An American Tragedy Chapter 3

The Clyde whom Samuel Griffiths described as having met at the Union League Club in Chicago, was a somewhat modified version of the one who had fled from Kansas City three years before. He was now twenty, a little taller and more firmly but scarcely any more robustly built, and considerably more experienced, of course. For since leaving his home and work in Kansas City and coming in contact with some rough usage in the world—humble tasks, wretched rooms, no intimates to speak of, plus the compulsion to make his own way as best he might—he had developed a kind of self-reliance and smoothness of address such as one would scarcely have credited him with three years before. There was about him now, although he was not nearly so smartly dressed as when he left Kansas City, a kind of conscious gentility of manner which pleased, even though it did not at first arrest attention. Also, and this was considerably different from the Clyde who had crept away from Kansas City in a box car, he had much more of an air of caution and reserve.

For ever since he had fled from Kansas City, and by one humble device and another forced to make his way, he had been coming to the conclusion that on himself alone depended his future. His family, as he now definitely sensed, could do nothing for him. They were too impractical and too poor—his mother, father, Esta, all of them.

At the same time, in spite of all their difficulties, he could not now help but feel drawn to them, his mother in particular, and the old home life that had surrounded him as a boy—his brother and sisters, Esta included, since she, too, as he now saw it, had been brought no lower than he by circumstances over which she probably had no more control. And often, his thoughts and mood had gone back with a definite and disconcerting pang because of the way in which he had treated his mother as well as the way in which his career in Kansas City had been suddenly interrupted—his loss of Hortense Briggs—a severe blow; the troubles that had come to him since; the trouble that must have come to his mother and Esta because of him.

On reaching St. Louis two days later after his flight, and after having been most painfully bundled out into the snow a hundred miles from Kansas City in the gray of a winter morning, and at the same time relieved of his watch and overcoat by two brakemen who had found him hiding in the car, he had picked up a Kansas City paper—The Star—only to realize that his worst fear in regard to all that had occurred had come true. For there, under a two-column head, and with fully a column and a half of reading matter below, was the full story of all that had happened: a little girl, the eleven-year-old daughter of a well-to-do Kansas City family, knocked down and almost instantly killed—she had died an hour later; Sparser and Miss Sipe in a hospital and under arrest at the same time, guarded by a policeman sitting in the hospital awaiting their recovery; a splendid car very seriously damaged; Sparser’s father, in the absence of the owner of the car for whom he worked, at once incensed and made terribly unhappy by the folly and seeming criminality and recklessness of his son.

But what was worse, the unfortunate Sparser had already been charged with larceny and homicide, and wishing, no doubt, to minimize his own share in this grave catastrophe, had not only revealed the names of all who were with him in the car—the youths in particular and their hotel address—but had charged that they along with him were equally guilty, since they had urged him to make speed at the time and against his will—a claim which was true enough, as Clyde knew. And Mr. Squires, on being interviewed at the hotel, had furnished the police and the newspapers with the names of their parents and their home addresses.

This last was the sharpest blow of all. For there followed disturbing pictures of how their respective parents or relatives had taken it on being informed of their sins. Mrs. Ratterer, Tom’s mother, had cried and declared her boy was a good boy, and had not meant to do any harm, she was sure. And Mrs. Hegglund—Oscar’s devoted but aged mother—had said that there was not a more honest or generous soul and that he must have been drinking. And at his own home—The Star had described his mother as standing, pale, very startled and very distressed, clasping and unclasping her hands and looking as though she were scarcely able to grasp what was meant, unwilling to believe that her son had been one of the party and assuring all that he would most certainly return soon and explain all, and that there must be some mistake.

