An American Tragedy Chapter 43

Yet a thought such as that of the lake, connected as it was with the predicament by which he was being faced, and shrink from it though he might, was not to be dismissed as easily as he desired. Born as it was of its accidental relation to this personal problem that was shaking and troubling and all but disarranging his own none-too-forceful mind, this smooth, seemingly blameless, if dreadful, blotting out of two lives at Pass Lake, had its weight. That girl’s body—as some peculiar force in his own brain now still compelled him to think—being found, but the man’s not. In that interesting fact—and this quite in spite of himself—lurked a suggestion that insisted upon obtruding itself on his mind—to wit, that it might be possible that the man’s body was not in that lake at all. For, since evil-minded people did occasionally desire to get rid of other people, might it not be possible that that man had gone there with that girl in order to get rid of her? A very smooth and devilish trick, of course, but one which, in this instance at least, seemed to have succeeded admirably.

But as for him accepting such an evil suggestion and acting upon it… never! Yet here was his own problem growing hourly more desperate, since every day, or at least every other day, brought him either letters from Roberta or a note from Sondra—their respective missives maintaining the same relative contrast between ease and misery, gayety of mood and the somberness of defeat and uncertainty.

To Roberta, since he would not write her, he was telephoning briefly and in as non-committal a manner as possible. How was she? He was so glad to hear from her and to know that she was out in the country and at home, where it must be much nicer than in the factory here in this weather. Everything was going smoothly, of course, and except for a sudden rush of orders which made it rather hard these last two days, all was as before. He was doing his best to save a certain amount of money for a certain project about which she knew, but otherwise he was not worrying about anything—and she must not. He had not written before because of the work, and could not write much—there were so many things to do—but he missed seeing her in her old place, and was looking forward to seeing her again soon. If she were coming down toward Lycurgus as she said, and really thought it important to see him, well, that could be arranged, maybe—but was it necessary right now? He was so very busy and expected to see her later, of course.

But at the same time he was writing Sondra that assuredly on the eighteenth, and the week-end following, if possible, he would be with her.

So, by virtue of such mental prestidigitation and tergiversation, inspired and animated as it was by his desire for Sondra, his inability to face the facts in connection with Roberta, he achieved the much-coveted privilege of again seeing her, over one week-end at least, and in such a setting as never before in his life had he been privileged to witness.

For as he came down to the public dock at Sharon, adjoining the veranda of the inn at the foot of Twelfth Lake, he was met by Bertine and her brother as well as Sondra, who, in Grant’s launch, had motored down the Chain to pick him up. The bright blue waters of the Indian Chain. The tall, dark, spear pines that sentineled the shores on either side and gave to the waters at the west a band of black shadow where the trees were mirrored so clearly. The small and large, white and pink and green and brown lodges on every hand, with their boathouses. Pavilions by the shore. An occasional slender pier reaching out from some spacious and at times stately summer lodge, such as those now owned by the Cranstons, Finchleys and others. The green and blue canoes and launches. The gay hotel and pavilion at Pine Point already smartly attended by the early arrivals here! And then the pier and boathouse of the Cranston Lodge itself, with two Russian wolfhounds recently acquired by Bertine lying on the grass near the shore, apparently awaiting her return, and a servant John, one of a half dozen who attended the family here, waiting to take the single bag of Clyde, his tennis racquet and golf sticks. But most of all he was impressed by the large rambling and yet smartly-designed house, with its bright geranium-bordered walks, its wide, brown, wickerstudded veranda commanding a beautiful view of the lake; the cars and personalities of the various guests, who in golf, tennis or lounging clothes were to be seen idling here and there.

At Bertine’s request, John at once showed him to a spacious room overlooking the lake, where it was his privilege now to bathe and change for tennis with Sondra, Bertine and Grant. After dinner, as explained by Sondra, who was over at Bertine’s for the occasion, he was to come over with Bertine and Grant to the Casino, where he would be introduced to such as all here knew. There was to be dancing. To-morrow, in the morning early, before breakfast, if he chose—he should ride with her and Bertine and Stuart along a wonderful woodland trail through the forests to the west which led to Inspiration Point and a more distant view of the lake. And, as he now learned, except for a few such paths as this, the forest was trackless for forty miles. Without a compass or guide, as he was told, one might wander to one’s death even—so evasive were directions to those who did not know. And after breakfast and a swim she and Bertine and Nina Temple would demonstrate their new skill with Sondra’s aquaplane. After that, lunch, tennis, or golf, a trip to the Casino for tea. After dinner at the lodge of the Brookshaws of Utica across the lake, there was to be dancing.

