An American Tragedy Chapter 38

The first effect of the doctor’s decision was to shock and terrify them both—Roberta and Clyde—beyond measure. For apparently now here was illegitimacy and disgrace for Roberta. Exposure and destruction for Clyde. And this had been their one solution seemingly. Then, by degrees, for Clyde at least, there was a slight lifting of the heavy pall. Perhaps, after all, as the doctor had suggested—and once she had recovered her senses sufficiently to talk, she had told him—the end had not been reached. There was the bare possibility, as suggested by the druggist, Short and the doctor, that she might be mistaken. And this, while not producing a happy reaction in her, had the unsatisfactory result of inducing in Clyde a lethargy based more than anything else on the ever-haunting fear of inability to cope with this situation as well as the certainty of social exposure in case he did not which caused him, instead of struggling all the more desperately, to defer further immediate action. For, such was his nature that, although he realized clearly the probably tragic consequences if he did not act, still it was so hard to think to whom else to apply to without danger to himself. To think that the doctor had “turned her down,” as he phrased it, and that Short’s advice should have been worth as little as that!

But apart from nervous thoughts as to whom to turn to next, no particular individual occurred to him before the two weeks were gone, or after. It was so hard to just ask anywhere. One just couldn’t do it. Besides, of whom could he ask now? Of whom? These things took time, didn’t they? Yet in the meantime, the days going by, both he and Roberta had ample time to consider what, if any, steps they must take—the one in regard to the other—in case no medical or surgical solution was found. For Roberta, while urging and urging, if not so much by words as by expression and mood at her work, was determined that she must not be left to fight this out alone—she could not be. On the other hand, as she could see, Clyde did nothing. For apart from what he had already attempted to do, he was absolutely at a loss how to proceed. He had no intimates and in consequence he could only think of presenting the problem as an imaginary one to one individual and another here or there in the hope of extracting some helpful information. At the same time, and as impractical and evasive as it may seem, there was the call of that diverting world of which Sondra was a part, evenings and Sundays, when, in spite of Roberta’s wretched state and mood, he was called to go here and there, and did, because in so doing he was actually relieving his own mind of the dread specter of disaster that was almost constantly before it. If only he could get her out of this! If only he could. But how, without money, intimates, a more familiar understanding of the medical or if not that exactly, then the sub rosa world of sexual free-masonry which some at times—the bell-hops of the Green-Davidson, for instance, seemed to understand. He had written to Ratterer, of course, but there had been no answer, since Ratterer had removed to Florida and as yet Clyde’s letter had not reached him. And locally all those he knew best were either connected with the factory or society—individuals on the one hand too inexperienced or dangerous, or on the other hand, too remote and dangerous, since he was not sufficiently intimate with any of them as yet to command their true confidence and secrecy.

At the same time he must do something—he could not just rest and drift. Assuredly Roberta could not long permit him to do that—faced as she was by exposure. And so from time to time he actually racked himself—seized upon straws and what would have been looked upon by most as forlorn chances. Thus, for instance, an associate foreman, chancing to reminisce one day concerning a certain girl in his department who had “gotten in trouble” and had been compelled to leave, he had been given the opportunity to inquire what he thought such a girl did in case she could not afford or did not want to have a child. But this particular foreman, being as uninformed as himself, merely observed that she probably had to see a doctor if she knew one or “go through with it”—which left Clyde exactly where he was. On another occasion, in connection with a conversation in a barber shop, relating to a local case reported in The Star where a girl was suing a local ne’er-do-well for breach of promise, the remark was made that she would “never have sued that guy, you bet, unless she had to.” Whereupon Clyde seized the opportunity to remark hopefully, “But wouldn’t you think that she could find some way of getting out of trouble without marrying a fellow she didn’t like?”

“Well, that’s not so easy as you may think, particularly around here,” elucidated the wiseacre who was trimming his hair. “In the first place it’s agin’ the law. And next it takes a lotta money. An’ in case you ain’t got it, well, money makes the mare go, you know.” He snip-snipped with his scissors while Clyde, confronted by his own problem, meditated on how true it was. If he had a lot of money—even a few hundred dollars—he might take it now and possibly persuade her—who could tell—to go somewhere by herself and have an operation performed.

