An American Tragedy Chapter 34

But the resources of Clyde, in such a situation as this, were slim. For, apart from Liggett, Whiggam, and a few minor though decidedly pleasant and yet rather remote department heads, all of whom were now looking on him as a distinctly superior person who could scarcely be approached too familiarly in connection with anything, there was no one to whom he could appeal. In so far as the social group to which he was now so eagerly attaching himself was concerned, it would have been absurd for him to attempt, however slyly, to extract any information there. For while the youths of this world at least were dashing here and there, and because of their looks, taste and means indulging themselves in phases of libertinism—the proper wild oats of youth—such as he and others like himself could not have dreamed of affording, still so far was he from any real intimacy with any of these that he would not have dreamed of approaching them for helpful information.

His sanest thought, which occurred to him almost immediately after leaving Roberta, was that instead of inquiring of any druggist or doctor or person in Lycurgus—more particularly any doctor, since the entire medical profession here, as elsewhere, appeared to him as remote, cold, unsympathetic and likely very expensive and unfriendly to such an immoral adventure as this—was to go to some near-by city, preferably Schenectady, since it was larger and as near as any, and there inquire what, if anything, could be obtained to help in such a situation as this. For he must find something.

At the same time, the necessity for decision and prompt action was so great that even on his way to the Starks’, and without knowing any drug or prescription to ask for, he resolved to go to Schenectady the next night. Only that meant, as he later reasoned, that a whole day must elapse before anything could be done for Roberta, and that, in her eyes, as well as his own, would be leaving her open to the danger that any delay at all involved. Therefore, he decided to act at once, if he could; excuse himself to the Starks and then make the trip to Schenectady on the interurban before the drug-stores over there should close. But once there—what? How face the local druggist or clerk—and ask for what? His mind was troubled with hard, abrasive thoughts as to what the druggist might think, look or say. If only Ratterer or Hegglund were here! They would know, of course, and be glad to help him. Or Higby, even. But here he was now, all alone, for Roberta knew nothing at all. There must be something though, of course. If not, if he failed there, he would return and write Ratterer in Chicago, only in order to keep himself out of this as much as possible he would say that he was writing for a friend.

Once in Schenectady, since no one knew him there, of course he might say (the thought came to him as an inspiration) that he was a newly married man—why not? He was old enough to be one, and that his wife, and that in the face of inability to care for a child now, was “past her time” (he recalled a phrase that he had once heard Higby use), and that he wanted something that would permit her to escape from that state. What was so wrong with that as an idea? A young married couple might be in just such a predicament. And possibly the druggist would, or should be stirred to a little sympathy by such a state and might be glad to tell him of something. Why not? That would be no real crime. To be sure, one and another might refuse, but a third might not. And then he would be rid of this. And then never again, without knowing a lot more than he did now, would he let himself drift into any such predicament as this. Never! It was too dreadful.

He betook himself to the Stark house very nervous and growing more so every moment. So much so that, the dinner being eaten, he finally declared as early as nine-thirty that at the last moment at the factory a very troublesome report, covering a whole month’s activities, had been requested of him. And since it was not anything he could do at the office, he was compelled to return to his room and make it out there—a bit of energetic and ambitious commercialism, as the Starks saw it, worthy of their admiration and sympathy. And in consequence he was excused.

But arrived at Schenectady, he had barely time to look around a little before the last car for Lycurgus should be leaving. His nerve began to fail him. Did he look enough like a young married man to convince any one that he was one? Besides were not such preventatives considered very wrong—even by druggists?

Walking up and down the one very long Main Street still brightly lighted at this hour, looking now in one drug-store window and another, he decided for different reasons that each particular one was not the one. In one, as he saw at a glance, stood a stout, sober, smooth-shaven man of fifty whose bespectacled eyes and iron gray hair seemed to indicate to Clyde’s mind that he would be most certain to deny such a youthful applicant as himself—refuse to believe that he was married—or to admit that he had any such remedy, and suspect him of illicit relations with some young, unmarried girl into the bargain. He looked so sober, God-fearing, ultra-respectable and conventional. No, it would not do to apply to him. He had not the courage to enter and face such a person.

In another drug-store he observed a small, shriveled and yet dapper and shrewd-looking man of perhaps thirty-five, who appeared to him at the time as satisfactory enough, only, as he could see from the front, he was being briskly assisted by a young woman of not more than twenty or twenty-five. And assuming that she would approach him instead of the man—an embarrassing and impossible situation—or if the man waited on him, was it not probable that she would hear? In consequence he gave up that place, and a third, a fourth, and a fifth, for varying and yet equally cogent reasons—customers inside, a girl and a boy at a soda fountain in front, an owner posed near the door and surveying Clyde as he looked in and thus disconcerting him before he had time to consider whether he should enter or not.

Finally, however, after having abandoned so many, he decided that he must act or return defeated, his time and carfare wasted. Returning to one of the lesser stores in a side street, in which a moment before he had observed an undersized chemist idling about, he entered, and summoning all the bravado he could muster, began: “I want to know something. I want to know if you know of anything—well, you see, it’s this way—I’m just married and my wife is past her time and I can’t afford to have any children now if I can help it. Is there anything a person can get that will get her out of it?”

