An American Tragedy Chapter 25

But in the interim, in connection with his relations with Roberta no least reference to Sondra, although, even when near her in the factory or her room, he could not keep his thoughts from wandering away to where Sondra in her imaginary high social world might be. The while Roberta, at moments only sensing a drift and remoteness in his thought and attitude which had nothing to do with her, was wondering what it was that of late was beginning to occupy him so completely. And he, in his turn, when she was not looking was thinking—supposing?—supposing—(since she had troubled to recall herself to him), that he could interest a girl like Sondra in him? What then of Roberta? What? And in the face of this intimate relation that had now been established between them? (Goodness! The deuce!) And that he did care for her (yes, he did), although now—basking in the direct rays of this newer luminary—he could scarcely see Roberta any longer, so strong were the actinic rays of this other. Was he all wrong? Was it evil to be like this? His mother would say so! And his father too—and perhaps everybody who thought right about life—Sondra Finchley, maybe—the Griffiths—all.

And yet! And yet! It was snowing the first light snow of the year as Clyde, arrayed in a new collapsible silk hat and white silk muffler, both suggested by a friendly haberdasher—Orrin Short, with whom recently he had come in contact here—and a new silk umbrella wherewith to protect himself from the snow, made his way toward the very interesting, if not so very imposing residence of the Trumbulls on Wykeagy Avenue. It was quaint, low and rambling, and the lights beaming from within upon the many drawn blinds gave it a Christmas-card effect. And before it, even at the prompt hour at which he arrived, were ranged a half dozen handsome cars of various builds and colors. The sight of them, sprinkled on tops, running boards and fenders with the fresh, flaky snow, gave him a keen sense of a deficiency that was not likely soon to be remedied in his case—the want of ample means wherewith to equip himself with such a necessity as that. And inside as he approached the door he could hear voices, laughter and conversation commingled.

A tall, thin servant relieved him of his hat, coat and umbrella and he found himself face to face with Jill Trumbull, who apparently was on the look-out for him—a smooth, curly-haired blonde girl, not too thrillingly pretty, but brisk and smart, in white satin with arms and shoulders bare and rhinestones banded around her forehead.

“No trouble to tell who you are,” she said gayly, approaching and giving Clyde her hand. “I’m Jill Trumbull. Miss Finchley hasn’t come yet. But I can do the honors just as well, I guess. Come right in where the rest of us are.”

She led the way into a series of connecting rooms that seemed to join each other at right angles, adding as she went, “You do look an awful lot like Gil Griffiths, don’t you?”

“Do I?” smiled Clyde simply and courageously and very much flattered by the comparison.

The ceilings were low. Pretty lamps behind painted shades hugged dark walls. Open fires in two connecting rooms cast a rosy glow upon cushioned and comfortable furniture. There were pictures, books, objects of art.

“Here, Tracy, you do the announcing, will you?” she called. “My brother, Tracy Trumbull, Mr. Griffiths. Mr. Clyde Griffiths, everybody,” she added, surveying the company in general which in turn fixed varying eyes upon him, while Tracy Trumbull took him by the hand. Clyde, suffering from a sense of being studied, nevertheless achieved a warm smile. At the same time he realized that for the moment at least conversation had stopped. “Don’t all stop talking on my account,” he ventured, with a smile, which caused most of those present to conceive of him as at his ease and resourceful. At the same time Tracy added: “I’m not going to do any man-to-man introduction stuff. We’ll stand right here and point ’em out. That’s my sister, Gertrude, over there talking to Scott Nicholson.” Clyde noted that a small, dark girl dressed in pink with a pretty and yet saucy and piquant face, nodded to him. And beside her a very de rigueur youth of fine physique and pink complexion nodded jerkily. “Howja do.” And a few feet from them near a deep window stood a tall and yet graceful girl of dark and by no means ravishing features talking to a broad-shouldered and deep-chested youth of less than her height, who were proclaimed to be Arabella Stark and Frank Harriet. “They’re arguing over a recent Cornell-Syracuse foot-ball game… Burchard Taylor and Miss Phant of Utica,” he went on almost too swiftly for Clyde to assemble any mental notes. “Perley Haynes and Miss Vanda Steele… well, I guess that’s all as yet. Oh, no, here come Grant and Nina Temple.” Clyde paused and gazed as a tall and somewhat dandified-looking youth, sharp of face and with murky-gray eyes, steered a trim, young, plump girl in fawn gray and with a light chestnut braid of hair laid carefully above her forehead, into the middle of the room.