Yet each day, as on the one before, he was saying to himself that he must find some one. And Roberta was saying to herself that she too must act—must not really depend on Clyde any longer if he were going to act so. One could not trifle or compromise with a terror of this kind. It was a cruel imposition on her. It must be that Clyde did not realize how terribly this affected her and even him. For certainly, if he were not going to help her out of it, as he had distinctly said he would do at first, then decidedly she could not be expected to weather the subsequent storm alone. Never, never, never! For, after all, as Roberta saw it, Clyde was a man—he had a good position—it was not he, but she, who was in this treacherous position and unable to extricate herself alone.

And beginning with the second day after the second period, when she discovered for once and all that her worst suspicions were true, she not only emphasized the fact in every way that she could that she was distressed beyond all words, but on the third day announced to him in a note that she was again going to see the doctor near Gloversville that evening, regardless of his previous refusal—so great was her need—and also asking Clyde whether he would accompany her—a request which, since he had not succeeded in doing anything, and although he had an engagement with Sondra, he instantly acceded to—feeling it to be of greater importance than anything else. He must excuse himself to Sondra on the ground of work.

And accordingly this second trip was made, a long and nervous conversation between himself and Roberta on the way resulting in nothing more than some explanations as to why thus far he had not been able to achieve anything, plus certain encomiums addressed to her concerning her courage in acting for herself in this way.

Yet the doctor again would not and did not act. After waiting nearly an hour for his return from somewhere, she was merely permitted to tell him of her unchanged state and her destroying fears in regard to herself, but with no hint from him that he could be induced to act as indeed he could act. It was against his prejudices and ethics.

And so once more Roberta returned, this time not crying, actually too sad to cry, choked with the weight of her impending danger and the anticipatory fears and miseries that attended it.

And Clyde, hearing of this defeat, was at last reduced to a nervous, gloomy silence, absolutely devoid of a helpful suggestion. He could not think what to say and was chiefly fearful lest Roberta now make some demand with which socially or economically he could not comply. However, in regard to this she said little on the way home. Instead she sat and stared out of the window—thinking of her defenseless predicament that was becoming more real and terrible to her hourly. By way of excuse she pleaded that she had a headache. She wanted to be alone—only to think more—to try to work out a solution. She must work out some way. That she knew. But what? How? What could she do? How could she possibly escape? She felt like a cornered animal fighting for its life with all odds against it, and she thought of a thousand remote and entirely impossible avenues of escape, only to return to the one and only safe and sound solution that she really felt should be possible—and that was marriage. And why not? Hadn’t she given him all, and that against her better judgment? Hadn’t he overpersuaded her? Who was he anyway to so cast her aside? For decidedly at times, and especially since this latest crisis had developed, his manner, because of Sondra and the Griffiths and what he felt to be the fatal effect of all this on his dreams here, was sufficient to make plain that love was decidedly dead, and that he was not thinking nearly so much of the meaning of her state to her, as he was of its import to him, the injury that was most certain to accrue to him. And when this did not completely terrify her, as mostly it did, it served to irritate and slowly develop the conclusion that in such a desperate state as this, she was justified in asking more than ordinarily she would have dreamed of asking, marriage itself, since there was no other door. And why not? Wasn’t her life as good as his? And hadn’t he joined his to hers, voluntarily? Then, why shouldn’t he strive to help her now—or, failing that, make this final sacrifice which was the only one by which she could be rescued apparently. For who were all the society people with whom he was concerned anyhow? And why should he ask her in such a crisis to sacrifice herself, her future and good name, just because of his interest in them? They had never done anything very much for him, certainly not as much as had she. And, just because he was wearying now, after persuading her to do his bidding—was that any reason why now, in this crisis, he should be permitted to desert her? After all, wouldn’t all of these society people in whom he was so much interested feel that whatever his relationship to them, she would be justified in taking the course which she might be compelled to take?