However, he had not returned. Nor had he heard anything more after that. For, owing to his fear of the police, as well as of his mother—her sorrowful, hopeless eyes, he had not written for months, and then a letter to his mother only to say that he was well and that she must not worry. He gave neither name nor address. Later, after that he had wandered on, essaying one small job and another, in St. Louis, Peoria, Chicago, Milwaukee—dishwashing in a restaurant, soda-clerking in a small outlying drug-store, attempting to learn to be a shoe clerk, a grocer’s clerk, and what not; and being discharged and laid off and quitting because he did not like it. He had sent her ten dollars once—another time five, having, as he felt, that much to spare. After nearly a year and a half he had decided that the search must have lessened, his own part in the crime being forgotten, possibly, or by then not deemed sufficiently important to pursue—and when he was once more making a moderate living as the driver of a delivery wagon in Chicago, a job that paid him fifteen dollars a week, he resolved that he would write his mother, because now he could say that he had a decent place and had conducted himself respectably for a long time, although not under his own name.

And so at that time, living in a hall bedroom on the West Side of Chicago—Paulina Street—he had written his mother the following letter:


Are you still in Kansas City? I wish you would write and tell me. I would so like to hear from you again and to write you again, too, if you really want me to. Honestly I do, Ma. I have been so lonely here. Only be careful and don’t let any one know where I am yet. It won’t do any good and might do a lot of harm just when I am trying so hard to get a start again. I didn’t do anything wrong that time, myself. Really I didn’t, although the papers said so—just went along. But I was afraid they would punish me for something that I didn’t do. I just couldn’t come back then. I wasn’t to blame and then I was afraid of what you and father might think. But they invited me, Ma. I didn’t tell him to go any faster or to take that car like he said. He took it himself and invited me and the others to go along. Maybe we were all to blame for running down that little girl, but we didn’t mean to. None of us. And I have been so terribly sorry ever since. Think of all the trouble I have caused you! And just at the time when you most needed me. Gee! Mother, I hope you can forgive me. Can you?

I keep wondering how you are. And Esta and Julia and Frank and Father. I wish I knew where you are and what you are doing. You know how I feel about you, don’t you, Ma? I’ve got a lot more sense now, anyhow, I see things different than I used to. I want to do something in this world. I want to be successful. I have only a fair place now, not as good as I had in K. C., but fair, and not in the same line. But I want something better, though I don’t want to go back in the hotel business either if I can help it. It’s not so very good for a young man like me—too high-flying, I guess. You see I know a lot more than I did back there. They like me all right where I am, but I got to get on in this world. Besides I am not really making more than my expenses here now, just my room and board and clothes but I am trying to save a little in order to get into some line where I can work up and learn something. A person has to have a line of some kind these days. I see that now.

Won’t you write me and tell me how you all are and what you are doing? I’d like to know. Give my love to Frank and Julia and Father and Esta, if they are all still there. I love you just the same and I guess you care for me a little, anyhow, don’t you? I won’t sign my real name, because it may be dangerous yet (I haven’t been using it since I left K. C.) But I’ll give you my other one, which I’m going to leave off pretty soon and take up my old one. Wish I could do it now, but I’m afraid to yet. You can address me, if you will, as


General Delivery, Chicago

I’ll call for it in a few days. I sign this way so as not to cause you or me any more trouble, see? But as soon as I feel more sure that this other thing has blown over, I’ll use my own name again sure.



He drew a line where his real name should be and underneath wrote “you know” and mailed the letter.

Following that, because his mother had been anxious about him all this time and wondering where he was, he soon received a letter, postmarked Denver, which surprised him very much, for he had expected to hear from her as still in Kansas City.


I was surprised and so glad to get my boy’s letter and to know that you were alive and safe. I had hoped and prayed that you would return to the straight and narrow path—the only path that will ever lead you to success and happiness of any kind, and that God would let me hear from you as safe and well and working somewhere and doing well. And now he has rewarded my prayers. I knew he would. Blessed be His holy name.

