An American Tragedy Chapter 9

And so the interesting dinner, with Clyde attending, came to pass. And it was partaken of at Frissell’s, as Ratterer had said. And by now Clyde, having come to be on genial terms with all of these youths, was in the gayest of moods about it all. Think of his new state in life, anyhow. Only a few weeks ago he was all alone, not a boy friend, scarcely a boy acquaintance in the world! And here he was, so soon after, going to this fine dinner with this interesting group.

And true to the illusions of youth, the place appeared far more interesting than it really was. It was little more than an excellent chop-house of the older American order. Its walls were hung thick with signed pictures of actors and actresses, together with playbills of various periods. And because of the general excellence of the food, to say nothing of the geniality of its present manager, it had become the hangout of passing actors, politicians, local business men, and after them, the generality of followers who are always drawn by that which presents something a little different to that with which they are familiar.

And these boys, having heard at one time and another from cab and taxi drivers that this was one of the best places in town, fixed upon it for their monthly dinners. Single plates of anything cost from sixty cents to a dollar. Coffee and tea were served in pots only. You could get anything you wanted to drink. To the left of the main room as you went in was a darker and low-ceilinged room with a fireplace, to which only men resorted and sat and smoked, and read papers after dinner, and it was for this room that these youths reserved their greatest admiration. Eating here, they somehow felt older, wiser, more important—real men of the world. And Ratterer and Hegglund, to whom by now Clyde had become very much attached, as well as most of the others, were satisfied that there was not another place in all Kansas City that was really as good.

And so this day, having drawn their pay at noon, and being off at six for the night, they gathered outside the hotel at the corner nearest the drug store at which Clyde had originally applied for work, and were off in a happy, noisy frame of mind—Hegglund, Ratterer, Paul Shiel, Davis Higby, another youth, Arthur Kinsella and Clyde.

“Didja hear de trick de guy from St. Louis pulled on the main office yesterday?” Hegglund inquired of the crowd generally, as they started walking. “Wires last Saturday from St. Louis for a parlor, bedroom and bat for himself and wife, an’ orders flowers put in de room. Jimmy, the key clerk, was just tellin’ me. Den he comes on here and registers himself an’ his girl, see, as man and wife, an’, gee, a peach of a lookin’ girl, too—I saw ’em. Listen, you fellows, cantcha? Den, on Wednesday, after he’s been here tree days and dey’re beginnin’ to wonder about him a little—meals sent to de room and all dat—he comes down and says dat his wife’s gotta go back to St. Louis, and dat he won’t need no suite, just one room, and dat they can transfer his trunk and her bags to de new room until train time for her. But de trunk ain’t his at all, see, but hers. And she ain’t goin’, don’t know nuttin about it. But he is. Den he beats it, see, and leaves her and de trunk in de room. And widout a bean, see? Now, dey’re holdin’ her and her trunk, an’ she’s cryin’ and wirin’ friends, and dere’s hell to pay all around. Can ya beat dat? An’ de flowers, too. Roses. An’ six different meals in de room and drinks for him, too.”

“Sure, I know the one you mean,” exclaimed Paul Shiel. “I took up some drinks myself. I felt there was something phony about that guy. He was too smooth and loud-talking. An’ he only comes across with a dime at that.”

“I remember him, too,” exclaimed Ratterer. “He sent me down for all the Chicago papers Monday an’ only give me a dime. He looked like a bluff to me.”

“Well, dey fell for him up in front, all right.” It was Hegglund talking. “An’ now dey’re tryin’ to gouge it outa her. Can you beat it?”

“She didn’t look to me to be more than eighteen or twenty, if she’s that old,” put in Arthur Kinsella, who up to now had said nothing.

“Did you see either of ’em, Clyde?” inquired Ratterer, who was inclined to favor and foster Clyde and include him in everything.

“No,” replied Clyde. “I must have missed those two. I don’t remember seeing either of ’em.”