“Hello, Jill. Hello, Vanda. Hello, Wynette.” In the midst of these greetings on his part, Clyde was presented to these two, neither of whom seemed to pay much attention to him. “Didn’t think we’d make it,” went on young Cranston speaking to all at once. “Nina didn’t want to come, but I promised Bertine and Jill or I wouldn’t have, either. We were up at the Bagleys’. Guess who’s up there, Scott. Van Peterson and Rhoda Hull. They’re just over for the day.”

“You don’t say,” called Scott Nicholson, a determined and self-centered looking individual. Clyde was arrested by the very definite sense of social security and ease that seemed to reside in everybody. “Why didn’t you bring ’em along? I’d like to see Rhoda again and Van, too.”

“Couldn’t. They have to go back early, they say. They may stop in later for a minute. Gee, isn’t dinner served yet? I expected to sit right down.”

“These lawyers! Don’t you know they don’t eat often?” commented Frank Harriet, who was a short, but broad-chested and smiling youth, very agreeable, very good-looking and with even, white teeth. Clyde liked him.

“Well, whether they do or not, we do, or out I go. Did you hear who is being touted for stroke next year over at Cornell?” This college chatter relating to Cornell and shared by Harriet, Cranston and others, Clyde could not understand. He had scarcely heard of the various colleges with which this group was all too familiar. At the same time he was wise enough to sense the defect and steer clear of any questions or conversations which might relate to them. However, because of this, he at once felt out of it. These people were better informed than he was—had been to colleges. Perhaps he had better claim that he had been to some school. In Kansas City he had heard of the State University of Kansas—not so very far from there. Also the University of Missouri. And in Chicago of the University of Chicago. Could he say that he had been to one of those—that Kansas one, for a little while, anyway? On the instant he proposed to claim it, if asked, and then look up afterwards what, if anything, he was supposed to know about it—what, for instance, he might have studied. He had heard of mathematics somewhere. Why not that?

But these people, as he could see, were too much interested in themselves to pay much attention to him now. He might be a Griffiths and important to some outside, but here not so much—a matter of course, as it were. And because Tracy Trumbull for the moment had turned to say something to Wynette Phant, he felt quite alone, beached and helpless and with no one to talk to. But just then the small, dark girl, Gertrude, came over to him.

“The crowd’s a little late in getting together. It always is. If we said eight, they’d come at eight-thirty or nine. Isn’t that always the way?”

“It certainly is,” replied Clyde gratefully, endeavoring to appear as brisk and as much at ease as possible.

“I’m Gertrude Trumbull,” she repeated. “The sister of the good-looking Jill,” a cynical and yet amused smile played about her mouth and eyes. “You nodded to me, but you don’t know me. Just the same we’ve been hearing a lot about you.” She teased in an attempt to trouble Clyde a little, if possible. “A mysterious Griffiths here in Lycurgus whom no one seems to have met. I saw you once in Central Avenue, though. You were going into Rich’s candy store. You didn’t know that, though. Do you like candy?”

“Oh, yes, I like candy. Why?” asked Clyde on the instant feeling teased and disturbed, since the girl for whom he was buying the candy was Roberta. At the same time he could not help feeling slightly more at ease with this girl than with some others, for although cynical and not so attractive, her manner was genial and she now spelled escape from isolation and hence diffidence.

“You’re probably just saying that,” she laughed, a bantering look in her eyes. “More likely you were buying it for some girl. You have a girl, haven’t you?”

