Dusk — of a summer night.
And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants — such walls as in time may linger as a mere fable.
And up the broad street, now comparatively hushed, a little band of six — a man of about fifty, short, stout, with bushy hair protruding from under a round black felt hat, a most unimportant- looking person, who carried a small portable organ such as is customarily used by street preachers and singers. And with him a woman perhaps five years his junior, taller, not so broad, but solid of frame and vigorous, very plain in face and dress, and yet not homely, leading with one hand a small boy of seven and in the other carrying a Bible and several hymn books. With these three, but walking independently behind, was a girl of fifteen, a boy of twelve and another girl of nine, all following obediently, but not too enthusiastically, in the wake of the others.
It was hot, yet with a sweet languor about it all.
Crossing at right angles the great thoroughfare on which they walked, was a second canyon-like way, threaded by throngs and vehicles and various lines of cars which clanged their bells and made such progress as they might amid swiftly moving streams of traffic. Yet the little group seemed unconscious of anything save a set purpose to make its way between the contending lines of traffic and pedestrians which flowed by them.
Having reached an intersection this side of the second principal thoroughfare — really just an alley between two tall structures — now quite bare of life of any kind, the man put down the organ, which the woman immediately opened, setting up a music rack upon which she placed a wide flat hymn book. Then handing the Bible to the man, she fell back in line with him, while the twelve-year-old boy put down a small camp-stool in front of the organ. The man — the father, as he chanced to be — looked about him with seeming wide- eyed assurance, and announced, without appearing to care whether he had any auditors or not:
“We will first sing a hymn of praise, so that any who may wish to acknowledge the Lord may join us. Will you oblige, Hester?”
At this the eldest girl, who until now had attempted to appear as unconscious and unaffected as possible, bestowed her rather slim and as yet undeveloped figure upon the camp chair and turned the leaves of the hymn book, pumping the organ while her mother observed:
“I should think it might be nice to sing twenty-seven tonight —‘How Sweet the Balm of Jesus’ Love.’”
By this time various homeward-bound individuals of diverse grades and walks of life, noticing the small group disposing itself in this fashion, hesitated for a moment to eye them askance or paused to ascertain the character of their work. This hesitancy, construed by the man apparently to constitute attention, however mobile, was seized upon by him and he began addressing them as though they were specifically here to hear him.
“Let us all sing twenty-seven, then —‘How Sweet the Balm of Jesus’ Love.’”
At this the young girl began to interpret the melody upon the organ, emitting a thin though correct strain, at the same time joining her rather high soprano with that of her mother, together with the rather dubious baritone of the father. The other children piped weakly along, the boy and girl having taken hymn books from the small pile stacked upon the organ. As they sang, this nondescript and indifferent street audience gazed, held by the peculiarity of such an unimportant-looking family publicly raising its collective voice against the vast skepticism and apathy of life. Some were interested or moved sympathetically by the rather tame and inadequate figure of the girl at the organ, others by the impractical and materially inefficient texture of the father, whose weak blue eyes and rather flabby but poorly-clothed figure bespoke more of failure than anything else. Of the group the mother alone stood out as having that force and determination which, however blind or erroneous, makes for self-preservation, if not success in life. She, more than any of the others, stood up with an ignorant, yet somehow respectable air of conviction. If you had watched her, her hymn book dropped to her side, her glance directed straight before her into space, you would have said: “Well, here is one who, whatever her defects, probably does what she believes as nearly as possible.” A kind of hard, fighting faith in the wisdom and mercy of that definite overruling and watchful power which she proclaimed, was written in her every feature and gesture.
“The love of Jesus saves me whole,
The love of God my steps control,”
she sang resonantly, if slightly nasally, between the towering walls of the adjacent buildings.
The boy moved restlessly from one foot to the other, keeping his eyes down, and for the most part only half singing. A tall and as yet slight figure, surmounted by an interesting head and face — white skin, dark hair — he seemed more keenly observant and decidedly more sensitive than most of the others — appeared indeed to resent and even to suffer from the position in which he found himself. Plainly pagan rather than religious, life interested him, although as yet he was not fully aware of this. All that could be truly said of him now was that there was no definite appeal in all this for him. He was too young, his mind much too responsive to phases of beauty and pleasure which had little, if anything, to do with the remote and cloudy romance which swayed the minds of his mother and father.
Indeed the home life of which this boy found himself a part and the various contacts, material and psychic, which thus far had been his, did not tend to convince him of the reality and force of all that his mother and father seemed so certainly to believe and say. Rather, they seemed more or less troubled in their lives, at least materially. His father was always reading the Bible and speaking in meeting at different places, especially in the “mission,” which he and his mother conducted not so far from this corner. At the same time, as he understood it, they collected money from various interested or charitably inclined business men here and there who appeared to believe in such philanthropic work. Yet the family was always “hard up,” never very well clothed, and deprived of many comforts and pleasures which seemed common enough to others. And his father and mother were constantly proclaiming the love and mercy and care of God for him and for all. Plainly there was something wrong somewhere. He could not get it all straight, but still he could not help respecting his mother, a woman whose force and earnestness, as well as her sweetness, appealed to him. Despite much mission work and family cares, she managed to be fairly cheerful, or at least sustaining, often declaring most emphatically “God will provide” or “God will show the way,” especially in times of too great stress about food or clothes. Yet apparently, in spite of this, as he and all the other children could see, God did not show any very clear way, even though there was always an extreme necessity for His favorable intervention in their affairs.
To-night, walking up the great street with his sisters and brother, he wished that they need not do this any more, or at least that he need not be a part of it. Other boys did not do such things, and besides, somehow it seemed shabby and even degrading. On more than one occasion, before he had been taken on the street in this fashion, other boys had called to him and made fun of his father, because he was always publicly emphasizing his religious beliefs or convictions. Thus in one neighborhood in which they had lived, when he was but a child of seven, his father, having always preluded every conversation with “Praise the Lord,” he heard boys call “Here comes old Praise-the-Lord Griffiths.” Or they would call out after him “Hey, you’re the fellow whose sister plays the organ. Is there anything else she can play?”
“What does he always want to go around saying, ‘Praise the Lord’ for? Other people don’t do it.”
It was that old mass yearning for a likeness in all things that troubled them, and him. Neither his father nor his mother was like other people, because they were always making so much of religion, and now at last they were making a business of it.
On this night in this great street with its cars and crowds and tall buildings, he felt ashamed, dragged out of normal life, to be made a show and jest of. The handsome automobiles that sped by, the loitering pedestrians moving off to what interests and comforts he could only surmise; the gay pairs of young people, laughing and jesting and the “kids” staring, all troubled him with a sense of something different, better, more beautiful than his, or rather their life.
And now units of this vagrom and unstable street throng, which was forever shifting and changing about them, seemed to sense the psychologic error of all this in so far as these children were concerned, for they would nudge one another, the more sophisticated and indifferent lifting an eyebrow and smiling contemptuously, the more sympathetic or experienced commenting on the useless presence of these children.
“I see these people around here nearly every night now — two or three times a week, anyhow,” this from a young clerk who had just met his girl and was escorting her toward a restaurant. “They’re just working some religious dodge or other, I guess.”
“That oldest boy don’t wanta be here. He feels outa place, I can see that. It ain’t right to make a kid like that come out unless he wants to. He can’t understand all this stuff, anyhow.” This from an idler and loafer of about forty, one of those odd hangers- on about the commercial heart of a city, addressing a pausing and seemingly amiable stranger.
“Yeh, I guess that’s so,” the other assented, taking in the peculiar cast of the boy’s head and face. In view of the uneasy and self-conscious expression upon the face whenever it was lifted, one might have intelligently suggested that it was a little unkind as well as idle to thus publicly force upon a temperament as yet unfitted to absorb their import, religious and psychic services best suited to reflective temperaments of maturer years.
Yet so it was.
As for the remainder of the family, both the youngest girl and boy were too small to really understand much of what it was all about or to care. The eldest girl at the organ appeared not so much to mind, as to enjoy the attention and comment her presence and singing evoked, for more than once, not only strangers, but her mother and father, had assured her that she had an appealing and compelling voice, which was only partially true. It was not a good voice. They did not really understand music. Physically, she was of a pale, emasculate and unimportant structure, with no real mental force or depth, and was easily made to feel that this was an excellent field in which to distinguish herself and attract a little attention. As for the parents, they were determined upon spiritualizing the world as much as possible, and, once the hymn was concluded, the father launched into one of those hackneyed descriptions of the delights of a release, via self-realization of the mercy of God and the love of Christ and the will of God toward sinners, from the burdensome cares of an evil conscience.
“All men are sinners in the light of the Lord,” he declared. “Unless they repent, unless they accept Christ, His love and forgiveness of them, they can never know the happiness of being spiritually whole and clean. Oh, my friends! If you could but know the peace and content that comes with the knowledge, the inward understanding, that Christ lived and died for you and that He walks with you every day and hour, by light and by dark, at dawn and at dusk, to keep and strengthen you for the tasks and cares of the world that are ever before you. Oh, the snares and pitfalls that beset us all! And then the soothing realization that Christ is ever with us, to counsel, to aid, to hearten, to bind up our wounds and make us whole! Oh, the peace, the satisfaction, the comfort, the glory of that!”
“Amen!” asseverated his wife, and the daughter, Hester, or Esta, as she was called by the family, moved by the need of as much public support as possible for all of them — echoed it after her.
Clyde, the eldest boy, and the two younger children merely gazed at the ground, or occasionally at their father, with a feeling that possibly it was all true and important, yet somehow not as significant or inviting as some of the other things which life held. They heard so much of this, and to their young and eager minds life was made for something more than street and mission hall protestations of this sort.
Finally, after a second hymn and an address by Mrs. Griffiths, during which she took occasion to refer to the mission work jointly conducted by them in a near-by street, and their services to the cause of Christ in general, a third hymn was indulged in, and then some tracts describing the mission rescue work being distributed, such voluntary gifts as were forthcoming were taken up by Asa — the father. The small organ was closed, the camp chair folded up and given to Clyde, the Bible and hymn books picked up by Mrs. Griffiths, and with the organ supported by a leather strap passed over the shoulder of Griffiths, senior, the missionward march was taken up.
During all this time Clyde was saying to himself that he did not wish to do this any more, that he and his parents looked foolish and less than normal —“cheap” was the word he would have used if he could have brought himself to express his full measure of resentment at being compelled to participate in this way — and that he would not do it any more if he could help. What good did it do them to have him along? His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did. He meditated now more determinedly than ever a rebellion by which he would rid himself of the need of going out in this way. Let his elder sister go if she chose; she liked it. His younger sister and brother might be too young to care. But he —
“They seemed a little more attentive than usual to-night, I thought,” commented Griffiths to his wife as they walked along, the seductive quality of the summer evening air softening him into a more generous interpretation of the customary indifferent spirit of the passer-by.
“Yes; twenty-seven took tracts to-night as against eighteen on Thursday.”
“The love of Christ must eventually prevail,” comforted the father, as much to hearten himself as his wife. “The pleasures and cares of the world hold a very great many, but when sorrow overtakes them, then some of these seeds will take root.”
“I am sure of it. That is the thought which always keeps me up. Sorrow and the weight of sin eventually bring some of them to see the error of their way.”
They now entered into the narrow side street from which they had emerged and walking as many as a dozen doors from the corner, entered the door of a yellow single-story wooden building, the large window and the two glass panes in the central door of which had been painted a gray-white. Across both windows and the smaller panels in the double door had been painted: “The Door of Hope. Bethel Independent Mission. Meetings Every Wednesday and Saturday night, 8 to 10. Sundays at 11, 3 and 8. Everybody Welcome.” Under this legend on each window were printed the words: “God is Love,” and below this again, in smaller type: “How Long Since You Wrote to Mother?”
The small company entered the yellow unprepossessing door and disappeared.
That such a family, thus cursorily presented, might have a different and somewhat peculiar history could well be anticipated, and it would be true. Indeed, this one presented one of those anomalies of psychic and social reflex and motivation such as would tax the skill of not only the psychologist but the chemist and physicist as well, to unravel. To begin with, Asa Griffiths, the father, was one of those poorly integrated and correlated organisms, the product of an environment and a religious theory, but with no guiding or mental insight of his own, yet sensitive and therefore highly emotional and without any practical sense whatsoever. Indeed it would be hard to make clear just how life appealed to him, or what the true hue of his emotional responses was. On the other hand, as has been indicated, his wife was of a firmer texture but with scarcely any truer or more practical insight into anything.
The history of this man and his wife is of no particular interest here save as it affected their boy of twelve, Clyde Griffiths. This youth, aside from a certain emotionalism and exotic sense of romance which characterized him, and which he took more from his father than from his mother, brought a more vivid and intelligent imagination to things, and was constantly thinking of how he might better himself, if he had a chance; places to which he might go, things he might see, and how differently he might live, if only this, that and the other things were true. The principal thing that troubled Clyde up to his fifteenth year, and for long after in retrospect, was that the calling or profession of his parents was the shabby thing that it appeared to be in the eyes of others. For so often throughout his youth in different cities in which his parents had conducted a mission or spoken on the streets — Grand Rapids, Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, lastly Kansas City — it had been obvious that people, at least the boys and girls he encountered, looked down upon him and his brothers and sisters for being the children of such parents. On several occasions, and much against the mood of his parents, who never countenanced such exhibitions of temper, he had stopped to fight with one or another of these boys. But always, beaten or victorious, he had been conscious of the fact that the work his parents did was not satisfactory to others — shabby, trivial. And always he was thinking of what he would do, once he reached the place where he could get away.
For Clyde’s parents had proved impractical in the matter of the future of their children. They did not understand the importance or the essential necessity for some form of practical or professional training for each and every one of their young ones. Instead, being wrapped up in the notion of evangelizing the world, they had neglected to keep their children in school in any one place. They had moved here and there, sometimes in the very midst of an advantageous school season, because of a larger and better religious field in which to work. And there were times, when, the work proving highly unprofitable and Asa being unable to make much money at the two things he most understood — gardening and canvassing for one invention or another — they were quite without sufficient food or decent clothes, and the children could not go to school. In the face of such situations as these, whatever the children might think, Asa and his wife remained as optimistic as ever, or they insisted to themselves that they were, and had unwavering faith in the Lord and His intention to provide.
The combination home and mission which this family occupied was dreary enough in most of its phases to discourage the average youth or girl of any spirit. It consisted in its entirety of one long store floor in an old and decidedly colorless and inartistic wooden building which was situated in that part of Kansas City which lies north of Independence Boulevard and west of Troost Avenue, the exact street or place being called Bickel, a very short thoroughfare opening off Missouri Avenue, a somewhat more lengthy but no less nondescript highway. And the entire neighborhood in which it stood was very faintly and yet not agreeably redolent of a commercial life which had long since moved farther south, if not west. It was some five blocks from the spot on which twice a week the open air meetings of these religious enthusiasts and proselytizers were held.
And it was the ground floor of this building, looking out into Bickel Street at the front and some dreary back yards of equally dreary frame houses, which was divided at the front into a hall forty by twenty-five feet in size, in which had been placed some sixty collapsible wood chairs, a lectern, a map of Palestine or the Holy Land, and for wall decorations some twenty-five printed but unframed mottoes which read in part:
“WINE IS A MOCKER, STRONG DRINK IS RAGING AND WHOSOEVER IS DECEIVED THEREBY IS NOT WISE.”
“TAKE HOLD OF SHIELD AND BUCKLER, AND STAND UP FOR MINE HELP.” PSALMS 35:2.
“AND YE, MY FLOCK, THE FLOCK OF MY PASTURE, are men, AND I AM YOUR GOD, SAITH THE LORD GOD.” EZEKIEL 34:31.
“O GOD, THOU KNOWEST MY FOOLISHNESS, AND MY SINS ARE NOT HID FROM THEE.” PSALMS 69:5.
“IF YE HAVE FAITH AS A GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED, YE SHALL SAY UNTO THIS MOUNTAIN, REMOVE HENCE TO YONDER PLACE; AND IT SHALL MOVE; AND NOTHING SHALL BE IMPOSSIBLE TO YOU.” MATTHEW 17:20.
“FOR THE DAY OF THE LORD IS NEAR.” OBADIAH 15.
“FOR THERE SHALL BE NO REWARD TO THE EVIL MAN.” PROVERBS 24:20.
“LOOK, THEN, NOT UPON THE WINE WHEN IT IS RED: IT BITETH LIKE A SERPENT, AND STINGETH LIKE AN ADDER.” PROVERBS 23:31,32.
These mighty adjurations were as silver and gold plates set in a wall of dross.
The rear forty feet of this very commonplace floor was intricately and yet neatly divided into three small bedrooms, a living room which overlooked the backyard and wooden fences of yards no better than those at the back; also, a combination kitchen and dining room exactly ten feet square, and a store room for mission tracts, hymnals, boxes, trunks and whatever else of non-immediate use, but of assumed value, which the family owned. This particular small room lay immediately to the rear of the mission hall itself, and into it before or after speaking or at such times as a conference seemed important, both Mr. and Mrs. Griffiths were wont to retire — also at times to meditate or pray.
How often had Clyde and his sisters and younger brother seen his mother or father, or both, in conference with some derelict or semi-repentant soul who had come for advice or aid, most usually for aid. And here at times, when his mother’s and father’s financial difficulties were greatest, they were to be found thinking, or as Asa Griffiths was wont helplessly to say at times, “praying their way out,” a rather ineffectual way, as Clyde began to think later.
And the whole neighborhood was so dreary and run-down that he hated the thought of living in it, let alone being part of a work that required constant appeals for aid, as well as constant prayer and thanksgiving to sustain it.
Mrs. Elvira Griffiths before she had married Asa had been nothing but an ignorant farm girl, brought up without much thought of religion of any kind. But having fallen in love with him, she had become inoculated with the virus of Evangelism and proselytizing which dominated him, and had followed him gladly and enthusiastically in all of his ventures and through all of his vagaries. Being rather flattered by the knowledge that she could speak and sing, her ability to sway and persuade and control people with the “word of God,” as she saw it, she had become more or less pleased with herself on this account and so persuaded to continue.
Occasionally a small band of people followed the preachers to their mission, or learning of its existence through their street work, appeared there later — those odd and mentally disturbed or distrait souls who are to be found in every place. And it had been Clyde’s compulsory duty throughout the years when he could not act for himself to be in attendance at these various meetings. And always he had been more irritated than favorably influenced by the types of men and women who came here — mostly men — down-and-out laborers, loafers, drunkards, wastrels, the botched and helpless who seemed to drift in, because they had no other place to go. And they were always testifying as to how God or Christ or Divine Grace had rescued them from this or that predicament — never how they had rescued any one else. And always his father and mother were saying “Amen” and “Glory to God,” and singing hymns and afterward taking up a collection for the legitimate expenses of the hall — collections which, as he surmised, were little enough — barely enough to keep the various missions they had conducted in existence.
The one thing that really interested him in connection with his parents was the existence somewhere in the east — in a small city called Lycurgus, near Utica he understood — of an uncle, a brother of his father’s, who was plainly different from all this. That uncle — Samuel Griffiths by name — was rich. In one way and another, from casual remarks dropped by his parents, Clyde had heard references to certain things this particular uncle might do for a person, if he but would; references to the fact that he was a shrewd, hard business man; that he had a great house and a large factory in Lycurgus for the manufacture of collars and shirts, which employed not less than three hundred people; that he had a son who must be about Clyde’s age, and several daughters, two at least, all of whom must be, as Clyde imagined, living in luxury in Lycurgus. News of all this had apparently been brought west in some way by people who knew Asa and his father and brother. As Clyde pictured this uncle, he must be a kind of Croesus, living in ease and luxury there in the east, while here in the west — Kansas City — he and his parents and his brother and sisters were living in the same wretched and hum-drum, hand-to-mouth state that had always characterized their lives.
But for this — apart from anything he might do for himself, as he early began to see — there was no remedy. For at fifteen, and even a little earlier, Clyde began to understand that his education, as well as his sisters’ and brother’s, had been sadly neglected. And it would be rather hard for him to overcome this handicap, seeing that other boys and girls with more money and better homes were being trained for special kinds of work. How was one to get a start under such circumstances? Already when, at the age of thirteen, fourteen and fifteen, he began looking in the papers, which, being too worldly, had never been admitted to his home, he found that mostly skilled help was wanted, or boys to learn trades in which at the moment he was not very much interested. For true to the standard of the American youth, or the general American attitude toward life, he felt himself above the type of labor which was purely manual. What! Run a machine, lay bricks, learn to be a carpenter, or a plasterer, or plumber, when boys no better than himself were clerks and druggists’ assistants and bookkeepers and assistants in banks and real estate offices and such! Wasn’t it menial, as miserable as the life he had thus far been leading, to wear old clothes and get up so early in the morning and do all the commonplace things such people had to do?
For Clyde was as vain and proud as he was poor. He was one of those interesting individuals who looked upon himself as a thing apart — never quite wholly and indissolubly merged with the family of which he was a member, and never with any profound obligations to those who had been responsible for his coming into the world. On the contrary, he was inclined to study his parents, not too sharply or bitterly, but with a very fair grasp of their qualities and capabilities. And yet, with so much judgment in that direction, he was never quite able — at least not until he had reached his sixteenth year — to formulate any policy in regard to himself, and then only in a rather fumbling and tentative way.
Incidentally by that time the sex lure or appeal had begun to manifest itself and he was already intensely interested and troubled by the beauty of the opposite sex, its attractions for him and his attraction for it. And, naturally and coincidentally, the matter of his clothes and his physical appearance had begun to trouble him not a little — how he looked and how other boys looked. It was painful to him now to think that his clothes were not right; that he was not as handsome as he might be, not as interesting. What a wretched thing it was to be born poor and not to have any one to do anything for you and not to be able to do so very much for yourself!
Casual examination of himself in mirrors whenever he found them tended rather to assure him that he was not so bad-looking — a straight, well-cut nose, high white forehead, wavy, glossy, black hair, eyes that were black and rather melancholy at times. And yet the fact that his family was the unhappy thing that it was, that he had never had any real friends, and could not have any, as he saw it, because of the work and connection of his parents, was now tending more and more to induce a kind of mental depression or melancholia which promised not so well for his future. It served to make him rebellious and hence lethargic at times. Because of his parents, and in spite of his looks, which were really agreeable and more appealing than most, he was inclined to misinterpret the interested looks which were cast at him occasionally by young girls in very different walks of life from him — the contemptuous and yet rather inviting way in which they looked to see if he were interested or disinterested, brave or cowardly.
And yet, before he had ever earned any money at all, he had always told himself that if only he had a better collar, a nicer shirt, finer shoes, a good suit, a swell overcoat like some boys had! Oh, the fine clothes, the handsome homes, the watches, rings, pins that some boys sported; the dandies many youths of his years already were! Some parents of boys of his years actually gave them cars of their own to ride in. They were to be seen upon the principal streets of Kansas City flitting to and fro like flies. And pretty girls with them. And he had nothing. And he never had had.
And yet the world was so full of so many things to do — so many people were so happy and so successful. What was he to do? Which way to turn? What one thing to take up and master — something that would get him somewhere. He could not say. He did not know exactly. And these peculiar parents were in no way sufficiently equipped to advise him.
One of the things that served to darken Clyde’s mood just about the time when he was seeking some practical solution for himself, to say nothing of its profoundly disheartening effect on the Griffiths family as a whole, was the fact that his sister Esta, in whom he took no little interest (although they really had very little in common), ran away from home with an actor who happened to be playing in Kansas City and who took a passing fancy for her.
The truth in regard to Esta was that in spite of her guarded up- bringing, and the seeming religious and moral fervor which at times appeared to characterize her, she was just a sensuous, weak girl who did not by any means know yet what she thought. Despite the atmosphere in which she moved, essentially she was not of it. Like the large majority of those who profess and daily repeat the dogmas and creeds of the world, she had come into her practices and imagined attitude so insensibly from her earliest childhood on, that up to this time, and even later, she did not know the meaning of it all. For the necessity of thought had been obviated by advice and law, or “revealed” truth, and so long as other theories or situations and impulses of an external or even internal, character did not arise to clash with these, she was safe enough. Once they did, however, it was a foregone conclusion that her religious notions, not being grounded on any conviction or temperamental bias of her own, were not likely to withstand the shock. So that all the while, and not unlike her brother Clyde, her thoughts as well as her emotions were wandering here and there — to love, to comfort — to things which in the main had little, if anything, to do with any self-abnegating and self-immolating religious theory. Within her was a chemism of dreams which somehow counteracted all they had to say.
Yet she had neither Clyde’s force, nor, on the other hand, his resistance. She was in the main a drifter, with a vague yearning toward pretty dresses, hats, shoes, ribbons and the like, and super-imposed above this, the religious theory or notion that she should not be. There were the long bright streets of a morning and afternoon after school or of an evening. The charm of certain girls swinging along together, arms locked, secrets a-whispering, or that of boys, clownish, yet revealing through their bounding ridiculous animality the force and meaning of that chemistry and urge toward mating which lies back of all youthful thought and action. And in herself, as from time to time she observed lovers or flirtation-seekers who lingered at street corners or about doorways, and who looked at her in a longing and seeking way, there was a stirring, a nerve plasm palpitation that spoke loudly for all the seemingly material things of life, not for the thin pleasantries of heaven.
And the glances drilled her like an invisible ray, for she was pleasing to look at and was growing more attractive hourly. And the moods in others awakened responsive moods in her, those rearranging chemisms upon which all the morality or immorality of the world is based.
And then one day, as she was coming home from school, a youth of that plausible variety known as “masher” engaged her in conversation, largely because of a look and a mood which seemed to invite it. And there was little to stay her, for she was essentially yielding, if not amorous. Yet so great had been her home drilling as to the need of modesty, circumspection, purity and the like, that on this occasion at least there was no danger of any immediate lapse. Only this attack once made, others followed, were accepted, or not so quickly fled from, and by degrees, these served to break down that wall of reserve which her home training had served to erect. She became secretive and hid her ways from her parents.
Youths occasionally walked and talked with her in spite of herself. They demolished that excessive shyness which had been hers, and which had served to put others aside for a time at least. She wished for other contacts — dreamed of some bright, gay, wonderful love of some kind, with some one.
Finally, after a slow but vigorous internal growth of mood and desire, there came this actor, one of those vain, handsome, animal personalities, all clothes and airs, but no morals (no taste, no courtesy or real tenderness even), but of compelling magnetism, who was able within the space of one brief week and a few meetings to completely befuddle and enmesh her so that she was really his to do with as he wished. And the truth was that he scarcely cared for her at all. To him, dull as he was, she was just another girl — fairly pretty, obviously sensuous and inexperienced, a silly who could be taken by a few soft words — a show of seemingly sincere affection, talk of the opportunity of a broader, freer life on the road, in other great cities, as his wife.
And yet his words were those of a lover who would be true forever. All she had to do, as he explained to her, was to come away with him and be his bride, at once — now. Delay was so vain when two such as they had met. There was difficulty about marriage here, which he could not explain — it related to friends — but in St. Louis he had a preacher friend who would wed them. She was to have new and better clothes than she had ever known, delicious adventures, love. She would travel with him and see the great world. She would never need to trouble more about anything save him; and while it was truth to her — the verbal surety of a genuine passion — to him it was the most ancient and serviceable type of blarney, often used before and often successful.
In a single week then, at odd hours, morning, afternoon and night, this chemic witchery was accomplished.
Coming home rather late one Saturday night in April from a walk which he had taken about the business heart, in order to escape the regular Saturday night mission services, Clyde found his mother and father worried about the whereabouts of Esta. She had played and sung as usual at this meeting. And all had seemed all right with her. After the meeting she had gone to her room, saying that she was not feeling very well and was going to bed early. But by eleven o’clock, when Clyde returned, her mother had chanced to look into her room and discovered that she was not there nor anywhere about the place. A certain bareness in connection with the room — some trinkets and dresses removed, an old and familiar suitcase gone — had first attracted her mother’s attention. Then the house search proving that she was not there, Asa had gone outside to look up and down the street. She sometimes walked out alone, or sat or stood in front of the mission during its idle or closed hours.
This search revealing nothing, Clyde and he had walked to a corner, then along Missouri Avenue. No Esta. At twelve they returned and after that, naturally, the curiosity in regard to her grew momentarily sharper.
At first they assumed that she might have taken an unexplained walk somewhere, but as twelve-thirty, and finally one, and one-thirty, passed, and no Esta, they were about to notify the police, when Clyde, going into her room, saw a note pinned to the pillow of her small wooden bed — a missive that had escaped the eye of his mother. At once he went to it, curious and comprehending, for he had often wondered in what way, assuming that he ever wished to depart surreptitiously, he would notify his parents, for he knew they would never countenance his departure unless they were permitted to supervise it in every detail. And now here was Esta missing, and here was undoubtedly some such communication as he might have left. He picked it up, eager to read it, but at that moment his mother came into the room and, seeing it in his hand, exclaimed: “What’s that? A note? Is it from her?” He surrendered it and she unfolded it, reading it quickly. He noted that her strong broad face, always tanned a reddish brown, blanched as she turned away toward the outer room. Her biggish mouth was now set in a firm, straight line. Her large, strong hand shook the least bit as it held the small note aloft.
“Asa!” she called, and then tramping into the next room where he was, his frizzled grayish hair curling distractedly above his round head, she said: “Read this.”
Clyde, who had followed, saw him take it a little nervously in his pudgy hands, his lips, always weak and beginning to crinkle at the center with age, now working curiously. Any one who had known his life’s history would have said it was the expression, slightly emphasized, with which he had received most of the untoward blows of his life in the past.