“Well, you missed seein’ a bird when you missed that one. Tall, long black cut-a-way coat, wide, black derby pulled low over his eyes, pearl-gray spats, too. I thought he was an English duke or something at first, the way he walked, and with a cane, too. All they gotta do is pull that English stuff, an’ talk loud an’ order everybody about an’ they get by with it every time.”

“That’s right,” commented Davis Higby. “That’s good stuff, that English line. I wouldn’t mind pulling some of it myself sometime.”

They had now turned two corners, crossed two different streets and, in group formation, were making their way through the main door of Frissell’s, which gave in on the reflection of lights upon china and silverware and faces, and the buzz and clatter of a dinner crowd. Clyde was enormously impressed. Never before, apart from the Green-Davidson, had he been in such a place. And with such wise, experienced youths.

They made their way to a group of tables which faced a leather wall-seat. The head-waiter, recognizing Ratterer and Hegglund and Kinsella as old patrons, had two tables put together and butter and bread and glasses brought. About these they arranged themselves, Clyde with Ratterer and Higby occupying the wall seat; Hegglund, Kinsella and Shiel sitting opposite.

“Now, me for a good old Manhattan, to begin wit’,” exclaimed Hegglund avidly, looking about on the crowd in the room and feeling that now indeed he was a person. Of a reddish-tan hue, his eyes keen and blue, his reddish-brown hair brushed straight up from his forehead, he seemed not unlike a large and overzealous rooster.

And similarly, Arthur Kinsella, once he was in here, seemed to perk up and take heart of his present glory. In a sort of ostentatious way, he drew back his coat sleeves, seized a bill of fare, and scanning the drink-list on the back, exclaimed: “Well, a dry Martini is good enough for a start.”

“Well, I’m going to begin with a Scotch and soda,” observed Paul Shiel, solemnly, examining at the same time the meat orders.

“None of your cocktails for me to-night,” insisted Ratterer, genially, but with a note of reserve in his voice. “I said I wasn’t going to drink much to-night, and I’m not. I think a glass of Rhine wine and seltzer will be about my speed.”

“For de love o’ Mike, will you listen to dat, now,” exclaimed Hegglund, deprecatingly. “He’s goin’ to begin on Rhine wine. And him dat likes Manhattans always. What’s gettin’ into you all of a sudden, Tommy? I t’ought you said you wanted a good time to-night.”

“So I do,” replied Ratterer, “but can’t I have a good time without lappin’ up everything in the place? I want to stay sober to-night. No more call-downs for me in the morning, if I know what I’m about. I came pretty near not showing up last time.”

“That’s true, too,” exclaimed Arthur Kinsella. “I don’t want to drink so much I don’t know where I’m at, but I’m not going to begin worrying about it now.”

“How about you, Higby?” Hegglund now called to the round-eyed youth.

“I’m having a Manhattan, too,” he replied, and then, looking up at the waiter who was beside him, added, “How’s tricks, Dennis?”

“Oh, I can’t complain,” replied the waiter. “They’re break-in’ all right for me these days. How’s everything over to the hotel?”

“Fine, fine,” replied Higby, cheerfully, studying the bill-of-fare.

“An’ you, Griffiths? What are you goin’ to have?” called Hegglund, for, as master-of-ceremonies, delegated by the others to look after the orders and pay the bill and tip the waiter, he was now fulfilling the räle.

“Who, me? Oh, me,” exclaimed Clyde, not a little disturbed by this inquiry, for up to now—this very hour, in fact—he had never touched anything stronger than coffee or ice-cream soda. He had been not a little taken back by the brisk and sophisticated way in which these youths ordered cocktails and whisky. Surely he could not go so far as that, and yet, so well had he known long before this, from the conversation of these youths, that on such occasions as this they did drink, that he did not see how he could very well hold back. What would they think of him if he didn’t drink something? For ever since he had been among them, he had been trying to appear as much of a man of the world as they were. And yet back of him, as he could plainly feel, lay all of the years in which he had been drilled in the “horrors” of drink and evil companionship. And even though in his heart this long while he had secretly rebelled against nearly all the texts and maxims to which his parents were always alluding, deeply resenting really as worthless and pointless the ragamuffin crew of wasters and failures whom they were always seeking to save, still, now he was inclined to think and hesitate. Should he or should he not drink?