She brooded on this much, more especially on the return from this second attempt to induce Dr. Glenn to help her. In fact, at moments, her face took on a defiant, determined look which was seemingly new to her, but which only developed suddenly under such pressure. Her jaw became a trifle set. She had made a decision. He would have to marry her. She must make him if there were no other way out of this. She must—she must. Think of her home, her mother, Grace Marr, the Newtons, all who knew her in fact—the terror and pain and shame with which this would sear all those in any way identified with her—her father, brothers, sisters. Impossible! Impossible! It must not and could not be! Impossible. It might seem a little severe to her, even now, to have to insist on this, considering all the emphasis Clyde had hitherto laid upon his prospects here. But how, how else was she to do?

Accordingly the next day, and not a little to his surprise, since for so many hours the night before they had been together, Clyde received another note telling him that he must come again that night. She had something to say to him, and there was something in the tone of the note that seemed to indicate or suggest a kind of defiance of a refusal of any kind, hitherto absent in any of her communications to him. And at once the thought that this situation, unless cleared away, was certain to prove disastrous, so weighed upon him that he could not but put the best face possible on it and consent to go and hear what it was that she had to offer in the way of a solution—or—on the other hand, of what she had to complain.

Going to her room at a late hour, he found her in what seemed to him a more composed frame of mind than at any time since this difficulty had appeared, a state which surprised him a little, since he had expected to find her in tears. But now, if anything, she appeared more complacent, her nervous thoughts as to how to bring about a satisfactory conclusion for herself having called into play a native shrewdness which was now seeking to exercise itself.

And so directly before announcing what was in her mind, she began by asking: “You haven’t found out about another doctor, have you, Clyde, or thought of anything?”

“No, I haven’t, Bert,” he replied most dismally and wearisomely, his own mental tether-length having been strained to the breaking point. “I’ve been trying to, as you know, but it’s so darn hard to find any one who isn’t afraid to monkey with a case like this. Honest, to tell the truth, Bert, I’m about stumped. I don’t know what we are going to do unless you can think of something. You haven’t thought or heard of any one else you could go to, have you?” For, during the conversation that had immediately followed her first visit to the doctor, he had hinted to her that by striking up a fairly intimate relationship with one of the foreign family girls, she might by degrees extract some information there which would be of use to both. But Roberta was not of a temperament that permitted of any such facile friendships, and nothing had come of it.

However, his stating that he was “stumped” now gave her the opportunity she was really desiring, to present the proposition which she felt to be unavoidable and not longer to be delayed. Yet being fearful of how Clyde would react, she hesitated as to the form in which she would present it, and, after shaking her head and manifesting a nervousness which was real enough, she finally said: “Well, I’ll tell you, Clyde. I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t see any way out of it unless—unless you, well, marry me. It’s two months now, you know, and unless we get married right away, everybody’ll know, won’t they?”

Her manner as she said this was a mixture of outward courage born out of her conviction that she was in the right and an inward uncertainty about Clyde’s attitude, which was all the more fused by a sudden look of surprise, resentment, uncertainty and fear that now transformation-wise played over his countenance; a variation and play which, if it indicated anything definite, indicated that she was seeking to inflict an unwarranted injury on him. For since he had been drawing closer and closer to Sondra, his hopes had heightened so intensely that, hearkening to this demand on the part of Roberta now, his brow wrinkled and his manner changed from one of comparatively affable, if nervous, consideration to that of mingled fear, opposition as well as determination to evade drastic consequence. For this would spell complete ruin for him, the loss of Sondra, his job, his social hopes and ambitions in connection with the Griffiths—all—a thought which sickened and at the same time caused him to hesitate about how to proceed. But he would not! he would not! He would not do this! Never! Never!! Never!!!

