An American Tragedy Chapter 23

And then, one November evening as Clyde was walking along Wykeagy Avenue, just west of Central, a portion of the locally celebrated avenue which, ever since he had moved to Mrs. Peyton’s he was accustomed to traverse to and from his work, one thing did occur which in so far as he and the Griffiths were concerned was destined to bring about a chain of events which none of them could possibly have foreseen. At the time there was in his heart and mind that singing which is the inheritance of youth and ambition and which the dying of the old year, instead of depressing, seemed but to emphasize. He had a good position. He was respected here. Over and above his room and board he had not less than fifteen dollars a week to spend on himself and Roberta, an income which, while it did not parallel that which had been derived from the Green-Davidson or the Union League, was still not so involved with family miseries in the one place or personal loneliness in the other. And he had Roberta secretly devoted to him. And the Griffiths, thank goodness, did not and should not know anything of that, though just how in case of a difficulty it was to be avoided, he was not even troubling to think. His was a disposition which did not tend to load itself with more than the most immediate cares.

And although the Griffiths and their friends had not chosen to recognize him socially, still more and more all others who were not connected with local society and who knew of him, did. Only this very day, because the spring before he had been made a room-chief, perhaps, and Samuel Griffiths had recently paused and talked with him, no less an important personage than Mr. Rudolph Smillie, one of the several active vice-presidents, had asked him most cordially and casually whether he played golf, and if so, when spring came again, whether he might not be interested to join the Amoskeag, one of the two really important golf clubs within a half dozen miles of the city. Now, what could that mean, if not that Mr. Smillie was beginning to see him as a social possibility, and that he as well as many others about the factory, were becoming aware of him as some one who was of some importance to the Griffiths, if not the factory.

This thought, together with one other—that once more after dinner he was to see Roberta and in her room as early as eleven o’clock or even earlier—cheered him and caused him to step along most briskly and gayly. For, since having indulged in this secret adventure so many times, both were unconsciously becoming bolder. Not having been detected to date, they were of the notion that it was possible they might not be. Or if they were Clyde might be introduced as her brother or cousin for the moment, anyhow, in order to avoid immediate scandal. Later, to avoid danger of comment or subsequent detection, as both had agreed after some discussion, Roberta might have to move to some other place where the same routine was to be repeated. But that would be easy, or at least better than no freedom of contact. And with that Roberta had been compelled to agree.

However, on this occasion there came a contact and an interruption which set his thoughts careening in an entirely different direction. Reaching the first of the more important houses of Wykeagy Avenue, although he had not the slightest idea who lived there, he was gazing interestedly at the high wrought-iron fence, as well as the kempt lawn within, dimly illuminated by street lamps, and upon the surface of which he could detect many heaps of freshly fallen brown leaves being shaken and rolled by a winnowing and gamboling wind. It was all so starkly severe, placid, reserved, beautiful, as he saw it, that he was quite stirred by the dignity and richness of it. And as he neared the central gate, above which two lights were burning, making a circle of light about it, a closed car of great size and solidity stopped directly in front of it. And the chauffeur stepping down and opening the door, Clyde instantly recognized Sondra Finchley leaning forward in the car.

“Go around to the side entrance, David, and tell Miriam that I can’t wait for her because I’m going over to the Trumbulls for dinner, but that I’ll be back by nine. If she’s not there, leave this note and hurry, will you?” The voice and manner were of that imperious and yet pleasing mode which had so intrigued him the spring before.

At the same time seeing, as she thought, Gilbert Griffiths approaching along the sidewalk, she called, “Oh, hello. Walking to-night? If you want to wait a minute, you can ride out with me. I’ve just sent David in with a note. He won’t be long.”

