An American Tragedy Chapter 37

The information thus gained was a relief, but only partially so. For both Clyde and Roberta there was no real relief now until this problem should be definitely solved. And although within a few moments after he had obtained it, he appeared and explained that at last he had secured the name of some one who might help her, still there was yet the serious business of heartening her for the task of seeing the doctor alone, also for the story that was to exculpate him and at the same time win for her sufficient sympathy to cause the doctor to make the charge for his service merely nominal.

But now, instead of protesting as at first he feared that she might, Roberta was moved to acquiesce. So many things in Clyde’s attitude since Christmas had so shocked her that she was bewildered and without a plan other than to extricate herself as best she might without any scandal attaching to her or him and then going her own way—pathetic and abrasive though it might be. For since he did not appear to care for her any more and plainly desired to be rid of her, she was in no mood to compel him to do other than he wished. Let him go. She could make her own way. She had, and she could too, without him, if only she could get out of this. Yet, as she said this to herself, however, and a sense of the full significance of it all came to her, the happy days that would never be again, she put her hands to her eyes and brushed away uncontrollable tears. To think that all that was should come to this.

Yet when he called the same evening after visiting Short, his manner redolent of a fairly worth-while achievement, she merely said, after listening to his explanation in as receptive a manner as she could: “Do you know just where this is, Clyde? Can we get there on the car without much trouble, or will we have to walk a long way?” And after he had explained that it was but a little way out of Gloversville, in the suburbs really, an interurban stop being but a quarter of a mile from the house, she had added: “Is he home at night, or will we have to go in the daytime? It would be so much better if we could go at night. There’d be so much less danger of any one seeing us.” And being assured that he was, as Clyde had learned from Short, she went on: “But do you know is he old or young? I’d feel so much easier and safer if he were old. I don’t like young doctors. We’ve always had an old doctor up home and I feel so much easier talking to some one like him.”

Clyde did not know. He had not thought to inquire, but to reassure her he ventured that he was middle-aged—which chanced to be the fact.

The following evening the two of them departed, but separately as usual, for Fonda, where it was necessary to change cars. And once within the approximate precincts of the physician’s residence, they stepped down and made their way along a road, which in this mid-state winter weather was still covered with old and dry-packed snow. It offered a comparatively smooth floor for their quick steps. For in these days, there was no longer that lingering intimacy which formerly would have characterized both. In those other and so recent days, as Roberta was constantly thinking, he would have been only too glad in such a place as this, if not on such an occasion, to drag his steps, put an arm about her waist, and talk about nothing at all—the night, the work at the factory, Mr. Liggett, his uncle, the current movies, some place they were planning to go, something they would love to do together if they could. But now… And on this particular occasion, when most of all, and if ever, she needed the full strength of his devotion and support! Yet now, as she could see, he was most nervously concerned as to whether, going alone in this way, she was going to get scared and “back out”; whether she was going to think to say the right thing at the right time and convince the doctor that he must do something for her, and for a nominal fee.

“Well, Bert, how about you? All right? You’re not going to get cold feet now, are you? Gee, I hope not because this is going to be a good chance to get this thing done and over with. And it isn’t like you were going to some one who hadn’t done anything like this before, you know, because this fellow has. I got that straight. All you have to do now, is to say, well, you know, that you’re in trouble, see, and that you don’t know how you’re going to get out of it unless he’ll help you in some way, because you haven’t any friends here you can go to. And besides, as things are, you couldn’t go to ’em if you wanted to. They’d tell on you, see. Then if he asks where I am or who I am, you just say that I was a fellow here—but that I’ve gone—give any name you want to, but that I’ve gone, and you don’t know where I’ve gone to—run away, see. Then you’d better say, too, that you wouldn’t have come to him only that you heard of another case in which he helped some one else—that a girl told you, see. Only you don’t want to let on that you’re paid much, I mean,—because if you do he may want to make the bill more than I can pay, see, unless he’ll give us a few months in which to do it, or something like that, you see.”

