An American Tragedy Chapter 33

One of the things that Roberta soon found was that her intuitive notions in regard to all this were not without speedy substantiation. For exactly as before, though with the usual insistence afterward that there was no real help for it, there continued to be these same last moment changes of plan and unannounced absences. And although she complained at times, or pleaded, or merely contented herself with quite silent and not always obvious “blues,” still these same effected no real modification or improvement. For Clyde was now hopelessly enamored of Sondra and by no means to be changed, or moved even, by anything in connection with Roberta. Sondra was too wonderful!

At the same time because she was there all of the working hours of each day in the same room with him, he could not fail instinctively to feel some of the thoughts that employed her mind—such dark, sad, despairing thoughts. And these seized upon him at times as definitely and poignantly as though they were voices of accusation or complaint—so much so that he could not help but suggest by way of amelioration that he would like to see her and that he was coming around that night if she were going to be home. And so distrait was she, and still so infatuated with him, that she could not resist admitting that she wanted him to come. And once there, the psychic personality of the past as well as of the room itself was not without its persuasion and hence emotional compulsion.

But most foolishly anticipating, as he now did, a future more substantial than the general local circumstances warranted, he was more concerned than ever lest his present relationship to Roberta should in any way prove inimical to all this. Supposing that Sondra at some time, in some way, should find out concerning Roberta? How fatal that would be! Or that Roberta should become aware of his devotion to Sondra and so develop an active resentment which should carry her to the length of denouncing or exposing him. For subsequent to the New Year’s Eve engagement, he was all too frequently appearing at the factory of a morning with explanatory statements that because of some invitation from the Griffiths, Harriets, or others, he would not be able to keep an engagement with her that night, for instance, that he had made a day or two before. And later, on three different occasions, because Sondra had called for him in her car, he had departed without a word, trusting to what might come to him the next day in the way of an excuse to smooth the matter over.

Yet anomalous, if not exactly unprecedented as it may seem, this condition of mingled sympathy and opposition gave rise at last to the feeling in him that come what might he must find some method of severing this tie, even though it lacerated Roberta to the point of death (Why should he care? He had never told her that he would marry her.) or endangered his own position here in case she were not satisfied to release him as voicelessly as he wished. At other times it caused him to feel that indeed he was a sly and shameless and cruel person who had taken undue advantage of a girl who, left to herself, would never have troubled with him. And this latter mood, in spite of slights and lies and thinly excused neglects and absences at times in the face of the most definite agreements—so strange is the libido of the race—brought about the reënactment of the infernal or celestial command laid upon Adam and his breed: “Thy desire shall be to thy mate.”

But there was this to be said in connection with the relationship between these two, that no time, owing to the inexperience of Clyde, as well as Roberta, had there been any adequate understanding or use of more than the simplest, and for the most part unsatisfactory, contraceptive devices. About the middle of February, and, interestingly enough, at about the time when Clyde, because of the continuing favor of Sondra, had about reached the point where he was determined once and for all to end, not only this physical, but all other connection with Roberta, she on her part was beginning to see clearly that, in spite of his temporizing and her own incurable infatuation for him, pursuit of him by her was futile and that it would be more to the satisfaction of her pride, if not to the ease of her heart, if she were to leave here and in some other place seek some financial help that would permit her to live and still help her parents and forget him if she could. Unfortunately for this, she was compelled, to her dismay and terror, to enter the factory one morning, just about this time, her face a symbol of even graver and more terrifying doubts and fears than any that had hitherto assailed her. For now, in addition to her own troubled conclusions in regard to Clyde, there had sprung up over night the dark and constraining fear that even this might not now be possible, for the present at least. For because of her own and Clyde’s temporizing over his and her sentimentality and her unconquerable affection for him, she now, at a time when it was most inimical for both, found herself pregnant.

Ever since she had yielded to his blandishments, she had counted the days and always had been able to congratulate herself that all was well. But forty-eight hours since the always exactly calculated time had now passed, and there had been no sign. And for four days preceding this Clyde had not even been near her. And his attitude at the factory was more remote and indifferent than ever.

And now, this!

And she had no one but him to whom she might turn. And he was in this estranged and indifferent mood.

Because of her fright, induced by the fear that with or without Clyde’s aid she might not easily be extricated from her threatened predicament, she could see her home, her mother, her relatives, all who knew her, and their thoughts in case anything like this should befall her. For of the opinion of society in general and what other people might say, Roberta stood in extreme terror. The stigma of unsanctioned concupiscence! The shame of illegitimacy for a child! It was bad enough, as she had always thought, listening to girls and women talk of life and marriage and adultery and the miseries that had befallen girls who had yielded to men and subsequently been deserted, for a woman when she was safely married and sustained by the love and strength of a man—such love, for instance, as her brother-in-law Gabel brought to her sister Agnes, and her father to her mother in the first years, no doubt—and Clyde to her when he had so feverishly declared that he loved her.