Within an hour after his arrival, as Clyde could see, the program for the week-end was already full. But that he and Sondra would contrive not only moments but possibly hours together he well knew. And then he would see what new delight, in connection with her many-faceted temperament, the wonderful occasion would provide. To him, in spite of the dour burden of Roberta, which for this one week-end at least he could lay aside, it was as though he were in Paradise.

And on the tennis grounds of the Cranstons, it seemed as though never before had Sondra, attired in a short, severe white tennis skirt and blouse, with a yellow-and-green dotted handkerchief tied about her hair, seemed so gay, graceful and happy. The smile that was upon her lips! The gay, laughing light of promise that was in her eyes whenever she glanced at him! And now and then, in running to serve him, it was as though she were poised bird-like in flight—her racquet arm high, a single toe seeming barely to touch the ground, her head thrown back, her lips parted and smiling always. And in calling twenty love, thirty love, forty love, it was always with a laughing accent on the word love, which at once thrilled and saddened him, as he saw, and rejoiced in from one point of view, she was his to take, if only he were free to take her now. But this other black barrier which he himself had built!

And then this scene, where a bright sun poured a flood of crystal light upon a greensward that stretched from tall pines to the silver rippling waters of a lake. And off shore in a half dozen different directions the bright white sails of small boats—the white and green and yellow splashes of color, where canoes paddled by idling lovers were passing in the sun! Summertime—leisure—warmth—color—ease—beauty—love—all that he had dreamed of the summer before, when he was so very much alone.

At moments it seemed to Clyde that he would reel from very joy of the certain fulfillment of a great desire, that was all but immediately within his control; at other times (the thought of Roberta sweeping down upon him as an icy wind), as though nothing could be more sad, terrible, numbing to the dreams of beauty, love and happiness than this which now threatened him. That terrible item about the lake and those two people drowned! The probability that in spite of his wild plan within a week, or two or three at most, he would have to leave all this forever. And then of a sudden he would wake to realize that he was fumbling or playing badly—that Bertine or Sondra or Grant was calling: “Oh, Clyde, what are you thinking of, anyhow?” And from the darkest depths of his heart he would have answered, had he spoken, “Roberta.”

At the Brookshaws’, again that evening, a smart company of friends of Sondra’s, Bertine’s and others. On the dance floor a re├źncounter with Sondra, all smiles, for she was pretending for the benefit of others here—her mother and father in particular—that she had not seen Clyde before—did not even know that he was here.

“You up here? That’s great. Over at the Cranstons’? Oh, isn’t that dandy? Right next door to us. Well, we’ll see a lot of each other, what? How about a canter to-morrow before seven? Bertine and I go nearly every day. And we’ll have a picnic to-morrow, if nothing interferes, canoeing and motoring. Don’t worry about not riding well. I’ll get Bertine to let you have Jerry—he’s just a sheep. And you don’t need to worry about togs, either. Grant has scads of things. I’ll dance the next two dances with others, but you sit out the third one with me, will you? I know a peach of a place outside on the balcony.”

She was off with fingers extended but with a “we-understand-each-other” look in her eye. And outside in the shadow later she pulled his face to hers when no one was looking and kissed him eagerly, and, before the evening was over, they had managed, by strolling along a path which led away from the house along the lake shore, to embrace under the moon.

“Sondra so glad Clydie here. Misses him so much.” She smoothed his hair as he kissed her, and Clyde, bethinking him of the shadow which lay so darkly between them, crushed her feverishly, desperately. “Oh, my darling baby girl,” he exclaimed. “My beautiful, beautiful Sondra! If you only knew how much I love you! If you only knew! I wish I could tell you all. I wish I could.”

But he could not now—or ever. He would never dare to speak to her of even so much as a phase of the black barrier that now lay between them. For, with her training, the standards of love and marriage that had been set for her, she would never understand, never be willing to make so great a sacrifice for love, as much as she loved him. And he would be left, abandoned on the instant, and with what horror in her eyes!

Yet looking into his eyes, his face white and tense, and the glow of the moon above making small white electric sparks in his eyes, she exclaimed as he gripped her tightly: “Does he love Sondra so much? Oh, sweetie boy! Sondra loves him, too.” She seized his head between her hands and held it tight, kissing him swiftly and ardently a dozen times. “And Sondra won’t give her Clydie up either. She won’t. You just wait and see! It doesn’t matter what happens now. It may not be so very easy, but she won’t.” Then as suddenly and practically, as so often was her way, she exclaimed: “But we must go now, right away. No, not another kiss now. No, no, Sondra says no, now. They’ll be missing us.” And straightening up and pulling him by the arm she hurried him back to the house in time to meet Palmer Thurston, who was looking for her.

