An American Tragedy Chapter 26

The dinner itself was chatter about a jumble of places, personalities, plans, most of which had nothing to do with anything that Clyde had personally contacted here. However, by reason of his own charm, he soon managed to overcome the sense of strangeness and hence indifference in some quarters, more particularly the young women of the group who were interested by the fact that Sondra Finchley liked him. And Jill Trumbull, sitting beside him, wanted to know where he came from, what his own home life and connections were like, why he had decided to come to Lycurgus, questions which, interjected as they were between silly banter concerning different girls and their beaus, gave Clyde pause. He did not feel that he could admit the truth in connection with his family at all. So he announced that his father conducted a hotel in Denver—not so very large, but still a hotel. Also that he had come to Lycurgus because his uncle had suggested to him in Chicago that he come to learn the collar business. He was not sure that he was wholly interested in it or that he would continue indefinitely unless it proved worth while; rather he was trying to find out what it might mean to his future, a remark which caused Sondra, who was also listening, as well as Jill, to whom it was addressed, to consider that in spite of all rumors attributed to Gilbert, Clyde must possess some means and position to which, in case he did not do so well here, he could return.

This in itself was important, not only to Sondra and Jill, but to all the others. For, despite his looks and charm and family connections here, the thought that he was a mere nobody, seeking, as Constance Wynant had reported, to attach himself to his cousin’s family, was disquieting. One couldn’t ever be anything much more than friendly with a moneyless clerk or pensioner, whatever his family connections, whereas if he had a little money and some local station elsewhere, the situation was entirely different.

And now Sondra, relieved by this and the fact that he was proving more acceptable than she had imagined he would, was inclined to make more of him than she otherwise would have done.

“Are you going to let me dance with you after dinner?” was one of the first things he said to her, infringing on a genial smile given him in the midst of clatter concerning an approaching dance somewhere.

“Why, yes, of course, if you want me to,” she replied, coquettishly, seeking to intrigue him into further romanticisms in regard to her.

“Just one?”

“How many do you want? There are a dozen boys here, you know. Did you get a program when you came in?”

“I didn’t see any.”

“Never mind. After dinner you can get one. And you may put me down for three and eight. That will leave you room for others.” She smiled bewitchingly. “You have to be nice to everybody, you know.”

“Yes, I know.” He was still looking at her. “But ever since I saw you at my uncle’s last April, I’ve been wishing I might see you again. I always look for your name in the papers.”

He looked at her seekingly and questioningly and in spite of herself, Sondra was captivated by this naïve confession. Plainly he could not afford to go where or do what she did, but still he would trouble to follow her name and movements in print. She could not resist the desire to make something more of this.

“Oh, do you?” she added. “Isn’t that nice? But what do you read about me?”

“That you were at Twelfth and Greenwood Lakes and up at Sharon for the swimming contests. I saw where you went up to Paul Smith’s, too. The papers here seemed to think you were interested in some one from Schroon Lake and that you might be going to marry him.”

“Oh, did they? How silly. The papers here always say such silly things.” Her tone implied that he might be intruding. He looked embarrassed. This softened her and after a moment she took up the conversation in the former vein.

“Do you like to ride?” she asked sweetly and placatively.

“I never have. You know I never had much chance at that, but I always thought I could if I tried.”

“Of course, it’s not hard. If you took a lesson or two you could, and,” she added in a somewhat lower tone, “we might go for a canter sometime. There are lots of horses in our stable that you would like, I’m sure.”

Clyde’s hair-roots tingled anticipatorily. He was actually being invited by Sondra to ride with her sometime and he could use one of her horses in the bargain.

“Oh, I would love that,” he said. “That would be wonderful.”

The crowd was getting up from the table. Scarcely any one was interested in the dinner, because a chamber orchestra of four having arrived, the strains of a preliminary fox trot were already issuing from the adjacent living room—a long, wide affair from which all obstructing furniture with the exception of wall chairs had been removed.

“You had better see about your program and your dance before all the others are gone,” cautioned Sondra.

“Yes, I will right away,” said Clyde, “but is two all I get with you?”

“Well, make it three, five and eight then, in the first half.” She waved him gayly away and he hurried for a dance card.

The dances were all of the eager fox-trotting type of the period with interpolations and variations according to the moods and temperaments of the individual dancers. Having danced so much with Roberta during the preceding month, Clyde was in excellent form and keyed to the breaking point by the thought that at last he was in social and even affectional contact with a girl as wonderful as Sondra.

And although wishing to seem courteous and interested in others with whom he was dancing, he was almost dizzied by passing contemplations of Sondra. She swayed so droopily and dreamily in the embrace of Grant Cranston, the while without seeming to, looking in his direction when he was near, permitting him to sense how graceful and romantic and poetic was her attitude toward all things—what a flower of life she really was. And Nina Temple, with whom he was now dancing for his benefit, just then observed: “She is graceful, isn’t she?”

“Who?” asked Clyde, pretending an innocence he could not physically verify, for his cheek and forehead flushed. “I don’t know who you mean.”

“Don’t you? Then what are you blushing for?”

He had realized that he was blushing. And that his attempted escape was ridiculous. He turned, but just then the music stopped and the dancers drifted away to their chairs. Sondra moved off with Grant Cranston and Clyde led Nina toward a cushioned seat in a window in the library.