Clyde was so nervous and so full of the necessity of charging Roberta with sufficient energy and courage to go through with this and succeed, now that he had brought her this far along with it, that he scarcely realized how inadequate and trivial, even, in so far as her predicament and the doctor’s mood and temperament were concerned, his various instructions and bits of inexperienced advice were. And she on her part was not only thinking how easy it was for him to stand back and make suggestions, while she was confronted with the necessity of going forward, and that alone, but also that he was really thinking more of himself than he was of her—some way to make her get herself out of it inexpensively and without any real trouble to him.

At the same time, even here and now, in spite of all this, she was still decidedly drawn to him—his white face, his thin hands, nervous manner. And although she knew he talked to encourage her to do what he had not the courage or skill to do himself, she was not angry. Rather, she was merely saying to herself in this crisis that although he advised so freely she was not going to pay attention to him—much. What she was going to say was not that she was deserted, for that seemed too much of a disagreeable and self-incriminating remark for her to make concerning herself, but rather that she was married and that she and her young husband were too poor to have a baby as yet—the same story Clyde had told the druggist in Schenectady, as she recalled. For after all, what did he know about how she felt? And he was not going with her to make it easier for her.

Yet dominated by the purely feminine instinct to cling to some one for support, she now turned to Clyde, taking hold of his hands and standing quite still, wishing that he would hold and pet her and tell her that it was all right and that she must not be afraid. And although he no longer cared for her, now in the face of this involuntary evidence of her former trust in him, he released both hands and putting his arms about her, the more to encourage her than anything else, observed: “Come on now, Bert. Gee, you can’t act like this, you know. You don’t want to lose your nerve now that we’re here, do you? It won’t be so hard once you get there. I know it won’t. All you got to do is to go up and ring the bell, see, and when he comes, or whoever comes, just say you want to see the doctor alone, see. Then he’ll understand it’s something private and it’ll be easier.”

He went on with more advice of the same kind, and she, realizing from his lack of spontaneous enthusiasm for her at this moment how desperate was her state, drew herself together as vigorously as she could, and saying: “Well, wait here, then, will you? Don’t go very far away, will you? I may be right back,” hurried along in the shadow through the gate and up a walk which led to the front door.

In answer to her ring the door was opened by one of those exteriorly as well as mentally sober, small-town practitioners who, Clyde’s and Short’s notion to the contrary notwithstanding, was the typical and fairly conservative physician of the countryside—solemn, cautious, moral, semi-religious to a degree, holding some views which he considered liberal and others which a fairly liberal person would have considered narrow and stubborn into the bargain. Yet because of the ignorance and stupidity of so many of those about him, he was able to consider himself at least fairly learned. In constant touch with all phases of ignorance and dereliction as well as sobriety, energy, conservatism, success and the like, he was more inclined, where fact appeared to nullify his early conclusion in regard to many things, to suspend judgment between the alleged claims of heaven and hell and leave it there suspended and undisturbed. Physically he was short, stocky, bullet-headed and yet interestingly-featured, with quick gray eyes and a pleasant mouth and smile. His short iron-gray hair was worn “bangs” fashion, a bit of rural vanity. And his arms and hands, the latter fat and pudgy, yet sensitive, hung limply at his sides. He was fifty-eight, married, the father of three children, one of them a son already studying medicine in order to succeed to his father’s practice.

After showing Roberta into a littered and commonplace waiting room and asking her to remain until he had finished his dinner, he presently appeared in the door of an equally commonplace inner room, or office, where were his desk, two chairs, some medical instruments, books and apparently an ante-chamber containing other medical things, and motioned her to a chair. And because of his grayness, solidity, stolidity, as well as an odd habit he had of blinking his eyes, Roberta was not a little overawed, though by no means so unfavorably impressed as she had feared she might be. At least he was old and he seemed intelligent and conservative, if not exactly sympathetic or warm in his manner. And after looking at her curiously a moment, as though seeking to recognize some one of the immediate vicinity, he began: “Well, now who is this, please? And what can I do for you?” His voice was low and quite reassuring—a fact for which Roberta was deeply grateful.

At the same time, startled by the fact that at last she had reached the place and the moment when, if ever, she must say the degrading truth about herself, she merely sat there, her eyes first upon him, then upon the floor, her fingers beginning to toy with the handle of the small bag she carried.