“Tst! Tst! Tst!” was the only sound he made at first, a sucking sound of the tongue and palate — most weak and inadequate, it seemed to Clyde. Next there was another “Tst! Tst! Tst!”, his head beginning to shake from side to side. Then, “Now, what do you suppose could have caused her to do that?” Then he turned and gazed at his wife, who gazed blankly in return. Then, walking to and fro, his hands behind him, his short legs taking unconscious and queerly long steps, his head moving again, he gave vent to another ineffectual “Tst! Tst! Tst!”
Always the more impressive, Mrs. Griffiths now showed herself markedly different and more vital in this trying situation, a kind of irritation or dissatisfaction with life itself, along with an obvious physical distress, seeming to pass through her like a visible shadow. Once her husband had gotten up, she reached out and took the note, then merely glared at it again, her face set in hard yet stricken and disturbing lines. Her manner was that of one who is intensely disquieted and dissatisfied, one who fingers savagely at a material knot and yet cannot undo it, one who seeks restraint and freedom from complaint and yet who would complain bitterly, angrily. For behind her were all those years of religious work and faith, which somehow, in her poorly integrated conscience, seemed dimly to indicate that she should justly have been spared this. Where was her God, her Christ, at this hour when this obvious evil was being done? Why had He not acted for her? How was He to explain this? His Biblical promises! His perpetual guidance! His declared mercies!
In the face of so great a calamity, it was very hard for her, as Clyde could see, to get this straightened out, instantly at least. Although, as Clyde had come to know, it could be done eventually, of course. For in some blind, dualistic way both she and Asa insisted, as do all religionists, in disassociating God from harm and error and misery, while granting Him nevertheless supreme control. They would seek for something else — some malign, treacherous, deceiving power which, in the face of God’s omniscience and omnipotence, still beguiles and betrays — and find it eventually in the error and perverseness of the human heart, which God has made, yet which He does not control, because He does not want to control it.
At the moment, however, only hurt and rage were with her, and yet her lips did not twitch as did Asa’s, nor did her eyes show that profound distress which filled his. Instead she retreated a step and reexamined the letter, almost angrily, then said to Asa: “She’s run away with some one and she doesn’t say —” Then she stopped suddenly, remembering the presence of the children — Clyde, Julia, and Frank, all present and all gazing curiously, intently, unbelievingly. “Come in here,” she called to her husband, “I want to talk to you a minute. You children had better go on to bed. We’ll be out in a minute.”
With Asa then she retired quite precipitately to a small room back of the mission hall. They heard her click the electric bulb. Then their voices were heard in low converse, while Clyde and Julia and Frank looked at each other, although Frank, being so young — only ten — could scarcely be said to have comprehended fully. Even Julia hardly gathered the full import of it. But Clyde, because of his larger contact with life and his mother’s statement (“She’s run away with some one”), understood well enough. Esta had tired of all this, as had he. Perhaps there was some one, like one of those dandies whom he saw on the streets with the prettiest girls, with whom she had gone. But where? And what was he like? That note told something, and yet his mother had not let him see it. She had taken it away too quickly. If only he had looked first, silently and to himself!
“Do you suppose she’s run away for good?” he asked Julia dubiously, the while his parents were out of the room, Julia herself looking so blank and strange.
“How should I know?” she replied a little irritably, troubled by her parents’ distress and this secretiveness, as well as Esta’s action. “She never said anything to me. I should think she’d be ashamed of herself if she has.”
Julia, being colder emotionally than either Esta or Clyde, was more considerate of her parents in a conventional way, and hence sorrier. True, she did not quite gather what it meant, but she suspected something, for she had talked occasionally with girls, but in a very guarded and conservative way. Now, however, it was more the way in which Esta had chosen to leave, deserting her parents and her brothers and herself, that caused her to be angry with her, for why should she go and do anything which would distress her parents in this dreadful fashion. It was dreadful. The air was thick with misery.
And as his parents talked in their little room, Clyde brooded too, for he was intensely curious about life now. What was it Esta had really done? Was it, as he feared and thought, one of those dreadful runaway or sexually disagreeable affairs which the boys on the streets and at school were always slyly talking about? How shameful, if that were true! She might never come back. She had gone with some man. There was something wrong about that, no doubt, for a girl, anyhow, for all he had ever heard was that all decent contacts between boys and girls, men and women, led to but one thing — marriage. And now Esta, in addition to their other troubles, had gone and done this. Certainly this home life of theirs was pretty dark now, and it would be darker instead of brighter because of this.
Presently the parents came out, and then Mrs. Griffiths’ face, if still set and constrained, was somehow a little different, less savage perhaps, more hopelessly resigned.
“Esta’s seen fit to leave us, for a little while, anyhow,” was all she said at first, seeing the children waiting curiously. “Now, you’re not to worry about her at all, or think any more about it. She’ll come back after a while, I’m sure. She has chosen to go her own way, for a time, for some reason. The Lord’s will be done.” (“Blessed be the name of the Lord!” interpolated Asa.) “I thought she was happy here with us, but apparently she wasn’t. She must see something of the world for herself, I suppose.” (Here Asa put in another Tst! Tst! Tst!) “But we mustn’t harbor hard thoughts. That won’t do any good now — only thoughts of love and kindness.” Yet she said this with a kind of sternness that somehow belied it — a click of the voice, as it were. “We can only hope that she will soon see how foolish she has been, and unthinking, and come back. She can’t prosper on the course she’s going now. It isn’t the Lord’s way or will. She’s too young and she’s made a mistake. But we can forgive her. We must. Our hearts must be kept open, soft and tender.” She talked as though she were addressing a meeting, but with a hard, sad, frozen face and voice. “Now, all of you go to bed. We can only pray now, and hope, morning, noon and night, that no evil will befall her. I wish she hadn’t done that,” she added, quite out of keeping with the rest of her statement and really not thinking of the children as present at all — just of Esta.
Such a father, as Clyde often thought, afterwards.
Apart from his own misery, he seemed only to note and be impressed by the more significant misery of his wife. During all this, he had stood foolishly to one side — short, gray, frizzled, inadequate.
“Well, blessed be the name of the Lord,” he interpolated from time to time. “We must keep our hearts open. Yes, we mustn’t judge. We must only hope for the best. Yes, yes! Praise the Lord — we must praise the Lord! Amen! Oh, yes! Tst! Tst! Tst!”
“If any one asks where she is,” continued Mrs. Griffiths after a time, quite ignoring her spouse and addressing the children, who had drawn near her, “we will say that she has gone on a visit to some of my relatives back in Tonawanda. That won’t be the truth, exactly, but then we don’t know where she is or what the truth is — and she may come back. So we must not say or do anything that will injure her until we know.”
“Yes, praise the Lord!” called Asa, feebly.
“So if any one should inquire at any time, until we know, we will say that.”
“Sure,” put in Clyde, helpfully, and Julia added, “All right.”
Mrs. Griffiths paused and looked firmly and yet apologetically at her children. Asa, for his part, emitted another “Tst! Tst! Tst!” and then the children were waved to bed.
At that, Clyde, who really wanted to know what Esta’s letter had said, but was convinced from long experience that his mother would not let him know unless she chose, returned to his room again, for he was tired. Why didn’t they search more if there was hope of finding her? Where was she now — at this minute? On some train somewhere? Evidently she didn’t want to be found. She was probably dissatisfied, just as he was. Here he was, thinking so recently of going away somewhere himself, wondering how the family would take it, and now she had gone before him. How would that affect his point of view and action in the future? Truly, in spite of his father’s and mother’s misery, he could not see that her going was such a calamity, not from the GOING point of view, at any rate. It was only another something which hinted that things were not right here. Mission work was nothing. All this religious emotion and talk was not so much either. It hadn’t saved Esta. Evidently, like himself, she didn’t believe so much in it, either.
The effect of this particular conclusion was to cause Clyde to think harder than ever about himself. And the principal result of his thinking was that he must do something for himself and soon. Up to this time the best he had been able to do was to work at such odd jobs as befall all boys between their twelfth and fifteenth years: assisting a man who had a paper route during the summer months of one year, working in the basement of a five-and-ten-cent store all one summer long, and on Saturdays, for a period during the winter, opening boxes and unpacking goods, for which he received the munificent sum of five dollars a week, a sum which at the time seemed almost a fortune. He felt himself rich and, in the face of the opposition of his parents, who were opposed to the theater and motion pictures also, as being not only worldly, but sinful, he could occasionally go to one or another of those — in the gallery — a form of diversion which he had to conceal from his parents. Yet that did not deter him. He felt that he had a right to go with his own money; also to take his younger brother Frank, who was glad enough to go with him and say nothing.
Later in the same year, wishing to get out of school because he already felt himself very much belated in the race, he secured a place as an assistant to a soda water clerk in one of the cheaper drug stores of the city, which adjoined a theater and enjoyed not a little patronage of this sort. A sign —“Boy Wanted”— since it was directly on his way to school, first interested him. Later, in conversation with the young man whose assistant he was to be, and from whom he was to learn the trade, assuming that he was sufficiently willing and facile, he gathered that if he mastered this art, he might make as much as fifteen and even eighteen dollars a week. It was rumored that Stroud’s at the corner of 14th and Baltimore streets paid that much to two of their clerks. The particular store to which he was applying paid only twelve, the standard salary of most places.
But to acquire this art, as he was now informed, required time and the friendly help of an expert. If he wished to come here and work for five to begin with — well, six, then, since his face fell — he might soon expect to know a great deal about the art of mixing sweet drinks and decorating a large variety of ice creams with liquid sweets, thus turning them into sundaes. For the time being apprenticeship meant washing and polishing all the machinery and implements of this particular counter, to say nothing of opening and sweeping out the store at so early an hour as seven-thirty, dusting, and delivering such orders as the owner of this drug store chose to send out by him. At such idle moments as his immediate superior — a Mr. Sieberling — twenty, dashing, self-confident, talkative, was too busy to fill all the orders, he might be called upon to mix such minor drinks — lemonades, Coca–Colas and the like — as the trade demanded.
Yet this interesting position, after due consultation with his mother, he decided to take. For one thing, it would provide him, as he suspected, with all the ice-cream sodas he desired, free — an advantage not to be disregarded. In the next place, as he saw it at the time, it was an open door to a trade — something which he lacked. Further, and not at all disadvantageously as he saw it, this store required his presence at night as late as twelve o’clock, with certain hours off during the day to compensate for this. And this took him out of his home at night — out of the ten- o’clock-boy class at last. They could not ask him to attend any meetings save on Sunday, and not even then, since he was supposed to work Sunday afternoons and evenings.
Next, the clerk who manipulated this particular soda fountain, quite regularly received passes from the manager of the theater next door, and into the lobby of which one door to the drug store gave — a most fascinating connection to Clyde. It seemed so interesting to be working for a drug store thus intimately connected with a theater.
And best of all, as Clyde now found to his pleasure, and yet despair at times, the place was visited, just before and after the show on matinee days, by bevies of girls, single and en suite, who sat at the counter and giggled and chattered and gave their hair and their complexions last perfecting touches before the mirror. And Clyde, callow and inexperienced in the ways of the world, and those of the opposite sex, was never weary of observing the beauty, the daring, the self-sufficiency and the sweetness of these, as he saw them. For the first time in his life, while he busied himself with washing glasses, filling the ice-cream and syrup containers, arranging the lemons and oranges in the trays, he had an almost uninterrupted opportunity of studying these girls at close range. The wonder of them! For the most part, they were so well-dressed and smart-looking — the rings, pins, furs, delightful hats, pretty shoes they wore. And so often he overheard them discussing such interesting things — parties, dances, dinners, the shows they had seen, the places in or near Kansas City to which they were soon going, the difference between the styles of this year and last, the fascination of certain actors and actresses — principally actors — who were now playing or soon coming to the city. And to this day, in his own home he had heard nothing of all this.
And very often one or another of these young beauties was accompanied by some male in evening suit, dress shirt, high hat, bow tie, white kid gloves and patent leather shoes, a costume which at that time Clyde felt to be the last word in all true distinction, beauty, gallantry and bliss. To be able to wear such a suit with such ease and air! To be able to talk to a girl after the manner and with the sang-froid of some of these gallants! what a true measure of achievement! No good-looking girl, as it then appeared to him, would have anything to do with him if he did not possess this standard of equipment. It was plainly necessary — the thing. And once he did attain it — was able to wear such clothes as these — well, then was he not well set upon the path that leads to all the blisses? All the joys of life would then most certainly be spread before him. The friendly smiles! The secret handclasps, maybe — an arm about the waist of some one or another — a kiss — a promise of marriage — and then, and then!
And all this as a revealing flash after all the years of walking through the streets with his father and mother to public prayer meeting, the sitting in chapel and listening to queer and nondescript individuals — depressing and disconcerting people — telling how Christ had saved them and what God had done for them. You bet he would get out of that now. He would work and save his money and be somebody. Decidedly this simple and yet idyllic compound of the commonplace had all the luster and wonder of a spiritual transfiguration, the true mirage of the lost and thirsting and seeking victim of the desert.
However, the trouble with this particular position, as time speedily proved, was that much as it might teach him of mixing drinks and how to eventually earn twelve dollars a week, it was no immediate solvent for the yearnings and ambitions that were already gnawing at his vitals. For Albert Sieberling, his immediate superior, was determined to keep as much of his knowledge, as well as the most pleasant parts of the tasks, to himself. And further he was quite at one with the druggist for whom they worked in thinking that Clyde, in addition to assisting him about the fountain, should run such errands as the druggist desired, which kept Clyde industriously employed for nearly all the hours he was on duty.
Consequently there was no immediate result to all this. Clyde could see no way to dressing better than he did. Worse, he was haunted by the fact that he had very little money and very few contacts and connections — so few that, outside his own home, he was lonely and not so very much less than lonely there. The flight of Esta had thrown a chill over the religious work there, and because, as yet, she had not returned — the family, as he now heard, was thinking of breaking up here and moving, for want of a better idea, to Denver, Colorado. But Clyde, by now, was convinced that he did not wish to accompany them. What was the good of it, he asked himself? There would be just another mission there, the same as this one.
He had always lived at home — in the rooms at the rear of the mission in Bickel Street, but he hated it. And since his eleventh year, during all of which time his family had been residing in Kansas City, he had been ashamed to bring boy friends to or near it. For that reason he had always avoided boy friends, and had walked and played very much alone — or with his brother and sisters.
But now that he was sixteen and old enough to make his own way, he ought to be getting out of this. And yet he was earning almost nothing — not enough to live on, if he were alone — and he had not as yet developed sufficient skill or courage to get anything better.
Nevertheless when his parents began to talk of moving to Denver, and suggested that he might secure work out there, never assuming for a moment that he would not want to go he began to throw out hints to the effect that it might he better if he did not. He liked Kansas City. What was the use of changing? He had a job now and he might get something better. But his parents, bethinking themselves of Esta and the fate that had overtaken her, were not a little dubious as to the outcome of such early adventuring on his part alone. Once they were away, where would he live? With whom? What sort of influence would enter his life, who would be at hand to aid and council and guide him in the straight and narrow path, as they had done? It was something to think about.
But spurred by this imminence of Denver, which now daily seemed to be drawing nearer, and the fact that not long after this Mr. Sieberling, owing to his too obvious gallantries in connection with the fair sex, lost his place in the drug store, and Clyde came by a new and bony and chill superior who did not seem to want him as an assistant, he decided to quit — not at once, but rather to see, on such errands as took him out of the store, if he could not find something else. Incidentally in so doing, looking here and there, he one day thought he would speak to the manager of the fountain which was connected with the leading drug store in the principal hotel of the city — the latter a great twelve-story affair, which represented, as he saw it, the quintessence of luxury and ease. Its windows were always so heavily curtained; the main entrance (he had never ventured to look beyond that) was a splendiferous combination of a glass and iron awning, coupled with a marble corridor lined with palms. Often he had passed here, wondering with boyish curiosity what the nature of the life of such a place might be. Before its doors, so many taxis and automobiles were always in waiting.
To-day, being driven by the necessity of doing something for himself, he entered the drug store which occupied the principal corner, facing 14th Street at Baltimore, and finding a girl cashier in a small glass cage near the door, asked of her who was in charge of the soda fountain. Interested by his tentative and uncertain manner, as well as his deep and rather appealing eyes, and instinctively judging that he was looking for something to do, she observed: “Why, Mr. Secor, there, the manager of the store.” She nodded in the direction of a short, meticulously dressed man of about thirty-five, who was arranging an especial display of toilet novelties on the top of a glass case. Clyde approached him, and being still very dubious as to how one went about getting anything in life, and finding him engrossed in what he was doing, stood first on one foot and then on the other, until at last, sensing some one was hovering about for something, the man turned: “Well?” he queried.
“You don’t happen to need a soda fountain helper, do you?” Clyde cast at him a glance that said as plain as anything could, “If you have any such place, I wish you would please give it to me. I need it.”
“No, no, no,” replied this individual, who was blond and vigorous and by nature a little irritable and contentious. He was about to turn away, but seeing a flicker of disappointment and depression pass over Clyde’s face, he turned and added, “Ever work in a place like this before?”
“No place as fine as this. No, sir,” replied Clyde, rather fancifully moved by all that was about him. “I’m working now down at Mr. Klinkle’s store at 7th and Brooklyn, but it isn’t anything like this one and I’d like to get something better if I could.”
“Uh,” went on his interviewer, rather pleased by the innocent tribute to the superiority of his store. “Well, that’s reasonable enough. But there isn’t anything here right now that I could offer you. We don’t make many changes. But if you’d like to be a bell- boy, I can tell you where you might get a place. They’re looking for an extra boy in the hotel inside there right now. The captain of the boys was telling me he was in need of one. I should think that would be as good as helping about a soda fountain, any day.”
Then seeing Clyde’s face suddenly brighten, he added: “But you mustn’t say that I sent you, because I don’t know you. Just ask for Mr. Squires inside there, under the stairs, and he can tell you all about it.”
At the mere mention of work in connection with so imposing an institution as the Green–Davidson, and the possibility of his getting it, Clyde first stared, felt himself tremble the least bit with excitement, then thanking his advisor for his kindness, went direct to a green-marbled doorway which opened from the rear of this drug-store into the lobby of the hotel. Once through it, he beheld a lobby, the like of which, for all his years but because of the timorous poverty that had restrained him from exploring such a world, was more arresting, quite, than anything he had seen before. It was all so lavish. Under his feet was a checkered black-and- white marble floor. Above him a coppered and stained and gilded ceiling. And supporting this, a veritable forest of black marble columns as highly polished as the floor — glassy smooth. And between the columns which ranged away toward three separate entrances, one right, one left and one directly forward toward Dalrymple Avenue — were lamps, statuary, rugs, palms, chairs, divans, tete-a-tetes — a prodigal display. In short it was compact, of all that gauche luxury of appointment which, as some one once sarcastically remarked, was intended to supply “exclusiveness to the masses.” Indeed, for an essential hotel in a great and successful American commercial city, it was almost too luxurious. Its rooms and hall and lobbies and restaurants were entirely too richly furnished, without the saving grace of either simplicity or necessity.
As Clyde stood, gazing about the lobby, he saw a large company of people — some women and children, but principally men as he could see — either walking or standing about and talking or idling in the chairs, side by side or alone. And in heavily draped and richly furnished alcoves where were writing-tables, newspaper files, a telegraph office, a haberdasher’s shop, and a florist’s stand, were other groups. There was a convention of dentists in the city, not a few of whom, with their wives and children, were gathered here; but to Clyde, who was not aware of this nor of the methods and meanings of conventions, this was the ordinary, everyday appearance of this hotel.
He gazed about in awe and amazement, then remembering the name of Squires, he began to look for him in his office “under the stairs.” To his right was a grand double-winged black-and-white staircase which swung in two separate flights and with wide, generous curves from the main floor to the one above. And between these great flights was evidently the office of the hotel, for there were many clerks there. But behind the nearest flight, and close to the wall through which he had come, was a tall desk, at which stood a young man of about his own age in a maroon uniform bright with many brass buttons. And on his head was a small, round, pill-box cap, which was cocked jauntily over one ear. He was busy making entries with a lead pencil in a book which lay open before him. Various other boys about his own age, and uniformed as he was, were seated upon a long bench near him, or were to be seen darting here and there, sometimes, returning to this one with a slip of paper or a key or note of some kind, and then seating themselves upon the bench to await another call apparently, which seemed to come swiftly enough. A telephone upon the small desk at which stood the uniformed youth was almost constantly buzzing, and after ascertaining what was wanted, this youth struck a small bell before him, or called “front,” to which the first boy on the bench, responded. Once called, they went hurrying up one or the other stairs or toward one of the several entrances or elevators, and almost invariably were to be seen escorting individuals whose bags and suitcases and overcoats and golf sticks they carried. There were others who disappeared and returned, carrying drinks on trays or some package or other, which they were taking to one of the rooms above. Plainly this was the work that he should be called upon to do, assuming that he would be so fortunate as to connect himself with such an institution as this.
And it was all so brisk and enlivening that he wished that he might be so fortunate as to secure a position here. But would he be? And where was Mr. Squires? He approached the youth at the small desk: “Do you know where I will find Mr. Squires?” he asked.
“Here he comes now,” replied the youth, looking up and examining Clyde with keen, gray eyes.
Clyde gazed in the direction indicated, and saw approaching a brisk and dapper and decidedly sophisticated-looking person of perhaps twenty-nine or thirty years of age. He was so very slender, keen, hatchet-faced and well-dressed that Clyde was not only impressed but overawed at once — a very shrewd and cunning-looking person. His nose was so long and thin, his eyes so sharp, his lips thin, and chin pointed.
“Did you see that tall, gray-haired man with the Scotch plaid shawl who went through here just now?” he paused to say to his assistant at the desk. The assistant nodded. “Well, they tell me that’s the Earl of Landreil. He just came in this morning with fourteen trunks and four servants. Can you beat it! He’s somebody in Scotland. That isn’t the name he travels under, though, I hear. He’s registered as Mr. Blunt. Can you beat that English stuff? They can certainly lay on the class, eh?”
“You said it!” replied his assistant deferentially.
He turned for the first time, glimpsing Clyde, but paying no attention to him. His assistant came to Clyde’s aid.
“That young fella there is waiting to see you,” he explained.
“You want to see me?” queried the captain of the bellhops, turning to Clyde, and observing his none-too-good clothes, at the same time making a comprehensive study of him.
“The gentleman in the drug store,” began Clyde, who did not quite like the looks of the man before him, but was determined to present himself as agreeably as possible, “was saying — that is, he said that I might ask you if there was any chance here for me as a bell- boy. I’m working now at Klinkle’s drug store at 7th and Brooklyn, as a helper, but I’d like to get out of that and he said you might — that is — he thought you had a place open now.” Clyde was so flustered and disturbed by the cool, examining eyes of the man before him that he could scarcely get his breath properly, and swallowed hard.
For the first time in his life, it occurred to him that if he wanted to get on he ought to insinuate himself into the good graces of people — do or say something that would make them like him. So now he contrived an eager, ingratiating smile, which he bestowed on Mr. Squires, and added: “If you’d like to give me a chance, I’d try very hard and I’d be very willing.”
The man before him merely looked at him coldly, but being the soul of craft and self-acquisitiveness in a petty way, and rather liking anybody who had the skill and the will to be diplomatic, he now put aside an impulse to shake his head negatively, and observed: “But you haven’t had any training in this work.”
“No, sir, but couldn’t I pick it up pretty quick if I tried hard?”
“Well, let me see,” observed the head of the bell-hops, scratching his head dubiously. “I haven’t any time to talk to you now. Come around Monday afternoon. I’ll see you then.” He turned on his heel and walked away.
Clyde, left alone in this fashion, and not knowing just what it meant, stared, wondering. Was it really true that he had been invited to come back on Monday? Could it be possible that — He turned and hurried out, thrilling from head to toe. The idea! He had asked this man for a place in the very finest hotel in Kansas City and he had asked him to come back and see him on Monday. Gee! what would that mean? Could it be possible that he would be admitted to such a grand world as this — and that so speedily? Could it really be?
The imaginative flights of Clyde in connection with all this — his dreams of what it might mean for him to be connected with so glorious an institution — can only be suggested. For his ideas of luxury were in the main so extreme and mistaken and gauche — mere wanderings of a repressed and unsatisfied fancy, which as yet had had nothing but imaginings to feed it.
He went back to his old duties at the drug-store — to his home after hours in order to eat and sleep — but now for the balance of this Friday and Saturday and Sunday and Monday until late in the day, he walked on air, really. His mind was not on what he was doing, and several times his superior at the drugstore had to remind him to “wake-up.” And after hours, instead of going directly home, he walked north to the corner of 14th and Baltimore, where stood this great hotel, and looked at it. There, at midnight even, before each of the three principal entrances — one facing each of three streets — was a doorman in a long maroon coat with many buttons and a high-rimmed and long-visored maroon cap. And inside, behind looped and fluted French silk curtains, were the still blazing lights, the a la carte dining-room and the American grill in the basement near one corner still open. And about them were many taxis and cars. And there was music always — from somewhere.
After surveying it all this Friday night and again on Saturday and Sunday morning, he returned on Monday afternoon at the suggestion of Mr. Squires and was greeted by that individual rather crustily, for by then he had all but forgotten him. But seeing that at the moment he was actually in need of help, and being satisfied that Clyde might be of service, he led him into his small office under the stair, where, with a very superior manner and much actual indifference, he proceeded to question him as to his parentage, where he lived, at what he had worked before and where, what his father did for a living — a poser that for Clyde, for he was proud and so ashamed to admit that his parents conducted a mission and preached on the streets. Instead he replied (which was true at times) that his father canvassed for a washing machine and wringer company — and on Sundays preached — a religious revelation, which was not at all displeasing to this master of boys who were inclined to be anything but home-loving and conservative. Could he bring a reference from where he now was? He could.
Mr. Squires proceeded to explain that this hotel was very strict. Too many boys, on account of the scenes and the show here, the contact made with undue luxury to which they were not accustomed — though these were not the words used by Mr. Squires — were inclined to lose their heads and go wrong. He was constantly being forced to discharge boys who, because they made a little extra money, didn’t know how to conduct themselves. He must have boys who were willing, civil, prompt, courteous to everybody. They must be clean and neat about their persons and clothes and show up promptly — on the dot — and in good condition for the work every day. And any boy who got to thinking that because he made a little money he could flirt with anybody or talk back, or go off on parties at night, and then not show up on time or too tired to be quick and bright, needn’t think that he would be here long. He would be fired, and that promptly. He would not tolerate any nonsense. That must be understood now, once and for all.
Clyde nodded assent often and interpolated a few eager “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs,” and assured him at the last that it was the furtherest thing from his thoughts and temperament to dream of any such high crimes and misdemeanors as he had outlined. Mr. Squires then proceeded to explain that this hotel only paid fifteen dollars a month and board — at the servant’s table in the basement — to any bell-boy at any time. But, and this information came as a most amazing revelation to Clyde, every guest for whom any of these boys did anything — carried a bag or delivered a pitcher of water or did anything — gave him a tip, and often quite a liberal one — a dime, fifteen cents, a quarter, sometimes more. And these tips, as Mr. Squires explained, taken all together, averaged from four to six dollars a day — not less and sometimes more — most amazing pay, as Clyde now realized. His heart gave an enormous bound and was near to suffocating him at the mere mention of so large a sum. From four to six dollars! Why, that was twenty-eight to forty-two dollars a week! He could scarcely believe it. And that in addition to the fifteen dollars a month and board. And there was no charge, as Mr. Squires now explained, for the handsome uniforms the boys wore. But it might not be worn or taken out of the place. His hours, as Mr. Squires now proceeded to explain, would be as follows: On Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, he was to work from six in the morning until noon, and then, with six hours off, from six in the evening until midnight. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, he need only work from noon until six, thus giving him each alternate afternoon or evening to himself. But all his meals were to be taken outside his working hours and he was to report promptly in uniform for line-up and inspection by his superior exactly ten minutes before the regular hours of his work began at each watch.
As for some other things which were in his mind at the time, Mr. Squires said nothing. There were others, as he knew, who would speak for him. Instead he went on to add, and then quite climactically for Clyde at that time, who had been sitting as one in a daze: “I suppose you are ready to go to work now, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir, yes, sir,” he replied.
“Very good!” Then he got up and opened the door which had shut them in. “Oscar,” he called to a boy seated at the head of the bell-boy bench, to which a tallish, rather oversized youth in a tight, neat-looking uniform responded with alacrity. “Take this young man here — Clyde Griffiths is your name, isn’t it? — up to the wardrobe on the twelfth and see if Jacobs can find a suit to fit. But if he can’t tell him to alter it by to-morrow. I think the one Silsbee wore ought to be about right for him.”
Then he turned to his assistant at the desk who was at the moment looking on. “I’m giving him a trial, anyhow,” he commented. “Have one of the boys coach him a little to-night or whenever he starts in. Go ahead, Oscar,” he called to the boy in charge of Clyde. “He’s green at this stuff, but I think he’ll do,” he added to his assistant, as Clyde and Oscar disappeared in the direction of one of the elevators. Then he walked off to have Clyde’s name entered upon the payroll.
In the meantime, Clyde, in tow of this new mentor, was listening to a line of information such as never previously had come to his ears anywhere.
“You needn’t be frightened, if you ain’t never worked at anything like dis before,” began this youth, whose last name was Hegglund as Clyde later learned, and who hailed from Jersey City, New Jersey, exotic lingo, gestures and all. He was tall, vigorous, sandy- haired, freckled, genial and voluble. They had entered upon an elevator labeled “employees.” “It ain’t so hard. I got my first job in Buffalo t’ree years ago and I never knowed a t’ing about it up to dat time. All you gotta do is to watch de udders an’ see how dey do, see. Yu get dat, do you?”
Clyde, whose education was not a little superior to that of his guide, commented quite sharply in his own mind on the use of such words as “knowed,” and “gotta”— also upon “t’ing,” “dat,” “udders,” and so on, but so grateful was he for any courtesy at this time that he was inclined to forgive his obviously kindly mentor anything for his geniality.