Now Sondra Finchley, despite the fact that she was interested in Bella and the Griffiths’ wealth and prestige in general was by no means as well pleased with Gilbert. He had been indifferent to her in the beginning when she had tried to cultivate him and he had remained so. He had wounded her pride. And to her, who was overflowing with vanity and self-conceit, this was the last offense, and she could not forgive him. She could not and would not brook the slightest trace of ego in another, and most especially the vain, cold, self-centered person of Bella’s brother. He had too fine an opinion of himself, as she saw it, was one who was too bursting with vanity to be of service to anyone. “Hmp! That stick.” It was so that she invariably thought of him. “Who does he think he is anyhow? He certainly does think he’s a lot around here. You’d think he was a Rockefeller or a Morgan. And for my part I can’t see where he’s a bit interesting—any more. I like Bella. I think she’s lovely. But that smarty. I guess he would like to have a girl wait on him. Well, not for me.” Such in the main were the comments made by Sondra upon such reported acts and words of Gilbert as were brought to her by others.

And for his part, Gilbert, hearing of the gyrations, airs, and aspirations of Sondra from Bella from time to time, was accustomed to remark: “What, that little snip! Who does she think she is anyhow? If ever there was a conceited little nut!…”

However, so tightly were the social lines of Lycurgus drawn, so few the truly eligibles, that it was almost necessary and compulsory upon those “in” to make the best of such others as were “in.” And so it was that she now greeted Gilbert as she thought. And as she moved over slightly from the door to make room for him, Clyde almost petrified by this unexpected recognition, and quite shaken out of his pose and self-contemplation, not being sure whether he had heard aright, now approached, his manner the epitome almost of a self-ingratiating and somewhat affectionate and wistful dog of high breeding and fine temperament.

“Oh, good evening,” he exclaimed, removing his cap and bowing. “How are you?” while his mind was registering that this truly was the beautiful, the exquisite Sondra whom months before he had met at his uncle’s, and concerning whose social activities during the preceding summer he had been reading in the papers. And now here she was as lovely as ever, seated in this beautiful car and addressing him, apparently. However, Sondra on the instant realizing that she had made a mistake and that it was not Gilbert, was quite embarrassed and uncertain for the moment just how to extricate herself from a situation which was a bit ticklish, to say the least.

“Oh, pardon me, you’re Mr. Clyde Griffiths, I see now. It’s my mistake. I thought you were Gilbert. I couldn’t quite make you out in the light.” She had for the moment an embarrassed and fidgety and halting manner, which Clyde noticed and which he saw implied that she had made a mistake that was not entirely flattering to him nor satisfactory to her. And this in turn caused him to become confused and anxious to retire.

“Oh, pardon me. But that’s all right. I didn’t mean to intrude. I thought…” He flushed and stepped back really troubled.

But now Sondra, seeing at once that Clyde was if anything much more attractive than his cousin and far more diffident, and obviously greatly impressed by her charms as well as her social state, unbent sufficiently to say with a charming smile: “But that’s all right. Won’t you get in, please, and let me take you where you are going. Oh, I wish you would. I will be so glad to take you.”

For there was that in Clyde’s manner the instant he learned that it was due to a mistake that he had been recognized which caused even her to understand that he was hurt, abashed and disappointed. His eyes took on a hurt look and there was a wavering, apologetic, sorrowful smile playing about his lips.

“Why, yes, of course,” he said jerkily, “that is, if you want me to. I understand how it was. That’s all right. But you needn’t mind, if you don’t wish to. I thought…” He had half turned to go, but was so drawn by her that he could scarcely tear himself away before she repeated: “Oh, do come, get in, Mr. Griffiths. I’ll be so glad if you will. It won’t take David a moment to take you wherever you are going, I’m sure. And I am sorry about the other, really I am. I didn’t mean, you know, that just because you weren’t Gilbert Griffiths—”

He paused and in a bewildered manner stepped forward and entering the car, slipped into the seat beside her. And she, interested by his personality, at once began to look at him, feeling glad that it was he now instead of Gilbert. In order the better to see and again reveal her devastating charms, as she saw them, to Clyde, she now switched on the roof light. And the chauffeur returning, she asked Clyde where he wished to go—an address which he gave reluctantly enough, since it was so different from the street in which she resided. As the car sped on, he was animated by a feverish desire to make some use of this brief occasion which might cause her to think favorably of him—perhaps, who knows—lead to some faint desire on her part to contact him again at some time or other. He was so truly eager to be of her world.