“Why—” Clyde paused for the fraction of a second because as she asked this Roberta came into his mind and the query, “Had any one ever seen him with Roberta?” flitted through his brain. Also thinking at the same time, what a bold, teasing, intelligent girl this was, different from any that thus far he had known. Yet quite without more pause he added: “No, I haven’t. What makes you ask that?”

As he said this there came to him the thought of what Roberta would think if she could hear him. “But what a question,” he continued a little nervously now. “You like to tease, don’t you?”

“Who, me? Oh, no. I wouldn’t do anything like that. But I’m sure you have just the same. I like to ask questions sometimes, just to see what people will say when they don’t want you to know what they really think.” She beamed into Clyde’s eyes amusedly and defiantly. “But I know you have a girl just the same. All good-looking fellows have.”

“Oh, am I good-looking?” he beamed nervously, amused and yet pleased. “Who said so?”

“As though you didn’t know. Well, different people. I for one. And Sondra Finchley thinks you’re good-looking, too. She’s only interested in men who are. So does my sister Jill, for that matter. And she only likes men who are good-looking. I’m different because I’m not so good-looking myself.” She blinked cynically and teasingly into his eyes, which caused him to feel oddly out of place, not able to cope with such a girl at all, at the same time very much flattered and amused. “But don’t you think you’re better looking than your cousin,” she went on sharply and even commandingly. “Some people think you are.”

Although a little staggered and yet flattered by this question which propounded what he might have liked to believe, and although intrigued by this girl’s interest in him, still Clyde would not have dreamed of venturing any such assertion even though he had believed it. Too vividly it brought the aggressive and determined and even at times revengeful-looking features of Gilbert before him, who, stirred by such a report as this, would not hesitate to pay him out.

“Why, I don’t think anything of the kind,” he laughed. “Honest, I don’t. Of course I don’t.”

“Oh, well, then maybe you don’t, but you are just the same. But that won’t help you much either, unless you have money—that is, if you want to run with people who have.” She looked up at him and added quite blandly. “People like money even more than they do looks.”

What a sharp girl this was, he thought, and what a hard, cold statement. It cut him not a little, even though she had not intended that it should.

But just then Sondra herself entered with some youth whom Clyde did not know—a tall, gangling, but very smartly-dressed individual. And after them, along with others, Bertine and Stuart Finchley.

“Here she is now,” added Gertrude a little spitefully, for she resented the fact that Sondra was so much better-looking than either she or her sister, and that she had expressed an interest in Clyde. “She’ll be looking to see if you notice how pretty she looks, so don’t disappoint her.”

The impact of this remark, a reflection of the exact truth, was not necessary to cause Clyde to gaze attentively, and even eagerly. For apart from her local position and means and taste in dress and manners, Sondra was of the exact order and spirit that most intrigued him—a somewhat refined (and because of means and position showered upon her) less savage, although scarcely less self-centered, Hortense Briggs. She was, in her small, intense way, a seeking Aphrodite, eager to prove to any who were sufficiently attractive the destroying power of her charm, while at the same time retaining her own personality and individuality free of any entangling alliance or compromise. However, for varying reasons which she could not quite explain to herself, Clyde appealed to her. He might not be anything socially or financially, but he was interesting to her.

Hence she was now keen, first to see if he were present, next to be sure that he gained no hint that she had seen him first, and lastly to act as grandly as possible for his benefit—a Hortensian procedure and type of thought that was exactly the thing best calculated to impress him. He gazed and there she was—tripping here and there in a filmy chiffon dance frock, shaded from palest yellow to deepest orange, which most enhanced her dark eyes and hair. And having exchanged a dozen or more “Oh, Hellos,” and references with one and another to this, that and the other local event, she at last condescended to evince awareness of his proximity.

“Oh, here you are. You decided to come after all. I wasn’t sure whether you would think it worth while. You’ve been introduced to everybody, of course?” She looked around as much as to say, that if he had not been she would proceed to serve him in this way. The others, not so very much impressed by Clyde, were still not a little interested by the fact that she seemed so interested in him.

“Yes, I met nearly everybody, I think.”