“Watch whoever’s doin’ anyt’ing, at first, see, till you git to know, see. Dat’s de way. When de bell rings, if you’re at de head of de bench, it’s your turn, see, an’ you jump up and go quick. Dey like you to be quick around here, see. An’ whenever you see any one come in de door or out of an elevator wit a bag, an’ you’re at de head of de bench, you jump, wedder de captain rings de bell or calls ‘front’ or not. Sometimes he’s busy or ain’t lookin’ an’ he wants you to do dat, see. Look sharp, cause if you don’t get no bags, you don’t get no tips, see. Everybody dat has a bag or anyt’ing has to have it carried for ’em, unless dey won’t let you have it, see.
“But be sure and wait somewhere near de desk for whoever comes in until dey sign up for a room,” he rattled on as they ascended in the elevator. “Most every one takes a room. Den de clerk’ll give you de key an’ after dat all you gotta do is to carry up de bags to de room. Den all you gotta do is to turn on de lights in de batroom and closet, if dere is one, so dey’ll know where dey are, see. An’ den raise de curtains in de day time or lower ’em at night, an’ see if dere’s towels in de room, so you can tell de maid if dere ain’t, and den if dey don’t give you no tip, you gotta go, only most times, unless you draw a stiff, all you gotta do is hang back a little — make a stall, see — fumble wit de door-key or try de transom, see. Den, if dey’re any good, dey’ll hand you a tip. If dey don’t, you’re out, dat’s all, see. You can’t even look as dough you was sore, dough — nottin’ like dat, see. Den you come down an’ unless dey wants ice-water or somepin, you’re troo, see. It’s back to de bench, quick. Dere ain’t much to it. Only you gotta be quick all de time, see, and not let any one get by you comin’ or goin’— dat’s de main t’ing.
“An’ after dey give you your uniform, an’ you go to work, don’t forgit to give de captain a dollar after every watch before you leave, see — two dollars on de day you has two watches, and a dollar on de day you has one, see? Dat’s de way it is here. We work togedder like dat, an’ you gotta do dat if you wanta hold your job. But dat’s all. After dat all de rest is yours.”
A part of his twenty-four or thirty-two dollars as he figured it was going glimmering, apparently — eleven or twelve all told — but what of it! Would there not be twelve or fifteen or even more left? And there were his meals and his uniform. Kind Heaven! What a realization of paradise! What a consummation of luxury!
Mr. Hegglund of Jersey City escorted him to the twelfth floor and into a room where they found on guard a wizened and grizzled little old man of doubtful age and temperament, who forthwith ouffitted Clyde with a suit that was so near a fit that, without further orders, it was not deemed necessary to alter it. And trying on various caps, there was one that fitted him — a thing that sat most rakishly over one ear — only, as Hegglund informed him, “You’ll have to get dat hair of yours cut. Better get it clipped behind. It’s too long.” And with that Clyde himself had been in mental agreement before he spoke. His hair certainly did not look right in the new cap. He hated it now. And going downstairs, and reporting to Mr. Whipple, Mr. Squires’ assistant, the latter had said: “Very well. It fits all right, does it? Well, then, you go on here at six. Report at five-thirty and be here in your uniform at five-forty-five for inspection.”
Whereupon Clyde, being advised by Hegglund to go then and there to get his uniform and take it to the dressing-room in the basement, and get his locker from the locker-man, he did so, and then hurried most nervously out — first to get a hair-cut and afterwards to report to his family on his great luck.
He was to be a bell-boy in the great Hotel Green–Davidson. He was to wear a uniform and a handsome one. He was to make — but he did not tell his mother at first what he was to make, truly — but more than eleven or twelve at first, anyhow, he guessed — he could not be sure. For now, all at once, he saw economic independence ahead for himself, if not for his family, and he did not care to complicate it with any claims which a confession as to his real salary would most certainly inspire. But he did say that he was to have his meals free — because that meant eating away from home, which was what he wished. And in addition he was to live and move always in the glorious atmosphere of this hotel — not to have to go home ever before twelve, if he did not wish — to have good clothes — interesting company, maybe — a good time, gee!
And as he hurried on about his various errands now, it occurred to him as a final and shrewd and delicious thought that he need not go home on such nights as he wished to go to a theater or anything like that. He could just stay down-town and say he had to work. And that with free meals and good clothes — think of that!
The mere thought of all this was so astonishing and entrancing that he could not bring himself to think of it too much. He must wait and see. He must wait and see just how much he would make here in this perfectly marvelous-marvelous realm.
And as conditions stood, the extraordinary economic and social inexperience of the Griffiths — Asa and Elvira — dovetailed all too neatly with his dreams. For neither Asa nor Elvira had the least knowledge of the actual character of the work upon which he was about to enter, scarcely any more than he did, or what it might mean to him morally, imaginatively, financially, or in any other way. For neither of them had ever stopped in a hotel above the fourth class in all their days. Neither one had ever eaten in a restaurant of a class that catered to other than individuals of their own low financial level. That there could be any other forms of work or contact than those involved in carrying the bags of guests to and from the door of a hotel to its office, and back again, for a boy of Clyde’s years and temperament, never occurred to them. And it was naively assumed by both that the pay for such work must of necessity be very small anywhere, say five or six dollars a week, and so actually below Clyde’s deserts and his years.
And in view of this, Mrs. Griffiths, who was more practical than her husband at all times, and who was intensely interested in Clyde’s economic welfare, as well as that of her other children, was actually wondering why Clyde should of a sudden become so enthusiastic about changing to this new situation, which, according to his own story, involved longer hours and not so very much more pay, if any. To be sure, he had already suggested that it might lead to some superior position in the hotel, some clerkship or other, but he did not know when that would be, and the other had promised rather definite fulfillment somewhat earlier — as to money, anyhow.
But seeing him rush in on Monday afternoon and announce that he had secured the place and that forthwith he must change his tie and collar and get his hair cut and go back and report, she felt better about it. For never before had she seen him so enthusiastic about anything, and it was something to have him more content with himself — not so moody, as he was at times.
Yet, the hours which he began to maintain now — from six in the morning until midnight — with only an occasional early return on such evenings as he chose to come home when he was not working — and when he troubled to explain that he had been let off a little early — together with a certain eager and restless manner — a desire to be out and away from his home at nearly all such moments as he was not in bed or dressing or undressing, puzzled his mother and Asa, also. The hotel! The hotel! He must always hurry off to the hotel, and all that he had to report was that he liked it ever so much, and that he was doing all right, he thought. It was nicer work than working around a soda fountain, and he might be making more money pretty soon — he couldn’t tell — but as for more than that he either wouldn’t or couldn’t say.
And all the time the Griffiths — father and mother — were feeling that because of the affair in connection with Esta, they should really be moving away from Kansas City — should go to Denver. And now more than ever, Clyde was insisting that he did not want to leave Kansas City. They might go, but he had a pretty good job now and wanted to stick to it. And if they left, he could get a room somewhere — and would be all right — a thought which did not appeal to them at all.
But in the meantime what an enormous change in Clyde’s life. Beginning with that first evening, when at 5:45, he appeared before Mr. Whipple, his immediate superior, and was approved — not only because of the fit of his new uniform, but for his general appearance — the world for him had changed entirely. Lined up with seven others in the servants’ hall, immediately behind the general offices in the lobby, and inspected by Mr. Whipple, the squad of eight marched at the stroke of six through a door that gave into the lobby on the other side of the staircase from where stood Mr. Whipple’s desk, then about and in front of the general registration office to the long bench on the other side. A Mr. Barnes, who alternated with Mr. Whipple, then took charge of the assistant captain’s desk, and the boys seated themselves — Clyde at the foot — only to be called swiftly and in turn to perform this, that and the other service — while the relieved squad of Mr. Whipple was led away into the rear servants’ hall as before, where they disbanded.
The bell on the room clerk’s desk had sounded and the first boy was going.
“Cling!” It sounded again and a second boy leaped to his feet.
“Front!”—“Center door!” called Mr. Barnes, and a third boy was skidding down the long marble floor toward that entrance to seize the bags of an incoming guest, whose white whiskers and youthful, bright tweed suit were visible to Clyde’s uninitiated eyes a hundred feet away. A mysterious and yet sacred vision — a tip!
“Front!” It was Mr. Barnes calling again. “See what 913 wants — ice-water, I guess.” And a fourth boy was gone.
Clyde, steadily moving up along the bench and adjoining Hegglund, who had been detailed to instruct him a little, was all eyes and ears and nerves. He was so tense that he could hardly breathe, and fidgeted and jerked until finally Hegglund exclaimed: “Now, don’t get excited. Just hold your horses will yuh? You’ll be all right. You’re jist like I was when I begun — all noives. But dat ain’t de way. Easy’s what you gotta be aroun’ here. An’ you wants to look as dough you wasn’t seein’ nobody nowhere — just lookin’ to what ya got before ya.”
“Front!” Mr. Barnes again. Clyde was scarcely able to keep his mind on what Hegglund was saying. “115 wants some writing paper and pens.” A fifth boy had gone.
“Where do you get writing paper and pens if they want ’em?” He pleaded of his imtructor, as one who was about to die might plead.
“Off’n de key desk, I toldja. He’s to de left over dere. He’ll give ’em to ya. An’ you gits ice-water in de hall we lined up in just a minute ago — at dat end over dere, see — you’ll see a little door. You gotta give dat guy in dere a dime oncet in a while or he’ll get sore.”
“Cling!” The room clerk’s bell. A sixth boy had gone without a word to supply some order in that direction.
“And now remember,” continued Hegglund, seeing that he himself was next, and cautioning him for the last time, “if dey wants drinks of any kind, you get ’em in de grill over dere off’n de dining-room. An’ be sure and git de names of de drinks straight or dey’ll git sore. An’ if it’s a room you’re showing, pull de shades down to- night and turn on de lights. An’ if it’s anyt’ing from de dinin’- room you gotta see de headwaiter — he gets de tip, see.”
“Front!” He was up and gone.
And Clyde was number one. And number four was already seating himself again by his side — but looking shrewdly around to see if anybody was wanted anywhere.
“Front!” It was Mr. Barnes. Clyde was up and before him, grateful that it was no one coming in with bags, but worried for fear it might be something that he would not understand or could not do quickly.
“See what 882 wants.” Clyde was off toward one of the two elevators marked, “employees,” the proper one to use, he thought, because he had been taken to the twelfth floor that way, but another boy stepping out from one of the fast passenger elevators cautioned him as to his mistake.
“Goin’ to a room?” he called. “Use the guest elevators. Them’s for the servants or anybody with bundles.”
Clyde hastened to cover his mistake. “Eight,” he called. There being no one else on the elevator with them, the Negro elevator boy in charge of the car saluted him at once.
“You’se new, ain’t you? I ain’t seen you around her befo’.”
“Yes, I just came on,” replied Clyde.
“Well, you won’t hate it here,” commented this youth in the most friendly way. “No one hates this house, I’ll say. Eight did you say?” He stopped the car and Clyde stepped out. He was too nervous to think to ask the direction and now began looking at room numbers, only to decide after a moment that he was in the wrong corridor. The soft brown carpet under his feet; the soft, cream- tinted walls; the snow-white bowl lights in the ceiling — all seemed to him parts of a perfection and a social superiority which was almost unbelievable — so remote from all that he had ever known.
And finally, finding 882, he knocked timidly and was greeted after a moment by a segment of a very stout and vigorous body in a blue and white striped union suit and a related segment of a round and florid head in which was set one eye and some wrinkles to one side of it.
“Here’s a dollar bill, son,” said the eye seemingly — and now a hand appeared holding a paper dollar. It was fat and red. “You go out to a haberdasher’s and get me a pair of garters — Boston Garters — silk — and hurry back.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, and took the dollar. The door closed and he found himself hustling along the hall toward the elevator, wondering what a haberdasher’s was. As old as he was — seventeen — the name was new to him. He had never even heard it before, or noticed it at least. If the man had said a “gents’ furnishing store,” he would have understood at once, but now here he was told to go to a haberdasher’s and he did not know what it was. A cold sweat burst out upon his forehead. His knees trembled. The devil! What would he do now? Could he ask any one, even Hegglund, and not seem —
He pushed the elevator button. The car began to descend. A haberdasher. A haberdasher. Suddenly a sane thought reached him. Supposing he didn’t know what a haberdasher was? After all the man wanted a pair of silk Boston garters. Where did one get silk Boston garters — at a store, of course, a place where they sold things for men. Certainly. A gents’ furnishing store. He would run out to a store. And on the way down, noting another friendly Negro in charge, he asked: “Do you know if there’s a gents’ furnishing store anywhere around here?”
“One in the building, captain, right outside the south lobby,” replied the Negro, and Clyde hurried there, greatly relieved. Yet he felt odd and strange in his close-fitting uniform and his peculiar hat. All the time he was troubled by the notion that his small, round, tight-fitting hat might fall off. And he kept pressing it furtively and yet firmly down. And bustling into the haberdasher’s, which was blazing with lights outside, he exclaimed, “I want to get a pair of Boston silk garters.”
“All right, son, here you are,” replied a sleek, short man with bright, bald head, pink face and gold-rimmed glasses. “For some one in the hotel, I presume? Well, we’ll make that seventy-five cents, and here’s a dime for you,” he remarked as he wrapped up the package and dropped the dollar in the cash register. “I always like to do the right thing by you boys in there because I know you come to me whenever you can.”
Clyde took the dime and the package, not knowing quite what to think. The garters must be seventy-five cents — he said so. Hence only twenty-five cents need to be returned to the man. Then the dime was his. And now, maybe — would the man really give him another tip?
He hurried back into the hotel and up to the elevators. The strains of a string orchestra somewhere were filling the lobby with delightful sounds. People were moving here and there — so well- dressed, so much at ease, so very different from most of the people in the streets or anywhere, as he saw it.
An elevator door flew open. Various guests entered. Then Clyde and another bell-boy who gave him an interested glance. At the sixth floor the boy departed. At the eighth Clyde and an old lady stepped forth. He hurried to the door of his guest and tapped. The man opened it, somewhat more fully dressed than before. He had on a pair of trousers and was shaving.
“Back, eh,” he called.
“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, handing him the package and change. “He said it was seventy-five cents.”
“He’s a damned robber, but you can keep the change, just the same,” he replied, handing him the quarter and closing the door. Clyde stood there, quite spellbound for the fraction of a second. “Thirty-five cents”— he thought —“thirty-five cents.” And for one little short errand. Could that really be the way things went here? It couldn’t be, really. It wasn’t possible — not always.
And then, his feet sinking in the soft nap of the carpet, his hand in one pocket clutching the money, he felt as if he could squeal or laugh out loud. Why, thirty-five cents — and for a little service like that. This man had given him a quarter and the other a dime and he hadn’t done anything at all.
He hurried from the car at the bottom — the strains of the orchestra once more fascinated him, the wonder of so well-dressed a throng thrilling him — and made his way to the bench from which he had first departed.
And following this he had been called to carry the three bags and two umbrellas of an aged farmer-like couple, who had engaged a parlor, bedroom and bath on the fifth floor. En route they kept looking at him, as he could see, but said nothing. Yet once in their room, and after he had promptly turned on the lights near the door, lowered the blinds and placed the bags upon the bag racks, the middle-aged and rather awkward husband — a decidedly solemn and bewhiskered person — studied him and finally observed: “Young fella, you seem to be a nice, brisk sort of boy — rather better than most we’ve seen so far, I must say.”
“I certainly don’t think that hotels are any place for boys,” chirped up the wife of his bosom — a large and rotund person, who by this time was busily employed inspecting an adjoining room. “I certainly wouldn’t want any of my boys to work in ’em — the way people act.”
“But here, young man,” went on the elder, laying off his overcoat and fishing in his trousers pocket. “You go down and get me three or four evening papers if there are that many and a pitcher of ice- water, and I’ll give you fifteen cents when you get back.”
“This hotel’s better’n the one in Omaha, Pa,” added the wife sententiously. “It’s got nicer carpets and curtains.”
And as green as Clyde was, he could not help smiling secretly. Openly, however, he preserved a masklike solemnity, seemingly effacing all facial evidence of thought, and took the change and went out. And in a few moments he was back with the ice-water and all the evening papers and departed smilingly with his fifteen cents.
But this, in itself, was but a beginning in so far as this particular evening was concerned, for he was scarcely seated upon the bench again, before he was called to room 529, only to be sent to the bar for drinks — two ginger ales and two syphons of soda — and this by a group of smartly-dressed young men and girls who were laughing and chattering in the room, one of whom opened the door just wide enough to instruct him as to what was wanted. But because of a mirror over the mantel, he could see the party and one pretty girl in a white suit and cap, sitting on the edge of a chair in which reclined a young man who had his arm about her.
Clyde stared, even while pretending not to. And in his state of mind, this sight was like looking through the gates of Paradise. Here were young fellows and girls in this room, not so much older than himself, laughing and talking and drinking even — not ice-cream sodas and the like, but such drinks no doubt as his mother and father were always speaking against as leading to destruction, and apparently nothing was thought of it.
He bustled down to the bar, and having secured the drinks and a charge slip, returned — and was paid — a dollar and a half for the drinks and a quarter for himself. And once more he had a glimpse of the appealing scene. Only now one of the couples was dancing to a tune sung and whistled by the other two.
But what interested him as much as the visits to and glimpses of individuals in the different rooms, was the moving panorama of the main lobby — the character of the clerks behind the main desk — room clerk, key clerk, mail clerk, cashier and assistant cashier. And the various stands about the place — flower stand, news stand, cigar stand, telegraph office, taxicab office, and all manned by individuals who seemed to him curiously filled with the atmosphere of this place. And then around and between all these walking or sitting were such imposing men and women, young men and girls all so fashionably dressed, all so ruddy and contented looking. And the cars or other vehicles in which some of them appeared about dinner time and later. It was possible for him to see them in the flare of the lights outside. The wraps, furs, and other belongings in which they appeared, or which were often carried by these other boys and himself across the great lobby and into the cars or the dining-room or the several elevators. And they were always of such gorgeous textures, as Clyde saw them. Such grandeur. This, then, most certainly was what it meant to be rich, to be a person of consequence in the world — to have money. It meant that you did what you pleased. That other people, like himself, waited upon you. That you possessed all of these luxuries. That you went how, where and when you pleased.
And so, of all the influences which might have come to Clyde at this time, either as an aid or an injury to his development, perhaps the most dangerous for him, considering his temperament, was this same Green–Davidson, than which no more materially affected or gaudy a realm could have been found anywhere between the two great American mountain ranges. Its darkened and cushioned tea-room, so somber and yet tinted so gayly with colored lights, was an ideal rendezvous, not only for such inexperienced and eager flappers of the period who were to be taken by a show of luxury, but also for those more experienced and perhaps a little faded beauties, who had a thought for their complexions and the advantages of dim and uncertain lights. Also, like most hotels of its kind, it was frequented by a certain type of eager and ambitious male of not certain age or station in life, who counted upon his appearance here at least once, if not twice a day, at certain brisk and interesting hours, to establish for himself the reputation of man-about-town, or rounder, or man of wealth, or taste, or attractiveness, or all.
And it was not long after Clyde had begun to work here that he was informed by these peculiar boys with whom he was associated, one or more of whom was constantly seated with him upon the “hop-bench,” as they called it, as to the evidence and presence even here — it was not long before various examples of the phenomena were pointed out to him — of a certain type of social pervert, morally disarranged and socially taboo, who sought to arrest and interest boys of their type, in order to come into some form of illicit relationship with them, which at first Clyde could not grasp. The mere thought of it made him ill. And yet some of these boys, as he was now informed — a certain youth in particular, who was not on the same watch with him at this time — were supposed to be of the mind that “fell for it,” as one of the other youths phrased it.
And the talk and the palaver that went on in the lobby and the grill, to say nothing of the restaurants and rooms, were sufficient to convince any inexperienced and none-too-discerning mind that the chief business of life for any one with a little money or social position was to attend a theater, a ball-game in season, or to dance, motor, entertain friends at dinner, or to travel to New York, Europe, Chicago, California. And there had been in the lives of most of these boys such a lack of anything that approached comfort or taste, let alone luxury, that not unlike Clyde, they were inclined to not only exaggerate the import of all that they saw, but to see in this sudden transition an opportunity to partake of it all. Who were these people with money, and what had they done that they should enjoy so much luxury, where others as good seemingly as themselves had nothing? And wherein did these latter differ so greatly from the successful? Clyde could not see. Yet these thoughts flashed through the minds of every one of these boys.
At the same time the admiration, to say nothing of the private overtures of a certain type of woman or girl, who inhibited perhaps by the social milieu in which she found herself, but having means, could invade such a region as this, and by wiles and smiles and the money she possessed, ingratiate herself into the favor of some of the more attractive of these young men here, was much commented upon.
Thus a youth named Ratterer — a hall-boy here — sitting beside him the very next afternoon, seeing a trim, well-formed blonde woman of about thirty enter with a small dog upon her arm, and much bedecked with furs, first nudged him and, with a faint motion of the head indicating her vicinity, whispered, “See her? There’s a swift one. I’ll tell you about her sometime when I have time. Gee, the things she don’t do!”
“What about her?” asked Clyde, keenly curious, for to him she seemed exceedingly beautiful, most fascinating.
“Oh, nothing, except she’s been in with about eight different men around here since I’ve been here. She fell for Doyle”— another hall-boy whom by this time Clyde had already observed as being the quintessence of Chesterfieldian grace and airs and looks, a youth to imitate —“for a while, but now she’s got some one else.”
“Really?” inquired Clyde, very much astonished and wondering if such luck would ever come to him.
“Surest thing you know,” went on Ratterer. “She’s a bird that way — never gets enough. Her husband, they tell me, has a big lumber business somewhere over in Kansas, but they don’t live together no more. She has one of the best suites on the sixth, but she ain’t in it half the time. The maid told me.”
This same Ratterer, who was short and stocky but good-looking and smiling, was so smooth and bland and generally agreeable that Clyde was instantly drawn to him and wished to know him better. And Ratterer reciprocated that feeling, for he had the notion that Clyde was innocent and inexperienced and that he would like to do some little thing for him if he could.
The conversation was interrupted by a service call, and never resumed about this particular woman, but the effect on Clyde was sharp. The woman was pleasing to look upon and exceedingly well- groomed, her skin clear, her eyes bright. Could what Ratterer had been telling him really be true? She was so pretty. He sat and gazed, a vision of something which he did not care to acknowledge even to himself tingling the roots of his hair.
And then the temperaments and the philosophy of these boys — Kinsella, short and thick and smooth-faced and a little dull, as Clyde saw it, but good-looking and virile, and reported to be a wizard at gambling, who, throughout the first three days at such times as other matters were not taking his attention, had been good enough to continue Hegglund’s instructions in part. He was a more suave, better spoken youth than Hegglund, though not so attractive as Ratterer, Clyde thought, without the latter’s sympathetic outlook, as Clyde saw it.
And again, there was Doyle — Eddie — whom Clyde found intensely interesting from the first, and of whom he was not a little jealous, because he was so very good-looking, so trim of figure, easy and graceful of gesture, and with so soft and pleasing a voice. He went about with an indescribable air which seemed to ingratiate him instantly with all with whom he came in contact — the clerks behind the counter no less than the strangers who entered and asked this or that question of him. His shoes and collar were so clean and trim, and his hair cut and brushed and oiled after a fashion which would have become a moving-picture actor. From the first Clyde was utterly fascinated by his taste in the matter of dress — the neatest of brown suits, caps, with ties and socks to match. He should wear a brown-belted coat just like that. He should have a brown cap. And a suit as well cut and attractive.
Similarly, a not unrelated and yet different effect was produced by that same youth who had first introduced Clyde to the work here — Hegglund — who was one of the older and more experienced bell-hops, and of considerable influence with the others because of his genial and devil-may-care attitude toward everything, outside the exact line of his hotel duties. Hegglund was neither as schooled nor as attractive as some of the others, yet by reason of a most avid and dynamic disposition — plus a liberality where money and pleasure were concerned, and a courage, strength and daring which neither Doyle nor Ratterer nor Kinsella could match — a strength and daring almost entirely divested of reason at times — he interested and charmed Clyde immensely. As he himself related to Clyde, after a time, he was the son of a Swedish journeyman baker who some years before in Jersey City had deserted his mother and left her to make her way as best she could. In consequence neither Oscar nor his sister Martha had had any too much education or decent social experience of any kind. On the contrary, at the age of fourteen he had left Jersey City in a box car and had been making his way ever since as best he could. And like Clyde, also, he was insanely eager for all the pleasures which he had imagined he saw swirling around him, and was for prosecuting adventures in every direction, lacking, however, the nervous fear of consequence which characterized Clyde. Also he had a friend, a youth by the name of Sparser, somewhat older than himself, who was chauffeur to a wealthy citizen of Kansas City, and who occasionally managed to purloin a car and so accommodate Hegglund in the matter of brief outings here and there; which courtesy, unconventional and dishonest though it might be, still caused Hegglund to feel that he was a wonderful fellow and of much more importance than some of these others, and to lend him in their eyes a luster which had little of the reality which it suggested to them.
Not being as attractive as Doyle, it was not so easy for him to win the attention of girls, and those he did succeed in interesting were not of the same charm or import by any means. Yet he was inordinately proud of such contacts as he could effect and not a little given to boasting in regard to them, a thing which Clyde took with more faith than would most, being of less experience. For this reason Hegglund liked Clyde, almost from the very first, sensing in him perhaps a pleased and willing auditor.
So, finding Clyde on the bench beside him from time to time, he had proceeded to continue his instructions. Kansas City was a fine place to be if you knew how to live. He had worked in other cities — Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis — before he came here, but he had not liked any of them any better, principally — which was a fact which he did not trouble to point out at the time — because he had not done as well in those places as he had here. He had been a dishwasher, car-cleaner, plumber’s helper and several other things before finally, in Buffalo, he had been inducted into the hotel business. And then a youth, working there, but who was now no longer here, had persuaded him to come on to Kansas City. But here:
“Say — de tips in dis hotel is as big as you’ll git anywhere, I know dat. An’ what’s more, dey’s nice people workin’ here. You do your bit by dem and dey’ll do right by you. I been here now over a year an’ I ain’t got no complaint. Dat guy Squires is all right if you don’t cause him no trouble. He’s hard, but he’s got to look out for hisself, too — dat’s natural. But he don’t fire nobody unless he’s got a reason. I know dat, too. And as for de rest dere’s no trouble. An’ when your work’s troo, your time’s your own. Dese fellows here are good sports, all o’ dem. Dey’re no four-flushers an’ no tightwads, eider. Whenever dere’s anyting on — a good time or sumpin’ like dat, dey’re on — nearly all of ’em. An’ dey don’t mooch or grouch in case tings don’t work out right, neider. I know dat, cause I been wit ’em now, lots o’ times.”
He gave Clyde the impression that these youths were all the best of friends — close — all but Doyle, who was a little standoffish, but not coldly so. “He’s got too many women chasin’ him, dat’s all.” Also that they went here and there together on occasion — to a dance hall, a dinner, a certain gambling joint down near the river, a certain pleasure resort —“Kate Sweeney’s”— where were some peaches of girls — and so on and so forth, a world of such information as had never previously been poured into Clyde’s ear, and that set him meditating, dreaming, doubting, worrying and questioning as to the wisdom, charm, delight to be found in all this — also the permissibility of it in so far as he was concerned. For had he not been otherwise instructed in regard to all this all his life long? There was a great thrill and yet a great question involved in all to which he was now listening so attentively.
Again there was Thomas Ratterer, who was of a type which at first glance, one would have said, could scarcely prove either inimical or dangerous to any of the others. He was not more than five feet four, plump, with black hair and olive skin, and with an eye that was as limpid as water and as genial as could be. He, too, as Clyde learned after a time, was of a nondescript family, and so had profited by no social or financial advantages of any kind. But he had a way, and was liked by all of these youths — so much so that he was consulted about nearly everything. A native of Wichita, recently moved to Kansas City, he and his sister were the principal support of a widowed mother. During their earlier and formative years, both had seen their very good-natured and sympathetic mother, of whom they were honestly fond, spurned and abused by a faithless husband. There had been times when they were quite without food. On more than one occasion they had been ejected for non-payment of rent. None too continuously Tommy and his sister had been maintained in various public schools. Finally, at the age of fourteen he had decamped to Kansas City, where he had secured different odd jobs, until he succeeded in connecting himself with the Green–Davidson, and was later joined by his mother and sister who had removed from Wichita to Kansas City to be with him.
But even more than by the luxury of the hotel or these youths, whom swiftly and yet surely he was beginning to decipher, Clyde was impressed by the downpour of small change that was tumbling in upon him and making a small lump in his right-hand pants pocket — dimes, nickels, quarters and half-dollars even, which increased and increased even on the first day until by nine o’clock he already had over four dollars in his pocket, and by twelve, at which hour he went off duty, he had over six and a half — as much as previously he had earned in a week.
And of all this, as he then knew, he need only hand Mr. Squires one — no more, Hegglund had said — and the rest, five dollars and a half, for one evening’s interesting — yes, delightful and fascinating — work, belonged to himself. He could scarcely believe it. It seemed fantastic, Aladdinish, really. Nevertheless, at twelve, exactly, of that first day a gong had sounded somewhere — a shuffle of feet had been heard and three boys had appeared — one to take Barnes’ place at the desk, the other two to answer calls. And at the command of Barnes, the eight who were present were ordered to rise, right dress and march away. And in the hall outside, and just as he was leaving, Clyde approached Mr. Squires and handed him a dollar in silver. “That’s right,” Mr. Squires remarked. No more. Then, Clyde, along with the others, descended to his locker, changed his clothes and walked out into the darkened streets, a sense of luck and a sense of responsibility as to future luck so thrilling him as to make him rather tremulous — giddy, even.