And in connection with Bertine with whom he next danced, he found himself slightly flustered by the cool, cynical aloofness with which she accepted and entertained his attention. Her chief interest in Clyde was the fact that Sondra appeared to find him interesting.

“You do dance well, don’t you? I suppose you must have done a lot of dancing before you came here—in Chicago, wasn’t it, or where?”

She talked slowly and indifferently.

“I was in Chicago before I came here, but I didn’t do so very much dancing. I had to work.” He was thinking how such girls as she had everything, as contrasted with girls like Roberta, who had nothing. And yet, as he now felt in this instance, he liked Roberta better. She was sweeter and warmer and kinder—not so cold.

When the music started again with the sonorous melancholy of a single saxophone interjected at times, Sondra came over to him and placed her right hand in his left and allowed him to put his arm about her waist, an easy, genial and unembarrassed approach which, in the midst of Clyde’s dream of her, was thrilling.

And then in her coquettish and artful way she smiled up in his eyes, a bland, deceptive and yet seemingly promising smile, which caused his heart to beat faster and his throat to tighten. Some delicate perfume that she was using thrilled in his nostrils as might have the fragrance of spring.

“Having a good time?”

“Yes—looking at you.”

“When there are so many other nice girls to look at?”

“Oh, there are no other girls as nice as you.”

“And I dance better than any other girl, and I’m much the best-looking of any other girl here. Now—I’ve said it all for you. Now what are you going to say?”

She looked up at him teasingly, and Clyde realizing that he had a very different type to Roberta to deal with, was puzzled and flushed.

“I see,” he said, seriously. “Every fellow tells you that, so you don’t want me to.”

“Oh, no, not every fellow.” Sondra was at once intrigued and checkmated by the simplicity of his retort. “There are lots of people who don’t think I’m very pretty.”

“Oh, don’t they, though?” he returned quite gayly, for at once he saw that she was not making fun of him. And yet he was almost afraid to venture another compliment. Instead he cast about for something else to say, and going back to the conversation at the table concerning riding and tennis, he now asked: “You like everything out-of-doors and athletic, don’t you?”

“Oh, do I?” was her quick and enthusiastic response. “There isn’t anything I like as much, really. I’m just crazy about riding, tennis, swimming, motor-boating, aqua-planing. You swim, don’t you?”

“Oh, sure,” said Clyde, grandly.

“Do you play tennis?”

“Well, I’ve just taken it up,” he said, fearing to admit that he did not play at all.

“Oh, I just love tennis. We might play sometime together.”

Clyde’s spirits were completely restored by this. And tripping as lightly as dawn to the mournful strains of a popular love song, she went right on. “Bella Griffiths and Stuart and Grant and I play fine doubles. We won nearly all the finals at Greenwood and Twelfth Lake last summer. And when it comes to aqua-planing and high diving you just ought to see me. We have the swiftest motor-boat up at Twelfth Lake now—Stuart has. It can do sixty miles an hour.”

At once Clyde realized that he had hit upon the one subject that not only fascinated, but even excited her. For not only did it involve outdoor exercise, in which obviously she reveled, but also the power to triumph and so achieve laurels in such phases of sport as most interested those with whom she was socially connected. And lastly, although this was something which he did not so clearly realize until later, she was fairly dizzied by the opportunity all this provided for frequent changes of costume and hence social show, which was the one thing above all others that did interest her. How she looked in a bathing suit—a riding or tennis or dancing or automobile costume!

They danced on together, thrilled for the moment at least, by this mutual recognition of the identity and reality of this interest each felt for the other—a certain momentary warmth or enthusiasm which took the form of genial and seeking glances into each other’s eyes, hints on the part of Sondra that, assuming that Clyde could fit himself athletically, financially and in other ways for such a world as this, it might be possible that he would be invited here and there by her; broad and for the moment self-deluding notions on his part that such could and would be the case, while in reality just below the surface of his outward or seeming conviction and assurance ran a deeper current of self-distrust which showed as a decidedly eager and yet slightly mournful light in his eye, a certain vigor and assurance in his voice, which was nevertheless touched, had she been able to define it, with something that was not assurance by any means.

“Oh, the dance is done,” he said sadly.

“Let’s try to make them encore,” she said, applauding. The orchestra struck up a lively tune and they glided off together once more, dipping and swaying here and there—harmoniously abandoning themselves to the rhythm of the music—like two small chips being tossed about on a rough but friendly sea.

“Oh, I’m so glad to be with you again—to be dancing with you. It’s so wonderful… Sondra.”

“But you mustn’t call me that, you know. You don’t know me well enough.”

“I mean Miss Finchley. But you’re not going to be mad at me again, are you?”

His face was very pale and sad again

She noticed it.

“No. Was I mad at you? I wasn’t really. I like you… some… when you’re not sentimental.”

The music stopped. The light tripping feet became walking ones.

“I’d like to see if it’s still snowing outside, wouldn’t you?” It was Sondra asking.

“Oh, yes. Let’s go.”

Through the moving couples they hurried out a side-door to a world that was covered thick with soft, cottony, silent snow. The air was filled with it silently eddying down.