise. Besides, what is wrong with it? Other people do it. It isn’t such a terrible thing for a girl to take a fellow to her room if she wants to for a little while.”

“Oh, isn’t it? Well, maybe not in your set. But I know what’s right and I don’t think that’s right and I won’t do it.”

At once, as she said this, Roberta’s heart gave a pained and weakening throb, for in saying so much she had exhibited more individuality and defiance than ever he had seen or that she fancied herself capable of in connection with him. It terrified her not a little. Perhaps he would not like her so much now if she were going to talk like that.

His mood darkened immediately. Why did she want to act so? She was too cautious, too afraid of anything that spelled a little life or pleasure. Other girls were not like that,—Rita, those girls at the factory. She pretended to love him. She did not object to his holding her in his arms and kissing her under a tree at the end of the street. But when it came to anything slightly more private or intimate, she could not bring herself to agree. What kind of a girl was she, anyhow? What was the use of pursuing her? Was this to be another case of Hortense Briggs with all her wiles and evasions? Of course Roberta was in no wise like her, but still she was so stubborn.

Although she could not see his face she knew he was angry and quite for the first time in this way.

“All right, then, if you don’t want to, you don’t have to,” came his words and with decidedly a cold ring to them. “There are others places I can go. I notice you never want to do anything I want to do, though. I’d like to know how you think we’re to do. We can’t walk the streets every night.” His tone was gloomy and foreboding—more contentious and bitter than at any time ever between them. And his references to other places shocked and frightened Roberta—so much so that instantly almost her own mood changed. Those other girls in his own world that no doubt he saw from time to time! Those other girls at the factory who were always trying to make eyes at him! She had seen them trying, and often. That Ruza Nikoforitch—as coarse as she was, but pretty, too. And that Flora Brandt! And Martha Bordaloue—ugh! To think that any one as nice as he should be pursued by such wretches as those. However, because of that, she was fearful lest he would think her too difficult—some one without the experience or daring to which he, in his superior world, was accustomed, and so turn to one of those. Then she would lose him. The thought terrified her. Immediately from one of defiance her attitude changed to one of pleading persuasion.

“Oh, please, Clyde, don’t be mad with me now, will you? You know that I would if I could. I can’t do anything like that here. Can’t you see? You know that. Why, they’d be sure to find out. And how would you feel if some one were to see us or recognize you?” In a pleading way she put one hand on his arm, then about his waist and he could feel that in spite of her sharp opposition the moment before, she was very much concerned—painfully so. “Please don’t ask me to,” she added in a begging tone.

“Well, what did you want to leave the Newtons for then?” he asked sullenly. “I can’t see where else we can go now if you won’t let me come to see you once in a while. We can’t go any place else.”

The thought gave Roberta pause. Plainly this relationship was not to be held within conventional lines. At the same time she did not see how she could possibly comply. It was too unconventional—too unmoral—bad.

“I thought we took it,” she said weakly and placatively, “just so that we could go places on Saturday and Sunday.”

“But where can we go Saturday and Sunday now? Everything’s closed.”

Again Roberta was checked by these unanswerable complexities which beleaguered them both and she exclaimed futilely, “Oh, I wish I knew what to do.”

“Oh, it would be easy enough if you wanted to do it, but that’s always the way with you, you don’t want to.”

She stood there, the night wind shaking the drying whispering leaves. Distinctly the problem in connection with him that she had been fearing this long while was upon her. Could she possibly, with all the right instruction that she had had, now do as he suggested. She was pulled and swayed by contending forces within herself, strong and urgent in either case. In the one instance, however painful it was to her moral and social mood, she was moved to comply—in another to reject once and for all, any such, as she saw it, bold and unnatural suggestion. Nevertheless, in spite of the latter and because of her compelling affection she could not do other than deal tenderly and pleadingly with him.

“I can’t, Clyde, I can’t. I would if I could but I can’t. It wouldn’t be right. I would if I could make myself, but I can’t.” She looked up into his face, a pale oval in the dark, trying to see if he would not see, sympathize, be moved in her favor. However, irritated by this plainly definite refusal, he was not now to be moved. All this, as he saw it, smacked of that long series of defeats which had accompanied his attentions to Hortense Briggs. He was not going to stand for anything now like that, you bet. If this was the way she was going to act, well let her act so—but not with him. He could get plenty of girls now—lots of them—who would treat him better than this.

At once, and with an irritated shrug of the shoulders, as she now saw, he turned and started to leave her, saying as he did so, “Oh, that’s all right, if that’s the way you feel about it.” And Roberta dumfounded and terrified, stood there.

“Please don’t go, Clyde. Please don’t leave me,” she exclaimed suddenly and pathetically, her defiance and courage undergoing a deep and sad change. “I don’t want you to. I love you so, Clyde. I would if I could. You know that.”

“Oh, yes, I know, but you needn’t tell me that” (it was his experience with Hortense and Rita that was prompting him to this attitude). With a twist he released his body from her arm and started walking briskly down the street in the dark.

And Roberta, stricken by this sudden development which was so painful to both, called, “Clyde!” And then ran after him a little way, eager that he should pause and let her plead with him more. But he did not return. Instead he went briskly on. And for the moment it was all she could do to keep from following him and by sheer force, if need be, restrain him. Her Clyde! And she started running in his direction a little, but as suddenly stopped, checked for the moment by the begging, pleading, compromising attitude in which she, for the first time, found herself. For on the one hand all her conventional training was now urging her to stand firm—not to belittle herself in this way—whereas on the other, all her desires for love, understanding, companionship, urged her to run after him before it was too late, and he was gone. His beautiful face, his beautiful hands. His eyes. And still the receding echo of his feet. And yet so binding were the conventions which had been urged upon her up to this time that, though suffering horribly, a balance between the two forces was struck, and she paused, feeling that she could neither go forward nor stand still—understand or endure this sudden rift in their wonderful friendship.

Pain constricted her heart and whitened her lips. She stood there numb and silent—unable to voice anything, even the name Clyde which persistently arose as a call in her throat. Instead she was merely thinking, “Oh, Clyde, please don’t go, Clyde. Oh, please don’t go.” And he was already out of hearing, walking briskly and grimly on, the click and echo of his receding steps falling less and less clearly on her suffering ears.

It was the first flashing, blinding, bleeding stab of love for her.