Not that I blame you altogether for all that terrible trouble you got into and bringing so much suffering and disgrace on yourself and us—for well I know how the devil tempts and pursues all of us mortals and particularly just such a child as you. Oh, my son, if you only knew how you must be on your guard to avoid these pitfalls. And you have such a long road ahead of you. Will you be ever watchful and try always to cling to the teachings of our Saviour that your mother has always tried to impress upon the minds and hearts of all you dear children? Will you stop and listen to the voice of our Lord that is ever with us, guiding our footsteps safely up the rocky path that leads to a heaven more beautiful than we can ever imagine here? Promise me, my child, that you will hold fast to all your early teachings and always bear in mind that “right is might,” and my boy, never, never, take a drink of any kind no matter who offers it to you. There is where the devil reigns in all his glory and is ever ready to triumph over the weak one. Remember always what I have told you so often “Strong drink is raging and wine is a mocker,” and it is my earnest prayer that these words will ring in your ears every time you are tempted—for I am sure now that that was perhaps the real cause of that terrible accident.

I suffered terribly over that, Clyde, and just at the time when I had such a dreadful ordeal to face with Esta. I almost lost her. She had such an awful time. The poor child paid dearly for her sin. We had to go in debt so deep and it took so long to work it out—but finally we did and now things are not as bad as they were, quite.

As you see, we are now in Denver. We have a mission of our own here now with housing quarters for all of us. Besides we have a few rooms to rent which Esta, and you know she is now Mrs. Nixon, of course, takes care of. She has a fine little boy who reminds your father and me of you so much when you were a baby. He does little things that are you all over again so many times that we almost feel that you are with us again—as you were. It is comforting, too, sometimes.

Frank and Julie have grown so and are quite a help to me. Frank has a paper route and earns a little money which helps. Esta wants to keep them in school just as long as we can.

Your father is not very well, but of course, he is getting older, and he does the best he can.

I am awful glad, Clyde, that you are trying so hard to better yourself in every way and last night your father was saying again that your uncle, Samuel Griffiths, of Lycurgus, is so rich and successful and I thought that maybe if you wrote him and asked him to give you something there so that you could learn the business, perhaps he would. I don’t see why he wouldn’t. After all you are his nephew. You know he has a great collar business there in Lycurgus and he is very rich, so they say. Why don’t you write him and see? Somehow I feel that perhaps he would find a place for you and then you would have something sure to work for. Let me know if you do and what he says.

I want to hear from you often, Clyde. Please write and let us know all about you and how you are getting along. Won’t you? Of course we love you as much as ever, and will do our best always to try to guide you right. We want you to succeed more than you know, but we also want you to be a good boy, and live a clean, righteous life, for, my son, what matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

Write your mother, Clyde, and bear in mind that her love is always with you—guiding you—pleading with you to do right in the name of the Lord.



And so it was that Clyde had begun to think of his uncle Samuel and his great business long before he encountered him. He had also experienced an enormous relief in learning that his parents were no longer in the same financial difficulties they were when he left, and safely housed in a hotel, or at least a lodging house, probably connected with this new mission.

Then two months after he had received his mother’s first letter and while he was deciding almost every day that he must do something, and that forthwith, he chanced one day to deliver to the Union League Club on Jackson Boulevard a package of ties and handkerchiefs which some visitor to Chicago had purchased at the store, for which he worked. Upon entering, who should he come in contact with but Ratterer in the uniform of a club employee. He was in charge of inquiry and packages at the door. Although neither he nor Ratterer quite grasped immediately the fact that they were confronting one another again, after a moment Ratterer had exclaimed: “Clyde!” And then seizing him by an arm, he added enthusiastically and yet cautiously in a very low tone: “Well, of all things! The devil! Whaddya know? Put ’er there. Where do you come from anyhow?” And Clyde, equally excited, exclaimed, “Well, by jing, if it ain’t Tom. Whaddya know? You working here?”