“You see, well,” she began, earnestly and nervously, her whole manner suddenly betraying the terrific strain under which she was laboring. “I came… I came… that is… I don’t know whether I can tell you about myself or not. I thought I could just before I came in, but now that I am here and I see you…” She paused and moved back in her chair as though to rise, at the same time that she added: “Oh, dear, how very dreadful it all is. I’m so nervous and…”

“Well, now, my dear,” he resumed, pleasantly and reassuringly, impressed by her attractive and yet sober appearance and wondering for the moment what could have upset so clean, modest and sedate-looking a girl, and hence not a little amused by her “now that I see you,”—“Just what is there about me ‘now that you see me,’” he repeated after her, “that so frightens you? I am only a country doctor, you know, and I hope I’m not as dreadful as you seem to think. You can be sure that you can tell me anything you wish—anything at all about yourself—and you needn’t be afraid. If there’s anything I can do for you, I’ll do it.”

He was decidedly pleasant, as she now thought, and yet so sober and reserved and probably conventional withal that what she was holding in mind to tell him would probably shock him not a little—and then what? Would he do anything for her? And if he would, how was she to arrange about money, for that certainly would be a point in connection with all this? If only Clyde or some one were here to speak for her. And yet she must speak now that she was here. She could not leave without. Once more she moved and twisted, seizing nervously on a large button of her coat to turn between her thumb and forefinger, and then went on chokingly.

“But this is… this is… well, something different, you know, maybe not what you think.… I… I… well…”

Again she paused, unable to proceed, shading from white to red and back as she spoke. And because of the troubled modesty of her approach, as well as a certain clarity of eye, whiteness of forehead, sobriety of manner and dress, the doctor could scarcely bring himself to think for a moment that this was anything other than one of those morbid exhibitions of innocence, or rather inexperience, in connection with everything relating to the human body—so characteristic of the young and unsophisticated in some instances. And so he was about to repeat his customary formula in such cases that all could be told to him without fear or hesitation, whatever it might be, when a secondary thought, based on Roberta’s charm and vigor, as well as her own thought waves attacking his cerebral receptive centers, caused him to decide that he might be wrong. After all, why might not this be another of those troublesome youthful cases in which possibly immorality and illegitimacy was involved. She was so young, healthy and attractive, besides, they were always cropping up, these cases,—in connection with the most respectable-looking girls at times. And invariably they spelled trouble and distress for doctors. And, for various reasons connected with his own temperament, which was retiring and recessive, as well as the nature of this local social world, he disliked and hesitated to even trifle with them. They were illegal, dangerous, involved little or no pay as a rule, and the sentiment of this local world was all against them as he knew. Besides he personally was more or less irritated by these young scamps of boys and girls who were so free to exercise the normal functions of their natures in the first instance, but so ready to refuse the social obligations which went with them—marriage afterwards. And so, although in several cases in the past ten years where family and other neighborhood and religious considerations had made it seem quite advisable, he had assisted in extricating from the consequences of their folly several young girls of good family who had fallen from grace and could not otherwise be rescued, still he was opposed to aiding, either by his own countenance or skill, any lapses or tangles not heavily sponsored by others. It was too dangerous. Ordinarily it was his custom to advise immediate and unconditional marriage. Or, where that was not possible, the perpetrator of the infamy having decamped, it was his general and self-consciously sanctioned practice to have nothing at all to do with the matter. It was too dangerous and ethically and socially wrong and criminal into the bargain.

In consequence he now looked at Roberta in an extremely sober manner. By no means, he now said to himself, must he allow himself to become emotionally or otherwise involved here. And so in order to help himself as well as her to attain and maintain a balance which would permit of both extricating themselves without too much trouble, he drew toward him his black leather case record book and, opening it, said: “Now, let’s see if we can’t find out what the trouble is here. What is your name?”

“Ruth Howard. Mrs. Howard,” replied Roberta nervously and tensely, at once fixing upon a name which Clyde had suggested for her use. And now, interestingly enough, at mention of the fact that she was married, he breathed easier. But why the tears then? What reason could a young married woman have for being so intensely shy and nervous?

“And your husband’s first name?” he went on.

