An American Tragedy Chapter 35

But the remedy he purchased failed to work. And because of nausea and his advice she had not gone to the factory, but lay about worrying. But, no saving result appearing, she began to take two pills every hour instead of one—eager at any cost to escape the fate which seemingly had overtaken her. And this made her exceedingly sick—so much so that when Clyde arrived at six-thirty he was really moved by her deathly white face, drawn cheeks and large and nervous eyes, the pupils of which were unduly dilated. Obviously she was facing a crisis, and because of him, and, while it frightened, at the same time it made him sorry for her. Still, so confused and perplexed was he by the problem which her unchanged state presented to him that his mind now leaped forward to the various phases and eventualities of such a failure as this. The need of additional advice or service of some physician somewhere! But where and how and who? And besides, as he now asked himself, where was he to obtain the money in any such event?

Plainly in view of no other inspiration it was necessary for him to return to the druggist at once and there inquire if there was anything else—some other drug or some other thing that one might do. Or if not that, then some low-priced shady doctor somewhere, who, for a small fee, or a promise of payments on time, would help in this case.

Yet even though this other matter was so important—tragic almost—once outside his spirits lifted slightly. For he now recalled that he had an appointment with Sondra at the Cranstons’, where at nine he and she, along with a number of others, were to meet and play about as usual—a party. Yet once at the Cranstons’, and despite the keen allurement of Sondra, he could not keep his mind off Roberta’s state, which rose before him as a specter. Supposing now any one of those whom he found gathered here—Nadine Harriet, Perley Haynes, Violet Taylor, Jill Trumbull, Bella, Bertine, and Sondra, should gain the least inkling of the scene he had just witnessed? In spite of Sondra at the piano throwing him a welcoming smile over her shoulder as he entered, his thoughts were on Roberta. He must go around there again after this was over, to see how she was and so relieve his own mind in case she were better. In case she was not, he must write to Ratterer at once for advice.

In spite of his distress he was trying to appear as gay and unconcerned as ever—dancing first with Perley Haynes and then with Nadine and finally, while waiting for a chance to dance with Sondra, he approached a group who were trying to help Vanda Steele solve a new scenery puzzle and asserted that he could read messages written on paper and sealed in envelopes (the old serial letter trick which he had found explained in an ancient book of parlor tricks discovered on a shelf at the Peytons’). It had been his plan to use it before in order to give himself an air of ease and cleverness, but to-night he was using it to take his mind off the greater problem that was weighing on him. And, although with the aid of Nadine Harriet, whom he took into his confidence, he succeeded in thoroughly mystifying the others, still his mind was not quite on it. Roberta was always there. Supposing something should really be wrong with her and he could not get her out of it. She might even expect him to marry her, so fearful was she of her parents and people. What would he do then? He would lose the beautiful Sondra and she might even come to know how and why he had lost her. But that would be wild of Roberta to expect him to do that. He would not do it. He could not do it.

One thing was certain. He must get her out of this. He must! But how? How?

And although at twelve o’clock Sondra signaled that she was ready to go and that if he chose he might accompany her to her door (and even stop in for a few moments) and although once there, in the shade of a pergola which ornamented the front gate, she had allowed him to kiss her and told him that she was beginning to think he was the nicest ever and that the following spring when the family moved to Twelfth Lake she was going to see if she couldn’t think of some way by which she could arrange to have him there over week-ends, still, because of this pressing problem in connection with Roberta, Clyde was so worried that he was not able to completely enjoy this new and to him exquisitely thrilling demonstration of affection on her part—this new and amazing social and emotional victory of his.

He must send that letter to Ratterer to-night. But before that he must return to Roberta as he had promised and find out if she was better. And after that he must go over to Schenectady in the morning, sure, to see the druggist over there. For something must be done about this unless she were better to-night.

And so, with Sondra’s kisses thrilling on his lips, he left her to go to Roberta, whose white face and troubled eyes told him as he entered her room that no change had taken place. If anything she was worse and more distressed than before, the larger dosage having weakened her to the point of positive illness. However, as she said, nothing mattered if only she could get out of this—that she would almost be willing to die rather than face the consequences. And Clyde, realizing what she meant and being so sincerely concerned for himself, appeared in part distressed for her. However, his previous indifference and the manner in which he had walked off and left her alone this very evening prevented her from feeling that there was any abiding concern in him for her now. And this grieved her terribly. For she sensed now that he did not really care for her any more, even though now he was saying that she mustn’t worry and that it was likely that if these didn’t work he would get something else that would; that he was going back to the druggist at Schenectady the first thing in the morning to see if there wasn’t something else that he could suggest.