To think that now, at last, he actually had such a place. To think that he could earn this much every day, maybe. He began to walk toward his home, his first thought being that he must sleep well and so be fit for his duties in the morning. But thinking that he would not need to return to the hotel before 11:30 the next day, he wandered into an all-night beanery to have a cup of coffee and some pie. And now all he was thinking was that he would only need to work from noon until six, when he should be free until the following morning at six. And then he would make more money. A lot of it to spend on himself.
The thing that most interested Clyde at first was how, if at all, he was to keep the major portion of all this money he was making for himself. For ever since he had been working and earning money, it had been assumed that he would contribute a fair portion of all that he received — at least three-fourths of the smaller salaries he had received up to this time — toward the upkeep of the home. But now, if he announced that he was receiving at least twenty-five dollars a week and more — and this entirely apart from the salary of fifteen a month and board — his parents would assuredly expect him to pay ten or twelve.
But so long had he been haunted by the desire to make himself as attractive looking as any other well-dressed boy that, now that he had the opportunity, he could not resist the temptation to equip himself first and as speedily as possible. Accordingly, he decided to say to his mother that all of the tips he received aggregated no more than a dollar a day. And, in order to give himself greater freedom of action in the matter of disposing of his spare time, he announced that frequently, in addition to the long hours demanded of him every other day, he was expected to take the place of other boys who were sick or set to doing other things. And also, he explained that the management demanded of all boys that they look well outside as well as inside the hotel. He could not long be seen coming to the hotel in the clothes that he now wore. Mr. Squires, he said, had hinted as much. But, as if to soften the blow, one of the boys at the hotel had told him of a place where he could procure quite all the things that he needed on time.
And so unsophisticated was his mother in these matters that she believed him.
But that was not all. He was now daily in contact with a type of youth who, because of his larger experience with the world and with the luxuries and vices of such a life as this, had already been inducted into certain forms of libertinism and vice even which up to this time were entirely foreign to Clyde’s knowledge and set him agape with wonder and at first with even a timorous distaste. Thus, as Hegglund had pointed out, a certain percentage of this group, of which Clyde was now one, made common cause in connection with quite regular adventures which usually followed their monthly pay night. These adventures, according to their moods and their cash at the time, led them usually either to one of two rather famous and not too respectable all-night restaurants. In groups, as he gathered by degrees from hearing them talk, they were pleased to indulge in occasional late showy suppers with drinks, after which they were wont to go to either some flashy dance hall of the downtown section to pick up a girl, or that failing as a source of group interest, to visit some notorious — or as they would have deemed it reputed — brothel, very frequently camouflaged as a boarding house, where for much less than the amount of cash in their possession they could, as they often boasted, “have any girl in the house.” And here, of course, because of their known youth, ignorance, liberality, and uniform geniality and good looks, they were made much of, as a rule, being made most welcome by the various madames and girls of these places who sought, for commercial reasons of course, to interest them to come again.
And so starved had been Clyde’s life up to this time and so eager was he for almost any form of pleasure, that from the first he listened with all too eager ears to any account of anything that spelled adventure or pleasure. Not that he approved of these types of adventures. As a matter of fact at first it offended and depressed him, seeing as he did that it ran counter to all he had heard and been told to believe these many years. Nevertheless so sharp a change and relief from the dreary and repressed work in which he had been brought up was it, that he could not help thinking of all this with an itch for the variety and color it seemed to suggest. He listened sympathetically and eagerly, even while at times he was mentally disapproving of what he heard. And seeing him so sympathetic and genial, first one and then another of these youths made overtures to him to go here, there or the other place — to a show, a restaurant, one of their homes, where a card game might be indulged in by two or three of them, or even to one of the shameless houses, contact with which Clyde at first resolutely refused. But by degrees, becoming familiar with Hegglund and Ratterer, both of whom he liked very much, and being invited by them to a joy-night supper — a “blow-out” as they termed it, at Frissell’s — he decided to go.
“There’s going to be another one of our montly blow-outs to-morrow night, Clyde, around at Frissell’s,” Ratterer had said to him. “Don’t you want to come along? You haven’t been yet.”
By this time, Clyde, having acclimated himself to this caloric atmosphere, was by no means as dubious as he was at first. For by now, in imitation of Doyle, whom he had studied most carefully and to great advantage, he had outfitted himself with a new brown suit, cap, overcoat, socks, stickpin and shoes as near like those of his mentor as possible. And the costume became him well — excellently well — so much so that he was far more attractive than he had ever been in his life, and now, not only his parents, but his younger brother and sister, were not a little astonished and even amazed by the change.
How could Clyde have come by all this grandeur so speedily? How much could all this that he wore now have cost? Was he not hypothecating more of his future earnings for this temporary grandeur than was really wise? He might need it in the future. The other children needed things, too. And was the moral and spiritual atmosphere of a place that made him work such long hours and kept him out so late every day, and for so little pay, just the place to work?
To all of which, he had replied, rather artfully for him, that it was all for the best, he was not working too hard. His clothes were not too fine, by any means — his mother should see some of the other boys. He was not spending too much money. And, anyhow, he had a long while in which to pay for all he had bought.
But now, as to this supper. That was a different matter, even to him. How, he asked himself, in case the thing lasted until very late as was expected, could he explain to his mother and father his remaining out so very late. Ratterer had said it might last until three or four, anyhow, although he might go, of course, any time, but how would that look, deserting the crowd? And yet hang it all, most of them did not live at home as he did, or if they did like Ratterer, they had parents who didn’t mind what they did. Still, a late supper like that — was it wise? All these boys drank and thought nothing of it — Hegglund, Ratterer, Kinsella, Shiel. It must be silly for him to think that there was so much danger in drinking a little, as they did on these occasions. On the other hand it was true that he need not drink unless he wanted to. He could go, and if anything was said at home, he would say that he had to work late. What difference did it make if he stayed out late once in a while? Wasn’t he a man now? Wasn’t he making more money than any one else in the family? And couldn’t he begin to do as he pleased?
He began to sense the delight of personal freedom — to sniff the air of personal and delicious romance — and he was not to be held back by any suggestion which his mother could now make.
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 breakin’ 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 role.
“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 bad-house, 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 negligees 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?”
Prepared as Clyde was to dislike all this, so steeped had he been in the moods and maxims antipathetic to anything of its kind, still so innately sensual and romantic was his own disposition and so starved where sex was concerned, that instead of being sickened, he was quite fascinated. The very fleshly sumptuousness of most of these figures, dull and unromantic as might be the brains that directed them, interested him for the time being. After all, here was beauty of a gross, fleshly character, revealed and purchasable. And there were no difficulties of mood or inhibitions to overcome in connection with any of these girls. One of them, a quite pretty brunette in a black and red costume with a band of red ribbon across her forehead, seemed to be decidedly at home with Higby, for already she was dancing with him in the back room to a jazz melody most irrationally hammered out upon the piano.
And Ratterer, to Clyde’s surprise, was already seated upon one of the gilt chairs and upon his knees was lounging a tall young girl with very light hair and blue eyes. And she was smoking a cigarette and tapping her gold slippers to the melody of the piano. It was really quite an amazing and Aladdin-like scene to him. And here was Hegglund, before whom was standing a German or Scandinavian type, plump and pretty, her arms akimbo and her feet wide apart. And she was asking — with an upward swell of the voice, as Clyde could hear: “You make love to me to-night?” But Hegglund, apparently not very much taken with these overtures, calmly shook his head, after which she went on to Kinsella.
And even as he was looking and thinking, a quite attractive blonde girl of not less than twenty-four, but who seemed younger to Clyde, drew up a chair beside him and seating herself, said: “Don’t you dance?” He shook his head nervously. “Want me to show you?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to try here,” he said.
“Oh, it’s easy,” she continued. “Come on!” But since he would not, though he was rather pleased with her for being agreeable to him, she added: “Well, how about something to drink then?”
“Sure,” he agreed, gallantly, and forthwith she signaled the young Negress who had returned as waitress, and in a moment a small table was put before them and a bottle of whisky with soda on the side — a sight that so astonished and troubled Clyde that he could scarcely speak. He had forty dollars in his pocket, and the cost of drinks here, as he had heard from the others, would not be less than two dollars each, but even so, think of him buying drinks for such a woman at such a price! And his mother and sisters and brother at home with scarcely the means to make ends meet. And yet he bought and paid for several, feeling all the while that he had let himself in for a terrifying bit of extravagance, if not an orgy, but now that he was here, he must go through with it.
And besides, as he now saw, this girl was really pretty. She had on a Delft blue evening gown of velvet, with slippers and stockings to match. In her ears were blue earrings and her neck and shoulders and arms were plump and smooth. The most disturbing thing about her was that her bodice was cut very low — he dared scarcely look at her there — and her cheeks and lips were painted — most assuredly the marks of the scarlet woman. Yet she did not seem very aggressive, in fact quite human, and she kept looking rather interestedly at his deep and dark and nervous eyes.
“You work over at the Green–Davidson, too, don’t you?” she asked.
“Yes,” replied Clyde trying to appear as if all this were not new to him — as if he had often been in just such a place as this, amid such scenes. “How did you know?”
“Oh, I know Oscar Hegglund,” she replied. “He comes around here once in a while. Is he a friend of yours?”
“Yes. That is, he works over at the hotel with me.”
“But you haven’t been here before.”
“No,” said Clyde, swiftly, and yet with a trace of inquiry in his own mood. Why should she say he hadn’t been here before?
“I thought you hadn’t. I’ve seen most of these other boys before, but I never saw you. You haven’t been working over at the hotel very long, have you?”
“No,” said Clyde, a little irritated by this, his eyebrows and the skin of his forehead rising and falling as he talked — a form of contraction and expansion that went on involuntarily whenever he was nervous or thought deeply. “What of it?”
“Oh, nothing. I just knew you hadn’t. You don’t look very much like these other boys — you look different.” She smiled oddly and rather ingratiatingly, a smile and a mood which Clyde failed to interpret.
“How different?” he inquired, solemnly and contentiously, taking up a glass and drinking from it.
“I’ll bet you one thing,” she went on, ignoring his inquiry entirely. “You don’t care for girls like me very much, do you?”
“Oh, yes, I do, too,” he said, evasively.
“Oh, no, you don’t either. I can tell. But I like you just the same. I like your eyes. You’re not like those other fellows. You’re more refined, kinda. I can tell. You don’t look like them.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Clyde, very much pleased and flattered, his forehead wrinkling and clearing as before. This girl was certainly not as bad as he thought, maybe. She was more intelligent — a little more refined than the others. Her costume was not so gross. And she hadn’t thrown herself upon him as had these others upon Hegglund, Higby, Kinsella and Ratterer. Nearly all of the group by now were seated upon chairs or divans about the room and upon their knees were girls. And in front of every couple was a little table with a bottle of whisky upon it.
“Look who’s drinking whisky!” called Kinsella to such of the others as would pay any attention to him, glancing in Clyde’s direction.
“Well, you needn’t be afraid of me,” went on the girl, while Clyde glanced at her arms and neck, at her too much revealed bosom, which quite chilled and yet enticed him. “I haven’t been so very long in this business. And I wouldn’t be here now if it hadn’t been for all the bad luck I’ve had. I’d rather live at home with my family if I could, only they wouldn’t have me, now.” She looked rather solemnly at the floor, thinking mainly of the little inexperienced dunce Clyde was — so raw and green. Also of the money she had seen him take out of his pocket — plainly quite a sum. Also how really good-looking he was, not handsome or vigorous, but pleasing. And he was thinking at the instant of Esta, as to where she had gone or was now. What might have befallen her — who could say? What might have been done to her? Had this girl, by any chance, ever had any such unfortunate experience as she had had? He felt a growing, if somewhat grandiose, sympathy, and looked at her as much as to say: “You poor thing.” Yet for the moment he would not trust himself to say anything or make any further inquiries.
“You fellows who come into a place like this always think so hard of everybody. I know how you are. But we’re not as bad as you think.”
Clyde’s brows knit and smoothed again. Perhaps she was not as bad as he thought. She was a low woman, no doubt — evil but pretty. In fact, as he looked about the room from time to time, none of the girls appealed to him more. And she thought him better than these other boys — more refined — she had detected that. The compliment stuck. Presently she was filling his glass for him and urging him to drink with her. Another group of young men arrived about then — and other girls coming out of the mysterious portals at the rear to greet them — Hegglund and Ratterer and Kinsella and Higby, as he saw, mysteriously disappeared up that back stairs that was heavily curtained from the general room. And as these others came in, this girl invited him to come and sit upon a divan in the back room where the lights were dimmer.
And now, seated here, she had drawn very close to him and touched his hands and finally linking an arm in his and pressing close to him, inquired if he didn’t want to see how pretty some of the rooms on the second floor were furnished. And seeing that he was quite alone now — not one of all the group with whom he had come around to observe him — and that this girl seemed to lean to him warmly and sympathetically, he allowed himself to be led up that curtained back stair and into a small pink and blue furnished room, while he kept saying to himself that this was an outrageous and dangerous proceeding on his part, and that it might well end in misery for him. He might contract some dreadful disease. She might charge him more than he could afford. He was afraid of her — himself — everything, really — quite nervous and almost dumb with his several fears and qualms. And yet he went, and, the door locked behind him, this interestingly well-rounded and graceful Venus turned the moment they were within and held him to her, then calmly, and before a tall mirror which revealed her fully to herself and him, began to disrobe.
The effect of this adventure on Clyde was such as might have been expected in connection with one so new and strange to such a world as this. In spite of all that deep and urgent curiosity and desire that had eventually led him to that place and caused him to yield, still, because of the moral precepts with which he had so long been familiar, and also because of the nervous esthetic inhibitions which were characteristic of him, he could not but look back upon all this as decidedly degrading and sinful. His parents were probably right when they preached that this was all low and shameful. And yet this whole adventure and the world in which it was laid, once it was all over, was lit with a kind of gross, pagan beauty or vulgar charm for him. And until other and more interesting things had partially effaced it, he could not help thinking back upon it with considerable interest and pleasure, even.
In addition he kept telling himself that now, having as much money as he was making, he could go and do about as he pleased. He need not go there any more if he did not want to, but he could go to other places that might not be as low, maybe — more refined. He wouldn’t want to go with a crowd like that again. He would rather have just one girl somewhere if he could find her — a girl such as those with whom he had seen Sieberling and Doyle associate. And so, despite all of his troublesome thoughts of the night before, he was thus won quickly over to this new source of pleasure if not its primary setting. He must find a free pagan girl of his own somewhere if he could, like Doyle, and spend his money on her. And he could scarcely wait until opportunity should provide him with the means of gratifying himself in this way.
But more interesting and more to his purpose at the time was the fact that both Hegglund and Ratterer, in spite of, or possibly because of, a secret sense of superiority which they detected in Clyde, were inclined to look upon him with no little interest and to court him and to include him among all their thoughts of affairs and pleasures. Indeed, shortly after his first adventure, Ratterer invited him to come to his home, where, as Clyde most quickly came to see, was a life very different from his own. At the Griffiths’ all was so solemn and reserved, the still moods of those who feel the pressure of dogma and conviction. In Ratterer’s home, the reverse of this was nearly true. The mother and sister with whom he lived, while not without some moral although no particular religious convictions, were inclined to view life with a great deal of generosity or, as a moralist would have seen it, laxity. There had never been any keen moral or characterful direction there at all. And so it was that Ratterer and his sister Louise, who was two years younger than himself, now did about as they pleased, and without thinking very much about it. But his sister chanced to be shrewd or individual enough not to wish to cast herself away on just any one.
The interesting part of all this was that Clyde, in spite of a certain strain of refinement which caused him to look askance at most of this, was still fascinated by the crude picture of life and liberty which it offered. Among such as these, at least, he could go, do, be as he had never gone or done or been before. And particularly was he pleased and enlightened — or rather dubiously liberated — in connection with his nervousness and uncertainty in regard to his charm or fascination for girls of his own years. For up to this very time, and in spite of his recent first visit to the erotic temple to which Hegglund and the others had led him, he was still convinced that he had no skill with or charm where girls were concerned. Their mere proximity or approach was sufficient to cause him to recede mentally, to chill or palpitate nervously, and to lose what little natural skill he had for conversation or poised banter such as other youths possessed. But now, in his visits to the home of Ratterer, as he soon discovered, he was to have ample opportunity to test whether this shyness and uncertainty could be overcome.
For it was a center for the friends of Ratterer and his sister, who were more or less of one mood in regard to life. Dancing, card- playing, love-making rather open and unashamed, went on there. Indeed, up to this time, Clyde would not have imagined that a parent like Mrs. Ratterer could have been as lackadaisical or indifferent as she was, apparently, to conduct and morals generally. He would not have imagined that any mother would have countenanced the easy camaraderie that existed between the sexes in Mrs. Ratterer’s home.
And very soon, because of several cordial invitations which were extended to him by Ratterer, he found himself part and parcel of this group — a group which from one point of view — the ideas held by its members, the rather wretched English they spoke — he looked down upon. From another point of view — the freedom they possessed, the zest with which they managed to contrive social activities and exchanges — he was drawn to them. Because, for the first time, these permitted him, if he chose, to have a girl of his own, if only he could summon the courage. And this, owing to the well- meant ministrations of Ratterer and his sister and their friends, he soon sought to accomplish. Indeed the thing began on the occasion of his first visit to the Ratterers.
Louise Ratterer worked in a dry-goods store and often came home a little late for dinner. On this occasion she did not appear until seven, and the eating of the family meal was postponed accordingly. In the meantime, two girl friends of Louise arrived to consult her in connection with something, and finding her delayed, and Ratterer and Clyde there, they made themselves at home, rather impressed and interested by Clyde and his new finery. For he, at once girl- hungry and girl-shy, held himself nervously aloof, a manifestation which they mistook for a conviction of superiority on his part. And in consequence, arrested by this, they determined to show how really interesting they were — vamp him — no less. And he found their crude briskness and effrontery very appealing — so much so that he was soon taken by the charms of one, a certain Hortense Briggs, who, like Louise, was nothing more than a crude shop girl in one of the large stores, but pretty and dark and self- appreciative. And yet from the first, he realized that she was not a little coarse and vulgar — a very long way removed from the type of girl he had been imagining in his dreams that he would like to have.
“Oh, hasn’t she come in yet?” announced Hortense, on first being admitted by Ratterer and seeing Clyde near one of the front windows, looking out. “Isn’t that too bad? Well, we’ll just have to wait a little bit if you don’t mind”— this last with a switch and a swagger that plainly said, who would mind having us around? And forthwith she began to primp and admire herself before a mirror which surmounted an ocher-colored mantelpiece that graced a fireless grate in the dining-room. And her friend, Greta Miller, added: “Oh, dear, yes. I hope you won’t make us go before she comes. We didn’t come to eat. We thought your dinner would be all over by now.”
“Where do you get that stuff —‘put you out’?” replied Ratterer cynically. “As though anybody could drive you two outa here if you didn’t want to go. Sit down and play the victrola or do anything you like. Dinner’ll soon be ready and Louise’ll be here any minute.” He returned to the dining-room to look at a paper which he had been reading, after pausing to introduce Clyde. And the latter, because of the looks and the airs of these two, felt suddenly as though he had been cast adrift upon a chartless sea in an open boat.
“Oh, don’t say eat to me!” exclaimed Greta Miller, who was surveying Clyde calmly as though she were debating with herself whether he was worth-while game or not, and deciding that he was: “With all the ice-cream and cake and pie and sandwiches we’ll have to eat yet to-night. We was just going to warn Louise not to fill up too much. Kittie Keane’s givin’ a birthday party, you know, Tom, and she’ll have a big cake an’ everythin’. You’re comin’ down, ain’t you, afterwards?” she concluded, with a thought of Clyde and his possible companionship in mind.
“I wasn’t thinkin’ of it,” calmly observed Ratterer. “Me and Clyde was thinkin’ of goin’ to a show after dinner.”
“Oh, how foolish,” put in Hortense Briggs, more to attract attention to herself and take it away from Greta than anything else. She was still in front of the mirror, but turned now to cast a fetching smile on all, particularly Clyde, for whom she fancied her friend might be angling, “When you could come along and dance. I call that silly.”
“Sure, dancing is all you three ever think of — you and Louise,” retorted Ratterer. “It’s a wonder you don’t give yourselves a rest once in a while. I’m on my feet all day an’ I like to sit down once in a while.” He could be most matter-of-fact at times.
“Oh, don’t say sit down to me,” commented Greta Miller with a lofty smile and a gliding, dancing motion of her left foot, “with all the dates we got ahead of us this week. Oh, gee!” Her eyes and eyebrows went up and she clasped her hands dramatically before her. “It’s just terrible, all the dancin’ we gotta do yet, this winter, don’t we, Hortense? Thursday night and Friday night and Saturday and Sunday nights.” She counted on her fingers most archly. “Oh, gee! It is terrible, really.” She gave Clyde an appealing, sympathy-seeking smile. “Guess where we were the other night, Tom. Louise and Ralph Thorpe and Hortense and Bert Gettler, me and Willie Bassick — out at Pegrain’s on Webster Avenue. Oh, an’ you oughta seen the crowd out there. Sam Shaffer and Tillie Burns was there. And we danced until four in the morning. I thought my knees would break. I ain’t been so tired in I don’t know when.”
“Oh, gee!” broke in Hortense, seizing her turn and lifting her arms dramatically. “I thought I never would get to work the next morning. I could just barely see the customers moving around. And, wasn’t my mother fussy! Gee! She hasn’t gotten over it yet. She don’t mind so much about Saturdays and Sundays, but all these week nights and when I have to get up the next morning at seven — gee — how she can pick!”
“An’ I don’t blame her, either,” commented Mrs. Ratterer, who was just then entering with a plate of potatoes and some bread. “You two’ll get sick and Louise, too, if you don’t get more rest. I keep tellin’ her she won’t be able to keep her place or stand it if she don’t get more sleep. But she don’t pay no more attention to me than Tom does, and that’s just none at all.”
“Oh, well, you can’t expect a fellow in my line to get in early always, Ma,” was all Ratterer said. And Hortense Briggs added: “Gee, I’d die if I had to stay in one night. You gotta have a little fun when you work all day.”
What an easy household, thought Clyde. How liberal and indifferent. And the sexy, gay way in which these two girls posed about. And their parents thought nothing of it, evidently. If only he could have a girl as pretty as this Hortense Briggs, with her small, sensuous mouth and her bright hard eyes.
“To bed twice a week early is all I need,” announced Greta Miller archly. “My father thinks I’m crazy, but more’n that would do me harm.” She laughed jestingly, and Clyde, in spite of the “we was’es” and “I seen’s,” was most vividly impressed. Here was youth and geniality and freedom and love of life.
And just then the front door opened and in hurried Louise Ratterer, a medium-sized, trim, vigorous little girl in a red-lined cape and a soft blue felt hat pulled over her eyes. Unlike her brother, she was brisk and vigorous and more lithe and as pretty as either of these others.
“Oh, look who’s here!” she exclaimed. “You two birds beat me home, didnja? Well, I got stuck to-night on account of some mix-up in my sales-book. And I had to go up to the cashier’s office. You bet it wasn’t my fault, though. They got my writin’ wrong,” then noting Clyde for the first time, she announced: “I bet I know who this is — Mr. Griffiths. Tom’s talked about you a lot. I wondered why he didn’t bring you around here before.” And Clyde, very much flattered, mumbled that he wished he had.
But the two visitors, after conferring with Louise in a small front bedroom to which they all retired, reappeared presently and because of strenuous invitations, which were really not needed, decided to remain. And Clyde, because of their presence, was now intensely wrought up and alert — eager to make a pleasing impression and to be received upon terms of friendship here. And these three girls, finding him attractive, were anxious to be agreeable to him, so much so that for the first time in his life they put him at his ease with the opposite sex and caused him to find his tongue.
“We was just going to warn you not to eat so much,” laughed Greta Miller, turning to Louise, “and now, see, we are all trying to eat again.” She laughed heartily. “And they’ll have pies and cakes and everythin’ at Kittie’s.”
“Oh, gee, and we’re supposed to dance, too, on top of all this. Well, heaven help me, is all I have to say,” put in Hortense.
The peculiar sweetness of her mouth, as he saw it, as well as the way she crinkled it when she smiled, caused Clyde to be quite beside himself with admiration and pleasure. She looked quite delightful — wonderful to him. Indeed her effect on him made him swallow quickly and half choke on the coffee he had just taken. He laughed and felt irrepressibly gay.
At that moment she turned on him and said: “See, what I’ve done to him now.”
“Oh, that ain’t all you’ve done to me,” exclaimed Clyde, suddenly being seized with an inspiration and a flow of thought and courage. Of a sudden, because of her effect on him, he felt bold and courageous, albeit a little foolish and added, “Say, I’m gettin’ kinda woozy with all the pretty faces I see around here.”
“Oh, gee, you don’t want to give yourself away that quick around here, Clyde,” cautioned Ratterer, genially. “These high-binders’ll be after you to make you take ’em wherever they want to go. You better not begin that way.” And, sure enough, Louise Ratterer, not to be abashed by what her brother had just said, observed: “You dance, don’t you, Mr. Griffiths?”
“No, I don’t,” replied Clyde, suddenly brought back to reality by this inquiry and regretting most violently the handicap this was likely to prove in this group. “But you bet I wish I did now,” he added gallantly and almost appealingly, looking first at Hortense and then at Greta Miller and Louise. But all pretended not to notice his preference, although Hortense titillated with her triumph. She was not convinced that she was so greatly taken with him, but it was something to triumph thus easily and handsomely over these others. And the others felt it. “Ain’t that too bad?” she commented, a little indifferently and superiorly now that she realized that she was his preference. “You might come along with us, you and Tom, if you did. There’s goin’ to be mostly dancing at Kittie’s.”
Clyde began to feel and look crushed at once. To think that this girl, to whom of all those here he was most drawn, could dismiss him and his dreams and desires thus easily, and all because he couldn’t dance. And his accursed home training was responsible for all this. He felt broken and cheated. What a boob he must seem not to be able to dance. And Louise Ratterer looked a little puzzled and indifferent, too. But Greta Miller, whom he liked less than Hortense, came to his rescue with: “Oh, it ain’t so hard to learn. I could show you in a few minutes after dinner if you wanted to. It’s only a few steps you have to know. And then you could go, anyhow, if you wanted to.”
Clyde was grateful and said so — determined to learn here or elsewhere at the first opportunity. Why hadn’t he gone to a dancing school before this, he asked himself. But the thing that pained him most was the seeming indifference of Hortense now that he had made it clear that he liked her. Perhaps it was that Bert Gettler, previously mentioned, with whom she had gone to the dance, who was making it impossible for him to interest her. So he was always to be a failure this way. Oh, gee!
But the moment the dinner was over and while the others were still talking, the first to put on a dance record and come over with hands extended was Hortense, who was determined not to be outdone by her rival in this way. She was not particularly interested or fascinated by Clyde, at least not to the extent of troubling about him as Greta did. But if her friend was going to attempt a conquest in this manner, was it not just as well to forestall her? And so, while Clyde misread her change of attitude to the extent of thinking that she liked him better than he had thought, she took him by the hands, thinking at the same time that he was too bashful. However, placing his right arm about her waist, his other clasped in hers at her shoulder, she directed his attention to her feet and his and began to illustrate the few primary movements of the dance. But so eager and grateful was he — almost intense and ridiculous — she did not like him very much, thought him a little unsophisticated and too young. At the same time, there was a charm about him which caused her to wish to assist him. And soon he was moving about with her quite easily — and afterwards with Greta and then Louise, but wishing always it was Hortense. And finally he was pronounced sufficiently skillful to go, if he would.
And now the thought of being near her, being able to dance with her again, drew him so greatly that, despite the fact that three youths, among them that same Bert Gettler, appeared on the scene to escort them, and although he and Ratterer had previously agreed to go to a theater together, he could not help showing how much he would prefer to follow those others — so much so that Ratterer finally agreed to abandon the theater idea. And soon they were off, Clyde grieving that he could not walk with Hortense, who was with Gettler, and hating his rival because of this; but still attempting to be civil to Louise and Greta, who bestowed sufficient attention on him to make him feel at ease. Ratterer, having noticed his extreme preference and being alone with him for a moment, said: “You better not get too stuck on that Hortense Briggs. I don’t think she’s on the level with anybody. She’s got that fellow Gettler and others. She’ll only work you an’ you might not get anything, either.”
But Clyde, in spite of this honest and well-meant caution, was not to be dissuaded. On sight, and because of the witchery of a smile, the magic and vigor of motion and youth, he was completely infatuated and would have given or done anything for an additional smile or glance or hand pressure. And that despite the fact that he was dealing with a girl who no more knew her own mind than a moth, and who was just reaching the stage where she was finding it convenient and profitable to use boys of her own years or a little older for whatever pleasures or clothes she desired.
The party proved nothing more than one of those ebullitions of the youthful mating period. The house of Kittie Keane was little more than a cottage in a poor street under bare December trees. But to Clyde, because of the passion for a pretty face that was suddenly lit in him, it had the color and the form and gayety of romance itself. And the young girls and boys that he met there — girls and boys of the Ratterer, Hegglund, Hortense stripe — were still of the very substance and texture of that energy, ease and forwardness which he would have given his soul to possess. And curiously enough, in spite of a certain nervousness on his part, he was by reason of his new companions made an integral part of the gayeties.
And on this occasion he was destined to view a type of girl and youth in action such as previously it had not been his fortune or misfortune, as you will, to see. There was, for instance, a type of sensual dancing which Louise and Hortense and Greta indulged in with the greatest nonchalance and assurance. At the same time, many of these youths carried whisky in a hip flask, from which they not only drank themselves, but gave others to drink — boys and girls indiscriminately.