For the fraction of an instant only, while all these things in him now spoke, he hesitated, then added: “Why, I, oh—I think I’ll take Rhine wine and seltzer, too.” It was the easiest and safest thing to say, as he saw it. Already the rather temperate and even innocuous character of Rhine wine and seltzer had been emphasized by Hegglund and all the others. And yet Ratterer was taking it—a thing which made his choice less conspicuous and, as he felt, less ridiculous.

“Will you listen to dis now?” exclaimed Hegglund, dramatically. “He says he’ll have Rhine wine and seltzer, too. I see where dis party breaks up at half-past eight, all right, unless some of de rest of us do someting.”

And Davis Higby, who was far more trenchant and roistering than his pleasant exterior gave any indication of, turned to Ratterer and said: “Whatja want to start this Rhine wine and seltzer stuff for, so soon, Tom? Dontcha want us to have any fun at all to-night?”

“Well, I told you why,” said Ratterer. “Besides, the last time I went down to that joint I had forty bucks when I went in and not a cent when I came out. I want to know what’s goin’ on this time.”

“That joint,” thought Clyde on hearing it. Then, after this supper, when they had all drunk and eaten enough, they were going down to one of those places called a “joint”—a badhouse, really. There was no doubt of it—he knew what the word meant. There would be women there—bad women—evil women. And he would be expected—could he—would he?

For the first time in his life now, he found himself confronted by a choice as to his desire for the more accurate knowledge of the one great fascinating mystery that had for so long confronted and fascinated and baffled and yet frightened him a little. For, despite all his many thoughts in regard to all this and women in general, he had never been in contact with any one of them in this way. And now—now—

All of a sudden he felt faint thrills of hot and cold racing up and down his back and all over him. His hands and face grew hot and then became moist—then his cheeks and forehead flamed. He could feel them. Strange, swift, enticing and yet disturbing thoughts raced in and out of his consciousness. His hair tingled and he saw pictures—bacchanalian scenes—which swiftly, and yet in vain, he sought to put out of his mind. They would keep coming back. And he wanted them to come back. Yet he did not. And through it all he was now a little afraid. Pshaw! Had he no courage at all? These other fellows were not disturbed by the prospects of what was before them. They were very gay. They were already beginning to laugh and kid one another in regard to certain funny things that had happened the last time they were all out together. But what would his mother think if she knew? His mother! He dared not think of his mother or his father either at this time, and put them both resolutely out of his mind.

“Oh, say, Kinsella,” called Higby. “Do you remember that little red head in that Pacific Street joint that wanted you to run away to Chicago with her?”

“Do I?” replied the amused Kinsella, taking up the Martini that was just then served him. “She even wanted me to quit the hotel game and let her start me in a business of some kind. ‘I wouldn’t need to work at all if I stuck by her,’ she told me.”

“Oh, no, you wouldn’t need to work at all, except one way,” called Ratterer.

The waiter put down Clyde’s glass of Rhine wine and seltzer beside him and, interested and intense and troubled and fascinated by all that he heard, he picked it up, tasted it and, finding it mild and rather pleasing, drank it all down at once. And yet so wrought up were his thoughts that he scarcely realized then that he had drunk it.

“Good for you,” observed Kinsella, in a most cordial tone. “You must like that stuff.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” said Clyde.

And Hegglund, seeing how swiftly it had gone, and feeling that Clyde, new to this world and green, needed to be cheered and strengthened, called to the waiter: “Here Jerry! One more of these, and make it a big one,” he whispered behind his hand.