As simple as the question was, and as easy as it should have been to answer, Roberta nevertheless hesitated before she could bring herself to say: “Gifford,” her older brother’s name.

“You live around her, I presume?”

“In Fonda.”

“Yes. And how old are you?”


“How long have you been married?”

This inquiry being so intimately connected with the problem before her, she again hesitated before saying, “Let me see—three months.”

At once Dr. Glenn became dubious again, though he gave her no sign. Her hesitancy arrested him. Why the uncertainty? He was wondering now again whether he was dealing with a truthful girl or whether his first suspicions were being substantiated. In consequence he now asked: “Well, now what seems to be the trouble, Mrs. Howard? You need have no hesitancy in telling me—none whatsoever. I am used to such things year in and out, whatever they are. That is my business, listening to the troubles of people.”

“Well,” began Roberta, nervously once more, this terrible confession drying her throat and thickening her tongue almost, while once more she turned the same button of her coat and gazed at the floor. “It’s like this… You see… my husband hasn’t much money… and I have to work to help out with expenses and neither of us make so very much.” (She was astonishing herself with her own shameful power to lie in this instance—she, who had always hated to lie.) “So… of course… we can’t afford to… to have… well, any… children, you see, so soon, anyhow, and…”

She paused, her breath catching, and really unable to proceed further with this wholesale lying.

The doctor realizing from this, as he thought, what the true problem was—that she was a newly-married girl who was probably faced by just such a problem as she was attempting to outline—yet not wishing to enter upon any form of malpractice and at the same time not wishing to appear too discouraging to a young couple just starting out in life, gazed at her somewhat more sympathetically, the decidedly unfortunate predicament of these young people, as well as her appropriate modesty in the face of such a conventionally delicate situation, appealing to him. It was too bad. Young people these days did have a rather hard time of it, getting started in some cases, anyhow. And they were no doubt faced by some pressing financial situations. Nearly all young people were. Nevertheless, this business of a contraceptal operation or interference with the normal or God-arranged life processes, well, that was a ticklish and unnatural business at best which he wanted as little as possible to do with. Besides, young, healthy people, even though poor, when they undertook marriage, knew what they were about. And it was not impossible for them to work, the husband anyhow, and hence manage in some way.

And now straightening himself around in his chair very soberly and authoritatively, he began: “I think I understand what you want to say to me, Mrs. Howard. But I’m also wondering if you have considered what a very serious and dangerous thing it is you have in mind. But,” he added, suddenly, another thought as to whether his own reputation in this community was in any way being tarnished by rumor of anything he had done in the past coming to him, “just how did you happen to come to me, anyhow?”

Something about the tone of his voice, the manner in which he asked the question—the caution of it as well as the possibly impending resentment in case it should turn out that any one suspected him of a practice of this sort—caused Roberta to hesitate and to feel that any statement to the effect that she had heard of or been sent by any one else—Clyde to the contrary notwithstanding—might be dangerous. Perhaps she had better not say that she had been sent by any one. He might resent it as an insult to his character as a reputable physician. A budding instinct for diplomacy helped her in this instance, and she replied: “I’ve noticed your sign in passing several times and I’ve heard different people say you were a good doctor.”

His uncertainty allayed, he now continued: “In the first place, the thing you want done is something my conscience would not permit me to advise. I understand, of course, that you consider it necessary. You and your husband are both young and you probably haven’t very much money to go on, and you both feel that an interruption of this kind will be a great strain in every way. And no doubt it will be. Still, as I see it, marriage is a very sacred thing, and children are a blessing—not a curse. And when you went to the altar three months ago you were probably not unaware that you might have to face just such a situation as this. All young married people are, I think.” (“The altar,” thought Roberta sadly. If only it were so.) “Now I know that the tendency of the day in some quarters is very much in this direction, I am sorry to say. There are those who feel it quite all right if they can shirk the normal responsibilities in such cases as to perform these operations, but it’s very dangerous, Mrs. Howard, very dangerous legally and ethically as well as medically very wrong. Many women who seek to escape childbirth die in this way. Besides it is a prison offense for any doctor to assist them, whether there are bad consequences or not. You know that, I suppose. At any rate, I, for one, am heartily opposed to this sort of thing from every point of view. The only excuse I have ever been able to see for it is when the life of the mother, for instance, depends upon such an operation. Not otherwise. And in such cases the medical profession is in accord. But in this instance I’m sure the situation isn’t one which warrants anything like that. You seem to me to be a strong, healthy girl. Motherhood should hold no serious consequences for you. And as for money reasons, don’t you really think now that if you just go ahead and have this baby, you and your husband would find means of getting along? You say your husband is an electrician?”