But the Gilpins had no telephone, and since he never ventured to call at her room during the day and he never permitted her to call him at Mrs. Peyton’s, his plan in this instance was to pass by the following morning before work. If she were all right, the two front shades would be raised to the top; if not, then lowered to the center. In that case he would depart for Schenectady at once, telephoning Mr. Liggett that he had some outside duties to perform.

Just the same, both were terribly depressed and fearful as to what this should mean for each of them. Clyde could not quite assure himself that, in the event that Roberta was not extricated, he would be able to escape without indemnifying her in some form which might not mean just temporary efforts to aid her, but something more—marriage, possibly—since already she had reminded him that he had promised to see her through. But what had he really meant by that at the time that he said it, he now asked himself. Not marriage, most certainly, since his thought was not that he had ever wanted to marry her, but rather just to play with her happily in love, although, as he well knew, she had no such conception of his eager mood at that time. He was compelled to admit to himself that she had probably thought his intentions were more serious or she would not have submitted to him at all.

But reaching home, and after writing and mailing the letter to Ratterer, Clyde passed a troubled night. Next morning he paid a visit to the druggist at Schenectady, the curtains of Roberta’s windows having been lowered to the center when he passed. But on this occasion the latter had no additional aid to offer other than the advisability of a hot and hence weakening bath, which he had failed to mention in the first instance. Also some wearying form of physical exercise. But noting Clyde’s troubled expression and judging that the situation was causing him great worry, he observed: “Of course, the fact that your wife has skipped a month doesn’t mean that there is anything seriously wrong, you know. Women do that sometimes. Anyhow, you can’t ever be sure until the second month has passed. Any doctor will tell you that. If she’s nervous, let her try something like this. But even if it fails to work, you can’t be positive. She might be all right next month just the same.”

Thinly cheered by this information, Clyde was about to depart, for Roberta might be wrong. He and she might be worrying needlessly. Still—he was brought up with a round turn as he thought of it—there might be real danger, and waiting until the end of the second period would only mean that a whole month had elapsed and nothing helpful accomplished—a freezing thought. In consequence he now observed: “In case things don’t come right, you don’t happen to know of a doctor she could go to, do you? This is rather a serious business for both of us, and I’d like to get her out of it if I could.”

Something about the way in which Clyde said this—his extreme nervousness as well as his willingness to indulge in a form of malpractice which the pharmacist by some logic all his own considered very different from just swallowing a preparation intended to achieve the same result—caused him to look suspiciously at Clyde, the thought stirring in his brain that very likely after all Clyde was not married, also that this was one of those youthful affairs which spelled license and future difficulty for some unsophisticated girl. Hence his mood now changed, and instead of being willing to assist, he now said coolly: “Well, there may be a doctor around here, but if so I don’t know. And I wouldn’t undertake to send any one to a doctor like that. It’s against the law. It would certainly go hard with any doctor around here who was caught doing that sort of thing. That’s not to say, though, that you aren’t at liberty to look around for yourself, if you want to,” he added gravely, giving Clyde a suspicious and examining glance, and deciding it were best if he had nothing further to do with such a person.

Clyde therefore returned to Roberta with the same prescription renewed, although she had most decidedly protested that, since the first box had not worked, it was useless to get more. But since he insisted, she was willing to try the drug the new way, although the argument that a cold or nerves was the possible cause was only sufficient to convince her that Clyde was at the end of his resources in so far as she was concerned, or if not that, he was far from being alive to the import of this both to herself and to him. And supposing this new treatment did not work, then what? Was he going to stop now and let the thing rest there?

Yet so peculiar was Clyde’s nature that in the face of his fears in regard to his future, and because it was far from pleasant to be harried in this way and an infringement on his other interests, the assurance that the delay of a month might not prove fatal was sufficient to cause him to be willing to wait, and that rather indifferently, for that length of time. Roberta might be wrong. She might be making all this trouble for nothing. He must see how she felt after she had tried this new way.

But the treatment failed. Despite the fact that in her distress Roberta returned to the factory in order to weary herself, until all the girls in the department assured her that she must be ill—that she should not be working when she looked and plainly felt so bad—still nothing came of it. And the fact that Clyde could dream of falling back on the assurance of the druggist that a first month’s lapse was of no import only aggravated and frightened her the more.

