An American Tragedy Chapter 7

In so far as his life at Mrs. Cuppy’s went, he was not so very happily placed there, either. For that was but a commonplace rooming and boarding house, which drew to it, at best, such conservative mill and business types as looked on work and their wages, and the notions of the middle class religious world of Lycurgus as most essential to the order and well being of the world. From the point of view of entertainment or gayety, it was in the main a very dull place.

At the same time, because of the presence of one Walter Dillard—a brainless sprig who had recently come here from Fonda, it was not wholly devoid of interest for Clyde. The latter—a youth of about Clyde’s own age and equally ambitious socially—but without Clyde’s tact or discrimination anent the governing facts of life, was connected with the men’s furnishing department of Stark and Company. He was spry, avid, attractive enough physically, with very light hair, a very light and feeble mustache, and the delicate airs and ways of a small town Beau Brummell. Never having had any social standing or the use of any means whatsoever—his father having been a small town dry goods merchant before him, who had failed—he was, because of some atavistic spur or fillip in his own blood, most anxious to attain some sort of social position.

But failing that so far, he was interested in and envious of those who had it—much more so than Clyde, even. The glory and activity of the leading families of this particular city had enormous weight with him—the Nicholsons, the Starks, the Harriets, Griffiths, Finchleys, et cetera. And learning a few days after Clyde’s arrival of his somewhat left-handed connection with this world, he was most definitely interested. What? A Griffiths! The nephew of the rich Samuel Griffiths of Lycurgus! And in this boarding house! Beside him at this table! At once his interest rose to where he decided that he must cultivate this stranger as speedily as possible. Here was a real social opportunity knocking at his very door—a connecting link to one of the very best families! And besides was he not young, attractive and probably ambitious like himself—a fellow to play around with if one could? He proceeded at once to make overtures to Clyde. It seemed almost too good to be true.

In consequence he was quick to suggest a walk, the fact that there was a certain movie just on at the Mohawk, which was excellent—very snappy. Didn’t Clyde want to go? And because of his neatness, smartness—a touch of something that was far from humdrum or the heavy practicality of the mill and the remainder of this boarding house world, Clyde was inclined to fall in with him.

But, as he now thought, here were his great relatives and he must watch his step here. Who knew but that he might be making a great mistake in holding such free and easy contacts as this. The Griffiths—as well as the entire world of which they were a part—as he guessed from the general manner of all those who even contacted him, must be very removed from the commonalty here. More by instinct than reason, he was inclined to stand off and look very superior—more so since those, including this very youth on whom he practised this seemed to respect him the more. And although upon eager—and even—after its fashion, supplicating request, he now went with this youth—still he went cautiously. And his aloof and condescending manner Dillard at once translated as “class” and “connection.” And to think he had met him in this dull, dubby boarding house here. And on his arrival—at the very inception of his career here.

And so his manner was that of the sycophant—although he had a better position and was earning more money than Clyde was at this time, twenty-two dollars a week.

“I suppose you’ll be spending a good deal of your time with your relatives and friends here,” he volunteered on the occasion of their first walk together, and after he had extracted as much information as Clyde cared to impart, which was almost nothing, while he volunteered a few, most decidedly furbished bits from his own history. His father owned a dry goods store now. He had come over here to study other methods et cetera. He had an uncle here—connected with Stark and Company. He had met a few—not so many as yet—nice people here, since he hadn’t been here so very long himself—four months all told.

But Clyde’s relatives!

“Say your uncle must be worth over a million, isn’t he? They say he is. Those houses in Wykeagy Avenue are certainly the cats’. You won’t see anything finer in Albany or Utica or Rochester either. Are you Samuel Griffiths’ own nephew? You don’t say! Well, that’ll certainly mean a lot to you here. I wish I had a connection like that. You bet I’d make it count.”

He beamed on Clyde eagerly and hopefully, and through him Clyde sensed even more how really important this blood relation was. Only think how much it meant to this strange youth.

“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Clyde dubiously, and yet very much flattered by this assumption of intimacy. “I came on to learn the collar business, you know. Not to play about very much. My uncle wants me to stick to that, pretty much.”

“Sure, sure. I know how that is,” replied Dillard, “that’s the way my uncle feels about me, too. He wants me to stick close to the work here and not play about very much. He’s the buyer for Stark and Company, you know. But still a man can’t work all the time, either. He’s got to have a little fun.”

“Yes, that’s right,” said Clyde—for the first time in his life a little condescendingly.

They walked along in silence for a few moments. Then:

“Do you dance?”

“Yes,” answered Clyde.

“Well, so do I. There are a lot of cheap dance halls around here, but I never go to any of those. You can’t do it and keep in with the nice people. This is an awfully close town that way, they say. The best people won’t have anything to do with you unless you go with the right crowd. It’s the same way up at Fonda. You have to ‘belong’ or you can’t go out anywhere at all. And that’s right, I guess. But still there are a lot of nice girls here that a fellow can go with—girls of right nice families—not in society, of course—but still, they’re not talked about, see. And they’re not so slow, either. Pretty hot stuff, some of them. And you don’t have to marry any of ’em, either.” Clyde began to think of him as perhaps a little too lusty for his new life here, maybe. At the same time he liked him some. “By the way,” went on Dillard, “what are you doing next Sunday afternoon?”

“Well, nothing in particular, that I know of just now,” replied Clyde, sensing a new problem here. “I don’t know just what I may have to do by then, but I don’t know of anything now.”

“Well, how’d you like to come with me, if you’re not too busy. I’ve come to know quite a few girls since I’ve been here. Nice ones. I can take you out and introduce you to my uncle’s family, if you like. They’re nice people. And afterwards—I know two girls we can go and see—peaches. One of ’em did work in the store, but she don’t now—she’s not doing anything now. The other is her pal. They have a Victrola and they can dance. I know it isn’t the thing to dance here on Sundays but no one need know anything about that. The girls’ parents don’t mind. Afterwards we might take ’em to a movie or something—if you want to—not any of those things down near the mill district but one of the better ones—see?”

There formulated itself in Clyde’s mind the question as to what, in regard to just such proposals as this, his course here was to be. In Chicago, and recently—because of what happened in Kansas City—he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For—after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him—conservatism—hard work—saving one’s money—looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

In spite of his quiet surroundings here, however, the very air of the city seemed to suggest some such relaxation as this youth was now suggesting—a form of diversion that was probably innocent enough but still connected with girls and their entertainment—there were so many of them here, as he could see. These streets, after dinner, here, were so alive with good-looking girls, and young men, too. But what might his new found relatives think of him in case he was seen stepping about in the manner and spirit which this youth’s suggestions seemed to imply? Hadn’t he just said that this was an awfully close town and that everybody knew nearly everything about everybody else? He paused in doubt. He must decide now. And then, being lonely and hungry for companionship, he replied: “Yes,—well—I think that’s all right.” But he added a little dubiously: “Of course my relatives here—”

“Oh, sure, that’s all right,” replied Dillard smartly. “You have to be careful, of course. Well, so do I.” If he could only go around with a Griffiths, even if he was new around here and didn’t know many people—wouldn’t it reflect a lot of credit on him? It most certainly would—did already, as he saw it.

And forthwith he offered to buy Clyde some cigarettes—a soda—anything he liked. But Clyde, still feeling very strange and uncertain, excused himself, after a time, because this youth with his complacent worship of society and position, annoyed him a little, and made his way back to his room. He had promised his mother a letter and he thought he had better go back and write it, and incidentally to think a little on the wisdom of this new contact.