“Except Freddie Sells. He came in with me just now. Here you are, Freddie,” she called to a tall and slender youth, smooth of cheek and obviously becurled as to hair, who now came over and in his closely-fitting dress coat looked down on Clyde about as a spring rooster might look down on a sparrow.

“This is Clyde Griffiths, I was telling you about, Fred,” she began briskly. “Doesn’t he look a lot like Gilbert?”

“Why, you do at that,” exclaimed this amiable person, who seemed to be slightly troubled with weak eyes since he bent close. “I hear you’re a cousin of Gil’s. I know him well. We went through Princeton together. I used to be over here before I joined the General Electric over at Schenectady. But I’m around a good bit yet. You’re connected with the factory, I suppose.”

“Yes, I am,” said Clyde, who, before a youth of obviously so much more training and schooling than he possessed, felt not a little reduced. He began to fear that this individual would try to talk to him about things which he could not understand, things concerning which, having had no consecutive training of any kind, he had never been technically informed.

“In charge of some department, I suppose?”

“Yes, I am,” said Clyde, cautiously and nervously.

“You know,” went on Mr. Sells, briskly and interestingly, being of a commercial as well as technical turn, “I’ve always wondered just what, outside of money, there is to the collar business. Gil and I used to argue about that when we were down at college. He used to try to tell me that there was some social importance to making and distributing collars, giving polish and manner to people who wouldn’t otherwise have them, if it weren’t for cheap collars. I think he musta read that in a book somewhere. I always laughed at him.”

Clyde was about to attempt an answer, although already beyond his depth in regard to this. “Social importance.” Just what did he mean by that—some deep, scientific information that he had acquired at college. He was saved a non-committal or totally uninformed answer by Sondra who, without thought or knowledge of the difficulty which was then and there before him, exclaimed: “Oh, no arguments, Freddie. That’s not interesting. Besides I want him to meet my brother and Bertine. You remember Miss Cranston. She was with me at your uncle’s last spring.”

Clyde turned, while Fred made the best of the rebuff by merely looking at Sondra, whom he admired so very much.

“Yes, of course,” Clyde began, for he had been studying these two along with others. To him, apart from Sondra, Bertine seemed exceedingly attractive, though quite beyond his understanding also. Being involved, insincere and sly, she merely evoked in him a troubled sense of ineffectiveness, and hence uncertainty, in so far as her particular world was concerned—no more.

“Oh, how do you do? It’s nice to see you again,” she drawled, the while her greenish-gray eyes went over him in a smiling and yet indifferent and quizzical way. She thought him attractive, but not nearly as shrewd and hard as she would have preferred him to be. “You’ve been terribly busy with your work, I suppose. But now that you’ve come out once, I suppose we’ll see more of you here and there.”

“Well, I hope so,” he replied, showing his even teeth.

Her eyes seemed to be saying that she did not believe what she was saying and that he did not either, but that it was necessary, possibly amusing, to say something of the sort.

And a related, though somewhat modified, version of this same type of treatment was accorded him by Stuart, Sondra’s brother.

“Oh, how do you do. Glad to know you. My sister has just been telling me about you. Going to stay in Lycurgus long? Hope you do. We’ll run into one another once in a while then, I suppose.”

Clyde was by no means so sure, but he admired the easy, shallow way in which Stuart laughed and showed his even white teeth—a quick, genial, indifferent laugh. Also the way in which he turned and laid hold of Wynette Phant’s white arm as she passed. “Wait a minute, Wyn. I want to ask you something.” He was gone—into another room—bending close to her and talking fast. And Clyde had noticed that his clothes were perfectly cut.

What a gay world, he thought. What a brisk world. And just then Jill Trumbull began calling, “Come on, people. It’s not my fault. The cook’s mad about something and you’re all late anyhow. We’ll get it over with and then dance, eh?”

“You can sit between me and Miss Trumbull when she gets the rest of us seated,” assured Sondra. “Won’t that be nice? And now you may take me in.”

She slipped a white arm under Clyde’s and he felt as though he were slowly but surely being transported to paradise.