The next morning, true to her promise, there was the canter to Inspiration Point, and that before seven—Bertine and Sondra in bright red riding coats and white breeches and black boots, their hair unbound and loose to the wind, and riding briskly on before for the most part; then racing back to where he was. Or Sondra halloing gayly for him to come on, or the two of them laughing and chatting a hundred yards ahead in some concealed chapel of the aisled trees where he could not see them. And because of the interest which Sondra was so obviously manifesting in him these days—an interest which Bertine herself had begun to feel might end in marriage, if no family complications arose to interfere—she, Bertine, was all smiles, the very soul of cordiality, winsomely insisting that he should come up and stay for the summer and she would chaperon them both so that no one would have a chance to complain. And Clyde thrilling, and yet brooding too—by turns—occasionally—and in spite of himself drifting back to the thought that the item in the paper had inspired—and yet fighting it—trying to shut it out entirely.

And then at one point, Sondra, turning down a steep path which led to a stony and moss-lipped spring between the dark trees, called to Clyde to “Come on down. Jerry knows the way. He won’t slip. Come and get a drink. If you do, you’ll come back again soon—so they say.”

And once he was down and had dismounted to drink, she exclaimed: “I’ve been wanting to tell you something. You should have seen Mamma’s face last night when she heard you were up here. She can’t be sure that I had anything to do with it, of course, because she thinks that Bertine likes you, too. I made her think that. But just the same she suspects that I had a hand in it, I guess, and she doesn’t quite like it. But she can’t say anything more than she has before. And I had a talk with Bertine just now and she’s agreed to stick by me and help me all she can. But we’ll have to be even more careful than ever now, because I think if Mamma got too suspicious I don’t know what she might do—want us to leave here, even now maybe, just so I couldn’t see you. You know she feels that I shouldn’t be interested in any one yet except some one she likes. You know how it is. She’s that way with Stuart, too. But if you’ll take care not to show that you care for me so much whenever we’re around any one of our crowd, I don’t think she’ll do anything—not now, anyhow. Later on, in the fall, when we’re back in Lycurgus, things will be different. I’ll be of age then, and I’m going to see what I can do. I never loved any one before, but I do love you, and, well, I won’t give you up, that’s all. I won’t. And they can’t make me, either!”

She stamped her foot and struck her boot, the while the two horses looked idly and vacantly about. And Clyde, enthused and astonished by this second definite declaration in his behalf, as well as fired by the thought that now, if ever, he might suggest the elopement and marriage and so rid himself of the sword that hung so threateningly above him, now gazed at Sondra, his eyes filled with a nervous hope and a nervous fear. For she might refuse, and change, too, shocked by the suddenness of his suggestion. And he had no money and no place in mind where they might go either, in case she accepted his proposal. But she had, perhaps, or she might have. And having once consented, might she not help him? Of course. At any rate, he felt that he must speak, leaving luck or ill luck to the future.

And so he said: “Why couldn’t you run away with me now, Sondra, darling? It’s so long until fall and I want you so much. Why couldn’t we? Your mother’s not likely to want to let you marry me then, anyhow. But if we went away now, she couldn’t help herself, could she? And afterwards, in a few months or so, you could write her and then she wouldn’t mind. Why couldn’t we, Sondra?” His voice was very pleading, his eyes full of a sad dread of refusal—and of the future that lay unprotected behind that.

And by now so caught was she by the tremor with which his mood invested him, that she paused—not really shocked by the suggestion at all—but decidedly moved, as well as flattered by the thought that she was able to evoke in Clyde so eager and headlong a passion. He was so impetuous—so blazing now with a flame of her own creating, as she felt, yet which she was incapable of feeling as much as he, as she knew—such a flame as she had never seen in him or any one else before. And would it not be wonderful if she could run away with him now—secretly—to Canada or New York or Boston, or anywhere? The excitement her elopement would create here and elsewhere—in Lycurgus, Albany, Utica! The talk and feeling in her own family as well as elsewhere! And Gilbert would be related to her in spite of him—and the Griffiths, too, whom her mother and father so much admired.

For a moment there was written in her eyes the desire and the determination almost, to do as he suggested—run away—make a great lark of this, her intense and true love. For, once married, what could her parents do? And was not Clyde worthy of her and them, too? Of course—even though nearly all in her set fancied that he was not quite all he should be, just because he didn’t have as much money as they had. But he would have—would he not—after he was married to her—and get as good a place in her father’s business as Gil Griffiths had in his father’s?