Ratterer, who (like Clyde) had for the moment quite forgotten the troublesome secret which lay between them, added: “That’s right. Surest thing you know. Been here for nearly a year, now.” Then with a sudden pull at Clyde’s arm, as much as to say, “Silence!” he drew Clyde to one side, out of the hearing of the youth to whom he had been talking as Clyde came in, and added: “Ssh! I’m working here under my own name, but I’d rather not let ’em know I’m from K. C., see. I’m supposed to be from Cleveland.”

And with that he once more pressed Clyde’s arm genially and looked him over. And Clyde, equally moved, added: “Sure. That’s all right. I’m glad you were able to connect. My name’s Tenet, Harry Tenet. Don’t forget that.” And both were radiantly happy because of old times’ sake.

But Ratterer, noticing Clyde’s delivery uniform, observed: “Driving a delivery, eh? Gee, that’s funny. You driving a delivery. Imagine. That kills me. What do you want to do that for?” Then seeing from Clyde’s expression that his reference to his present position might not be the most pleasing thing in the world, since Clyde at once observed: “Well, I’ve been up against it, sorta,” he added: “But say, I want to see you. Where are you living?” (Clyde told him.) “That’s all right. I get off here at six. Why not drop around after you’re through work. Or, I’ll tell you—suppose we meet at—well, how about Henrici’s on Randolph Street? Is that all right? At seven, say. I get off at six and I can be over there by then if you can.”

Clyde, who was happy to the point of ecstasy in meeting Ratterer again, nodded a cheerful assent.

He boarded his wagon and continued his deliveries, yet for the rest of the afternoon his mind was on this approaching meeting with Ratterer. And at five-thirty he hurried to his barn and then to his boarding house on the west side, where he donned his street clothes, then hastened to Henrici’s. He had not been standing on the corner a minute before Ratterer appeared, very genial and friendly and dressed, if anything, more neatly than ever.

“Gee, it’s good to have a look at you, old socks!” he began. “Do you know you’re the only one of that bunch that I’ve seen since I left K. C.? That’s right. My sister wrote me after we left home that no one seemed to know what became of either Higby or Heggie, or you, either. They sent that fellow Sparser up for a year—did you hear that? Tough, eh? But not so much for killing the little girl, but for taking the car and running it without a license and not stopping when signaled. That’s what they got him for. But say,”—he lowered his voice most significantly at this point—“we’da got that if they’d got us. Oh, gee, I was scared. And run?” And once more he began to laugh, but rather hysterically at that. “What a wallop, eh? An’ us leavin’ him and that girl in the car. Oh, say. Tough, what? Just what else could a fellow do, though? No need of all of us going up, eh? What was her name? Laura Sipe. An’ you cut out before I saw you, even. And that little Briggs girl of yours did, too. Did you go home with her?”

Clyde shook his head negatively.

“I should say I didn’t,” he exclaimed.

“Well, where did you go then?” he asked.

Clyde told him. And after he had set forth a full picture of his own wayfarings, Ratterer returned with: “Gee, you didn’t know that that little Briggs girl left with a guy from out there for New York right after that, did you? Some fellow who worked in a cigar store, so Louise told me. She saw her afterwards just before she left with a new fur coat and all.” (Clyde winced sadly.) “Gee, but you were a sucker to fool around with her. She didn’t care for you or nobody. But you was pretty much gone on her, I guess, eh?” And he grinned at Clyde amusedly, and chucked him under the arm, in his old teasing way.

But in regard to himself, he proceeded to unfold a tale of only modest adventure, which was very different from the one Clyde had narrated, a tale which had less of nerves and worry and more of a sturdy courage and faith in his own luck and possibilities. And finally he had “caught on” to this, because, as he phrased it, “you can always get something in Chi.”

And here he had been ever since—“very quiet, of course,” but no one had ever said a word to him.

And forthwith, he began to explain that just at present there wasn’t anything in the Union League, but that he would talk to Mr. Haley who was superintendent of the club—and that if Clyde wanted to, and Mr. Haley knew of anything, he would try and find out if there was an opening anywhere, or likely to be, and if so, Clyde could slip into it.