“It’s certainly nice of you to take me up this way,” he now turned to her and observed, smiling. “I didn’t think it was my cousin you meant or I wouldn’t have come up as I did.”

“Oh, that’s all right. Don’t mention it,” replied Sondra archly with a kind of sticky sweetness in her voice. Her original impression of him as she now felt, had been by no means so vivid. “It’s my mistake, not yours. But I’m glad I made it now, anyhow,” she added most definitely and with an engaging smile. “I think I’d rather pick you up than I would Gil, anyhow. We don’t get along any too well, he and I. We quarrel a lot whenever we do meet anywhere.” She smiled, having completely recovered from her momentary embarrassment, and now leaned back after the best princess fashion, her glance examining Clyde’s very regular features with interest. He had such soft smiling eyes she thought. And after all, as she now reasoned, he was Bella’s and Gilbert’s cousin, and looked prosperous.

“Well, that’s too bad,” he said stiffly, and with a very awkward and weak attempt at being self-confident and even high-spirited in her presence.

“Oh, it doesn’t amount to anything, really. We just quarrel, that’s all, once in a while.”

She saw that he was nervous and bashful and decidedly unresourceful in her presence and it pleased her to think that she could thus befuddle and embarrass him so much. “Are you still working for your uncle?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Clyde quickly, as though it would make an enormous difference to her if he were not. “I have charge of a department over there now.”

“Oh, really, I didn’t know. I haven’t seen you at all, since that one time, you know. You don’t get time to go about much, I suppose.” She looked at him wisely, as much as to say, “Your relatives aren’t so very much interested in you,” but really liking him now, she said instead, “You have been in the city all summer, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Clyde quite simply and winningly. “I have to be, you know. It’s the work that keeps me here. But I’ve seen your name in the papers often, and read about your riding and tennis contests and I saw you in that flower parade last June, too. I certainly thought you looked beautiful, like an angel almost.”

There was an admiring, pleading light in his eyes which now quite charmed her. What a pleasing young man—so different to Gilbert. And to think he should be so plainly and hopelessly smitten, and when she could take no more than a passing interest in him. It made her feel sorry, a little, and hence kindly toward him. Besides what would Gilbert think if only he knew that his cousin was so completely reduced by her—how angry he would be—he, who so plainly thought her a snip? It would serve him just right if Clyde were taken up by some one and made more of than he (Gilbert) ever could hope to be. The thought had a most pleasing tang for her.

However, at this point, unfortunately, the car turned in before Mrs. Peyton’s door and stopped. The adventure for Clyde and for her was seemingly over.

“That’s awfully nice of you to say that. I won’t forget that.” She smiled archly as, the chauffeur opening the door, Clyde stepped down, his own nerves taut because of the grandeur and import of this encounter. “So this is where you live. Do you expect to be in Lycurgus all winter?”

“Oh, yes. I’m quite sure of it. I hope to be anyhow,” he added, quite yearningly, his eyes expressing his meaning completely.

“Well, perhaps, then I’ll see you again somewhere, some time. I hope so, anyhow.”

She nodded and gave him her fingers and the most fetching and wreathy of smiles, and he, eager to the point of folly, added: “Oh, so do I.”

“Good night! Good night!” she called as the car sprang away, and Clyde, looking after it, wondered if he would ever see her again so closely and intimately as here. To think that he should have met her again in this way! And she had proved so very different from that first time when, as he distinctly recalled, she took no interest in him at all.

He turned hopefully and a little wistfully toward his own door.

And Sondra,… why was it, she pondered, as the motor car sped on its way, that the Griffiths were apparently not much interested in him?