Yet after a moment he exclaimed equivocally: “Well, gee, that’s all right, too, Bert, for you, because that fixes everything without any trouble at all. But what about me? You don’t want to forget that that isn’t going to be easy for me, the way things are now. You know I haven’t any money. All I have is my job. And besides, the family don’t know anything about you yet—not a thing. And if it should suddenly come out now that we’ve been going together all this time, and that this has happened, and that I was going to have to get married right away, well, gee, they’ll know I’ve been fooling ’em and they’re sure to get sore. And then what? They might even fire me.”

He paused to see what effect this explanation would have, but noting the somewhat dubious expression which of late characterized Roberta’s face whenever he began excusing himself, he added hopefully and evasively, seeking by any trick that he could to delay this sudden issue: “Besides, I’m not so sure that I can’t find a doctor yet, either. I haven’t had much luck so far, but that’s not saying that I won’t. And there’s a little time yet, isn’t there? Sure there is. It’s all right up to three months anyway.” (He had since had a letter from Ratterer who had commented on this fact.) “And I did hear something the other day of a doctor over in Albany who might do it. Anyway, I thought I’d go over and see before I said anything about him.”

His manner, when he said this, was so equivocal that Roberta could tell he was merely lying to gain time. There was no doctor in Albany. Besides it was so plain that he resented her suggestion and was only thinking of some way of escaping it. And she knew well enough that at no time had he said directly that he would marry her. And while she might urge, in the last analysis she could not force him to do anything. He might just go away alone, as he had once said in connection with inadvertently losing his job because of her. And how much greater might not his impulse in that direction now be, if this world here in which he was so much interested were taken away from him, and he were to face the necessity of taking her and a child, too. It made her more cautious and caused her to modify her first impulse to speak out definitely and forcefully, however great her necessity might be. And so disturbed was he by the panorama of the bright world of which Sondra was the center and which was now at stake, that he could scarcely think clearly. Should he lose all this for such a world as he and Roberta could provide for themselves—a small home—a baby, such a routine work-a-day life as taking care of her and a baby on such a salary as he could earn, and from which most likely he would never again be freed! God! A sense of nausea seized him. He could not and would not do this. And yet, as he now saw, all his dreams could be so easily tumbled about his ears by her and because of one false step on his part. It made him cautious and for the first time in his life caused tact and cunning to visualize itself as a profound necessity.

And at the same time, Clyde was sensing inwardly and somewhat shamefacedly all of this profound change in himself.

But Roberta was saying: “Oh, I know, Clyde, but you yourself said just now that you were stumped, didn’t you? And every day that goes by just makes it so much the worse for me, if we’re not going to be able to get a doctor. You can’t get married and have a child born within a few months—you know that. Every one in the world would know. Besides I have myself to consider as well as you, you know. And the baby, too.” (At the mere mention of a coming child Clyde winced and recoiled as though he had been slapped. She noted it.) “I just must do one of two things right away, Clyde—get married or get out of this and you don’t seem to be able to get me out of it, do you? If you’re so afraid of what your uncle might think or do in case we get married,” she added nervously and yet suavely, “why couldn’t we get married right away and then keep it a secret for a while—as long as we could, or as long as you thought we ought to,” she added shrewdly. “Meanwhile I could go home and tell my parents about it—that I am married, but that it must be kept a secret for a while. Then when the time came, when things got so bad that we couldn’t stay here any longer without felling, why we could either go away somewhere, if we wanted to—that is, if you didn’t want your uncle to know, or we could just announce that we were married some time ago. Lots of young couples do that nowadays. And as for getting along,” she went on, noting a sudden dour shadow that passed over Clyde’s face like a cloud, “why we could always find something to do—I know I could, anyhow, once the baby is born.”

When first she began to speak, Clyde had seated himself on the edge of the bed, listening nervously and dubiously to all she had to offer. However, when she came to that part which related to marriage and going away, he got up—an irresistible impulse to move overcoming him. And when she concluded with the commonplace suggestion of going to work as soon as the baby was born, he looked at her with little less than panic in his eyes. To think of marrying and being in a position where it would be necessary to do that, when with a little luck and without interference from her, he might marry Sondra.