And the general hilarity for this reason being not a little added to, they fell into more intimate relations — spooning with one and another — Hortense and Louise and Greta included. Also to quarreling at times. And it appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary, as Clyde saw, for one youth or another to embrace a girl behind a door, to hold her on his lap in a chair in some secluded corner, to lie with her on a sofa, whispering intimate and unquestionably welcome things to her. And although at no time did he espy Hortense doing this — still, as he saw, she did not hesitate to sit on the laps of various boys or to whisper with rivals behind doors. And this for a time so discouraged and at the same time incensed him that he felt he could not and would not have anything more to do with her — she was too cheap, vulgar, inconsiderate.
At the same time, having partaken of the various drinks offered him — so as not to seem less worldly wise than the others — until brought to a state of courage and daring not ordinarily characteristic of him, he ventured to half plead with and at the same time half reproach her for her too lax conduct.
“You’re a flirt, you are. You don’t care who you jolly, do you?” This as they were dancing together after one o’clock to the music of a youth named Wilkens, at the none too toneful piano. She was attempting to show him a new step in a genial and yet coquettish way, and with an amused, sensuous look.
“What do you mean, flirt? I don’t get you.”
“Oh, don’t you?” replied Clyde, a little crossly and still attempting to conceal his real mood by a deceptive smile. “I’ve heard about you. You jolly ’em all.”
“Oh, do I?” she replied quite irritably. “Well, I haven’t tried to jolly you very much, have I?”
“Well, now, don’t get mad,” he half pleaded and half scolded, fearing, perhaps, that he had ventured too far and might lose her entirely now. “I don’t mean anything by it. You don’t deny that you let a lot of these fellows make love to you. They seem to like you, anyway.”
“Oh, well, of course they like me, I guess. I can’t help that, can I?”
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” he blurted boastfully and passionately. “I could spend a lot more on you than they could. I got it.” He had been thinking only the moment before of fifty-five dollars in bills that snuggled comfortably in his pocket.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she retorted, not a little intrigued by this cash offer, as it were, and at the same time not a little set up in her mood by the fact that she could thus inflame nearly all youths in this way. She was really a little silly, very lightheaded, who was infatuated by her own charms and looked in every mirror, admiring her eyes, her hair, her neck, her hands, her figure, and practising a peculiarly fetching smile.
At the same time, she was not unaffected by the fact that Clyde was not a little attractive to look upon, although so very green. She liked to tease such beginners. He was a bit of a fool, as she saw him. But he was connected with the Green–Davidson, and he was well-dressed, and no doubt he had all the money he said and would spend it on her. Some of those whom she liked best did not have much money to spend.
“Lots of fellows with money would like to spend it on me.” She tossed her head and flicked her eyes and repeated her coyest smile.
At once Clyde’s countenance darkened. The witchery of her look was too much for him. The skin of his forehead crinkled and then smoothed out. His eyes burned lustfully and bitterly, his old resentment of life and deprivation showing. No doubt all she said was true. There were others who had more and would spend more. He was boasting and being ridiculous and she was laughing at him.
After a moment, he added, weakly, “I guess that’s right, too. But they couldn’t want you more than I do.”
The uncalculated honesty of it flattered her not a little. He wasn’t so bad after all. They were gracefully gliding about as the music continued.
“Oh, well, I don’t flirt everywhere like I do here. These fellows and girls all know each other. We’re always going around together. You mustn’t mind what you see here.”
She was lying artfully, but it was soothing to him none the less. “Gee, I’d give anything if you’d only be nice to me,” he pleaded, desperately and yet ecstatically. “I never saw a girl I’d rather have than you. You’re swell. I’m crazy about you. Why won’t you come out to dinner with me and let me take you to a show afterwards? Don’t you want to do that, tomorrow night or Sunday? Those are my two nights off. I work other nights.”
She hesitated at first, for even now she was not so sure that she wished to continue this contact. There was Gettler, to say nothing of several others, all jealous and attentive. Even though he spent money on her, she might not wish to bother with him. He was already too eager and he might become troublesome. At the same time, the natural coquetry of her nature would not permit her to relinquish him. He might fall into the hands of Greta or Louise. In consequence she finally arranged a meeting for the following Tuesday. But he could not come to the house, or take her home to- night — on account of her escort, Mr. Gettler. But on the following Tuesday, at six-thirty, near the Green–Davidson. And he assured her that they would dine first at Frissell’s, and then see “The Corsair,” a musical comedy at Libby’s, only two blocks away.
Now trivial as this contact may seem to some, it was of the utmost significance to Clyde. Up to this time he had never seen a girl with so much charm who would deign to look at him, or so he imagined. And now he had found one, and she was pretty and actually interested sufficiently to accompany him to dinner and to a show. It was true, perhaps, that she was a flirt, and not really sincere with any one, and that maybe at first he could not expect her to center her attentions on him, but who knew — who could tell?
And true to her promise on the following Tuesday she met him at the corner of 14th Street and Wyandotte, near the Green–Davidson. And so excited and flattered and enraptured was he that he could scarcely arrange his jumbled thoughts and emotions in any seemly way. But to show that he was worthy of her, he had made an almost exotic toilet — hair pomaded, a butterfly tie, new silk muffler and silk socks to emphasize his bright brown shoes, purchased especially for the occasion.
But once he had reencountered Hortense, whether all this was of any import to her he could not tell. For, after all, it was her own appearance, not his, that interested her. And what was more — a trick with her — she chose to keep him waiting until nearly seven o’clock, a delay which brought about in him the deepest dejection of spirit for the time being. For supposing, after all, in the interval, she had decided that she did not care for him and did not wish to see him any more. Well, then he would have to do without her, of course. But that would prove that he was not interesting to a girl as pretty as she was, despite all the nice clothes he was now able to wear and the money he could spend. He was determined that, girl or no girl, he would not have one who was not pretty. Ratterer and Hegglund did not seem to mind whether the girl they knew was attractive or not, but with him it was a passion. The thought of being content with one not so attractive almost nauseated him.
And yet here he was now, on the street corner in the dark — the flare of many signs and lights about, hundreds of pedestrians hurrying hither and thither, the thought of pleasurable intentions and engagements written upon the faces of many — and he, he alone, might have to turn and go somewhere else — eat alone, go to a theater alone, go home alone, and then to work again in the morning. He had just about concluded that he was a failure when out of the crowd, a little distance away, emerged the face and figure of Hortense. She was smartly dressed in a black velvet jacket with a reddish-brown collar and cuffs, and a bulgy, round tam of the same material with a red leather buckle on the side. And her cheeks and lips were rouged a little. And her eyes sparkled. And as usual she gave herself all the airs of one very well content with herself.
“Oh, hello, I’m late, ain’t I? I couldn’t help it. You see, I forgot I had another appointment with a fella, a friend of mine — gee, a peach of a boy, too, and it was only at six I remembered that I had the two dates. Well, I was in a mess then. So I had to do something about one of you. I was just about to call you up and make a date for another night, only I remembered you wouldn’t be at your place after six. Tom never is. And Charlie always is in his place till six-thirty, anyhow, sometimes later, and he’s a peach of a fella that way — never grouchy or nothing. And he was goin’ to take me to the theater and to dinner, too. He has charge of the cigar stand over here at the Orphia. So I called him up. Well, he didn’t like it so very much. But I told him I’d make it another night. Now, aintcha glad? Dontcha think I’m pretty nice to you, disappointin’ a good-lookin’ fella like Charlie for you?”
She had caught a glimpse of the disturbed and jealous and yet fearsome look in Clyde’s eyes as she talked of another. And the thought of making him jealous was a delight to her. She realized that he was very much smitten with her. So she tossed her head and smiled, falling into step with him as he moved up the street.
“You bet it was nice of you to come,” he forced himself to say, even though the reference to Charlie as a “peach of a fella” seemed to affect his throat and his heart at the same time. What chance had he to hold a girl who was so pretty and self-willed? “Gee, you look swell to-night,” he went on, forcing himself to talk and surprising himself a little with his ability to do so. “I like the way that hat looks on you, and your coat too.” He looked directly at her, his eyes lit with admiration, an eager yearning filling them. He would have liked to have kissed her — her pretty mouth — only he did not dare here, or anywhere as yet.
“I don’t wonder you have to turn down engagements. You’re pretty enough. Don’t you want some roses to wear?” They were passing a flower store at the moment and the sight of them put the thought of the gift in his mind. He had heard Hegglund say that women liked fellows who did things for them.
“Oh, sure, I would like some roses,” she replied, turning into the place. “Or maybe some of those violets. They look pretty. They go better with this jacket, I think.”
She was pleased to think that Clyde was sporty enough to think of flowers. Also that he was saying such nice things about her. At the same time she was convinced that he was a boy who had had little, if anything, to do with girls. And she preferred youths and men who were more experienced, not so easily flattered by her — not so easy to hold. Yet she could not help thinking that Clyde was a better type of boy or man than she was accustomed to — more refined. And for that reason, in spite of his gaucheness (in her eyes) she was inclined to tolerate him — to see how he would do.
“Well, these are pretty nifty,” she exclaimed, picking up a rather large bouquet of violets and pinning them on. “I think I’ll wear these.” And while Clyde paid for them, she posed before the mirror, adjusting them to her taste. At last, being satisfied as to their effect, she turned and exclaimed, “Well, I’m ready,” and took him by the arm.
Clyde, being not a little overawed by her spirit and mannerisms, was at a loss what else to say for the moment, but he need not have worried — her chief interest in life was herself.
“Gee, I tell you I had a swift week of it last week. Out every night until three. An’ Sunday until nearly morning. My, that was some rough party I was to last night, all right. Ever been down to Burkett’s at Gifford’s Ferry? Oh, a nifty place, all right, right over the Big Blue at 39th. Dancing in summer and you can skate outside when it’s frozen in winter or dance on the ice. An’ the niftiest little orchestra.”
Clyde watched the play of her mouth and the brightness of her eyes and the swiftness of her gestures without thinking so much of what she said — very little.
“Wallace Trone was along with us — gee, he’s a scream of a kid — and afterwards when we was sittin’ down to eat ice cream, he went out in the kitchen and blacked up an’ put on a waiter’s apron and coat and then comes back and serves us. That’s one funny boy. An’ he did all sorts of funny stuff with the dishes and spoons.” Clyde sighed because he was by no means as gifted as the gifted Trone.
“An’ then, Monday morning, when we all got back it was nearly four, and I had to get up again at seven. I was all in. I coulda chucked my job, and I woulda, only for the nice people down at the store and Mr. Beck. He’s the head of my department, you know, and say, how I do plague that poor man. I sure am hard on that store. One day I comes in late after lunch; one of the other girls punched the clock for me with my key, see, and he was out in the hall and he saw her, and he says to me afterwards, about two in the afternoon, ‘Say look here, Miss Briggs’ (he always calls me Miss Briggs, ‘cause I won’t let him call me nothing else. He’d try to get fresh if I did), ‘that loanin’ that key stuff don’t go. Cut that stuff out now. This ain’t no Follies.’ I had to laugh. He does get so sore at times at all of us. But I put him in his place just the same. He’s kinda soft on me, you know — he wouldn’t fire me for worlds, not him. So I says to him, ‘See here, Mr. Beck, you can’t talk to me in any such style as that. I’m not in the habit of comin’ late often. An’ wot’s more, this ain’t the only place I can work in K.C. If I can’t be late once in a while without hearin’ about it, you can just send up for my time, that’s all, see.’ I wasn’t goin’ to let him get away with that stuff. And just as I thought, he weakened. All he says was, ‘Well, just the same, I’m warnin’ you. Next time maybe Mr. Tierney’ll see you an’ then you’ll get a chance to try some other store, all right.’ He knew he was bluffing and that I did, too. I had to laugh. An’ I saw him laughin’ with Mr. Scott about two minutes later. But, gee, I certainly do pull some raw stuff around there at times.”
By then she and Clyde, with scarcely a word on his part, and much to his ease and relief, had reached Frissell’s. And for the first time in his life he had the satisfaction of escorting a girl to a table in such a place. Now he really was beginning to have a few experiences worthy of the name. He was quite on edge with the romance of it. Because of her very high estimate of herself, her very emphatic picture of herself as one who was intimate with so many youths and girls who were having a good time, he felt that up to this hour he had not lived at all. Swiftly he thought of the different things she had told him — Burkett’s on the Big Blue, skating and dancing on the ice — Charlie Trone — the young tobacco clerk with whom she had had the engagement for to-night — Mr. Beck at the store who was so struck on her that he couldn’t bring himself to fire her. And as he saw her order whatever she liked, without any thought of his purse, he contemplated quickly her face, figure, the shape of her hands, so suggestive always of the delicacy or roundness of the arm, the swell of her bust, already very pronounced, the curve of her eyebrows, the rounded appeal of her smooth cheeks and chin. There was something also about the tone of her voice, unctuous, smooth, which somehow appealed to and disturbed him. To him it was delicious. Gee, if he could only have such a girl all for himself!
And in here, as without, she clattered on about herself, not at all impressed, apparently, by the fact that she was dining here, a place that to him had seemed quite remarkable. When she was not looking at herself in a mirror, she was studying the bill of fare and deciding what she liked — lamb with mint jelly — no omelette, no beef — oh, yes, filet of mignon with mushrooms. She finally compromised on that with celery and cauliflower. And she would like a cocktail. Oh, yes, Clyde had heard Hegglund say that no meal was worth anything without a few drinks, so now he had mildly suggested a cocktail. And having secured that and a second, she seemed warmer and gayer and more gossipy than ever.
But all the while, as Clyde noticed, her attitude in so far as he was concerned was rather distant — impersonal. If for so much as a moment, he ventured to veer the conversation ever so slightly to themselves, his deep personal interest in her, whether she was really very deeply concerned about any other youth, she threw him off by announcing that she liked all the boys, really. They were all so lovely — so nice to her. They had to be. When they weren’t, she didn’t have anything more to do with them. She “tied a can to them,” as she once expressed it. Her quick eyes clicked and she tossed her head defiantly.
And Clyde was captivated by all this. Her gestures, her poses, moues and attitudes were sensuous and suggestive. She seemed to like to tease, promise, lay herself open to certain charges and conclusions and then to withhold and pretend that there was nothing to all of this — that she was very unconscious of anything save the most reserved thoughts in regard to herself. In the main, Clyde was thrilled and nourished by this mere proximity to her. It was torture, and yet a sweet kind of torture. He was full of the most tantalizing thoughts about how wonderful it would be if only he were permitted to hold her close, kiss her mouth, bite her, even. To cover her mouth with his! To smother her with kisses! To crush and pet her pretty figure! She would look at him at moments with deliberate, swimming eyes, and he actually felt a little sick and weak — almost nauseated. His one dream was that by some process, either of charm or money, he could make himself interesting to her.
And yet after going with her to the theater and taking her home again, he could not see that he had made any noticeable progress. For throughout the performance of “The Corsair” at Libby’s, Hortense, who, because of her uncertain interest in him was really interested in the play, talked of nothing but similar shows she had seen, as well as of actors and actresses and what she thought of them, and what particular youth had taken her. And Clyde, instead of leading her in wit and defiance and matching her experiences with his own, was compelled to content himself with approving of her.
And all the time she was thinking that she had made another real conquest. And because she was no longer virtuous, and she was convinced that he had some little money to spend, and could be made to spend it on her, she conceived the notion of being sufficiently agreeable — nothing more — to hold him, keep him attentive, if possible, while at the same time she went her own way, enjoying herself as much as possible with others and getting Clyde to buy and do such things for her as might fill gaps — when she was not sufficiently or amusingly enough engaged elsewhere.
For a period of four months at least this was exactly the way it worked out. After meeting her in this fashion, he was devoting not an inconsiderable portion of his free time to attempting to interest her to the point where she would take as much interest in him as she appeared to take in others. At the same time he could not tell whether she could be made to entertain a singular affection for any one. Nor could he believe that there was only an innocent camaraderie involved in all this. Yet she was so enticing that he was deliriously moved by the thought that if his worst suspicions were true, she might ultimately favor him. So captivated was he by this savor of sensuality and varietism that was about her, the stigmata of desire manifest in her gestures, moods, voice, the way she dressed, that he could not think of relinquishing her.
Rather, he foolishly ran after her. And seeing this, she put him off, at times evaded him, compelled him to content himself with little more than the crumbs of her company, while at the same time favoring him with descriptions or pictures of other activities and contacts which made him feel as though he could no longer endure to merely trail her in this fashion. It was then he would announce to himself in anger that he was not going to see her any more. She was no good to him, really. But on seeing her again, a cold indifference in everything she said and did, his courage failed him and he could not think of severing the tie.
She was not at all backward at the same time in speaking of things that she needed or would like to have — little things, at first — a new powder puff, a lip stick, a box of powder or a bottle of perfume. Later, and without having yielded anything more to Clyde than a few elusive and evasive endearments — intimate and languorous reclinings in his arms which promised much but always came to nothing — she made so bold as to indicate to him at different times and in different ways, purses, blouses, slippers, stockings, a hat, which she would like to buy if only she had the money. And he, in order to hold her favor and properly ingratiate himself, proceeded to buy them, though at times and because of some other developments in connection with his family, it pressed him hard to do so. And yet, as he was beginning to see toward the end of the fourth month, he was apparently little farther advanced in her favor than he had been in the beginning. In short, he was conducting a feverish and almost painful pursuit without any definite promise of reward.
In the meantime, in so far as his home ties went, the irritations and the depressions which were almost inextricably involved with membership in the Griffiths family were not different from what they had ever been. For, following the disappearance of Esta, there had settled a period of dejection which still endured. Only, in so far as Clyde was concerned, it was complicated with a mystery which was tantalizing and something more — irritating; for when it came to anything which related to sex in the Griffiths family, no parents could possibly have been more squeamish.
And especially did this apply to the mystery which had now surrounded Esta for some time. She had gone. She had not returned. And so far as Clyde and the others knew, no word of any kind had been received from her. However, Clyde had noted that after the first few weeks of her absence, during which time both his mother and father had been most intensely wrought up and troubled, worrying greatly as to her whereabouts and why she did not write, suddenly they had ceased their worries, and had become very much more resigned — at least not so tortured by a situation that previously had seemed to offer no hope whatsoever. He could not explain it. It was quite noticeable, and yet nothing was said. And then one day a little later, Clyde had occasion to note that his mother was in communication with some one by mail — something rare for her. For so few were her social or business connections that she rarely received or wrote a letter.
One day, however, very shortly after he had connected himself with the Green–Davidson, he had come in rather earlier than usual in the afternoon and found his mother bending over a letter which evidently had just arrived and which appeared to interest her greatly. Also it seemed to be connected with something which required concealment. For, on seeing him, she stopped reading at once, and, flustered and apparently nervous, arose and put the letter away without commenting in any way upon what she had been doing. But Clyde for some reason, intuition perhaps, had the thought that it might be from Esta. He was not sure. And he was too far away to detect the character of the handwriting. But whatever it was, his mother said nothing afterwards concerning it. She looked as though she did not want him to inquire, and so reserved were their relations that he would not have thought of inquiring. He merely wondered, and then dismissed it partially, but not entirely, from his mind.
A month or five weeks after this, and just about the time that he was becoming comparatively well-schooled in his work at the Green- Davidson, and was beginning to interest himself in Hortense Briggs, his mother came to him one afternoon with a very peculiar proposition for her. Without explaining what it was for, or indicating directly that now she felt that he might be in a better position to help her, she called him into the mission hall when he came in from work and, looking at him rather fixedly and nervously for her, said: “You wouldn’t know, Clyde, would you, how I could raise a hundred dollars right away?”
Clyde was so astonished that he could scarcely believe his ears, for only a few weeks before the mere mention of any sum above four or five dollars in connection with him would have been preposterous. His mother knew that. Yet here she was asking him and apparently assuming that he might be able to assist her in this way. And rightly, for both his clothes and his general air had indicated a period of better days for him.
At the same time his first thought was, of course, that she had observed his clothes and goings-on and was convinced that he was deceiving her about the amount he earned. And in part this was true, only so changed was Clyde’s manner of late, that his mother had been compelled to take a very different attitude toward him and was beginning to be not a little dubious as to her further control over him. Recently, or since he had secured this latest place, for some reason he had seemed to her to have grown wiser, more assured, less dubious of himself, inclined to go his own way and keep his own counsel. And while this had troubled her not a little in one sense, it rather pleased her in another. For to see Clyde, who had always seemed because of his sensitiveness and unrest so much of a problem to her, developing in this very interesting way was something; though at times, and in view of his very recent finery, she had been wondering and troubled as to the nature of the company he might be keeping. But since his hours were so long and so absorbing, and whatever money he made appeared to be going into clothes, she felt that she had no real reason to complain. Her one other thought was that perhaps he was beginning to act a little selfish — to think too much of his own comfort — and yet in the face of his long deprivations she could not very well begrudge him any temporary pleasure, either.
Clyde, not being sure of her real attitude, merely looked at her and exclaimed: “Why, where would I get a hundred dollars, Ma?” He had visions of his new-found source of wealth being dissipated by such unheard of and inexplicable demands as this, and distress and distrust at once showed on his countenance.
“I didn’t expect that you could get it all for me,” Mrs. Griffiths suggested tactfully. “I have a plan to raise the most of it, I think. But I did want you to help me try to think how I would raise the rest. I didn’t want to go to your father with this if I could help it, and you’re getting old enough now to be of some help.” She looked at Clyde approvingly and interestedly enough. “Your father is such a poor hand at business,” she went on, “and he gets so worried at times.”
She passed a large and weary hand over her face and Clyde was moved by her predicament, whatever it was. At the same time, apart from whether he was willing to part with so much or not, or had it to give, he was decidedly curious about what all this was for. A hundred dollars! Gee whiz!
After a moment or two, his mother added: “I’ll tell you what I’ve been thinking. I must have a hundred dollars, but I can’t tell you for what now, you nor any one, and you mustn’t ask me. There’s an old gold watch of your father’s in my desk and a solid gold ring and pin of mine. Those things ought to be worth twenty-five dollars at least, if they were sold or pawned. Then there is that set of solid silver knives and forks and that silver platter and pitcher in there”— Clyde knew the keepsakes well —“that platter alone is worth twenty-five dollars. I believe they ought to bring at least twenty or twenty-five together. I was thinking if I could get you to go to some good pawnshop with them down near where you work, and then if you would let me have five more a week for a while” (Clyde’s countenance fell)—“I could get a friend of mine — Mr. Murch who comes here, you know — to advance me enough to make up the hundred, and then I could pay him back out of what you pay me. I have about ten dollars myself.”
She looked at Clyde as much as to say: “Now, surely, you won’t desert me in my hour of trouble,” and Clyde relaxed, in spite of the fact that he had been counting upon using quite all that he earned for himself. In fact, he agreed to take the trinkets to the pawnshop, and to advance her five more for the time being until the difference between whatever the trinkets brought and one hundred dollars was made up. And yet in spite of himself, he could not help resenting this extra strain, for it had only been a very short time that he had been earning so much. And here was his mother demanding more and more, as he saw it — ten dollars a week now. Always something wrong, thought Clyde, always something needed, and with no assurance that there would not be more such demands later.
He took the trinkets, carried them to the most presentable pawnshop he could find, and being offered forty-five dollars for the lot, took it. This, with his mother’s ten, would make fifty-five, and with forty-five she could borrow from Mr. Murch, would make a hundred. Only now, as he saw, it would mean that for nine weeks he would have to give her ten dollars instead of five. And that, in view of his present aspirations to dress, live and enjoy himself in a way entirely different from what he previously considered necessary, was by no means a pleasure to contemplate. Nevertheless he decided to do it. After all he owed his mother something. She had made many sacrifices for him and the others in days past and he could not afford to be too selfish. It was not decent.
But the most enduring thought that now came to him was that if his mother and father were going to look to him for financial aid, they should be willing to show him more consideration than had previously been shown him. For one thing he ought to be allowed to come and go with more freedom, in so far as his night hours were concerned. And at the same time he was clothing himself and eating his meals at the hotel, and that was no small item, as he saw it.
However, there was another problem that had soon arisen and it was this. Not so long after the matter of the hundred dollars, he encountered his mother in Montrose Street, one of the poorest streets which ran north from Bickel, and which consisted entirely of two unbroken lines of wooden houses and two-story flats and many unfurnished apartments. Even the Griffiths, poor as they were, would have felt themselves demeaned by the thought of having to dwell in such a street. His mother was coming down the front steps of one of the less tatterdemalion houses of this row, a lower front window of which carried a very conspicuous card which read “Furnished Rooms.” And then, without turning or seeing Clyde across the street, she proceeded to another house a few doors away, which also carried a furnished rooms card and, after surveying the exterior interestedly, mounted the steps and rang the bell.
Clyde’s first impression was that she was seeking the whereabouts of some individual in whom she was interested and of whose address she was not certain. But crossing over to her at about the moment the proprietress of the house put her head out of the door, he heard his mother say: “You have a room for rent?” “Yes.” “Has it a bath?” “No, but there’s a bath on the second floor.” “How much is it a week?” “Four dollars.” “Could I see it?” “Yes, just step in.”
Mrs. Griffiths appeared to hesitate while Clyde stood below, not twenty-five feet away, and looked up at her, waiting for her to turn and recognize him. But she stepped in without turning. And Clyde gazed after her curiously, for while it was by no means inconceivable that his mother might be looking for a room for some one, yet why should she be looking for it in this street when as a rule she usually dealt with the Salvation Army or the Young Women’s Christian Association. His first impulse was to wait and inquire of her what she was doing here, but being interested in several errands of his own, he went on.
That night, returning to his own home to dress and seeing his mother in the kitchen, he said to her: “I saw you this morning, Ma, in Montrose Street.”
“Yes,” his mother replied, after a moment, but not before he had noticed that she had started suddenly as though taken aback by this information. She was paring potatoes and looked at him curiously. “Well, what of it?” she added, calmly, but flushing just the same — a thing decidedly unusual in connection with her where he was concerned. Indeed, that start of surprise interested and arrested Clyde.
“You were going into a house there — looking for a furnished room, I guess.”
“Yes, I was,” replied Mrs. Griffiths, simply enough now. “I need a room for some one who is sick and hasn’t much money, but it’s not so easy to find either.” She turned away as though she were not disposed to discuss this any more, and Clyde, while sensing her mood, apparently, could not resist adding: “Gee, that’s not much of a street to have a room in.” His new work at the Green–Davidson had already caused him to think differently of how one should live — any one. She did not answer him and he went to his room to change his clothes.
A month or so after this, coming east on Missouri Avenue late one evening, he again saw his mother in the near distance coming west. In the light of one of the small stores which ranged in a row on this street, he saw that she was carrying a rather heavy old- fashioned bag, which had long been about the house but had never been much used by any one. On sight of him approaching (as he afterwards decided) she had stopped suddenly and turned into a hallway of a three-story brick apartment building, and when he came up to it, he found the outside door was shut. He opened it, and saw a flight of steps dimly lit, up which she might have gone. However, he did not trouble to investigate, for he was uncertain, once he reached this place, whether she had gone to call on some one or not, it had all happened so quickly. But waiting at the next corner, he finally saw her come out again. And then to his increasing curiosity, she appeared to look cautiously about before proceeding as before. It was this that caused him to think that she must have been endeavoring to conceal herself from him. But why?
His first impulse was to turn and follow her, so interested was he by her strange movements. But he decided later that if she did not want him to know what she was doing, perhaps it was best that he should not. At the same time he was made intensely curious by this evasive gesture. Why should his mother not wish him to see her carrying a bag anywhere? Evasion and concealment formed no part of her real disposition (so different from his own). Almost instantly his mind proceeded to join this coincidence with the time he had seen her descending the steps of the rooming house in Montrose Street, together with the business of the letter he had found her reading, and the money she had been compelled to raise — the hundred dollars. Where could she be going? What was she hiding?
He speculated on all this, but he could not decide whether it had any definite connection with him or any member of the family until about a week later, when, passing along Eleventh near Baltimore, he thought he saw Esta, or at least a girl so much like her that she would be taken for her anywhere. She had the same height, and she was moving along as Esta used to walk. Only, now he thought as he saw her, she looked older. Yet, so quickly had she come and gone in the mass of people that he had not been able to make sure. It was only a glance, but on the strength of it, he had turned and sought to catch up with her, but upon reaching the spot she was gone. So convinced was he, however, that he had seen her that he went straight home, and, encountering his mother in the mission, announced that he was positive he had seen Esta. She must be back in Kansas City again. He could have sworn to it. He had seen her near Eleventh and Baltimore, or thought he had. Had his mother heard anything from her?
And then curiously enough he observed that his mother’s manner was not exactly what he thought it should have been under the circumstances. His own attitude had been one of commingled astonishment, pleasure, curiosity and sympathy because of the sudden disappearance and now sudden reappearance of Esta. Could it be that his mother had used that hundred dollars to bring her back? The thought had come to him — why or from where, he could not say. He wondered. But if so, why had she not returned to her home, at least to notify the family of her presence here?
He expected his mother would be as astonished and puzzled as he was — quick and curious for details. Instead, she appeared to him to be obviously confused and taken aback by this information, as though she was hearing about something that she already knew and was puzzled as to just what her attitude should be.
“Oh, did you? Where? Just now, you say? At Eleventh and Baltimore? Well, isn’t that strange? I must speak to Asa about this. It’s strange that she wouldn’t come here if she is back.” Her eyes, as he saw, instead of looking astonished, looked puzzled, disturbed. Her mouth, always the case when she was a little embarrassed and disconcerted, worked oddly — not only the lips but the jaw itself.
“Well, well,” she added, after a pause. “That is strange. Perhaps it was just some one who looked like her.”
But Clyde, watching her out of the corner of his eye, could not believe that she was as astonished as she pretended. And, thereafter, Asa coming in, and Clyde not having as yet departed for the hotel, he heard them discussing the matter in some strangely inattentive and unillumined way, as if it was not quite as startling as it had seemed to him. And for some time he was not called in to explain what he had seen.