“Yes,” replied Roberta, nervously, not a little overawed and subdued by his solemn moralizing.

“Well, now, there you are,” he went on. “That’s not such an unprofitable profession. At least all electricians charge enough. And when you consider, as you must, how serious a thing you are thinking of doing, that you are actually planning to destroy a young life that has as good a right to its existence as you have to yours…” he paused in order to let the substance of what he was saying sink in—“well, then, I think you might feel called upon to stop and consider—both you and your husband. Besides,” he added, in a diplomatic and more fatherly and even intriguing tone of voice, “I think that once you have it it will more than make up to you both for whatever little hardship its coming will bring you. Tell me,” he added curiously at this point, “does your husband know of this? Or is this just some plan of yours to save him and yourself from too much hardship?” He almost beamed cheerfully as, fancying he had captured Roberta in some purely nervous and feminine economy as well as dread, he decided that if so he could easily extract her from her present mood. And she, sensing his present drift and feeling that one lie more or less could neither help nor harm her, replied quickly: “He knows.”

“Well, then,” he went on, slightly reduced by the fact that his surmise was incorrect, but none the less resolved to dissuade her and him, too: “I think you two should really consider very seriously before you go further in this matter. I know when young people first face a situation like this they always look on the darkest side of it, but it doesn’t always work out that way. I know my wife and I did with our first child. But we got along. And if you will only stop now and talk it over, you’ll see it in a different light, I’m sure. And then you won’t have your conscience to deal with afterwards, either.” He ceased, feeling reasonably sure that he had dispelled the fear, as well as the determination that had brought Roberta to him—that, being a sensible, ordinary wife, she would now desist of course—think nothing more of her plan and leave.

But instead of either acquiescing cheerfully or rising to go, as he thought she might, she gave him a wide-eyed terrified look and then as instantly burst into tears. For the total effect of his address had been to first revive more clearly than ever the normal social or conventional aspect of the situation which all along she was attempting to shut out from her thoughts and which, under ordinary circumstances, assuming that she was really married, was exactly the attitude she would have taken. But now the realization that her problem was not to be solved at all, by this man at least, caused her to be seized with what might best be described as morbid panic.

Suddenly beginning to open and shut her fingers and at the same time beating her knees, while her face contorted itself with pain and terror, she exclaimed: “But you don’t understand, doctor, you don’t understand! I have to get out of this in some way! I have to. It isn’t like I told you at all. I’m not married. I haven’t any husband at all. But, oh, you don’t know what this means to me. My family! My father! My mother! I can’t tell you. But I must get out of it. I must! I must! Oh, you don’t know, you don’t know! I must! I must!” She began to rock backward and forward, at the same time swaying from side to side as in a trance.

And Glenn, surprised and startled by this sudden demonstration as well as emotionally affected, and yet at the same time advised thereby that his original surmise had been correct, and hence that Roberta had been lying, as well as that if he wished to keep himself out of this he must now assume a firm and even heartless attitude, asked solemnly: “You are not married, you say?”

For answer now Roberta merely shook her head negatively and continued to cry. And at last gathering the full import of her situation, Dr. Glenn got up, his face a study of troubled and yet conservative caution and sympathy. But without saying anything at first he merely looked at her as she wept. Later he added: “Well, well, this is too bad. I’m sorry.” But fearing to commit himself in any way, he merely paused, adding after a time soothingly and dubiously: “You mustn’t cry. That won’t help you any.” He then paused again, still determined not to have anything to do with this case. Yet a bit curious as to the true nature of the story he finally asked: “Well, then where is the young man who is the cause of your trouble? Is he here?”

Still too overcome by shame and despair to speak, Roberta merely shook her head negatively.