“Oh, yes, that’s all right for you, Bert. That fixes everything up for you, but how about me? Why, gee whiz, I’ve only got started here now as it is, and if I have to pack up and get out, and I would have to, if ever they found out about this, why I don’t know what I’d do. I haven’t any business or trade that I could turn my hand to. It might go hard with both of us. Besides my uncle gave me this chance because I begged him to, and if I walked off now he never would do anything for me.”

In his excitement he was forgetting that at one time and another in the past he had indicated to Roberta that the state of his own parents was not wholly unprosperous and that if things did not go just to his liking here, he could return west and perhaps find something to do out there. And it was some general recollection of this that now caused her to ask: “Couldn’t we go out to Denver or something like that? Wouldn’t your father be willing to help you get something for a time, anyhow?”

Her tone was very soft and pleading, an attempt to make Clyde feel that things could not be as bad as he was imagining. But the mere mention of his father in connection with all this—the assumption that he, of all people, might prove an escape from drudgery for them both, was a little too much. It showed how dreadfully incomplete was her understanding of his true position in this world. Worse, she was looking for help from that quarter. And, not finding it, later might possibly reproach him for that—who could tell—for his lies in connection with it. It made so very clear now the necessity for frustrating, if possible, and that at once, any tendency toward this idea of marriage. It could not be—ever.

And yet how was he to oppose this idea with safety, since she felt that she had this claim on him—how say to her openly and coldly that he could not and would not marry her? And unless he did so now she might think it would be fair and legitimate enough for her to compel him to do so. She might even feel privileged to go to his uncle—his cousin (he could see Gilbert’s cold eyes) and expose him! And then destruction! Ruin! The end of all his dreams in connection with Sondra and everything else here. But all he could think of saying now was: “But I can’t do this, Bert, not now, anyway,” a remark which at once caused Roberta to assume that the idea of marriage, as she had interjected it here, was not one which, under the circumstances, he had the courage to oppose—his saying, “not now, anyway.” Yet even as she was thinking this, he went swiftly on with: “Besides I don’t want to get married so soon. It means too much to me at this time. In the first place I’m not old enough and I haven’t got anything to get married on. And I can’t leave here. I couldn’t do half as well anywhere else. You don’t realize what this chance means to me. My father’s all right, but he couldn’t do what my uncle could and he wouldn’t. You don’t know or you wouldn’t ask me to do this.”

He paused, his face a picture of puzzled fear and opposition. He was not unlike a harried animal, deftly pursued by hunter and hound. But Roberta, imagining that his total defection had been caused by the social side of Lycurgus as opposed to her own low state and not because of the superior lure of any particular girl, now retorted resentfully, although she desired not to appear so: “Oh, yes, I know well enough why you can’t leave. It isn’t your position here, though, half as much as it is those society people you are always running around with. I know. You don’t care for me any more, Clyde, that’s it, and you don’t want to give these other people up for me. I know that’s it and nothing else. But just the same it wasn’t so very long ago that you did, although you don’t seem to remember it now.” Her cheeks burned and her eyes flamed as she said this. She paused a moment while he gazed at her wondering about the outcome of all this. “But you can’t leave me to make out any way I can, just the same, because I won’t be left this way, Clyde. I can’t! I can’t! I tell you.” She grew tense and staccato, “It means too much to me. I don’t know how to do alone and I, besides, have no one to turn to but you and you must help me. I’ve got to get out of this, that’s all, Clyde, I’ve got to. I’m not going to be left to face my people and everybody without any help or marriage or anything.” As she said this, her eyes turned appealingly and yet savagely toward him and she emphasized it all with her hands, which she clinched and unclinched in a dramatic way. “And if you can’t help me out in the way you thought,” she went on most agonizedly as Clyde could see, “then you’ve got to help me out in this other, that’s all. At least until I can do for myself I just won’t be left. I don’t ask you to marry me forever,” she now added, the thought that if by presenting this demand in some modified form, she could induce Clyde to marry her, it might be possible afterwards that his feeling toward her would change to a much more kindly one. “You can leave me after a while if you want to. After I’m out of this. I can’t prevent you from doing that and I wouldn’t want to if I could. But you can’t leave me now. You can’t. You can’t! Besides,” she added, “I didn’t want to get myself in this position and I wouldn’t have, but for you. But you made me and made me let you come in here. And now you want to leave me to shift for myself, just because you think you won’t be able to go in society any more, if they find out about me.”

