An American Tragedy Chapter 21

The state of Roberta’s mind for that night is not easily to be described. For here was true and poignant love, and in youth true and poignant love is difficult to withstand. Besides it was coupled with the most stirring and grandiose illusions in regard to Clyde’s local material and social condition—illusions which had little to do with anything he had done to build up, but were based rather on conjecture and gossip over which he had no control. And her own home, as well as her personal situation was so unfortunate—no promise of any kind save in his direction. And here she was quarreling with him—sending him away angry. On the other hand was he not beginning to push too ardently toward those troublesome and no doubt dreadful liberties and familiarities which her morally trained conscience would not permit her to look upon as right? How was she to do now? What to say?

Now it was that she said to herself in the dark of her room, after having slowly and thoughtfully undressed and noiselessly crept into the large, old-fashioned bed. “No, I won’t do that. I mustn’t. I can’t. I will be a bad girl if I do. I should not do that for him even though he does want me to, and should threaten to leave me forever in case I refuse. He should be ashamed to ask me.” And at the very same moment, or the next, she would be asking herself what else under the circumstances they were to do. For most certainly Clyde was at least partially correct in his contention that they had scarcely anywhere else they could go and not be recognized. How unfair was that rule of the company. And no doubt apart from that rule, the Griffiths would think it beneath him to be troubling with her, as would no doubt the Newtons and the Gilpins for that matter, if they should hear and know who he was. And if this information came to their knowledge it would injure him and her. And she would not do anything that would injure him—never.

One thing that occurred to her at this point was that she should get a place somewhere else so that this problem should be solved—a problem which at the moment seemed to have little to do with the more immediate and intimate one of desiring to enter her room. But that would mean that she would not see him any more all day long—only at night. And then not every night by any means. And that caused her to lay aside this thought of seeking another place.

At the same time as she now meditated the dawn would come to-morrow and there would be Clyde at the factory. And supposing that he should not speak to her nor she to him. Impossible! Ridiculous! Terrible! The mere thought brought her to a sitting posture in bed, where distractedly a vision of Clyde looking indifferently and coldly upon her came to her.

On the instant she was on her feet and had turned on the one incandescent globe which dangled from the center of the room. She went to the mirror hanging above the old walnut dresser in the corner and stared at herself. Already she imagined she could see dark rings under her eyes. She felt numb and cold and now shook her head in a helpless and distracted way. He couldn’t be that mean. He couldn’t be that cruel to her now—could he? Oh, if he but knew how difficult—how impossible was the thing he was asking of her! Oh, if the day would only come so that she could see his face again! Oh, if it were only another night so that she could take his hands in hers—his arm—feel his arms about her.

“Clyde, Clyde,” she exclaimed half aloud, “you wouldn’t do that to me, would you—you couldn’t.”

She crossed to an old, faded and somewhat decrepit overstuffed chair which stood in the center of the room beside a small table whereon lay some nondescript books and magazines—the Saturday Evening Post, Munsey’s, the Popular Science Monthly, Bebe’s Garden Seeds, and to escape most distracting and searing thoughts, sat down, her chin in her hands, her elbows planted on her knees. But the painful thoughts continuing and a sense of chill overtaking her, she took a comforter off the bed and folded it about her, then opened the seed catalogue—only to throw it down.

“No, no, no, he couldn’t do that to me, he wouldn’t.” She must not let him. Why, he had told her over and over that he was crazy about her—madly in love with her. They had been to all these wonderful places together.

And now, without any real consciousness of her movements, she was moving from the chair to the edge of the bed, sitting with elbows on knees and chin in hands; or she was before the mirror or peering restlessly out into the dark to see if there were any trace of day. And at six, and six-thirty when the light was just breaking and it was nearing time to dress, she was still up—in the chair, on the edge of the bed, in the corner before the mirror.

But she had reached but one definite conclusion and that was that in some way she must arrange not to have Clyde leave her. That must not be. There must be something that she could say or do that would cause him to love her still—even if, even if—well, even if she must let him stop in here or somewhere from time to time—some other room in some other rooming house maybe, where she could arrange in some way beforehand—say that he was her brother or something.

But the mood that dominated Clyde was of a different nature. To have understood it correctly, the full measure and obstinacy and sullen contentiousness that had suddenly generated, one would have had to return to Kansas City and the period in which he had been so futilely dancing attendance upon Hortense Briggs. Also his having been compelled to give up Rita,—yet to no end. For, although the present conditions and situation were different, and he had no moral authority wherewith to charge Roberta with any such unfair treatment as Hortense had meted out to him, still there was this other fact that girls—all of them—were obviously stubborn and self-preservative, always setting themselves apart from and even above the average man and so wishing to compel him to do a lot of things for them without their wishing to do anything in return. And had not Ratterer always told him that in so far as girls were concerned he was more or less of a fool—too easy—too eager to show his hand and let them know that he was struck on them. Whereas, as Ratterer had explained, Clyde possessed the looks—the “goods”—and why should he always be trailing after girls unless they wanted him very much. And this thought and compliment had impressed him very much at that time. Only because of the fiascos in connection with Hortense and Rita he was more earnest now. Yet here he was again in danger of repeating or bringing upon himself what had befallen him in the case of Hortense and Rita.

At the same time he was not without the self-incriminating thought that in seeking this, most distinctly he was driving toward a relationship which was not legitimate and that would prove dangerous in the future. For, as he now darkly and vaguely thought, if he sought a relationship which her prejudices and her training would not permit her to look upon as anything but evil, was he not thereby establishing in some form a claim on her part to some consideration from him in the future which it might not be so easy for him to ignore? For after all he was the aggressor—not she. And because of this, and whatever might follow in connection with it, might not she be in a position to demand more from him than he might be willing to give? For was it his intention to marry her? In the back of his mind there lurked something which even now assured him that he would never desire to marry her—could not in the face of his high family connections here. Therefore should he proceed to demand—or should he not? And if he did, could he avoid that which would preclude any claim in the future?