And then, as if purposely to solve this mystery for him, he encountered his mother one day passing along Spruce Street, this time carrying a small basket on her arm. She had, as he had noticed of late, taken to going out regularly mornings and afternoons or evenings. On this occasion, and long before she had had an opportunity to see him, he had discerned her peculiarly heavy figure draped in the old brown coat which she always wore, and had turned into Myrkel Street and waited for her to pass, a convenient news stand offering him shelter. Once she had passed, he dropped behind her, allowing her to precede him by half a block. And at Dalrymple, she crossed to Beaudry, which was really a continuation of Spruce, but not so ugly. The houses were quite old — quondam residences of an earlier day, but now turned into boarding and rooming houses. Into one of these he saw her enter and disappear, but before doing so she looked inquiringly about her.
After she had entered, Clyde approached the house and studied it with great interest. What was his mother doing in there? Who was it she was going to see? He could scarcely have explained his intense curiosity to himself, and yet, since having thought that he had seen Esta on the street, he had an unconvinced feeling that it might have something to do with her. There were the letters, the one hundred dollars, the furnished room in Montrose Street.
Diagonally across the way from the house in Beaudry Street there was a large-trunked tree, leafless now in the winter wind, and near it a telegraph pole, close enough to make a joint shadow with it. And behind these he was able to stand unseen, and from this vantage point to observe the several windows, side and front and ground and second floor. Through one of the front windows above, he saw his mother moving about as though she were quite at home there. And a moment later, to his astonishment he saw Esta come to one of their two windows and put a package down on the sill. She appeared to have on only a light dressing gown or a wrap drawn about her shoulders. He was not mistaken this time. He actually started as he realized that it was she, also that his mother was in there with her. And yet what had she done that she must come back and hide away in this manner? Had her husband, the man she had run away with, deserted her?
He was so intensely curious that he decided to wait a while outside here to see if his mother might not come out, and then he himself would call on Esta. He wanted so much to see her again — to know what this mystery was all about. He waited, thinking how he had always liked Esta and how strange it was that she should be here, hiding away in this mysterious way.
After an hour, his mother came out, her basket apparently empty, for she held it lightly in her hand. And just as before, she looked cautiously about her, her face wearing that same stolid and yet care-stamped expression which it always wore these days — a cross between an uplifting faith and a troublesome doubt.
Clyde watched her as she proceeded to walk south on Beaudry Street toward the Mission. After she was well out of sight, he turned and entered the house. Inside, as he had surmised, he found a collection of furnished rooms, name plates some of which bore the names of the roomers pasted upon them. Since he knew that the southeast front room upstairs contained Esta, he proceeded there and knocked. And true enough, a light footstep responded within, and presently, after some little delay which seemed to suggest some quick preparation within, the door opened slightly and Esta peeped out — quizzically at first, then with a little cry of astonishment and some confusion. For, as inquiry and caution disappeared, she realized that she was looking at Clyde. At once she opened the door wide.
“Why, Clyde,” she called. “How did you come to find me? I was just thinking of you.”
Clyde at once put his arms around her and kissed her. At the same time he realized, and with a slight sense of shock and dissatisfaction, that she was considerably changed. She was thinner — paler — her eyes almost sunken, and not any better dressed than when he had seen her last. She appeared nervous and depressed. One of the first thoughts that came to him now was where her husband was. Why wasn’t he here? What had become of him? As he looked about and at her, he noticed that Esta’s look was one of confusion and uncertainty, not unmixed with a little satisfaction at seeing him. Her mouth was partly open because of a desire to smile and to welcome him, but her eyes showed that she was contending with a problem.
“I didn’t expect you here,” she added, quickly, the moment he released her. “You didn’t see —” Then she paused, catching herself at the brink of some information which evidently she didn’t wish to impart.
“Yes, I did, too — I saw Ma,” he replied. “That’s how I came to know you were here. I saw her coming out just now and I saw you up here through the window.” (He did not care to confess that he had been following and watching his mother for an hour.) “But when did you get back?” he went on. “It’s a wonder you wouldn’t let the rest of us know something about you. Gee, you’re a dandy, you are — going away and staying months and never letting any one of us know anything. You might have written me a little something, anyhow. We always got along pretty well, didn’t we?”
His glance was quizzical, curious, imperative. She, for her part, felt recessive and thence evasive — uncertain, quite, what to think or say or tell.
She uttered: “I couldn’t think who it might be. No one comes here. But, my, how nice you look, Clyde. You’ve got such nice clothes, now. And you’re getting taller. Mamma was telling me you are working at the Green–Davidson.”
She looked at him admiringly and he was properly impressed by her notice of him. At the same time he could not get his mind off her condition. He could not cease looking at her face, her eyes, her thin-fat body. And as he looked at her waist and her gaunt face, he came to a very keen realization that all was not well with her. She was going to have a child. And hence the thought recurred to him — where was her husband — or at any rate, the man she had eloped with. Her original note, according to her mother, had said that she was going to get married. Yet now he sensed quite clearly that she was not married. She was deserted, left in this miserable room here alone. He saw it, felt it, understood it.
And he thought at once that this was typical of all that seemed to occur in his family. Here he was just getting a start, trying to be somebody and get along in the world and have a good time. And here was Esta, after her first venture in the direction of doing something for herself, coming to such a finish as this. It made him a little sick and resentful.
“How long have you been back, Esta?” he repeated dubiously, scarcely knowing just what to say now, for now that he was here and she was as she was he began to scent expense, trouble, distress and to wish almost that he had not been so curious. Why need he have been? It could only mean that he must help.
“Oh, not so very long, Clyde. About a month, now, I guess. Not more than that.”
“I thought so. I saw you up on Eleventh near Baltimore about a month ago, didn’t I? Sure I did,” he added a little less joyously — a change that Esta noted. At the same time she nodded her head affirmatively. “I knew I did. I told Ma so at the time, but she didn’t seem to think so. She wasn’t as surprised as I thought she would be, though. I know why, now. She acted as though she didn’t want me to tell her about it either. But I knew I wasn’t wrong.” He stared at Esta oddly, quite proud of his prescience in this case. He paused though, not knowing quite what else to say and wondering whether what he had just said was of any sense or import. It didn’t seem to suggest any real aid for her.
And she, not quite knowing how to pass over the nature of her condition, or to confess it, either, was puzzled what to say. Something had to be done. For Clyde could see for himself that her predicament was dreadful. She could scarcely bear the look of his inquiring eyes. And more to extricate herself than her mother, she finally observed, “Poor Mamma. You mustn’t think it strange of her, Clyde. She doesn’t know what to do, you see, really. It’s all my fault, of course. If I hadn’t run away, I wouldn’t have caused her all this trouble. She has so little to do with and she’s always had such a hard time.” She turned her back to him suddenly, and her shoulders began to tremble and her sides to heave. She put her hands to her face and bent her head low — and then he knew that she was silently crying.
“Oh, come now, sis,” exclaimed Clyde, drawing near to her instantly and feeling intensely sorry for her at the moment. “What’s the matter? What do you want to cry for? Didn’t that man that you went away with marry you?”
She shook her head negatively and sobbed the more. And in that instant there came to Clyde the real psychological as well as sociological and biological import of his sister’s condition. She was in trouble, pregnant — and with no money and no husband. That was why his mother had been looking for a room. That was why she had tried to borrow a hundred dollars from him. She was ashamed of Esta and her condition. She was ashamed of not only what people outside the family would think, but of what he and Julia and Frank might think — the effect of Esta’s condition upon them perhaps — because it was not right, unmoral, as people saw it. And for that reason she had been trying to conceal it, telling stories about it — a most amazing and difficult thing for her, no doubt. And yet, because of poor luck, she hadn’t succeeded very well.
And now he was again confused and puzzled, not only by his sister’s condition and what it meant to him and the other members of the family here in Kansas City, but also by his mother’s disturbed and somewhat unmoral attitude in regard to deception in this instance. She had evaded if not actually deceived him in regard to all this, for she knew Esta was here all the time. At the same time he was not inclined to be too unsympathetic in that respect toward her — far from it. For such deception in such an instance had to be, no doubt, even where people were as religious and truthful as his mother, or so he thought. You couldn’t just let people know. He certainly wouldn’t want to let people know about Esta, if he could help it. What would they think? What would they say about her and him? Wasn’t the general state of his family low enough, as it was? And so, now he stood, staring and puzzled the while Esta cried. And she realizing that he was puzzled and ashamed, because of her, cried the more.
“Gee, that is tough,” said Clyde, troubled, and yet fairly sympathetic after a time. “You wouldn’t have run away with him unless you cared for him though — would you?” (He was thinking of himself and Hortense Briggs.) “I’m sorry for you, Ess. Sure, I am, but it won’t do you any good to cry about it now, will it? There’s lots of other fellows in the world beside him. You’ll come out of it all right.”
“Oh, I know,” sobbed Esta, “but I’ve been so foolish. And I’ve had such a hard time. And now I’ve brought all this trouble on Mamma and all of you.” She choked and hushed a moment. “He went off and left me in a hotel in Pittsburgh without any money,” she added. “And if it hadn’t been for Mamma, I don’t know what I would have done. She sent me a hundred dollars when I wrote her. I worked for a while in a restaurant — as long as I could. I didn’t want to write home and say that he had left me. I was ashamed to. But I didn’t know what else to do there toward the last, when I began feeling so bad.”
She began to cry again; and Clyde, realizing all that his mother had done and sought to do to assist her, felt almost as sorry now for his mother as he did for Esta — more so, for Esta had her mother to look after her and his mother had almost no one to help her.
“I can’t work yet, because I won’t be able to for a while,” she went on. “And Mamma doesn’t want me to come home now because she doesn’t want Julia or Frank or you to know. And that’s right, too, I know. Of course it is. And she hasn’t got anything and I haven’t. And I get so lonely here, sometimes.” Her eyes filled and she began to choke again. “And I’ve been so foolish.”
And Clyde felt for the moment as though he could cry too. For life was so strange, so hard at times. See how it had treated him all these years. He had had nothing until recently and always wanted to run away. But Esta had done so, and see what had befallen her. And somehow he recalled her between the tall walls of the big buildings here in the business district, sitting at his father’s little street organ and singing and looking so innocent and good. Gee, life was tough. What a rough world it was anyhow. How queer things went!
He looked at her and the room, and finally, telling her that she wouldn’t be left alone, and that he would come again, only she mustn’t tell his mother he had been there, and that if she needed anything she could call on him although he wasn’t making so very much, either — and then went out. And then, walking toward the hotel to go to work, he kept dwelling on the thought of how miserable it all was — how sorry he was that he had followed his mother, for then he might not have known. But even so, it would have come out. His mother could not have concealed it from him indefinitely. She would have asked for more money eventually maybe. But what a dog that man was to go off and leave his sister in a big strange city without a dime. He puzzled, thinking now of the girl who had been deserted in the Green–Davidson some months before with a room and board bill unpaid. And how comic it had seemed to him and the other boys at the time — highly colored with a sensual interest in it.
But this, well, this was his own sister. A man had thought so little of his sister as that. And yet, try as he would, he could no longer think that it was as terrible as when he heard her crying in the room. Here was this brisk, bright city about him running with people and effort, and this gay hotel in which he worked. That was not so bad. Besides there was his own love affair, Hortense, and pleasures. There must be some way out for Esta. She would get well again and be all right. But to think of his being part of a family that was always so poor and so little thought of that things like this could happen to it — one thing and another — like street preaching, not being able to pay the rent at times, his father selling rugs and clocks for a living on the streets — Esta running away and coming to an end like this. Gee!
The result of all this on Clyde was to cause him to think more specifically on the problem of the sexes than he ever had before, and by no means in any orthodox way. For while he condemned his sister’s lover for thus ruthlessly deserting her, still he was not willing to hold her entirely blameless by any means. She had gone off with him. As he now learned from her, he had been in the city for a week the year before she ran away with him, and it was then that he had introduced himself to her. The following year when he returned for two weeks, it was she who looked him up, or so Clyde suspected, at any rate. And in view of his own interest in and mood regarding Hortense Briggs, it was not for him to say that there was anything wrong with the sex relation in itself.
Rather, as he saw it now, the difficulty lay, not in the deed itself, but in the consequences which followed upon not thinking or not knowing. For had Esta known more of the man in whom she was interested, more of what such a relationship with him meant, she would not be in her present pathetic plight. Certainly such girls as Hortense Briggs, Greta and Louise, would never have allowed themselves to be put in any such position as Esta. Or would they? They were too shrewd. And by contrast with them in his mind, at least at this time, she suffered. She ought, as he saw it, to have been able to manage better. And so, by degrees, his attitude toward her hardened in some measure, though his feeling was not one of indifference either.
But the one influence that was affecting and troubling and changing him now was his infatuation for Hortense Briggs — than which no more agitating influence could have come to a youth of his years and temperament. She seemed, after his few contacts with her, to be really the perfect realization of all that he had previously wished for in a girl. She was so bright, vain, engaging, and so truly pretty. Her eyes, as they seemed to him, had a kind of dancing fire in them. She had a most entrancing way of pursing and parting her lips and at the same time looking straightly and indifferently before her, as though she were not thinking of him, which to him was both flame and fever. It caused him, actually, to feel weak and dizzy, at times, cruelly seared in his veins with minute and wriggling threads of fire, and this could only be described as conscious lust, a torturesome and yet unescapable thing which yet in her case he was unable to prosecute beyond embracing and kissing, a form of reserve and respect in regard to her which she really resented in the very youths in whom she sought to inspire it. The type of boy for whom she really cared and was always seeking was one who could sweep away all such psuedo-ingenuousness and superiorities in her and force her, even against herself, to yield to him.
In fact she was constantly wavering between actual like and dislike of him. And in consequence, he was in constant doubt as to where he stood, a state which was very much relished by her and yet which was never permitted to become so fixed in his mind as to cause him to give her up entirely. After some party or dinner or theater to which she had permitted him to take her, and throughout which he had been particularly tactful — not too assertive — she could be as yielding and enticing in her mood as the most ambitious lover would have liked. And this might last until the evening was nearly over, when suddenly, and at her own door or the room or house of some girl with whom she was spending the night, she would turn, and without rhyme or reason, endeavor to dismiss him with a mere handclasp or a thinly flavored embrace or kiss. At such times, if Clyde was foolish enough to endeavor to force her to yield the favors he craved, she would turn on him with the fury of a spiteful cat, would tear herself away, developing for the moment, seemingly, an intense mood of opposition which she could scarcely have explained to herself. Its chief mental content appeared to be one of opposition to being compelled by him to do anything. And, because of his infatuation and his weak overtures due to his inordinate fear of losing her, he would be forced to depart, usually in a dark and despondent mood.
But so keen was her attraction for him that he could not long remain away, but must be going about to where most likely he would encounter her. Indeed, for the most part these days, and in spite of the peculiar climax which had eventuated in connection with Esta, he lived in a keen, sweet and sensual dream in regard to her. If only she would really come to care for him. At night, in his bed at home, he would lie and think of her — her face — the expressions of her mouth and eyes, the lines of her figure, the motions of her body in walking or dancing — and she would flicker before him as upon a screen. In his dreams, he found her deliciously near him, pressing against him — her delightful body all his — and then in the moment of crisis, when seemingly she was about to yield herself to him completely, he would awake to find her vanished — an illusion only.
Yet there were several things in connection with her which seemed to bode success for him. In the first place, like himself, she was part of a poor family — the daughter of a machinist and his wife, who up to this very time had achieved little more than a bare living. From her childhood she had had nothing, only such gew-gaws and fripperies as she could secure for herself by her wits. And so low had been her social state until very recently that she had not been able to come in contact with anything better than butcher and baker boys — the rather commonplace urchins and small job aspirants of her vicinity. Yet even here she had early realized that she could and should capitalize her looks and charm — and had. Not a few of these had even gone so far as to steal in order to get money to entertain her.
After reaching the age where she was old enough to go to work, and thus coming in contact with the type of boy and man in whom she was now interested, she was beginning to see that without yielding herself too much, but in acting discreetly, she could win a more interesting equipment than she had before. Only, so truly sensual and pleasure-loving was she that she was by no means always willing to divorce her self-advantages from her pleasures. On the contrary, she was often troubled by a desire to like those whom she sought to use, and per contra, not to obligate herself to those whom she could not like.
In Clyde’s case, liking him but a little, she still could not resist the desire to use him. She liked his willingness to buy her any little thing in which she appeared interested — a bag, a scarf, a purse, a pair of gloves — anything that she could reasonably ask or take without obligating herself too much. And yet from the first, in her smart, tricky way, she realized that unless she could bring herself to yield to him — at some time or other offer him the definite reward which she knew he craved — she could not hold him indefinitely.
One thought that stirred her more than anything else was that the way Clyde appeared to be willing to spend his money on her she might easily get some quite expensive things from him — a pretty and rather expensive dress, perhaps, or a hat, or even a fur coat such as was then being shown and worn in the city, to say nothing of gold earrings, or a wrist watch, all of which she was constantly and enviously eyeing in the different shop windows.
One day not so long after Clyde’s discovery of his sister Esta, Hortense, walking along Baltimore Street near its junction with Fifteenth — the smartest portion of the shopping section of the city — at the noon hour — with Doris Trine, another shop girl in her department store, saw in the window of one of the smaller and less exclusive fur stores of the city, a fur jacket of beaver that to her, viewed from the eye-point of her own particular build, coloring and temperament, was exactly what she needed to strengthen mightily her very limited personal wardrobe. It was not such an expensive coat, worth possibly a hundred dollars — but fashioned in such an individual way as to cause her to imagine that, once invested with it, her own physical charm would register more than it ever had.
Moved by this thought, she paused and exclaimed: “Oh, isn’t that just the classiest, darlingest little coat you ever saw! Oh, do look at those sleeves, Doris.” She clutched her companion violently by the arm. “Lookit the collar. And the lining! And those pockets! Oh, dear!” She fairly vibrated with the intensity of her approval and delight. “Oh, isn’t that just too sweet for words? And the very kind of coat I’ve been thinking of since I don’t know when. Oh, you pity sing!” she exclaimed, affectedly, thinking all at once as much of her own pose before the window and its effect on the passer-by as of the coat before her. “Oh, if I could only have ‘oo.”
She clapped her hands admiringly, while Isadore Rubenstein, the elderly son of the proprietor, who was standing somewhat out of the range of her gaze at the moment, noted the gesture and her enthusiasm and decided forthwith that the coat must be worth at least twenty-five or fifty dollars more to her, anyhow, in case she inquired for it. The firm had been offering it at one hundred. “Oh, ha!” he grunted. But being of a sensual and somewhat romantic turn, he also speculated to himself rather definitely as to the probable trading value, affectionally speaking, of such a coat. What, say, would the poverty and vanity of such a pretty girl as this cause her to yield for such a coat?
In the meantime, however, Hortense, having gloated as long as her noontime hour would permit, had gone away, still dreaming and satiating her flaming vanity by thinking of how devastating she would look in such a coat. But she had not stopped to ask the price. Hence, the next day, feeling that she must look at it once more, she returned, only this time alone, and yet with no idea of being able to purchase it herself. On the contrary, she was only vaguely revolving the problem of how, assuming that the coat was sufficiently low in price, she could get it. At the moment she could think of no one. But seeing the coat once more, and also seeing Mr. Rubenstein, Jr., inside eyeing her in a most propitiatory and genial manner, she finally ventured in.
“You like the coat, eh?” was Rubenstein’s ingratiating comment as she opened the door. “Well, that shows you have good taste, I’ll say. That’s one of the nobbiest little coats we’ve ever had to show in this store yet. A real beauty, that. And how it would look on such a beautiful girl as you!” He took it out of the window and held it up. “I seen you when you was looking at it yesterday.” A gleam of greedy admiration was in his eye.
And noting this, and feeling that a remote and yet not wholly unfriendly air would win her more consideration and courtesy than a more intimate one, Hortense merely said, “Yes?”
“Yes, indeed. And I said right away, there’s a girl that knows a really swell coat when she sees it.”
The flattering unction soothed, in spite of herself.
“Look at that! Look at that!” went on Mr. Rubinstein, turning the coat about and holding it before her. “Where in Kansas City will you find anything to equal that today? Look at this silk lining here — genuine Mallinson silk — and these slant pockets. And the buttons. You think those things don’t make a different-looking coat? There ain’t another one like it in Kansas City today — not one. And there won’t be. We designed it ourselves and we never repeat our models. We protect our customers. But come back here.” (He led the way to a triple mirror at the back.) “It takes the right person to wear a coat like this — to get the best effect out of it. Let me try it on you.”
And by the artificial light Hortense was now privileged to see how really fetching she did look in it. She cocked her head and twisted and turned and buried one small ear in the fur, while Mr. Rubenstein stood by, eyeing her with not a little admiration and almost rubbing his hands.
“There now,” he continued. “Look at that. What do you say to that, eh? Didn’t I tell you it was the very thing for you? A find for you. A pick-up. You’ll never get another coat like that in this city. If you do, I’ll make you a present of this one.” He came very near, extending his plump hands, palms up.
“Well, I must say it does look smart on me,” commented Hortense, her vainglorious soul yearning for it. “I can wear anything like this, though.” She twisted and turned the more, forgetting him entirely and the effect her interest would have on his cost price. Then she added: “How much is it?”
“Well, it’s really a two-hundred-dollar coat,” began Mr. Rubenstein artfully. Then noting a shadow of relinquishment pass swiftly over Hortense’s face, he added quickly: “That sounds like a lot of money, but of course we don’t ask so much for it down here. One hundred and fifty is our price. But if that coat was at Jarek’s, that’s what you’d pay for it and more. We haven’t got the location here and we don’t have to pay the high rents. But it’s worth every cent of two hundred.”
“Why, I think that’s a terrible price to ask for it, just awful,” exclaimed Hortense sadly, beginning to remove the coat. She was feeling as though life were depriving her of nearly all that was worth while. “Why, at Biggs and Beck’s they have lots of three- quarter mink and beaver coats for that much, and classy styles, too.”
“Maybe, maybe. But not that coat,” insisted Mr. Rubenstein stubbornly. “Just look at it again. Look at the collar. You mean to say you can find a coat like that up there? If you can, I’ll buy the coat for you and sell it to you again for a hundred dollars. Actually, this is a special coat. It’s copied from one of the smartest coats that was in New York last summer before the season opened. It has class. You won’t find no coat like this coat.”
“Oh, well, just the same, a hundred and fifty dollars is more than I can pay,” commented Hortense dolefully, at the same time slipping on her old broadcloth jacket with the fur collar and cuffs, and edging toward the door.
“Wait! You like the coat?” wisely observed Mr. Rubenstein, after deciding that even a hundred dollars was too much for her purse, unless it could be supplemented by some man’s. “It’s really a two- hundred-dollar coat. I’m telling you that straight. Our regular price is one hundred and fifty. But if you could bring me a hundred and twenty-five dollars, since you want it so much, well, I’ll let you have it for that. And that’s like finding it. A stunning-looking girl like you oughtn’t to have no trouble in finding a dozen fellows who would be glad to buy that coat and give it to you. I know I would, if I thought you would be nice to me.”
He beamed ingratiatingly up at her, and Hortense, sensing the nature of the overture and resenting it — from him — drew back slightly. At the same time she was not wholly displeased by the compliment involved. But she was not coarse enough, as yet, to feel that just any one should be allowed to give her anything. Indeed not. It must be some one she liked, or at least some one that was enslaved by her.
And yet, even as Mr. Rubenstein spoke, and for some time afterwards, her mind began running upon possible individuals — favorites — who, by the necromancy of her charm for them, might be induced to procure this coat for her. Charlie Wilkens for instance — he of the Orphia cigar store — who was most certainly devoted to her after his fashion, but a fashion, however, which did not suggest that he might do much for her without getting a good deal in return.
And then there was Robert Kain, another youth — very tall, very cheerful and very ambitious in regard to her, who was connected with one of the local electric company’s branch offices, but his position was not sufficiently lucrative — a mere entry clerk. Also he was too saving — always talking about his future.
And again, there was Bert Gettler, the youth who had escorted her to the dance the night Clyde first met her, but who was little more than a giddy-headed dancing soul, one not to be relied upon in a crisis like this. He was only a shoe salesman, probably twenty dollars a week, and most careful with his pennies.
But there was Clyde Griffiths, the person who seemed to have real money and to be willing to spend it on her freely. So ran her thoughts swiftly at the time. But could she now, she asked herself, offhand, inveigle him into making such an expensive present as this? She had not favored him so very much — had for the most part treated him indifferently. Hence she was not sure, by any means. Nevertheless as she stood there, debating the cost and the beauty of the coat, the thought of Clyde kept running through her mind. And all the while Mr. Rubenstein stood looking at her, vaguely sensing, after his fashion, the nature of the problem that was confronting her.
“Well, little girl,” he finally observed, “I see you’d like to have this coat, all right, and I’d like to have you have it, too. And now I’ll tell you what I’ll do, and better than that I can’t do, and wouldn’t for nobody else — not a person in this city. Bring me a hundred and fifteen dollars any time within the next few days — Monday or Wednesday or Friday, if the coat is still here, and you can have it. I’ll do even better. I’ll save it for you. How’s that? Until next Wednesday or Friday. More’n that no one would do for you, now, would they?”
He smirked and shrugged his shoulders and acted as though he were indeed doing her a great favor. And Hortense, going away, felt that if only — only she could take that coat at one hundred and fifteen dollars, she would be capturing a marvelous bargain. Also that she would be the smartest-dressed girl in Kansas City beyond the shadow of a doubt. If only she could in some way get a hundred and fifteen dollars before next Wednesday, or Friday.
As Hortense well knew Clyde was pressing more and more hungrily toward that ultimate condescension on her part, which, though she would never have admitted it to him, was the privilege of two others. They were never together any more without his insisting upon the real depth of her regard for him. Why was it, if she cared for him the least bit, that she refused to do this, that or the other — would not let him kiss her as much as he wished, would not let him hold her in his arms as much as he would like. She was always keeping dates with other fellows and breaking them or refusing to make them with him. What was her exact relationship toward these others? Did she really care more for them than she did for him? In fact, they were never together anywhere but what this problem of union was uppermost — and but thinly veiled.
And she liked to think that he was suffering from repressed desire for her all of the time that she tortured him, and that the power to allay his suffering lay wholly in her — a sadistic trait which had for its soil Clyde’s own masochistic yearning for her.
However, in the face of her desire for the coat, his stature and interest for her were beginning to increase. In spite of the fact that only the morning before she had informed Clyde, with quite a flourish, that she could not possibly see him until the following Monday — that all her intervening nights were taken — nevertheless, the problem of the coat looming up before her, she now most eagerly planned to contrive an immediate engagement with him without appearing too eager. For by then she had definitely decided to endeavor to persuade him, if possible, to buy the coat for her. Only of course, she would have to alter her conduct toward him radically. She would have to be much sweeter — more enticing. Although she did not actually say to herself that now she might even be willing to yield herself to him, still basically that was what was in her mind.
For quite a little while she was unable to think how to proceed. How was she to see him this day, or the next at the very latest? How should she go about putting before him the need of this gift, or loan, as she finally worded it to herself? She might hint that he could loan her enough to buy the coat and that later she would pay him back by degrees (yet once in possession of the coat she well knew that that necessity would never confront her). Or, if he did not have so much money on hand at one time, she could suggest that she might arrange with Mr. Rubenstein for a series of time payments which could be met by Clyde. In this connection her mind suddenly turned and began to consider how she could flatter and cajole Mr. Rubenstein into letting her have the coat on easy terms. She recalled that he had said he would be glad to buy the coat for her if he thought she would be nice to him.
Her first scheme in connection with all this was to suggest to Louise Ratterer to invite her brother, Clyde and a third youth by the name of Scull, who was dancing attendance upon Louise, to come to a certain dance hall that very evening to which she was already planning to go with the more favored cigar clerk. Only now she intended to break that engagement and appear alone with Louise and Greta and announce that her proposed partner was ill. That would give her an opportunity to leave early with Clyde and with him walk past the Rubenstein store.
But having the temperament of a spider that spins a web for flies, she foresaw that this might involve the possibility of Louise’s explaining to Clyde or Ratterer that it was Hortense who had instigated the party. It might even bring up some accidental mention of the coat on the part of Clyde to Louise later, which, as she felt, would never do. She did not care to let her friends know how she provided for herself. In consequence, she decided that it would not do for her to appeal to Louise nor to Greta in this fashion.
And she was actually beginning to worry as to how to bring about this encounter, when Clyde, who chanced to be in the vicinity on his way home from work, walked into the store where she was working. He was seeking for a date on the following Sunday. And to his intense delight, Hortense greeted him most cordially with a most engaging smile and a wave of the hand. She was busy at the moment with a customer. She soon finished, however, and drawing near, and keeping one eye on her floor-walker who resented callers, exclaimed: “I was just thinking about you. You wasn’t thinking about me, was you? Trade last.” Then she added, sotto voce, “Don’t act like you are talking to me. I see our floorwalker over there.”
Arrested by the unusual sweetness in her voice, to say nothing of the warm smile with which she greeted him, Clyde was enlivened and heartened at once. “Was I thinking of you?” he returned gayly. “Do I ever think of any one else? Say! Ratterer says I’ve got you on the brain.”
“Oh, him,” replied Hortense, pouting spitefully and scornfully, for Ratterer, strangely enough, was one whom she did not interest very much, and this she knew. “He thinks he’s so smart,” she added. “I know a lotta girls don’t like him.”
“Oh, Tom’s all right,” pleaded Clyde, loyally. “That’s just his way of talking. He likes you.”
“Oh, no, he don’t, either,” replied Hortense. “But I don’t want to talk about him. Whatcha doin’ around six o’clock to-night?”