She paused, the strain of this contest proving almost too much for her tired nerves. At the same time she began to sob nervously and yet not violently—a marked effort at self-restraint and recovery marking her every gesture. And after a moment or two in which both stood there, he gazing dumbly and wondering what else he was to say in answer to all this, she struggling and finally managing to recover her poise, she added: “Oh, what is it about me that’s so different to what I was a couple of months ago, Clyde? Will you tell me that? I’d like to know. What is it that has caused you to change so? Up to Christmas, almost, you were as nice to me as any human being could be. You were with me nearly all the time you had, and since then I’ve scarcely had an evening that I didn’t beg for. Who is it? What is it? Some other girl, or what, I’d like to know—that Sondra Finchley or Bertine Cranston, or who?”

Her eyes as she said this were a study. For even to this hour, as Clyde could now see to his satisfaction, since he feared the effect on Roberta of definite and absolute knowledge concerning Sondra, she had no specific suspicion, let alone positive knowledge concerning any girl. And cowardwise, in the face of her present predicament and her assumed and threatened claims on him, he was afraid to say what or who the real cause of this change was. Instead he merely replied and almost unmoved by her sorrow, since he no longer really cared for her: “Oh, you’re all wrong, Bert. You don’t see what the trouble is. It’s my future here—if I leave here I certainly will never find such an opportunity. And if I have to marry in this way or leave here it will all go flooey. I want to wait and get some place first before I marry, see—save some money and if I do this I won’t have a chance and you won’t either,” he added feebly, forgetting for the moment that up to this time he had been indicating rather clearly that he did not want to have anything more to do with her in any way.

“Besides,” he continued, “if you could only find some one, or if you would go away by yourself somewhere for a while, Bert, and go through with this alone, I could send you the money to do it on, I know. I could have it between now and the time you had to go.”

His face, as he said this, and as Roberta clearly saw, mirrored the complete and resourceless collapse of all his recent plans in regard to her. And she, realizing that his indifference to her had reached the point where he could thus dispose of her and their prospective baby in this casual and really heartless manner, was not only angered in part, but at the same time frightened by the meaning of it all.

“Oh, Clyde,” she now exclaimed boldly and with more courage and defiance than at any time since she had known him, “how you have changed! And how hard you can be. To want me to go off all by myself and just to save you—so you can stay here and get along and marry some one here when I am out of the way and you don’t have to bother about me any more. Well, I won’t do it. It’s not fair. And I won’t, that’s all. I won’t. And that’s all there is to it. You can get some one to get me out of this or you can marry me and come away with me, at least long enough for me to have the baby and place myself right before my people and every one else that knows me. I don’t care if you leave me afterwards, because I see now that you really don’t care for me any more, and if that’s the way you feel, I don’t want you any more than you want me. But just the same, you must help me now—you must. But, oh, dear,” she began whimpering again, and yet only slightly and bitterly. “To think that all our love for each other should have come to this—that I am asked to go away by myself—all alone—with no one—while you stay here, oh, dear! oh, dear! And with a baby on my hands afterwards. And no husband.”

She clinched her hands and shook her head bleakly. Clyde, realizing well enough that his proposition certainly was cold and indifferent but, in the face of his intense desire for Sondra, the best or at least safest that he could devise, now stood there unable for the moment to think of anything more to say.

And although there was some other discussion to the same effect, the conclusion of this very difficult hour was that Clyde had another week or two at best in which to see if he could find a physician or any one who would assist him. After that—well after that the implied, if not openly expressed, threat which lay at the bottom of this was, unless so extricated and speedily, that he would have to marry her, if not permanently, then at least temporarily, but legally just the same, until once again she was able to look after herself—a threat which was as crushing and humiliating to Roberta as it was torturing to him.