His manner was brisk and confidential enough, although tinged with nervousness and the inner conviction that the druggist must guess that he was lying. At the same time, although he did not know it, he was talking to a confirmed religionist of the Methodist group who did not believe in interfering with the motives or impulses of nature. Any such trifling was against the laws of God and he carried nothing in stock that would in any way interfere with the ways of the Creator. At the same time he was too good a merchant to wish to alienate a possible future customer, and so he now said: “I’m sorry, young man, but I’m afraid I can’t help you in this case. I haven’t a thing of that kind in stock here—never handle anything of that kind because I don’t believe in ’em. It may be, though, that some of the other stores here in town carry something of the sort. I wouldn’t be able to tell you.” His manner as he spoke was solemn, the convinced and earnest tone and look of the moralist who knows that he is right.

And at once Clyde gathered, and fairly enough in this instance, that this man was reproachful. It reduced to a much smaller quantity the little confidence with which he had begun his quest. And yet, since the dealer had not directly reproached him and had even said that it might be possible that some of the other druggists carried such a thing, he took heart after a few moments, and after a brief fit of pacing here and there in which he looked through one window and another, he finally espied a seventh dealer alone. He entered, and after repeating his first explanation he was informed, very secretively and yet casually, by the thin, dark, casuistic person who waited on him—not the owner in this instance—that there was such a remedy. Yes. Did he wish a box? That (because Clyde asked the price) would be six dollars—a staggering sum to the salaried inquirer. However, since the expenditure seemed unescapable—to find anything at all a great relief—he at once announced that he would take it, and the clerk, bringing him something which he hinted ought to prove “effectual” and wrapping it up, he paid and went out.

And then actually so relieved was he, so great had been the strain up to this moment, that he could have danced for joy. Then there was a cure, and it would work, of course. The excessive and even outrageous price seemed to indicate as much. And under the circumstances, might he not even consider that sum moderate, seeing that he was being let off so easily? However, he forgot to inquire as to whether there was any additional information or special direction that might prove valuable, and instead, with the package in his pocket, some central and detached portion of the ego within himself congratulating him upon his luck and undaunted efficiency in such a crisis as this, he at once returned to Lycurgus, where he proceeded to Roberta’s room.

And she, like himself, impressed by his success in having secured something which both he and she had feared did not exist, or if it did, might prove difficult to procure, felt enormously relieved. In fact, she was reimpressed by his ability and efficiency, qualities with which, up to this time at least, she had endowed him. Also that he was more generous and considerate than under the circumstances she feared he would be. At least he was not coldly abandoning her to fate, as previously in her terror she had imagined that he might. And this fact, even in the face of his previous indifference, was sufficient to soften her mood in regard to him. So with a kind of ebullience, based on fattened hope resting on the pills, she undid the package and read the directions, assuring him the while of her gratitude and that she would not forget how good he had been to her in this instance. At the same time, even as she untied the package, the thought came to her—supposing they would not work? Then what? And how would she go about arranging with Clyde as to that? However, for the time being, as she now reasoned, she must be satisfied and grateful for this, and at once took one of the pills.

But once her expressions of gratefulness had been offered and Clyde sensed that these same might possibly be looked upon as overtures to a new intimacy between them, he fell back upon the attitude that for days past had characterized him at the factory. Under no circumstances must he lend himself to any additional blandishments or languishments in this field. And if this drug proved effectual, as he most earnestly hoped, it must be the last of any save the most accidental and casual contacts. For there was too much danger, as this particular crisis had proved—too much to be lost on his side—everything, in short—nothing but worry and trouble and expense.

In consequence he retreated to his former reserve. “Well, you’ll be all right now, eh? Anyhow, let’s hope so, huh? It says to take one every two hours for eight or ten hours. And if you’re just a little sick, it says it doesn’t make any difference. You may have to knock off a day or two at the factory, but you won’t mind that, will you, if it gets you out of this? I’ll come around to-morrow night and see how you are, if you don’t show up any time to-morrow.”

He laughed genially, the while Roberta gazed at him, unable to associate his present casual attitude with his former passion and deep solicitude. His former passion! And now this! And yet, under the circumstances, being truly grateful, she now smiled cordially and he the same. Yet, seeing him go out, the door close, and no endearing demonstrations of any kind having been exchanged between them, she returned to her bed, shaking her head dubiously. For, supposing that this remedy did not work after all? And he continued in this same casual and remote attitude toward her? Then what? For unless this remedy proved effectual, he might still be so indifferent that he might not want to help her long—or would he? Could he do that, really? He was the one who had brought her to this difficulty, and against her will, and he had so definitely assured her that nothing would happen. And now she must lie here alone and worry, not a single person to turn to, except him, and he was leaving her for others with the assurance that she would be all right. And he had caused it all! Was this quite right?

“Oh, Clyde! Clyde!”