And so the dinner proceeded. And it was nearly eleven before they had exhausted the various matters of interest to them—stories of past affairs, past jobs, past feats of daring. And by then Clyde had had considerable time to meditate on all of these youths—and he was inclined to think that he was not nearly as green as they thought, or if so, at least shrewder than most of them—of a better mentality, really. For who were they and what were their ambitions? Hegglund, as he could see, was vain and noisy and foolish—a person who could be taken in and conciliated by a little flattery. And Higby and Kinsella, interesting and attractive boys both, were still vain of things he could not be proud of—Higby of knowing a little something about automobiles—he had an uncle in the business—Kinsella of gambling, rolling dice even. And as for Ratterer and Shiel, he could see and had noticed for some time, that they were content with the bell-hop business—just continuing in that and nothing more—a thing which he could not believe, even now, would interest him forever.

At the same time, being confronted by this problem of how soon they would be wanting to go to a place into which he had never ventured before, and to be doing things which he had never let himself think he would do in just this way, he was just a little disturbed. Had he not better excuse himself after they got outside, or perhaps, after starting along with them in whatsoever direction they chose to go, quietly slip away at some corner and return to his own home? For had he not already heard that the most dreadful of diseases were occasionally contracted in just such places—and that men died miserable deaths later because of low vices begun in this fashion? He could hear his mother lecturing concerning all this—yet with scarcely any direct knowledge of any kind. And yet, as an argument per contra, here were all of these boys in nowise disturbed by what was in their minds or moods to do. On the contrary, they were very gay over it all and amused—nothing more.

In fact, Ratterer, who was really very fond of Clyde by now, more because of the way he looked and inquired and listened than because of anything Clyde did or said, kept nudging him with his elbow now and then, asking laughingly, “How about it, Clyde? Going to be initiated to-night?” and then smiling broadly. Or finding Clyde quite still and thinking at times, “They won’t do more than bite you, Clyde.”

And Hegglund, taking his cue from Ratterer and occasionally desisting from his own self-glorifying diatribes, would add: “You won’t ever be de same, Clyde. Dey never are. But we’ll all be wid you in case of trouble.”

And Clyde, nervous and irritated, would retort: “Ah, cut it out, you two. Quit kidding. What’s the use of trying to make out that you know so much more than I do?”

And Ratterer would signal Hegglund with his eyes to let up and would occasionally whisper to Clyde: “That’s all right, old man, don’t get sore. You know we were just fooling, that’s all.” And Clyde, very much drawn to Ratterer, would relent and wish he were not so foolish as to show what he actually was thinking about.

At last, however, by eleven o’clock, they had had their fill of conversation and food and drink and were ready to depart, Hegglund leading the way. And instead of the vulgar and secretive mission producing a kind of solemnity and mental or moral self-examination and self-flagellation, they laughed and talked as though there was nothing but a delicious form of amusement before them. Indeed, much to Clyde’s disgust and amazement, they now began to reminisce concerning other ventures into this world—of one particular one which seemed to amuse them all greatly, and which seemed to concern some “joint,” as they called it, which they had once visited—a place called “Bettina’s.” They had been led there originally by a certain wild youth by the name of “Pinky” Jones of the staff of another local hotel. And this boy and one other by the name of Birmingham, together with Hegglund, who had become wildly intoxicated, had there indulged in wild pranks which all but led to their arrest—pranks which to Clyde, as he listened to them, seemed scarcely possible to boys of this caliber and cleanly appearance—pranks so crude and disgusting as to sicken him a little.

“Oh, ho, and de pitcher of water de girl on de second floor doused on me as I went out,” called Hegglund, laughing heartily.

“And the big fat guy on the second floor that came to the door to see. Remember?” laughed Kinsella. “He thought there was a fire or a riot, I bet.”

“And you and that little fat girl, Piggy. ’Member, Ratterer?” squealed Shiel, laughing and choking as he tried to tell of it.