“But he knows that you’re in trouble, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” replied Roberta faintly.

“And he won’t marry you?”

“He’s gone away.”

“Oh, I see. The young scamp! And don’t you know where he’s gone?”

“No,” lied Roberta, weakly.

“How long has it been since he left you?”

“About a week now.” Once more she lied.

“And you don’t know where he is?”


“How long has it been since you were sick?”

“Over two weeks now,” sobbed Roberta.

“And before that you have always been regular?”


“Well, in the first place,” his tone was more comfortable and pleasant than before—he seemed to be snatching at a plausible excuse for extricating himself from a case which promised little other than danger and difficulty, “this may not be as serious as you think. I know you’re probably very much frightened, but it’s not unusual for women to miss a period. At any rate, without an examination it wouldn’t be possible to be sure, and even if you were, the most advisable thing would be to wait another two weeks. You may find then that there is nothing wrong. I wouldn’t be surprised if you did. You seem to be oversensitive and nervous and that sometimes brings about delays of this kind—mere nervousness. At any rate, if you’ll take my advice, whatever you do, you’ll not do anything now but just go home and wait until you’re really sure. For even if anything were to be done, it wouldn’t be advisable for you to do anything before then.”

“But I’ve already taken some pills and they haven’t helped me,” pleaded Roberta.

“What were they?” asked Glenn interestedly, and, after he had learned, merely commented: “Oh, those. Well, they wouldn’t be likely to be of any real service to you, if you were pregnant. But I still suggest that you wait, and if you find you pass your second period, then it will be time enough to act, although I earnestly advise you, even then, to do nothing if you can help it, because I consider it wrong to interfere with nature in this way. It would be much better, if you would arrange to have the child and take care of it. Then you wouldn’t have the additional sin of destroying a life upon your conscience.”

He was very grave and felt very righteous as he said this. But Roberta, faced by terrors which he did not appear to be able to grasp, merely exclaimed, and as dramatically as before: “But I can’t do that, doctor, I tell you! I can’t. I can’t! You don’t understand. Oh, I don’t know what I shall do unless I find some way out of this. I don’t! I don’t! I don’t!”

She shook her head and clenched her fingers and rocked to and fro while Glenn, impressed by her own terrors, the pity of the folly which, as he saw it, had led her to this dreadful pass, yet professionally alienated by a type of case that spelled nothing but difficulty for him stood determinedly before her and added: “As I told you before, Miss—” (he paused) “Howard, if that is your name, I am seriously opposed to operations of this kind, just as I am to the folly that brings girls and young men to the point where they seem to think they are necessary. A physician may not interfere in a case of this kind unless he is willing to spend ten years in prison, and I think that law is fair enough. Not that I don’t realize how painful your present situation appears to you. But there are always those who are willing to help a girl in your state, providing she doesn’t wish to do something which is morally and legally wrong. And so the very best advice I can give you now is that you do nothing at all now or at any time. Better go home and see your parents and confess. It will be much better—much better, I assure you. Not nearly as hard as you think or as wicked as this other way. Don’t forget there is a life there—a human—if it is really as you think. A human life which you are seeking to end and that I cannot help you to do. I really cannot. There may be doctors—I know there are—men here and there who take their professional ethics a little less seriously than I do; but I cannot let myself become one of them. I am sorry—very.

“So now the best I can say is—go home to your parents and tell them. It may look hard now but you are going to feel better about it in the long run. If it will make you or them feel any better about it, let them come and talk to me. I will try and make them see that this is not the worst thing in the world, either. But as for doing what you want—I am very, very sorry, but I cannot. My conscience will not permit me.”

He paused and gazed at her sympathetically, yet with a determined and concluded look in his eye. And Roberta, dumbfounded by this sudden termination of all her hopes in connection with him and realizing at last that not only had she been misled by Clyde’s information in regard to this doctor, but that her technical as well as emotional plea had failed, now walked unsteadily to the door, the terrors of the future crowding thick upon her. And once outside in the dark, after the doctor had most courteously and ruefully closed the door behind her, she paused to lean against a tree that was there—her nervous and physical strength all but failing her. He had refused to help her. He had refused to help her. And now what?