Yet a moment later, thinking of her life here and what her going off in such a way would mean to her father and mother just then—in the very beginning of the summer season—as well as how it would disrupt her own plans and cause her mother to feel especially angry, and perhaps even to bring about the dissolution of the marriage on the ground that she was not of age, she paused—that gay light of adventure replaced by a marked trace of the practical and the material that so persistently characterized her. What difference would a few months make, anyhow? It might, and no doubt would, save Clyde from being separated from her forever, whereas their present course might insure their separation.

Accordingly she now shook her head in a certain, positive and yet affectionate way, which by now Clyde had come to know spelled defeat—the most painful and irremediable defeat that had yet come to him in connection with all this. She would not go! Then he was lost—lost—and she to him forever maybe. Oh, God! For while her face softened with a tenderness which was not usually there—even when she was most moved emotionally—she said: “I would, honey, if I did not think it best not to, now. It’s too soon. Mamma isn’t going to do anything right now. I know she isn’t. Besides she has made all her plans to do a lot of entertaining here this summer, and for my particular benefit. She wants me to be nice to—well, you know who I mean. And I can be, without doing anything to interfere with us in any way, I’m sure—so long as I don’t do anything to really frighten her.” She paused to smile a reassuring smile. “But you can come up here as often as you choose, don’t you see, and she and these others won’t think anything of it, because you won’t be our guest, don’t you see? I’ve fixed all that with Bertine. And that means that we can see each other all summer long up here, just about as much as we want to, don’t you see? Then in the fall, when I come back, and if I find that I can’t make her be nice to you at all, or consider our being engaged, why, I will run away with you. Yes, I will, darling—really and truly.”

Darling! The fall!

She stopped, her eyes showing a very shrewd conception of all the practical difficulties before them, while she took both of his hands in hers and looked up into his face. Then, impulsively and conclusively, she threw both arms about his neck and, pulling his head down, kissed him.

“Can’t you see, dearie? Please don’t look so sad, darling. Sondra loves her Clyde so much. And she’ll do anything and everything to make things come out right. Yes, she will. And they will, too. Now you wait and see. She won’t give him up ever—ever!”

And Clyde, realizing that he had not one moving argument wherewith to confront her, really—not one that might not cause her to think strangely and suspiciously of his intense anxiety, and that this, because of Roberta’s demand, and unless—unless—well—, unless Roberta let him go it all spelled defeat for him, now looked gloomily and even desperately upon her face. The beauty of her! The completeness of this world! And yet not to be allowed to possess her or it, ever. And Roberta with her demand and his promise in the immediate background! And no way of escape save by flight! God!

At this point it was that a nervous and almost deranged look—never so definite or powerful at any time before in his life—the border-line look between reason and unreason, no less—so powerful that the quality of it was even noticeable to Sondra—came into his eyes. He looked sick, broken, unbelievably despairing. So much so that she exclaimed, “Why, what is it, Clyde, dearie—you look so—oh, I can’t say just how—forlorn or— Does he love me so much? And can’t he wait just three or four months? But, oh, yes he can, too. It isn’t as bad as he thinks. He’ll be with me most of the time—the lovekins will. And when he isn’t, Sondra’ll write him every day—every day.”

“But, Sondra! Sondra! If I could just tell you. If you knew how much it were going to mean to me——”

He paused here, for as he could see at this point, into the expression of Sondra came a practical inquiry as to what it was that made it so urgent for her to leave with him at once. And immediately, on his part, Clyde sensing how enormous was the hold of this world on her—how integral a part of it she was—and how, by merely too much insistence here and now, he might so easily cause her to doubt the wisdom of her primary craze for him, was moved to desist, sure that if he spoke it would lead her to questioning him in such a way as might cause her to change—or at least to modify her enthusiasm to the point where even the dream of the fall might vanish.

And so, instead of explaining further why he needed a decision on her part, he merely desisted, saying: “It’s because I need you so much now, dear—all of the time. That’s it, just that. It seems at times as though I could never be away from you another minute any more. Oh, I’m so hungry for you all of the time.”

And yet Sondra, flattered as she was by this hunger, and reciprocating it in part at least, merely repeated the various things she had said before. They must wait. All would come out all right in the fall. And Clyde, quite numb because of his defeat, yet unable to forego or deny the delight of being with her now, did his best to recover his mood—and think, think, think that in some way—somehow—maybe via that plan of that boat or in some other way!

But what other way?

But no, no, no—not that. He was not a murderer and never could be. He was not a murderer—never—never—never.

And yet this loss.

This impending disaster.

This impending disaster.

How to avoid that and win to Sondra after all.

How, how, how?