He did not thus so distinctly voice his inmost feelings to himself, but relatively of such was their nature. Yet so great was the temperamental and physical enticement of Roberta that in spite of a warning nudge or mood that seemed to hint that it was dangerous for him to persist in his demand, he kept saying to himself that unless she would permit him to her room, he would not have anything more to do with her, the desire for her being all but overpowering.

This contest which every primary union between the sexes, whether with or without marriage implies, was fought out the next day in the factory. And yet without a word on either side. For Clyde, although he considered himself to be deeply in love with Roberta, was still not so deeply involved but that a naturally selfish and ambitious and seeking disposition would in this instance stand its ground and master any impulse. And he was determined to take the attitude of one who had been injured and was determined not to be friends any more or yield in any way unless some concession on her part, such as would appease him, was made.

And in consequence he came into the stamping department that morning with the face and air of one who was vastly preoccupied with matters which had little, if anything, to do with what had occurred the night before. Yet, being far from certain that this attitude on his part was likely to lead to anything but defeat, he was inwardly depressed and awry. For, after all, the sight of Roberta, freshly arrived, and although pale and distrait, as charming and energetic as ever, was not calculated to assure him of any immediate or even ultimate victory. And knowing her as well as he thought he did, by now, he was but weakly sustained by the thought that she might yield.

He looked at her repeatedly when she was not looking. And when in turn she looked at him repeatedly, but only at first when he was not looking, later when she felt satisfied that his eyes, whether directly bent on her or not, must be encompassing her, still no trace of recognition could she extract. And now to her bitter disappointment, not only did he choose to ignore her, but quite for the first time since they had been so interested in each other, he professed to pay, if not exactly conspicuous at least noticeable and intentional attention to those other girls who were always so interested in him and who always, as she had been constantly imagining, were but waiting for any slight overture on his part, to yield themselves to him in any way that he might dictate.

Now he was looking over the shoulder of Ruza Nikoforitch, her plump face with its snub nose and weak chin turned engagingly toward him, and he commenting on something not particularly connected with the work in hand apparently, for both were idly smiling. Again, in a little while, he was by the side of Martha Bordaloue, her plump French shoulders and arms bare to the pits next to his. And for all her fleshy solidity and decidedly foreign flavor, there was still enough about her which most men would like. And with her Clyde was attempting to jest, too.

And later it was Flora Brandt, the very sensuous and not unpleasing American girl whom Roberta had seen Clyde cultivating from time to time. Yet, even so, she had never been willing to believe that he might become interested in any of these. Not Clyde, surely.

And yet he could not see her at all now—could not find time to say a single word, although all these pleasant words and gay looks for all these others. Oh, how bitter! Oh, how cruel! And how utterly she despised those other girls with their oglings and their open attempts to take him from her. Oh, how terrible. Surely he must be very opposed to her now—otherwise he could not do this, and especially after all that had been between them—the love—the kisses.

The hours dragged for both, and with as much poignance for Clyde as for Roberta. For his was a feverish, urgent disposition where his dreams were concerned, and could ill brook the delay or disappointments that are the chief and outstanding characteristics of the ambitions of men, whatever their nature. He was tortured hourly by the thought that he was to lose Roberta or that to win her back he would have to succumb to her wishes.

And on her part she was torn, not so much by the question as to whether she would have to yield in this matter (for by now that was almost the least of her worries), but whether, once so yielding, Clyde would be satisfied with just some form of guarded social contact in the room—or not. And so continue on the strength of that to be friends with her. For more than this she would not grant—never. And yet—this suspense. The misery of his indifference. She could scarcely endure it from minute to minute, let alone from hour to hour, and finally in an agony of dissatisfaction with herself at having brought all this on herself, she retired to the rest room at about three in the afternoon and there with the aid of a piece of paper found on the floor and a small bit of pencil which she had, she composed a brief note:

“Please, Clyde, don’t be mad at me, will you? Please don’t. Please look at me and speak to me, won’t you? I’m so sorry about last night, really I am—terribly. And I must see you to-night at the end of Elm Street at 8:30 if you can, will you? I have something to tell you. Please do come. And please do look at me and tell me you will, even though you are angry. You won’t be sorry. I love you so. You know I do.

“Your sorrowful,


And in the spirit of one who is in agonized search for an opiate, she folded up the paper and returning to the room, drew close to Clyde’s desk. He was before it at the time, bent over some slips. And quickly as she passed she dropped the paper between his hands. He looked up instantly, his dark eyes still hard at the moment with the mingled pain and unrest and dissatisfaction and determination that had been upon him all day, and noting Roberta’s retreating figure as well as the note, he at once relaxed, a wave of puzzled satisfaction as well as delight instantly filled him. He opened it and read. And as instantly his body was suffused with a warm and yet very weakening ray.

And Roberta in turn, having reached her table and paused to note if by any chance any one had observed her, now looked cautiously about, a strained and nervous look in her eyes. But seeing Clyde looking directly at her, his eyes filled with a conquering and yet yielding light and a smile upon his lips, and his head nodding a happy assent, she as suddenly experienced a dizzying sensation, as though her hitherto constricted blood, detained by a constricted heart and constricted nerves, were as suddenly set free. And all the dry marshes and cracked and parched banks of her soul—the dry rivulets and streams and lakes of misery that seemed to dot her being—were as instantly flooded with this rich upwelling force of life and love.

He would meet her. They would meet to-night. He would put his arms abound her and kiss her as before. She would be able to look in his eyes. They would not quarrel any more—oh, never if she could help it.