The truth was that in this crisis he was as interesting an illustration of the enormous handicaps imposed by ignorance, youth, poverty and fear as one could have found. Technically he did not even know the meaning of the word “midwife,” or the nature of the services performed by her. (And there were three here in Lycurgus at this time in the foreign family section.) Again, he had been in Lycurgus so short a time, and apart from the young society men and Dillard whom he had cut, and the various department heads at the factory, he knew no one—an occasional barber, haberdasher, cigar dealer and the like, the majority of whom, as he saw them, were either too dull or too ignorant for his purpose.

One thing, however, which caused him to pause before ever he decided to look up a physician was the problem of who was to approach him and how. To go himself was simply out of the question. In the first place, he looked too much like Gilbert Griffiths, who was decidedly too well-known here and for whom he might be mistaken. Next, it was unquestionable that, being as well-dressed as he was, the physician would want to charge him more, maybe, than he could afford and ask him all sorts of embarrassing questions, whereas if it could be arranged through some one else—the details explained before ever Roberta was sent—Why not Roberta herself! Why not? She looked so simple and innocent and unassuming and appealing at all times. And in such a situation as this, as depressed and downcast as she was, well… For after all, as he now casuistically argued with himself, it was she and not he who was facing the immediate problem which had to be solved.

And again, as it now came to him, would she not be able to get it done cheaper? For looking as she did now, so distrait— If only he could get her to say that she had been deserted by some young man, whose name she would refuse to divulge, of course, well, what physician seeing a girl like her alone and in such a state—no one to look after her—would refuse her? It might even be that he would help her out for nothing. Who could tell? And that would leave him clear of it all.

And in consequence he now approached Roberta, intending to prepare her for the suggestion that, assuming that he could provide a physician and the nature of his position being what it was, she must speak for herself. But before he had spoken she at once inquired of him as to what, if anything, more he had heard or done. Wasn’t some other remedy sold somewhere? And this giving him the opportunity he desired, he explained: “Well, I’ve asked around and looked into most of the drug-stores and they tell me if this one won’t work that none will. That leaves me sorta stumped now, unless you’re willing to go and see a doctor. But the trouble with that is they’re hard to find—the ones who’ll do anything and keep their mouths shut. I’ve talked with several fellows without saying who it’s for, of course, but it ain’t so easy to get one around here, because they are all too much afraid. It’s against the law, you see. But what I want to know now is, supposing I find a doctor who would do it, will you have the nerve to go and see him and tell him what the trouble is? That’s what I want to know.”

She looked at him dazedly, not quite grasping that he was hinting that she was to go entirely alone, but rather assuming that of course he meant to go with her. Then, her mind concentrating nervously upon the necessity of facing a doctor in his company, she first exclaimed: “Oh, dear, isn’t it terrible to think of us having to go to a doctor in this way? Then he’ll know all about us, won’t he? And besides it’s dangerous, isn’t it, although I don’t suppose it could be much worse than those old pills.” She went off into more intimate inquiries as to what was done and how, but Clyde could not enlighten her.

“Oh, don’t be getting nervous over that now,” he said. “It isn’t anything that’s going to hurt you, I know. Besides we’ll be lucky if we find some one to do it. What I want to know is if I do find a doctor, will you be willing to go to him alone?” She started as if struck, but unabashed now he went on, “As things stand with me here, I can’t go with you, that’s sure. I’m too well known around here, and besides I look too much like Gilbert and he’s known to everybody. If I should be mistaken for him, or be taken for his cousin or relative, well, then the jig’s up.”

His eyes were not only an epitome of how wretched he would feel were he exposed to all Lycurgus for what he was, but also in them lurked a shadow of the shabby räle he was attempting to play in connection with her—in hiding thus completely behind her necessity. And yet so tortured was he by the fear of what was about to befall him in case he did not succeed in so doing, that he was now prepared, whatever Roberta might think or say, to stand his ground. But Roberta, sensing only the fact that he was thinking of sending her alone, now exclaimed incredulously: “Not alone, Clyde! Oh, no, I couldn’t do that! Oh, dear, no! Why, I’d be frightened to death. Oh, dear, no. Why, I’d be so frightened I wouldn’t know what to do. Just think how I’d feel, trying to explain to him alone. I just couldn’t do that. Besides, how would I know what to say—how to begin? You’ll just have to go with me at first, that’s all, and explain, or I never can go—I don’t care what happens.” Her eyes were round and excited and her face, while registering all the depression and fear that had recently been there, was transfigured by definite opposition.