But now—now!

She could not permit any thoughts in regard to his recent or present attitude to delay her. Regardless of either, he must help her. She did not know what else to do under such circumstances—which way to turn. And no doubt Clyde did. At any rate he had said once that he would stand by her in case anything happened. And although, because at first, even on the third day on reaching the factory, she imagined that she might be exaggerating the danger and that it was perhaps some physical flaw or lapse that might still overcome itself, still by late afternoon no evidence of any change coming to her, she began to be a prey to the most nameless terrors. What little courage she had mustered up to this time began to waver and break. She was all alone, unless he came to her now. And she was in need of advice and good counsel—loving counsel. Oh, Clyde! Clyde! If he would only not be so indifferent to her! He must not be! Something must be done, and right away—quick—else—Great Heavens, what a terrible thing this could easily come to be!

At once she stopped her work between four and five in the afternoon and hurried to the dressing-room. And there she penned a note—hurried, hysterical—a scrawl.

“CLYDE—I must see you to-night, sure, sure. You mustn’t fail me. I have something to tell you. Please come as soon after work as possible, or meet me anywhere. I’m not angry or mad about anything. But I must see you to-night, sure. Please say right away where.


And he, sensing a new and strange and quite terrified note in all this the moment he read it, at once looked over his shoulder at her and, seeing her face so white and drawn, signaled that he would meet her. For judging by her face the thing she had to tell must be of the utmost importance to her, else why this tensity and excitement on her part. And although he had another engagement later, as he now trouble-somely recalled, at the Starks for dinner, still it was necessary to do this first. Yet, what was it anyhow? Was anybody dead or hurt or what—her mother or father or brother or sister?

At five-thirty, he made his way to the appointed place, wondering what it could be that could make her so pale and concerned. Yet at the same time saying to himself that if this other dream in regard to Sondra were to come true he must not let himself be reëntangled by any great or moving sympathy—must maintain his new poise and distance so that Roberta could see that he no longer cared for her as he had. Reaching the appointed place at six o’clock, he found her leaning disconsolately against a tree in the shadow. She looked distraught, despondent.

“Why, what’s the matter, Bert? What are you so frightened about? What’s happened?”

Even his obviously dwindling affection was restimulated by her quite visible need of help.

“Oh, Clyde,” she said at last, “I hardly know how to tell you. It’s so terrible for me if it’s so.” Her voice, tense and yet low, was in itself a clear proof of her anguish and uncertainty.

“Why, what is it, Bert? Why don’t you tell me?” he reiterated, briskly and yet cautiously, essaying an air of detached assurance which he could not quite manage in this instance. “What’s wrong? What are you so excited about? You’re all trembly.”

Because of the fact that never before in all his life had he been confronted by any such predicament as this, it did not even now occur to him just what the true difficulty could be. At the same time, being rather estranged and hence embarrassed by his recent treatment of her, he was puzzled as to just what attitude to assume in a situation where obviously something was wrong. Being sensitive to conventional or moral stimuli as he still was, he could not quite achieve a discreditable thing, even where his own highest ambitions were involved, without a measure of regret or at least shame. Also he was so anxious to keep his dinner engagement and not to be further involved that his manner was impatient. It did not escape Roberta.

“You know, Clyde,” she pleaded, both earnestly and eagerly, the very difficulty of her state encouraging her to be bold and demanding, “you said if anything went wrong you’d help me.”

At once, because of those recent few and, as he now saw them, foolish visits to her room, on which occasions because of some remaining sentiment and desire on the part of both he had been betrayed into sporadic and decidedly unwise physical relations with her, he now realized what the difficulty was. And that it was a severe, compelling, dangerous difficulty, if it were true. Also that he was to blame and that here was a real predicament that must be overcome, and that quickly, unless a still greater danger was to be faced. Yet, simultaneously, his very recent and yet decidedly compelling indifference dictating, he was almost ready now to assume that this might be little more than a ruse or lovelorn device or bit of strategy intended to retain or reënlist his interest in spite of himself—a thought which he was only in part ready to harbor. Her manner was too dejected and despairing. And with the first dim realization of how disastrous such a complication as this might prove to be in his case, he began to be somewhat more alarmed than irritated. So much so that he exclaimed:

“Yes, but how do you know that there is anything wrong? You can’t be sure so soon as all this, can you? How can you? You’ll probably be all right to-morrow, won’t you?” At the same time his voice was beginning to suggest the uncertainty that he felt.