“Oh, gee!” exclaimed Clyde disappointedly. “You don’t mean to say you got to-night free, have you? Well, ain’t that tough? I thought you were all dated up. I got to work!” He actually sighed, so depressed was he by the thought that she might be willing to spend the evening with him and he not able to avail himself of the opportunity, while Hortense, noting his intense disappointment, was pleased.
“Well, I gotta date, but I don’t want to keep it,” she went on with a contemptuous gathering of the lips. “I don’t have to break it. I would though if you was free.” Clyde’s heart began to beat rapidly with delight.
“Gee, I wish I didn’t have to work now,” he went on, looking at her. “You’re sure you couldn’t make it to-morrow night? I’m off then. And I was just coming up here to ask you if you didn’t want to go for an automobile ride next Sunday afternoon, maybe. A friend of Hegglund’s got a car — a Packard — and Sunday we’re all off. And he wanted me to get a bunch to run out to Excelsior Springs. He’s a nice fellow” (this because Hortense showed signs of not being so very much interested). “You don’t know him very well, but he is. But say, I can talk to you about that later. How about to-morrow night? I’m off then.”
Hortense, who, because of the hovering floor-walker, was pretending to show Clyde some handkerchiefs, was now thinking how unfortunate that a whole twenty-four hours must intervene before she could bring him to view the coat with her — and so have an opportunity to begin her machinations. At the same time she pretended that the proposed meeting for the next night was a very difficult thing to bring about — more difficult than he could possibly appreciate. She even pretended to be somewhat uncertain as to whether she wanted to do it.
“Just pretend you’re examining these handkerchiefs here,” she continued, fearing the floor-walker might interrupt. “I gotta nother date for then,” she continued thoughtfully, “and I don’t know whether I can break it or not. Let me see.” She feigned deep thought. “Well, I guess I can,” she said finally. “I’ll try, anyhow. Just for this once. You be here at Fifteenth and Main at 6.15 — no, 6.30’s the best you can do, ain’t it? — and I’ll see if I can’t get there. I won’t promise, but I’ll see and I think I can make it. Is that all right?” She gave him one of her sweetest smiles and Clyde was quite beside himself with satisfaction. To think that she would break a date for him, at last. Her eyes were warm with favor and her mouth wreathed with a smile.
“Surest thing you know,” he exclaimed, voicing the slang of the hotel boys. “You bet I’ll be there. Will you do me a favor?”
“What is it?” she asked cautiously.
“Wear that little black hat with the red ribbon under your chin, will you? You look so cute in that.”
“Oh, you,” she laughed. It was so easy to kid Clyde. “Yes, I’ll wear it,” she added. “But you gotta go now. Here comes that old fish. I know he’s going to kick. But I don’t care. Six-thirty, eh? So long.” She turned to give her attention to a new customer, an old lady who had been patiently waiting to inquire if she could tell her where the muslins were sold. And Clyde, tingling with pleasure because of this unexpected delight vouchsafed him, made his way most elatedly to the nearest exit.
He was not made unduly curious because of this sudden favor, and the next evening, promptly at six-thirty, and in the glow of the overhanging arc-lights showering their glistening radiance like rain, she appeared. As he noted, at once, she had worn the hat he liked. Also she was enticingly ebullient and friendly, more so than at any time he had known her. Before he had time to say that she looked pretty, or how pleased he was because she wore that hat, she began:
“Some favorite you’re gettin’ to be, I’LL SAY, when I’LL break an engagement and then wear an old hat I don’t like just to please you. How do I get that way is what I’d like to know.”
He beamed as though he had won a great victory. Could it be that at last he might be becoming a favorite with her?
“If you only knew how cute you look in that hat, Hortense, you wouldn’t knock it,” he urged admiringly. “You don’t know how sweet you do look.”
“Oh, ho. In this old thing?” she scoffed. “You certainly are easily pleased, I’ll say.”
“An’ your eyes are just like soft, black velvet,” he persisted eagerly. “They’re wonderful.” He was thinking of an alcove in the Green–Davidson hung with black velvet.
“Gee, you certainly have got ’em to-night,” she laughed, teasingly. “I’ll have to do something about you.” Then, before he could make any reply to this, she went off into an entirely fictional account of how, having had a previous engagement with a certain alleged young society man — Tom Keary by name — who was dogging her steps these days in order to get her to dine and dance, she had only this evening decided to “ditch” him, preferring Clyde, of course, for this occasion, anyhow. And she had called Keary up and told him that she could not see him to-night — called it all off, as it were. But just the same, on coming out of the employee’s entrance, who should she see there waiting for her but this same Tom Keary, dressed to perfection in a bright gray raglan and spats, and with his closed sedan, too. And he would have taken her to the Green- Davidson, if she had wanted to go. He was a real sport. But she didn’t. Not to-night, anyhow. Yet, if she had not contrived to avoid him, he would have delayed her. But she espied him first and ran the other way.
“And you should have just seen my little feet twinkle up Sargent and around the corner into Bailey Place,” was the way she narcissistically painted her flight. And so infatuated was Clyde by this picture of herself and the wonderful Keary that he accepted all of her petty fabrications as truth.
And then, as they were walking in the direction of Gaspie’s, a restaurant in Wyandotte near Tenth which quite lately he had learned was much better than Frissell’s, Hortense took occasion to pause and look in a number of windows, saying as she did so that she certainly did wish that she could find a little coat that was becoming to her — that the one she had on was getting worn and that she must have another soon — a predicament which caused Clyde to wonder at the time whether she was suggesting to him that he get her one. Also whether it might not advance his cause with her if he were to buy her a little jacket, since she needed it.
But Rubenstein’s coming into view on this same side of the street, its display window properly illuminated and the coat in full view, Hortense paused as she had planned.
“Oh, do look at that darling little coat there,” she began, ecstatically, as though freshly arrested by the beauty of it, her whole manner suggesting a first and unspoiled impression. “Oh, isn’t that the dearest, sweetest, cutest little thing you ever did see?” she went on, her histrionic powers growing with her desire for it. “Oh, just look at the collar, and those sleeves and those pockets. Aren’t they the snappiest things you ever saw? Couldn’t I just warm my little hands in those?” She glanced at Clyde out of the tail of her eye to see if he was being properly impressed.
And he, aroused by her intense interest, surveyed the coat with not a little curiosity. Unquestionably it was a pretty coat — very. But, gee, what would a coat like that cost, anyhow? Could it be that she was trying to interest him in the merits of a coat like that in order that he might get it for her? Why, it must be a two- hundred-dollar coat at least. He had no idea as to the value of such things, anyhow. He certainly couldn’t afford a coat like that. And especially at this time when his mother was taking a good portion of his extra cash for Esta. And yet something in her manner seemed to bring it to him that that was exactly what she was thinking. It chilled and almost numbed him at first.
And yet, as he now told himself sadly, if Hortense wanted it, she could most certainly find some one who would get it for her — that young Tom Keary, for instance, whom she had just been describing. And, worse luck, she was just that kind of a girl. And if he could not get it for her, some one else could and she would despise him for not being able to do such things for her.
To his intense dismay and dissatisfaction she exclaimed:
“Oh, what wouldn’t I give for a coat like that!” She had not intended at the moment to put the matter so bluntly, for she wanted to convey the thought that was deepest in her mind to Clyde tactfully.
And Clyde, inexperienced as he was, and not subtle by any means, was nevertheless quite able to gather the meaning of that. It meant — it meant — for the moment he was not quite willing to formulate to himself what it did mean. And now — now — if only he had the price of that coat. He could feel that she was thinking of some one certain way to get the coat. And yet how was he to manage it? How? If he could only arrange to get this coat for her — if he only could promise her that he would get it for her by a certain date, say, if it didn’t cost too much, then what? Did he have the courage to suggest to her to-night, or to-morrow, say, after he had learned the price of the coat, that if she would — why then — why then, well, he would get her the coat or anything else she really wanted. Only he must be sure that she was not really fooling him as she was always doing in smaller ways. He wouldn’t stand for getting her the coat and then get nothing in return — never!
As he thought of it, he actually thrilled and trembled beside her. And she, standing there and looking at the coat, was thinking that unless he had sense enough now to get her this thing and to get what she meant — how she intended to pay for it — well then, this was the last. He need not think she was going to fool around with any one who couldn’t or wouldn’t do that much for her. Never.
They resumed their walk toward Gaspie’s. And throughout the dinner, she talked of little else — how attractive the coat was, how wonderful it would look on her.
“Believe me,” she said at one point, defiantly, feeling that Clyde was perhaps uncertain at the moment about his ability to buy it for her, “I’m going to find some way to get that coat. I think, maybe, that Rubenstein store would let me have it on time if I were to go in there and see him about it, make a big enough payment down. Another girl out of our store got a coat that way once,” she lied promptly, hoping thus to induce Clyde to assist her with it. But Clyde, disturbed by the fear of some extraordinary cost in connection with it, hesitated to say just what he would do. He could not even guess the price of such a thing — it might cost two or three hundred even — and he feared to obligate himself to do something which later he might not be able to do.
“You don’t know what they might want for that, do you?” he asked, nervously, at the same time thinking if he made any cash gift to her at this time without some guarantee on her part, what right would he have to expect anything more in return than he had ever received? He knew how she cajoled him into getting things for her and then would not even let him kiss her. He flushed and churned a little internally with resentment at the thought of how she seemed to feel that she could play fast and loose with him. And yet, as he now recalled, she had just said she would do anything for any one who would get that coat for her — or nearly that.
“No-o,” she hesitated at first, for the moment troubled as to whether to give the exact price or something higher. For if she asked for time, Mr. Rubenstein might want more. And yet if she said much more, Clyde might not want to help her. “But I know it wouldn’t be more than a hundred and twenty-five. I wouldn’t pay more than that for it.”
Clyde heaved a sigh of relief. After all, it wasn’t two or three hundred. He began to think now that if she could arrange to make any reasonable down payment — say, fifty or sixty dollars — he might manage to bring it together within the next two or three weeks anyhow. But if the whole hundred and twenty-five were demanded at once, Hortense would have to wait, and besides he would have to know whether he was to be rewarded or not — definitely.
“That’s a good idea, Hortense,” he exclaimed without, however, indicating in any way why it appealed to him so much. “Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you find out first what they want for it, and how much they want down? Maybe I could help you with it.”
“Oh, won’t that be just too wonderful!” Hortense clapped her hands. “Oh, will you? Oh, won’t that be just dandy? Now I just know I can get that coat. I just know they’ll let me have it, if I talk to them right.”
She was, as Clyde saw and feared, quite forgetting the fact that he was the one who was making the coat possible, and now it would be just as he thought. The fact that he was paying for it would be taken for granted.
But a moment later, observing his glum face, she added: “Oh, aren’t you the sweetest, dearest thing, to help me in this way. You just bet I won’t forget this either. You just wait and see. You won’t be sorry. Now you just wait.” Her eyes fairly snapped with gayety and even generosity toward him.
He might be easy and young, but he wasn’t mean, and she would reward him, too, she now decided. Just as soon as she got the coat, which must be in a week or two at the latest, she was going to be very nice to him — do something for him. And to emphasize her own thoughts and convey to him what she really meant, she allowed her eyes to grow soft and swimming and to dwell on him promisingly — a bit of romantic acting which caused him to become weak and nervous. The gusto of her favor frightened him even a little, for it suggested, as he fancied, a disturbing vitality which he might not be able to match. He felt a little weak before her now — a little cowardly — in the face of what he assumed her real affection might mean.
Nevertheless, he now announced that if the coat did not cost more than one hundred and twenty-five dollars, that sum to be broken into one payment of twenty-five dollars down and two additional sums of fifty dollars each, he could manage it. And she on her part replied that she was going the very next day to see about it. Mr. Rubenstein might be induced to let her have it at once on the payment of twenty-five dollars down; if not that, then at the end of the second week, when nearly all would be paid.
And then in real gratitude to Clyde she whispered to him, coming out of the restaurant and purring like a cat, that she would never forget this and that he would see — and that she would wear it for him the very first time. If he were not working they might go somewhere to dinner. Or, if not that, then she would have it surely in time for the day of the proposed automobile ride which he, or rather Hegglund, had suggested for the following Sunday, but which might be postponed.
She suggested that they go to a certain dance hall, and there she clung to him in the dances in a suggestive way and afterwards hinted of a mood which made Clyde a little quivery and erratic.
He finally went home, dreaming of the day, satisfied that he would have no trouble in bringing together the first payment, if it were so much as fifty, even. For now, under the spur of this promise, he proposed to borrow as much as twenty-five from either Ratterer or Hegglund, and to repay it after the coat was paid for.
But, ah, the beautiful Hortense. The charm of her, the enormous, compelling, weakening delight. And to think that at last, and soon, she was to be his. It was, plainly, of such stuff as dreams are made of — the unbelievable become real.
True to her promise, the following day Hortense returned to Mr. Rubenstein, and with all the cunning of her nature placed before him, with many reservations, the nature of the dilemma which confronted her. Could she, by any chance, have the coat for one hundred and fifteen dollars on an easy payment plan? Mr. Rubenstein’s head forthwith began to wag a solemn negative. This was not an easy payment store. If he wanted to do business that way he could charge two hundred for the coat and easily get it.
“But I could pay as much as fifty dollars when I took the coat,” argued Hortense.
“Very good. But who is to guarantee that I get the other sixty- five, and when?”
“Next week twenty-five, and the week after that twenty five and the next week after that fifteen.”
“Of course. But supposin’ the next day after you take the coat an automobile runs you down and kills you. Then what? How do I get my money?”
Now that was a poser. And there was really no way that she could prove that any one would pay for the coat. And before that there would have to be all the bother of making out a contract, and getting some really responsible person — a banker, say — to endorse it. No, no, this was not an easy payment house. This was a cash house. That was why the coat was offered to her at one hundred and fifteen, but not a dollar less. Not a dollar.
Mr. Rubenstein sighed and talked on. And finally Hortense asked him if she could give him seventy-five dollars cash in hand, the other forty to be paid in one week’s time. Would he let her have the coat then — to take home with her?
“But a week — a week — what is a week then?” argued Mr. Rubenstein. “If you can bring me seventy-five next week or to-morrow, and forty more in another week or ten days, why not wait a week and bring the whole hundred and fifteen? Then the coat is yours and no bother. Leave the coat. Come back to-morrow and pay me twenty-five or thirty dollars on account and I take the coat out of the window and lock it up for you. No one can even see it then. In another week bring me the balance or in two weeks. Then it is yours.” Mr. Rubenstein explained the process as though it were a difficult matter to grasp.
But the argument once made was sound enough. It really left Hortense little to argue about. At the same time it reduced her spirit not a little. To think of not being able to take it now. And yet, once out of the place, her vigor revived. For, after all, the time fixed would soon pass and if Clyde performed his part of the agreement promptly, the coat would be hers. The important thing now was to make him give her twenty-five or thirty dollars wherewith to bind this wonderful agreement. Only now, because of the fact that she felt that she needed a new hat to go with the coat, she decided to say that it cost one hundred and twenty-five instead of one hundred and fifteen.
And once this conclusion was put before Clyde, he saw it as a very reasonable arrangement — all things considered — quite a respite from the feeling of strain that had settled upon him after his last conversation with Hortense. For, after all, he had not seen how he was to raise more than thirty-five dollars this first week anyhow. The following week would be somewhat easier, for then, as he told himself, he proposed to borrow twenty or twenty-five from Ratterer if he could, which, joined with the twenty or twenty-five which his tips would bring him, would be quite sufficient to meet the second payment. The week following he proposed to borrow at least ten or fifteen from Hegglund — maybe more — and if that did not make up the required amount to pawn his watch for fifteen dollars, the watch he had bought for himself a few months before. It ought to bring that at least; it cost fifty.
But, he now thought, there was Esta in her wretched room awaiting the most unhappy result of her one romance. How was she to make out, he asked himself, even in the face of the fact that he feared to be included in the financial problem which Esta as well as the family presented. His father was not now, and never had been, of any real financial service to his mother. And yet, if the problem were on this account to be shifted to him, how would he make out? Why need his father always peddle clocks and rugs and preach on the streets? Why couldn’t his mother and father give up the mission idea, anyhow?
But, as he knew, the situation was not to be solved without his aid. And the proof of it came toward the end of the second week of his arrangement with Hortense, when, with fifty dollars in his pocket, which he was planning to turn over to her on the following Sunday, his mother, looking into his bedroom where he was dressing, said: “I’d like to see you for a minute, Clyde, before you go out.” He noted she was very grave as she said this. As a matter of fact, for several days past, he had been sensing that she was undergoing a strain of some kind. At the same time he had been thinking all this while that with his own resources hypothecated as they were, he could do nothing. Or, if he did it meant the loss of Hortense. He dared not.
And yet what reasonable excuse could he give his mother for not helping her a little, considering especially the clothes he wore, and the manner in which he had been running here and there, always giving the excuse of working, but probably not deceiving her as much as he thought. To be sure, only two months before, he had obligated himself to pay her ten dollars a week more for five weeks, and had. But that only proved to her very likely that he had so much extra to give, even though he had tried to make it clear at the time that he was pinching himself to do it. And yet, however much he chose to waver in her favor, he could not, with his desire for Hortense directly confronting him.
He went out into the living-room after a time, and as usual his mother at once led the way to one of the benches in the mission — a cheerless, cold room these days.
“I didn’t think I’d have to speak to you about this, Clyde, but I don’t see any other way out of it. I haven’t anyone but you to depend upon now that you’re getting to be a man. But you must promise not to tell any of the others — Frank or Julia or your father. I don’t want them to know. But Esta’s back here in Kansas City and in trouble, and I don’t know quite what to do about her. I have so very little money to do with, and your father’s not very much of a help to me any more.”
She passed a weary, reflective hand across her forehead and Clyde knew what was coming. His first thought was to pretend that he did not know that Esta was in the city, since he had been pretending this way for so long. But now, suddenly, in the face of his mother’s confession, and the need of pretended surprise on his part, if he were to keep up the fiction, he said, “Yes, I know.”
“You know?” queried his mother, surprised.
“Yes, I know,” Clyde repeated. “I saw you going in that house in Beaudry Street one morning as I was going along there,” he announced calmly enough now. “And I saw Esta looking out of the window afterwards, too. So I went in after you left.”
“How long ago was that?” she asked, more to gain time than anything else.
“Oh, about five or six weeks ago, I think. I been around to see her a coupla times since then, only Esta didn’t want me to say anything about that either.”
“Tst! Tst! Tst!” clicked Mrs. Griffiths, with her tongue. “Then you know what the trouble is.”
“Yes,” replied Clyde.
“Well, what is to be will be,” she said resignedly. “You haven’t mentioned it to Frank or Julia, have you?”
“No,” replied Clyde, thoughtfully, thinking of what a failure his mother had made of her attempt to be secretive. She was no one to deceive any one, or his father, either. He thought himself far, far shrewder.
“Well, you mustn’t,” cautioned his mother solemnly. “It isn’t best for them to know, I think. It’s bad enough as it is this way,” she added with a kind of wry twist to her mouth, the while Clyde thought of himself and Hortense.
“And to think,” she added, after a moment, her eyes filling with a sad, all-enveloping gray mist, “she should have brought all this on herself and on us. And when we have so little to do with, as it is. And after all the instruction she has had — the training. ‘The way of the transgressor —’”
She shook her head and put her two large hands together and gripped them firmly, while Clyde stared, thinking of the situation and all that it might mean to him.
She sat there, quite reduced and bewildered by her own peculiar part in all this. She had been as deceiving as any one, really. And here was Clyde, now, fully informed as to her falsehoods and strategy, and herself looking foolish and untrue. But had she not been trying to save him from all this — him and the others? And he was old enough to understand that now. Yet she now proceeded to explain why, and to say how dreadful she felt it all to be. At the same time, as she also explained, now she was compelled to come to him for aid in connection with it.
“Esta’s about to be very sick,” she went on suddenly and stiffly, not being able, or at least willing, apparently, to look at Clyde as she said it, and yet determined to be as frank as possible. “She’ll need a doctor very shortly and some one to be with her all the time when I’m not there. I must get money somewhere — at least fifty dollars. You couldn’t get me that much in some way, from some of your young men friends, could you, just a loan for a few weeks? You could pay it back, you know, soon, if you would. You wouldn’t need to pay me anything for your room until you had.”
She looked at Clyde so tensely, so urgently, that he felt quite shaken by the force of the cogency of the request. And before he could add anything to the nervous gloom which shadowed her face, she added: “That other money was for her, you know, to bring her back here after her — her”— she hesitated over the appropriate word but finally added —“husband left her there in Pittsburgh. I suppose she told you that.”
“Yes, she did,” replied Clyde, heavily and sadly. For after all, Esta’s condition was plainly critical, which was something that he had not stopped to meditate on before.
“Gee, Ma,” he exclaimed, the thought of the fifty dollars in his pocket and its intended destination troubling him considerably — the very sum his mother was seeking. “I don’t know whether I can do that or not. I don’t know any of the boys down there well enough for that. And they don’t make any more than I do, either. I might borrow a little something, but it won’t look very good.” He choked and swallowed a little, for lying to his mother in this way was not easy. In fact, he had never had occasion to lie in connection with anything so trying — and so despicably. For here was fifty dollars in his pocket at the moment, with Hortense on the one hand and his mother and sister on the other, and the money would solve his mother’s problem as fully as it would Hortense’s, and more respectably. How terrible it was not to help her. How could he refuse her, really? Nervously he licked his lips and passed a hand over his brow, for a nervous moisture had broken out upon his face. He felt strained and mean and incompetent under the circumstances.
“And you haven’t any money of your own right now that you could let me have, have you?” his mother half pleaded. For there were a number of things in connection with Esta’s condition which required immediate cash and she had so little.
“No, I haven’t, Ma,” he said, looking at his mother shamefacedly, for a moment, then away, and if it had not been that she herself was so distrait, she might have seen the falsehood on his face. As it was, he suffered a pang of commingled self-commiseration and self-contempt, based on the distress he felt for his mother. He could not bring himself to think of losing Hortense. He must have her. And yet his mother looked so lone and so resourceless. It was shameful. He was low, really mean. Might he not, later, be punished for a thing like this?
He tried to think of some other way — some way of getting a little money over and above the fifty that might help. If only he had a little more time — a few weeks longer. If only Hortense had not brought up this coat idea just now.
“I’ll tell you what I might do,” he went on, quite foolishly and dully the while his mother gave vent to a helpless “Tst! Tst! Tst!” “Will five dollars do you any good?”
“Well, it will be something, anyhow,” she replied. “I can use it.”
“Well, I can let you have that much,” he said, thinking to replace it out of his next week’s tips and trust to better luck throughout the week. “And I’ll see what I can do next week. I might let you have ten then. I can’t say for sure. I had to borrow some of that other money I gave you, and I haven’t got through paying for that yet, and if I come around trying to get more, they’ll think — well, you know how it is.”
His mother sighed, thinking of the misery of having to fall back on her one son thus far. And just when he was trying to get a start, too. What would he think of all this in after years? What would he think of her — of Esta — the family? For, for all his ambition and courage and desire to be out and doing, Clyde always struck her as one who was not any too powerful physically or rock-ribbed morally or mentally. So far as his nerves and emotions were concerned, at times he seemed to take after his father more than he did after her. And for the most part it was so easy to excite him — to cause him to show tenseness and strain — as though he were not so very well fitted for either. And it was she, because of Esta and her husband and their joint and unfortunate lives, that was and had been heaping the greater part of this strain on him.
“Well, if you can’t, you can’t,” she said. “I must try and think of some other way.” But she saw no clear way at the moment.
In connection with the automobile ride suggested and arranged for the following Sunday by Hegglund through his chauffeur friend, a change of plan was announced. The car — an expensive Packard, no less — could not be had for that day, but must be used by this Thursday or Friday, or not at all. For, as had been previously explained to all, but not with the strictest adherence to the truth, the car belonged to a certain Mr. Kimbark, an elderly and very wealthy man who at the time was traveling in Asia. Also, what was not true was that this particular youth was not Mr. Kimbark’s chauffeur at all, but rather the rakish, ne’er-do-well son of Sparser, the superintendent of one of Mr. Kimbark’s stock farms. This son being anxious to pose as something more than the son of a superintendent of a farm, and as an occasional watchman, having access to the cars, had decided to take the very finest of them and ride in it.
It was Hegglund who proposed that he and his hotel friends be included on some interesting trip. But since the general invitation had been given, word had come that within the next few weeks Mr. Kimbark was likely to return. And because of this, Willard Sparser had decided at once that it might be best not to use the car any more. He might be taken unawares, perhaps, by Mr. Kimbark’s unexpected arrival. Laying this difficulty before Hegglund, who was eager for the trip, the latter had scouted the idea. Why not use it once more anyhow? He had stirred up the interest of all of his friends in this and now hated to disappoint them. The following Friday, between noon and six o’clock, was fixed upon as the day. And since Hortense had changed in her plans she now decided to accompany Clyde, who had been invited, of course.
But as Hegglund had explained to Ratterer and Higby since it was being used without the owner’s consent, they must meet rather far out — the men in one of the quiet streets near Seventeenth and West Prospect, from which point they could proceed to a meeting place more convenient for the girls, namely, Twentieth and Washington. From thence they would speed via the west Parkway and the Hannibal Bridge north and east to Harlem, North Kansas City, Minaville and so through Liberty and Moseby to Excelsior Springs. Their chief objective there was a little inn — the Wigwam — a mile or two this side of Excelsior which was open the year around. It was really a combination of restaurant and dancing parlor and hotel. A Victrola and Wurlitzer player-piano furnished the necessary music. Such groups as this were not infrequent, and Hegglund as well as Higby, who had been there on several occasions, described it as dandy. The food was good and the road to it excellent. There was a little river just below it where in the summer time at least there was rowing and fishing. In winter some people skated when there was ice. To be sure, at this time — January — the road was heavily packed with snow, but easy to get over, and the scenery fine. There was a little lake, not so far from Excelsior, at this time of year also frozen over, and according to Hegglund, who was always unduly imaginative and high-spirited, they might go there and skate.
“Will you listen to who’s talkin’ about skatin’ on a trip like this?” commented Ratterer, rather cynically, for to his way of thinking this was no occasion for any such side athletics, but for love-making exclusively.
“Aw, hell, can’t a fellow have a funny idea even widout bein’ roasted for it?” retorted the author of the idea.
The only one, apart from Sparser, who suffered any qualms in connection with all this was Clyde himself. For to him, from the first, the fact that the car to be used did not belong to Sparser, but to his employer, was disturbing, almost irritatingly so. He did not like the idea of taking anything that belonged to any one else, even for temporary use. Something might happen. They might be found out.
“Don’t you think it’s dangerous for us to be going out in this car?” he asked of Ratterer a few days before the trip and when he fully understood the nature of the source of the car.
“Oh, I don’t know,” replied Ratterer, who being accustomed to such ideas and devices as this was not much disturbed by them. “I’m not taking the car and you’re not, are you? If he wants to take it, that’s his lookout, ain’t it? If he wants me to go, I’ll go. Why wouldn’t I? All I want is to be brought back here on time. That’s the only thing that would ever worry me.”
And Higby, coming up at the moment, had voiced exactly the same sentiments. Yet Clyde remained troubled. It might not work out right; he might lose his job through a thing like this. But so fascinated was he by the thought of riding in such a fine car with Hortense and with all these other girls and boys that he could not resist the temptation to go.
Immediately after noon on the Friday of this particular week the several participants of the outing were gathered at the points agreed upon. Hegglund, Ratterer, Higby and Clyde at Eighteenth and West Prospect near the railroad yards. Maida Axelrod, Hegglund’s girl, Lucille Nickolas, a friend of Ratterer’s, and Tina Kogel, a friend of Higby’s, also Laura Sipe, another girl who was brought by Tina Kogel to be introduced to Sparser for the occasion, at Twentieth and Washington. Only since Hortense had sent word at the last moment to Clyde that she had to go out to her house for something, and that they were to run out to Forty-ninth and Genesee, where she lived, they did so, but not without grumbling.
The day, a late January one, was inclined to be smoky with lowering clouds, especially within the environs of Kansas City. It even threatened snow at times — a most interesting and picturesque prospect to those within. They liked it.
“Oh, gee, I hope it does,” Tina Kogel exclaimed when some one commented on the possibility, and Lucille Nickolas added: “Oh, I just love to see it snow at times.” Along the West Bluff Road, Washington and Second Streets, they finally made their way across the Hannibal Bridge to Harlem, and from thence along the winding and hill-sentineled river road to Randolph Heights and Minaville. And beyond that came Moseby and Liberty, to and through which the road bed was better, with interesting glimpses of small homesteads and the bleak snow-covered hills of January.
Clyde, who for all his years in Kansas City had never ventured much beyond Kansas City, Kansas, on the west or the primitive and natural woods of Swope Park on the east, nor farther along the Kansas or Missouri Rivers than Argentine on the one side and Randolph Heights on the other, was quite fascinated by the idea of travel which appeared to be suggested by all this — distant travel. It was all so different from his ordinary routine. And on this occasion Hortense was inclined to be very genial and friendly. She snuggled down beside him on the seat, and when he, noting that the others had already drawn their girls to them in affectionate embraces, put his arm about her and drew her to him, she made no particular protest. Instead she looked up and said: “I’ll have to take my hat off, I guess.” The others laughed. There was something about her quick, crisp way which was amusing at times. Besides she had done her hair in a new way which made her look decidedly prettier, and she was anxious to have the others see it.
“Can we dance anywhere out here?” she called to the others, without looking around.
“Surest thing you know,” said Higby, who by now had persuaded Tina Kogel to take her hat off and was holding her close. “They got a player-piano and a Victrola out there. If I’d ‘a’ thought, I’d ‘a’ brought my cornet. I can play Dixie on that.”
The car was speeding at breakneck pace over a snowy white road and between white fields. In fact, Sparser, considering himself a master of car manipulation as well as the real owner of it for the moment, was attempting to see how fast he could go on such a road.