But Clyde was not to be shaken either.

“You know how it is with me here, Bert. I can’t go, and that’s all there is to it. Why, supposing I were seen—supposing some one should recognize me? What then? You know how much I’ve been going around here since I’ve been here. Why, it’s crazy to think that I could go. Besides, it will be a lot easier for you than for me. No doctor’s going to think anything much of your coming to him, especially if you’re alone. He’ll just think you’re some one who’s got in trouble and with no one to help you. But if I go, and it should be any one who knows anything about the Griffiths, there’d be the deuce to pay. Right off he’d think I was stuffed with money. Besides, if I didn’t do just what he wanted me to do afterwards, he could go to my uncle, or my cousin, and then, good night! That would be the end of me. And if I lost my place here now, and with no money and that kind of scandal connected with me, where do you suppose I would be after that, or you either? I certainly couldn’t look after you then. And then what would you do? I should think you’d wake up and see what a tough proposition this is. My name can’t be pulled into this without trouble for both of us. It’s got to be kept out, that’s all, and the only way for me to keep it out is for me to stay away from any doctor. Besides, he’d feel a lot sorrier for you than he would for me. You can’t tell me!”

His eyes were distressed and determined, and, as Roberta could gather from his manner, a certain hardness, or at least defiance, the result of fright, showed in every gesture. He was determined to protect his own name, come what might—a fact which, because of her own acquiescence up to this time, still carried great weight with her.

“Oh, dear! dear!” she exclaimed, nervously and sadly now, the growing and drastic terror of the situation dawning upon her, “I don’t see how we are to do then. I really don’t. For I can’t do that and that’s all there is to it. It’s all so hard—so terrible. I’d feel too much ashamed and frightened to ever go alone.”

But even as she said this she began to feel that she might, and even would, go alone, if must be. For what else was there to do? And how was she to compel him, in the face of his own fears and dangers, to jeopardize his position here? He began once more, in self-defense more than from any other motive:

“Besides, unless this thing isn’t going to cost very much, I don’t see how I’m going to get by with it anyhow, Bert. I really don’t. I don’t make so very much, you know—only twenty-five dollars up to now.” (Necessity was at last compelling him to speak frankly with Roberta.) “And I haven’t saved anything—not a cent. And you know why as well as I do. We spent the most of it together. Besides if I go and he thought I had money, he might want to charge me more than I could possibly dig up. But if you go and just tell him how things are—and that you haven’t got anything—if you’d only say I’d run away or something, see—”

He paused because, as he said it, he saw a flicker of shame, contempt, despair at being connected with anything so cheap and shabby, pass over Roberta’s face. And yet in spite of this sly and yet muddy tergiversation on his part—so great is the compelling and enlightening power of necessity—she could still see that there was some point to his argument. He might be trying to use her as a foil, a mask, behind which he, and she too for that matter, was attempting to hide. But just the same, shameful as it was, here were the stark, bald headlands of fact, and at their base the thrashing, destroying waves of necessity. She heard him say: “You wouldn’t have to give your right name, you know, or where you came from. I don’t intend to pick out any doctor right around here, see. Then, if you’d tell him you didn’t have much money—just your weekly salary—”

She sat down weakly to think, the while this persuasive trickery proceeded from him—the import of most of his argument going straight home. For as false and morally meretricious as this whole plan was, still, as she could see for herself, her own as well as Clyde’s situation was desperate. And as honest and punctilious as she might ordinarily be in the matter of truth-telling and honest-dealing, plainly this was one of those whirling tempests of fact and reality in which the ordinary charts and compasses of moral measurement were for the time being of small use.

And so, insisting then that they go to some doctor far away, Utica or Albany, maybe—but still admitting by this that she would go—the conversation was dropped. And he having triumphed in the matter of excepting his own personality from this, took heart to the extent, at least, of thinking that at once now, by some hook or crook, he must find a doctor to whom he could send her. Then his terrible troubles in connection with all this would be over. And after that she could go her way, as surely she must; then, seeing that he would have done all that he could for her he would go his way to the glorious dénouement that lay directly before him in case only this were adjusted.