“Oh, no, I don’t think so, Clyde. I wish I did. It’s two whole days, and it’s never been that way before.”

Her manner as she said this was so obviously dejected and self-commiserating that at once he was compelled to dismiss the thought of intrigue. At the same time, unwilling to face so discouraging a fact so soon, he added: “Oh, well, that might not mean anything, either. Girls go longer than two days, don’t they?”

The tone, implying as it did uncertainty and non-sophistication even, which previously had not appeared characteristic of him, was sufficient to alarm Roberta to the point where she exclaimed: “Oh, no, I don’t think so. Anyhow, it would be terrible, wouldn’t it, if something were wrong? What do you suppose I ought to do? Don’t you know something I can take?”

At once Clyde, who had been so brisk and urgent in establishing this relationship and had given Roberta the impression that he was a sophisticated and masterful youth who knew much more of life than ever she could hope to know, and to whom all such dangers and difficulties as were implied in the relationship could be left with impunity, was at a loss what to do. Actually, as he himself now realized, he was as sparingly informed in regard to the mysteries of sex and the possible complications attending upon such a situation as any youth of his years could well be. True, before coming here he had browsed about Kansas City and Chicago with such worldly-wise mentors of the hotel bell-boy world as Ratterer, Higby, Hegglund and others and had listened to much of their gossiping and boasting. But their knowledge, for all their boasting, as he now half guessed, must have related to girls who were as careless and uninformed as themselves. And beyond those again, although he was by no means so clearly aware of that fact now, lay little more than those rumored specifics and preventatives of such quack doctors and shady druggists and chemists as dealt with intelligences of the Hegglund and Ratterer order. But even so, where were such things to be obtained in a small city like Lycurgus? Since dropping Dillard he had no intimates let alone trustworthy friends who could be depended on to help in such a crisis.

The best he could think of for the moment was to visit some local or near-by druggist who might, for a price, provide him with some worth-while prescription or information. But for how much? And what were the dangers in connection with such a proceeding? Did they talk? Did they ask questions? Did they tell any one else about such inquiries or needs? He looked so much like Gilbert Griffiths, who was so well known in Lycurgus that any one recognizing him as Gilbert might begin to talk of him in that way and so bring about trouble.

And this terrible situation arising now—when in connection with Sondra, things had advanced to the point where she was now secretly permitting him to kiss her, and, more pleasing still, exhibiting little evidences of her affection and good will in the form of presents of ties, a gold pencil, a box of most attractive handkerchiefs, all delivered to his door in his absence with a little card with her initials, which had caused him to feel sure that his future in connection with her was of greater and greater promise. So much so that even marriage, assuming that her family might not prove too inimical and that her infatuation and diplomacy endured, might not be beyond the bounds of possibility. He could not be sure, of course. Her true intentions and affections so far were veiled behind a tantalizing evasiveness which made her all the more desirable. Yet it was these things that had been causing him to feel that he must now, and speedily, extract himself as gracefully and unirritatingly as possible from his intimacy with Roberta.

For that reason, therefore, he now announced, with pretended assurance: “Well, I wouldn’t worry about it any more to-night if I were you. You may be all right yet, you know. You can’t be sure. Anyhow, I’ll have to have a little time until I can see what I can do. I think I can get something for you. But I wish you wouldn’t get so excited.”

At the same time he was far from feeling as secure as he sounded. In fact he was very much shaken. His original determination to have as little to do with her as possible, was now complicated by the fact that he was confronted by a predicament that spelled real danger to himself, unless by some argument or assertion he could absolve himself of any responsibility in connection with this—a possibility which, in view of the fact that Roberta still worked for him, that he had written her some notes, and that any least word from her would precipitate an inquiry which would prove fatal to him, was sufficient to cause him to feel that he must assist her speedily and without a breath of information as to all this leaking out in any direction. At the same time it is only fair to say that because of all that had been between them, he did not object to assisting her in any way that he could. But in the event that he could not (it was so that his thoughts raced forward to an entirely possible inimical conclusion to all this) well, then—well, then—might it not be possible at least—some fellows, if not himself would—to deny that he had held any such relationship with her and so escape. That possibly might be one way out—if only he were not as treacherously surrounded as he was here.

But the most troublesome thing in connection with all this was the thought that he knew of nothing that would really avail in such a case, other than a doctor. Also that that probably meant money, time, danger—just what did it mean? He would see her in the morning, and if she weren’t all right by then he would act.

And Roberta, for the first time forsaken in this rather casual and indifferent way, and in such a crisis as this, returned to her room with her thoughts and fears, more stricken and agonized than ever before she had been in all her life.