“And Ratterer’s legs all bent under his load. Yoo-hoo!” yelled Hegglund. “And de way de two of ’em finally slid down de steps.”

“That was all your fault, Hegglund,” called Higby from Kinsella’s side. “If you hadn’t tried that switching stuff we never woulda got put out.”

“I tell you I was drunk,” protested Ratterer. “It was the red-eye they sold in there.”

“And that long, thin guy from Texas with the big mustache, will you ever forget him, an’ the way he laughed?” added Kinsella. “He wouldn’t help nobody ’gainst us. ’Member?”

“It’s a wonder we weren’t all thrown in the street or locked up. Oh, gee, what a night!” reminisced Ratterer.

By now Clyde was faintly dizzy with the nature of these revelations. “Switchin’.” That could mean but one thing.

And they expected him to share in revels such as these, maybe. It could not be. He was not that sort of person. What would his mother and father think if they were to hear of such dreadful things? And yet—

Even as they talked, they had reached a certain house in a dark and rather wide street, the curbs of which for a block or more on either side were sprinkled with cabs and cars. And at the corner, only a little distance away, were some young men standing and talking. And over the way, more men. And not a half a block farther on, they passed two policemen, idling and conversing. And although there was no light visible in any window, nor over any transom, still, curiously, there was a sense of vivid, radiant life. One could feel it in this dark street. Taxis spun and honked and two old-time closed carriages still in use rolled here and there, their curtains drawn. And doors slammed or opened and closed. And now and then a segment of bright inward light pierced the outward gloom and then disappeared again. Overhead on this night were many stars.

Finally, without any comment from any one, Hegglund, accompanied by Higby and Shiel, marched up the steps of this house and rang the bell. Almost instantly the door was opened by a black girl in a red dress. “Good evening. Walk right in, won’t you?” was the affable greeting, and the six, having pushed past her and through the curtains of heavy velvet, which separated this small area from the main chambers, Clyde found himself in a bright and rather gaudy general parlor or reception room, the walls of which were ornamented with gilt-framed pictures of nude or semi-nude girls and some very high pier mirrors. And the floor was covered by a bright red thick carpet, over which were strewn many gilt chairs. At the back, before some very bright red hangings, was a gilded upright piano. But of guests or inmates there seemed to be none, other than the black girl.

“Jest be seated, won’t you? Make yourselves at home. I’ll call the madam.” And, running upstairs to the left, she began calling: “Oh, Marie! Sadie! Caroline! They is some young gentlemen in the parlor.”

And at that moment, from a door in the rear, there emerged a tall, slim and rather pale-faced woman of about thirty-eight or forty—very erect, very executive, very intelligent and graceful-looking—diaphanously and yet modestly garbed, who said, with a rather wan and yet encouraging smile: “Oh, hello, Oscar, it’s you, is it? And you too, Paul. Hello! Hello, Davis! Just make yourselves at home anywhere, all of you. Fannie will be in in a minute. She’ll bring you something to drink. I’ve just hired a new pianist from St. Joe—a Negro. Wait’ll you hear him. He’s awfully clever.”

She returned to the rear and called, “Oh, Sam!”

As she did so, nine girls of varying ages and looks, but none apparently over twenty-four or five—came trooping down the stairs at one side in the rear, and garbed as Clyde had never seen any women dressed anywhere. And they were all laughing and talking as they came—evidently very well pleased with themselves and in nowise ashamed of their appearance, which in some instances was quite extraordinary, as Clyde saw it, their costumes ranging from the gayest and flimsiest of boudoir negligées to the somewhat more sober, if no less revealing, dancing and ballroom gowns. And they were of such varied types and sizes and complexions—slim and stout and medium—tall or short—and dark or light or betwixt. And, whatever their ages, all seemed young. And they smiled so warmly and enthusiastically.

“Oh, hello, sweetheart! How are you? Don’t you want to dance with me?” or “Wouldn’t you like something to drink?”