“But can that worry stuff,” he said to Clyde toward the end of the evening. “It don’t get you nothing.”

And then only two days after this most encouraging conversation, and while Clyde was still debating whether he would resign his job, resume his true name and canvass the various hotels in search of work, a note came to his room, brought by one of the bell-boys of the Union League which read: “See Mr. Lightall at the Great Northern before noon to-morrow. There’s a vacancy over there. It ain’t the very best, but it’ll get you something better later.”

And accordingly Clyde, after telephoning his department manager that he was ill and would not be able to work that day, made his way to this hotel in his very best clothes. And on the strength of what references he could give, was allowed to go to work; and much to his relief under his own name. Also, to his gratification, his salary was fixed at twenty dollars a month, meals included. But the tips, as he now learned, aggregated not more than ten a week—yet that, counting meals was far more than he was now getting as he comforted himself; and so much easier work, even if it did take him back into the old line, where he still feared to be seen and arrested.

It was not so very long after this—not more than three months—before a vacancy occurred in the Union League staff. Ratterer, having some time before established himself as day assistant to the club staff captain, and being on good terms with him, was able to say to the latter that he knew exactly the man for the place—Clyde Griffiths—then employed at the Great Northern. And accordingly, Clyde was sent for, and being carefully coached beforehand by Ratterer as to how to approach his new superior, and what to say, he was given the place.

And here, very different from the Great Northern and superior from a social and material point of view, as Clyde saw it, to even the Green-Davidson, he was able once more to view at close range a type of life that most affected, unfortunately, his bump of position and distinction. For to this club from day to day came or went such a company of seemingly mentally and socially worldly elect as he had never seen anywhere before, the self-integrated and self-centered from not only all of the states of his native land but from all countries and continents. American politicians from the north, south, east, west—the principal politicians and bosses, or alleged statesmen of their particular regions—surgeons, scientists, arrived physicians, generals, literary and social figures, not only from America but from the world over.

Here also, a fact which impressed and even startled his sense of curiosity and awe, even—there was no faintest trace of that sex element which had characterized most of the phases of life to be seen in the Green-Davidson, and more recently the Great Northern. In fact, in so far as he could remember, had seemed to run through and motivate nearly, if not quite all of the phases of life that he had thus far contacted. But here was no sex—no trace of it. No women were admitted to this club. These various distinguished individuals came and went, singly as a rule, and with the noiseless vigor and reserve that characterizes the ultra successful. They often ate alone, conferred in pairs and groups, noiselessly—read their papers or books, or went here and there in swiftly driven automobiles—but for the most part seemed to be unaware of, or at least unaffected by, that element of passion, which, to his immature mind up to this time, had seemed to propel and disarrange so many things in those lesser worlds with which up to now he had been identified.

Probably one could not attain to or retain one’s place in so remarkable a world as this unless one were indifferent to sex, a disgraceful passion, of course. And hence in the presence or under the eyes of such people one had to act and seem as though such thoughts as from time to time swayed one were far from one’s mind.

After he had worked here a little while, under the influence of this organization and various personalities who came here, he had taken on a most gentlemanly and reserved air. When he was within the precincts of the club itself, he felt himself different from what he really was—more subdued, less romantic, more practical, certain that if he tried now, imitated the soberer people of the world, and those only, that some day he might succeed, if not greatly, at least much better than he had thus far. And who knows? What if he worked very steadily and made only the right sort of contacts and conducted himself with the greatest care here, one of these very remarkable men whom he saw entering or departing from here might take a fancy to him and offer him a connection with something important somewhere, such as he had never had before, and that might lift him into a world such as he had never known.

For to say the truth, Clyde had a soul that was not destined to grow up. He lacked decidedly that mental clarity and inner directing application that in so many permits them to sort out from the facts and avenues of life the particular thing or things that make for their direct advancement.