Dark vignettes of wood went by to right and left. Fields away, sentinel hills rose and fell like waves. A wide-armed scarecrow fluttering in the wind, its tall decayed hat awry, stood near at hand in one place. And from near it a flock of crows rose and winged direct toward a distant wood lightly penciled against a foreground of snow.
In the front seat sat Sparser, guiding the car beside Laura Sipe with the air of one to whom such a magnificent car was a commonplace thing. He was really more interested in Hortense, yet felt it incumbent on him, for the time being, anyhow, to show some attention to Laura Sipe. And not to be outdone in gallantry by the others, he now put one arm about Laura Sipe while he guided the car with the other, a feat which troubled Clyde, who was still dubious about the wisdom of taking the car at all. They might all be wrecked by such fast driving. Hortense was only interested by the fact that Sparser had obviously manifested his interest in her; that he had to pay some attention to Laura Sipe whether he wanted to or not. And when she saw him pull her to him and asked her grandly if she had done much automobiling about Kansas City, she merely smiled to herself.
But Ratterer, noting the move, nudged Lucille Nickolas, and she in turn nudged Higby, in order to attract his attention to the affectional development ahead.
“Getting comfortable up front there, Willard?” called Ratterer, genially, in order to make friends with him.
“I’ll say I am,” replied Sparser, gayly and without turning. “How about you, girlie?”
“Oh, I’m all right,” Laura Sipe replied.
But Clyde was thinking that of all the girls present none was really so pretty as Hortense — not nearly. She had come garbed in a red and black dress with a very dark red poke bonnet to match. And on her left cheek, just below her small rouged mouth, she had pasted a minute square of black court plaster in imitation of some picture beauty she had seen. In fact, before the outing began, she had been determined to outshine all the others present, and distinctly she was now feeling that she was succeeding. And Clyde, for himself, was agreeing with her.
“You’re the cutest thing here,” whispered Clyde, hugging her fondly.
“Gee, but you can pour on the molasses, kid, when you want to,” she called out loud, and the others laughed. And Clyde flushed slightly.
Beyond Minaville about six miles the car came to a bend in a hollow where there was a country store and here Hegglund, Higby and Ratterer got out to fetch candy, cigarettes and ice cream cones and ginger ale. And after that came Liberty, and then several miles this side of Excelsior Springs, they sighted the Wigwam which was nothing more than an old two-story farmhouse snuggled against a rise of ground behind it. There was, however, adjoining it on one side a newer and larger one-story addition consisting of the dining-room, the dance floor, and concealed by a partition at one end, a bar. An open fire flickered cheerfully here in a large fireplace. Down in a hollow across the road might be seen the Benton River or creek, now frozen solid.
“There’s your river,” called Higby cheerfully as he helped Tina Kogel out of the car, for he was already very much warmed by several drinks he had taken en route. They all paused for a moment to admire the stream, winding away among the trees. “I wanted dis bunch to bring dere skates and go down dere,” sighed Hegglund, “but dey wouldn’t. Well, dat’s all right.”
By then Lucille Nickolas, seeing a flicker of flame reflected in one of the small windows of the inn, called, “Oh, see, they gotta fire.”
The car was parked, and they all trooped into the inn, and at once Higby briskly went over and started the large, noisy, clattery, tinny Nickelodeon with a nickel. And to rival him, and for a prank, Hegglund ran to the Victrola which stood in one corner and put on a record of “The Grizzly Bear,” which he found lying there.
At the first sounds of this strain, which they all knew, Tina Kogel called: “Oh, let’s all dance to that, will you? Can’t you stop that other old thing?” she added.
“Sure, after it runs down,” explained Ratterer, laughingly. “The only way to stop that thing is not to feed it any nickels.”
But now a waiter coming in, Higby began to inquire what everybody wanted. And in the meantime, to show off her charms, Hortense had taken the center of the floor and was attempting to imitate a grizzly bear walking on its hind legs, which she could do amusingly enough — quite gracefully. And Sparser, seeing her alone in the center of the floor was anxious to interest her now, followed her and tried to imitate her motions from behind. Finding him clever at it, and anxious to dance, she finally abandoned the imitation and giving him her arms went one-stepping about the room most vividly. At once, Clyde, who was by no means as good a dancer, became jealous — painfully so. In his eagerness for her, it seemed unfair to him that he should be deserted by her so early — at the very beginning of things. But she, becoming interested in Sparser, who seemed more worldly-wise, paid no attention at all to Clyde for the time being, but went dancing with her new conquest, his rhythmic skill seeming charmingly to match her own. And then, not to be out of it, the others at once chose partners, Hegglund dancing with Maida, Ratterer with Lucille and Higby with Tina Kogel. This left Laura Sipe for Clyde, who did not like her very much. She was not as perfect as she might be — a plump, pudgy-faced girl with inadequate sensual blue eyes — and Clyde, lacking any exceptional skill, they danced nothing but the conventional one- step while the others were dipping and lurching and spinning.
In a kind of sick fury, Clyde noticed that Sparser, who was still with Hortense, was by now holding her close and looking straight into her eyes. And she was permitting him. It gave him a feeling of lead at the pit of his stomach. Was it possible she was beginning to like this young upstart who had this car? And she had promised to like him for the present. It brought to him a sense of her fickleness — the probability of her real indifference to him. He wanted to do something — stop dancing and get her away from Sparser, but there was no use until this particular record ran out.
And then, just at the end of this, the waiter returned with a tray and put down cocktails, ginger ale and sandwiches upon three small tables which had been joined together. All but Sparser and Hortense quit and came toward it — a fact which Clyde was quick to note. She was a heartless flirt! She really did not care for him after all. And after making him think that she did, so recently — and getting him to help her with that coat. She could go to the devil now. He would show her. And he waiting for her! Wasn’t that the limit? Yet, finally seeing that the others were gathering about the tables, which had been placed near the fire, Hortense and Sparser ceased dancing and approached. Clyde was white and glum. He stood to one side, seemingly indifferent. And Laura Sipe, who had already noted his rage and understood the reason now moved away from him to join Tina Kogel, to whom she explained why he was so angry.
And then noting his glumness, Hortense came over, executing a phase of the “Grizzly” as she did so.
“Gee, wasn’t that swell?” she began. “Gee, how I do love to dance to music like that!”
“Sure, it’s swell for you,” returned Clyde, burning with envy and disappointment.
“Why, what’s the trouble?” she asked, in a low and almost injured tone, pretending not to guess, yet knowing quite well why he was angry. “You don’t mean to say that you’re mad because I danced with him first, do you? Oh, how silly! Why didn’t you come over then and dance with me? I couldn’t refuse to dance with him when he was right there, could I?”
“Oh, no, of course, you couldn’t,” replied Clyde sarcastically, and in a low, tense tone, for he, no more than Hortense, wanted the others to hear. “But you didn’t have to fall all over him and dream in his eyes, either, did you?” He was fairly blazing. “You needn’t say you didn’t, because I saw you.”
At this she glanced at him oddly, realizing not only the sharpness of his mood, but that this was the first time he had shown so much daring in connection with her. It must be that he was getting to feel too sure of her. She was showing him too much attention. At the same time she realized that this was not the time to show him that she did not care for him as much as she would like to have him believe, since she wanted the coat, already agreed upon.
“Oh, gee, well, ain’t that the limit?” she replied angrily, yet more because she was irritated by the fact that what he said was true than anything else. “If you aren’t the grouch. Well, I can’t help it, if you’re going to be as jealous as that. I didn’t do anything but dance with him just a little. I didn’t think you’d be mad.” She moved as if to turn away, but realizing that there was an understanding between them, and that he must be placated if things were to go on, she drew him by his coat lapels out of the range of the hearing of the others, who were already looking and listening, and began.
“Now, see here, you. Don’t go acting like this. I didn’t mean anything by what I did. Honest, I didn’t. Anyhow, everybody dances like that now. And nobody means anything by it. Aren’t you goin’ to let me be nice to you like I said, or are you?”
And now she looked him coaxingly and winsomely and calculatingly straight in the eye, as though he were the one person among all these present whom she really did like. And deliberately, and of a purpose, she made a pursy, sensuous mouth — the kind she could make — and practised a play of the lips that caused them to seem to want to kiss him — a mouth that tempted him to distraction.
“All right,” he said, looking at her weakly and yieldingly. “I suppose I am a fool, but I saw what you did, all right. You know I’m crazy about you, Hortense — just wild! I can’t help it. I wish I could sometimes. I wish I wouldn’t be such a fool.” And he looked at her and was sad. And she, realizing her power over him and how easy it was to bring him around, replied: “Oh, you — you don’t, either. I’ll kiss you after a while, when the others aren’t looking if you’ll be good.” At the same time she was conscious of the fact that Sparser’s eyes were upon her. Also that he was intensely drawn to her and that she liked him more than any one she had recently encountered.
The climax of the afternoon was reached, however, when after several more dances and drinks, the small river and its possibilities was again brought to the attention of all by Hegglund, who, looking out of one of the windows, suddenly exclaimed: “What’s de matter wit de ice down dere? Look at de swell ice. I dare dis crowd to go down dere and slide.”
They were off pell-mell — Ratterer and Tina Kogel, running hand in hand, Sparser and Lucille Nickolas, with whom he had just been dancing, Higby and Laura Sipe, whom he was finding interesting enough for a change, and Clyde and Hortense. But once on the ice, which was nothing more than a narrow, winding stream, blown clean in places by the wind, and curving among thickets of leafless trees, the company were more like young satyrs and nymphs of an older day. They ran here and there, slipping and sliding — Higby, Lucille and Maida immediately falling down, but scrambling to their feet with bursts of laughter.
And Hortense, aided by Clyde at first, minced here and there. But soon she began to run and slide, squealing in pretended fear. And now, not only Sparser but Higby, and this in spite of Clyde, began to show Hortense attention. They joined her in sliding, ran after her and pretended to try to trip her up, but caught her as she fell. And Sparser, taking her by the hand, dragged her, seemingly in spite of herself and the others, far upstream and about a curve where they could not be seen. Determined not to show further watchfulness or jealousy Clyde remained behind. But he could not help feeling that Sparser might be taking this occasion to make a date, even to kiss her. She was not incapable of letting him, even though she might pretend to him that she did not want him to. It was agonizing.
In spite of himself, he began to tingle with helpless pain — to begin to wish that he could see them. But Hegglund, having called every one to join hands and crack the whip, he took the hand of Lucille Nickolas, who was holding on to Hegglund’s, and gave his other free hand to Maida Axelrod, who in turn gave her free hand to Ratterer. And Higby and Laura Sipe were about to make up the tail when Sparser and Hortense came gliding back — he holding her by the hand. And they now tacked on at the foot. Then Hegglund and the others began running and doubling back and forth until all beyond Maida had fallen and let go. And, as Clyde noted, Hortense and Sparser, in falling, skidded and rolled against each other to the edge of the shore where were snow and leaves and twigs. And Hortense’s skirts, becoming awry in some way, moved up to above her knees. But instead of showing any embarrassment, as Clyde thought and wished she might, she sat there for a few moments without shame and even laughing heartily — and Sparser with her and still holding her hand. And Laura Sipe, having fallen in such a way as to trip Higby, who had fallen across her, they also lay there laughing and yet in a most suggestive position, as Clyde thought. He noted, too, that Laura Sipe’s skirts had been worked above her knees. And Sparser, now sitting up, was pointing to her pretty legs and laughing loudly, showing most of his teeth. And all the others were emitting peals and squeals of laughter.
“Hang it all!” thought Clyde. “Why the deuce does he always have to be hanging about her? Why didn’t he bring a girl of his own if he wanted to have a good time? What right have they got to go where they can’t be seen? And she thinks I think she means nothing by all this. She never laughs that heartily with me, you bet. What does she think I am that she can put that stuff over on me, anyhow?” He glowered darkly for the moment, but in spite of his thoughts the line or whip was soon re-formed and this time with Lucille Nickolas still holding his hand. Sparser and Hortense at the tail end again. But Hegglund, unconscious of the mood of Clyde and thinking only of the sport, called: “Better let some one else take de end dere, hadn’tcha?” And feeling the fairness of this, Ratterer and Maida Axelrod and Clyde and Lucille Nickolas now moved down with Higby and Laura Sipe and Hortense and Sparser above them. Only, as Clyde noted, Hortense still held Sparser by the hand, yet she moved just above him and took his hand, he being to the right, with Sparser next above to her left, holding her other hand firmly, which infuriated Clyde. Why couldn’t he stick to Laura Sipe, the girl brought out here for him? And Hortense was encouraging him.
He was very sad, and he felt so angry and bitter that he could scarcely play the game. He wanted to stop and quarrel with Sparser. But so brisk and eager was Hegglund that they were off before he could even think of doing so.
And then, try as he would, to keep his balance in the face of this, he and Lucille and Ratterer and Maida Axelrod were thrown down and spun around on the ice like curling irons. And Hortense, letting go of him at the right moment, seemed to prefer deliberately to hang on to Sparser. Entangled with these others, Clyde and they spun across forty feet of smooth, green ice and piled against a snow bank. At the finish, as he found, Lucille Nickolas was lying across his knees face down in such a spanking position that he was compelled to laugh. And Maida Axelrod was on her back, next to Ratterer, her legs straight up in the air; on purpose he thought. She was too coarse and bold for him. And there followed, of course, squeals and guffaws of delight — so loud that they could be heard for half a mile. Hegglund, intensely susceptible to humor at all times, doubled to the knees, slapped his thighs and bawled. And Sparser opened his big mouth and chortled and grimaced until he was scarlet. So infectious was the result that for the time being Clyde forgot his jealousy. He too looked and laughed. But Clyde’s mood had not changed really. He still felt that she wasn’t playing fair.
At the end of all this playing Lucille Nickolas and Tina Kogel being tired, dropped out. And Hortense, also. Clyde at once left the group to join her. Ratterer then followed Lucille. Then the others separating, Hegglund pushed Maida Axelrod before him down stream out of sight around a bend. Higby, seemingly taking his cue from this, pulled Tina Kogel up stream, and Ratterer and Lucille, seeming to see something of interest, struck into a thicket, laughing and talking as they went. Even Sparser and Laura, left to themselves, now wandered off, leaving Clyde and Hortense alone.
And then, as these two wandered toward a fallen log which here paralleled the stream, she sat down. But Clyde, smarting from his fancied wounds, stood silent for the time being, while she, sensing as much, took him by the belt of his coat and began to pull at him.
“Giddap, horsey,” she played. “Giddap. My horsey has to skate me now on the ice.”
Clyde looked at her glumly, glowering mentally, and not to be diverted so easily from the ills which he felt to be his.
“Whadd’ye wanta let that fellow Sparser always hang around you for?” he demanded. “I saw you going up the creek there with him a while ago. What did he say to you up there?”
“He didn’t say anything.”
“Oh, no, of course not,” he replied cynically and bitterly. “And maybe he didn’t kiss you, either.”
“I should say not,” she replied definitely and spitefully, “I’d like to know what you think I am, anyhow. I don’t let people kiss me the first time they see me, smarty, and I want you to know it. I didn’t let you, did I?”
“Oh, that’s all right, too,” answered Clyde; “but you didn’t like me as well as you do him, either.”
“Oh, didn’t I? Well, maybe I didn’t, but what right have you to say I like him, anyhow. I’d like to know if I can’t have a little fun without you watching me all the time. You make me tired, that’s what you do.” She was quite angry now because of the proprietary air he appeared to be assuming.
And now Clyde, repulsed and somewhat shaken by this sudden counter on her part, decided on the instant that perhaps it might be best for him to modify his tone. After all, she had never said that she had really cared for him, even in the face of the implied promise she had made him.
“Oh, well,” he observed glumly after a moment, and not without a little of sadness in his tone, “I know one thing. If I let on that I cared for any one as much as you say you do for me at times, I wouldn’t want to flirt around with others like you are doing out here.”
“Oh, wouldn’t you?”
“No, I wouldn’t.”
“Well, who’s flirting anyhow, I’d like to know?”
“I’m not either, and I wish you’d just go away and let me alone if you can’t do anything but quarrel with me. Just because I danced with him up there in the restaurant, is no reason for you to think I’m flirting. Oh, you make me tired, that’s what you do,”
“Yes, you do.”
“Well, maybe I better go off and not bother you any more at all then,” he returned, a trace of his mother’s courage welling up in him.
“Well, maybe you had, if that’s the way you’re going to feel about me all the time,” she answered, and kicked viciously with her toes at the ice. But Clyde was beginning to feel that he could not possibly go through with this — that after all he was too eager about her — too much at her feet. He began to weaken and gaze nervously at her. And she, thinking of her coat again, decided to be civil.
“You didn’t look in his eyes, did you?” he asked weakly, his thoughts going back to her dancing with Sparser.
“When you were dancing with him?”
“No, I didn’t, not that I know of, anyhow. But supposing I did. What of it? I didn’t mean anything by it. Gee, criminy, can’t a person look in anybody’s eyes if they want to?”
“In the way you looked in his? Not if you claim to like anybody else, I say.” And the skin of Clyde’s forehead lifted and sank, and his eyelids narrowed. Hortense merely clicked impatiently and indignantly with her tongue.
“Tst! Tst! Tst! If you ain’t the limit!”
“And a while ago back there on the ice,” went on Clyde determinedly and yet pathetically. “When you came back from up there, instead of coming up to where I was you went to the foot of the line with him. I saw you. And you held his hand, too, all the way back. And then when you fell down, you had to sit there with him holding your hand. I’d like to know what you call that if it ain’t flirting. What else is it? I’ll bet he thinks it is, all right.”
“Well, I wasn’t flirting with him just the same and I don’t care what you say. But if you want to have it that way, have it that way. I can’t stop you. You’re so darn jealous you don’t want to let anybody else do anything, that’s all the matter with you. How else can you play on the ice if you don’t hold hands, I’d like to know? Gee, criminy! What about you and that Lucille Nickolas? I saw her laying across your lap and you laughing. And I didn’t think anything of that. What do you want me to do — come out here and sit around like a bump on a log? — follow you around like a tail? Or you follow me? What-a-yuh think I am anyhow? A nut?”
She was being ragged by Clyde, as she thought, and she didn’t like it. She was thinking of Sparser who was really more appealing to her at the time than Clyde. He was more materialistic, less romantic, more direct.
He turned and, taking off his cap, rubbed his head gloomily while Hortense, looking at him, thought first of him and then of Sparser. Sparser was more manly, not so much of a crybaby. He wouldn’t stand around and complain this way, you bet. He’d probably leave her for good, have nothing more to do with her. Yet Clyde, after his fashion, was interesting and useful. Who else would do for her what he had? And at any rate, he was not trying to force her to go off with him now as these others had gone and as she had feared he might try to do — ahead of her plan and wish. This quarrel was obviating that.
“Now, see here,” she said after a time, having decided that it was best to assuage him and that it was not so hard to manage him after all. “Are we goin’ t’fight all the time, Clyde? What’s the use, anyhow? Whatja want me to come out here for if you just want to fight with me all the time? I wouldn’t have come if I’d ‘a’ thought you were going to do that all day.”
She turned and kicked at the ice with the minute toe of her shoes, and Clyde, always taken by her charm again, put his arms about her, and crushed her to him, at the same time fumbling at her breasts and putting his lips to hers and endeavoring to hold and fondle her. But now, because of her suddenly developed liking for Sparser, and partially because of her present mood towards Clyde, she broke away, a dissatisfaction with herself and him troubling her. Why should she let him force her to do anything she did not feel like doing, just now, anyhow, she now asked herself. She hadn’t agreed to be as nice to him to-day as he might wish. Not yet. At any rate just now she did not want to be handled in this way by him, and she would not, regardless of what he might do. And Clyde, sensing by now what the true state of her mind in regard to him must be, stepped back and yet continued to gaze gloomily and hungrily at her. And she in turn merely stared at him.
“I thought you said you liked me,” he demanded almost savagely now, realizing that his dreams of a happy outing this day were fading into nothing.
“Well, I do when you’re nice,” she replied, slyly and evasively, seeking some way to avoid complications in connection with her original promises to him.
“Yes, you do,” he grumbled. “I see how you do. Why, here we are out here now and you won’t even let me touch you. I’d like to know what you meant by all that you said, anyhow.”
“Well, what did I say?” she countered, merely to gain time.
“As though you didn’t know.”
“Oh, well. But that wasn’t to be right away, either, was it? I thought we said”— she paused dubiously.
“I know what you said,” he went on. “But I notice now that you don’t like me an’ that’s all there is to it. What difference would it make if you really cared for me whether you were nice to me now or next week or the week after? Gee whiz, you’d think it was something that depended on what I did for you, not whether you cared for me.” In his pain he was quite intense and courageous.
“That’s not so!” she snapped, angrily and bitterly, irritated by the truth of what he said. “And I wish you wouldn’t say that to me, either. I don’t care anything about the old coat now, if you want to know it. And you can just have your old money back, too, I don’t want it. And you can just let me alone from now on, too,” she added. “I’ll get all the coats I want without any help from you.” At this, she turned and walked away.
But Clyde, now anxious to mollify her as usual, ran after her. “Don’t go, Hortense,” he pleaded. “Wait a minute. I didn’t mean that either, honest I didn’t. I’m crazy about you. Honest I am. Can’t you see that? Oh, gee, don’t go now. I’m not giving you the money to get something for it. You can have it for nothing if you want it that way. There ain’t anybody else in the world like you to me, and there never has been. You can have the money for all I care, all of it. I don’t want it back. But, gee, I did think you liked me a little. Don’t you care for me at all, Hortense?” He looked cowed and frightened, and she, sensing her mastery over him, relented a little.
“Of course I do,” she announced. “But just the same, that don’t mean that you can treat me any old way, either. You don’t seem to understand that a girl can’t do everything you want her to do just when you want her to do it.”
“Just what do you mean by that?” asked Clyde, not quite sensing just what she did mean. “I don’t get you.”
“Oh, yes, you do, too.” She could not believe that he did not know.
“Oh, I guess I know what you’re talkin’ about. I know what you’re going to say now,” he went on disappointedly. “That’s that old stuff they all pull. I know.”
He was reciting almost verbatim the words and intonations even of the other boys at the hotel — Higby, Ratterer, Eddie Doyle — who, having narrated the nature of such situations to him, and how girls occasionally lied out of pressing dilemmas in this way, had made perfectly clear to him what was meant. And Hortense knew now that he did know.
“Gee, but you’re mean,” she said in an assumed hurt way. “A person can never tell you anything or expect you to believe it. Just the same, it’s true, whether you believe it or not.”
“Oh, I know how you are,” he replied, sadly yet a little loftily, as though this were an old situation to him. “You don’t like me, that’s all. I see that now, all right.”
“Gee, but you’re mean,” she persisted, affecting an injured air. “It’s the God’s truth. Believe me or not, I swear it. Honest it is.”
Clyde stood there. In the face of this small trick there was really nothing much to say as he saw it. He could not force her to do anything. If she wanted to lie and pretend, he would have to pretend to believe her. And yet a great sadness settled down upon him. He was not to win her after all — that was plain. He turned, and she, being convinced that he felt that she was lying now, felt it incumbent upon herself to do something about it — to win him around to her again.
“Please, Clyde, please,” she began now, most artfully, “I mean that. Really, I do. Won’t you believe me? But I will next week, sure. Honest, I will. Won’t you believe that? I meant everything I said when I said it. Honest, I did. I do like you — a lot. Won’t you believe that, too — please?”
And Clyde, thrilled from head to toe by this latest phase of her artistry, agreed that he would. And once more he began to smile and recover his gayety. And by the time they reached the car, to which they were all called a few minutes after by Hegglund, because of the time, and he had held her hand and kissed her often, he was quite convinced that the dream he had been dreaming was as certain of fulfillment as anything could be. Oh, the glory of it when it should come true!
For the major portion of the return trip to Kansas City, there was nothing to mar the very agreeable illusion under which Clyde rested. He sat beside Hortense, who leaned her head against his shoulder. And although Sparser, who had waited for the others to step in before taking the wheel, had squeezed her arm and received an answering and promising look, Clyde had not seen that.
But the hour being late and the admonitions of Hegglund, Ratterer and Higby being all for speed, and the mood of Sparser, because of the looks bestowed upon him by Hortense, being the gayest and most drunken, it was not long before the outlying lamps of the environs began to show.
For the car was rushed along the road at break-neck speed. At one point, however, where one of the eastern trunk lines approached the city, there was a long and unexpected and disturbing wait at a grade crossing where two freight trains met and passed. Farther in, at North Kansas City, it began to snow, great soft slushy flakes, feathering down and coating the road surface with a slippery layer of mud which required more caution than had been thus far displayed. It was then half past five. Ordinarily, an additional eight minutes at high speed would have served to bring the car within a block or two of the hotel. But now, with another delay near Hannibal Bridge owing to grade crossing, it was twenty minutes to six before the bridge was crossed and Wyandotte Street reached. And already all four of these youths had lost all sense of the delight of the trip and the pleasure the companionship of these girls had given them. For already they were worrying as to the probability of their reaching the hotel in time. The smug and martinetish figure of Mr. Squires loomed before them all.
“Gee, if we don’t do better than this,” observed Ratterer to Higby, who was nervously fumbling with his watch, “we’re not goin’ to make it. We’ll hardly have time, as it is, to change.”
Clyde, hearing him, exclaimed: “Oh, crickets! I wish we could hurry a little. Gee, I wish now we hadn’t come to-day. It’ll be tough if we don’t get there on time.”
And Hortense, noting his sudden tenseness and unrest, added: “Don’t you think you’ll make it all right?”
“Not this way,” he said. But Hegglund, who had been studying the flaked air outside, a world that seemed dotted with falling bits of cotton, called: “Eh, dere Willard. We certainly gotta do better dan dis. It means de razoo for us if we don’t get dere on time.”
And Higby, for once stirred out of a gambler-like effrontery and calm, added: “We’ll walk the plank all right unless we can put up some good yarn. Can’t anybody think of anything?” As for Clyde, he merely sighed nervously.
And then, as though to torture them the more, an unexpected crush of vehicles appeared at nearly every intersection. And Sparser, who was irritated by this particular predicament, was contemplating with impatience the warning hand of a traffic policeman, which, at the intersection of Ninth and Wyandotte, had been raised against him. “There goes his mit again,” he exclaimed. “What can I do about that! I might turn over to Washington, but I don’t know whether we’ll save any time by going over there.”
A full minute passed before he was signaled to go forward. Then swiftly he swung the car to the right and three blocks over into Washington Street.
But here the conditions were no better. Two heavy lines of traffic moved in opposite directions. And at each succeeding corner several precious moments were lost as the cross-traffic went by. Then the car would tear on to the next corner, weaving its way in and out as best it could.
At Fifteenth and Washington, Clyde exclaimed to Ratterer: “How would it do if we got out at Seventeenth and walked over?”
“You won’t save any time if I can turn over there,” called Sparser. “I can get over there quicker than you can.”
He crowded the other cars for every inch of available space. At Sixteenth and Washington, seeing what he considered a fairly clear block to the left, he turned the car and tore along that thoroughfare to as far as Wyandotte once more. Just as he neared the corner and was about to turn at high speed, swinging in close to the curb to do so, a little girl of about nine, who was running toward the crossing, jumped directly in front of the moving machine. And because there was no opportunity given him to turn and avoid her, she was struck and dragged a number of feet before the machine could be halted. At the same time, there arose piercing screams from at least half a dozen women, and shouts from as many men who had witnessed the accident.
Instantly they all rushed toward the child, who had been thrown under and passed over by the wheels. And Sparser, looking out and seeing them gathering about the fallen figure, was seized with an uninterpretable mental panic which conjured up the police, jail, his father, the owner of the car, severe punishment in many forms. And though by now all the others in the car were up and giving vent to anguished exclamations such as “Oh, God! He hit a little girl”; “Oh, gee, he’s killed a kid!” “Oh, mercy!” “Oh, Lord!” “Oh, heavens, what’ll we do now?” he turned and exclaimed: “Jesus, the cops! I gotta get outa this with this car.”
And, without consulting the others, who were still half standing, but almost speechless with fear, he shot the lever into first, second and then high, and giving the engine all the gas it would endure, sped with it to the next corner beyond.
But there, as at the other corners in this vicinity, a policeman was stationed, and having already seen some commotion at the corner west of him, had already started to leave his post in order to ascertain what it was. As he did so, cries of “Stop that car”— “Stop that car”— reached his ears. And a man, running toward the sedan from the scene of the accident, pointed to it, and called: “Stop that car, stop that car. They’ve killed a child.”
Then gathering what was meant, he turned toward the car, putting his police whistle to his mouth as he did so. But Sparser, having by this time heard the cries and seen the policeman leaving, dashed swiftly past him into Seventeenth Street, along which he sped at almost forty miles an hour, grazing the hub of a truck in one instance, scraping the fender of an automobile in another, and missing by inches and quarter inches vehicles or pedestrians, while those behind him in the car were for the most part sitting bolt upright and tense, their eyes wide, their hands clenched, their faces and lips set — or, as in the case of Hortense and Lucille Nickolas and Tina Kogel, giving voice to repeated, “Oh, Gods!” “Oh, what’s going to happen now?”
But the police and those who had started to pursue were not to be outdone so quickly. Unable to make out the license plate number and seeing from the first motions of the car that it had no intention of stopping, the officer blew a loud and long blast on his police whistle. And the policeman at the next corner seeing the car speed by and realizing what it meant, blew on his whistle, then stopped, and springing on the running board of a passing touring car ordered it to give chase. And at this, seeing what was amiss or awind, three other cars, driven by adventurous spirits, joined in the chase, all honking loudly as they came.
But the Packard had far more speed in it than any of its pursuers, and although for the first few blocks of the pursuit there were cries of “Stop that car!” “Stop that car!” still, owing to the much greater speed of the car, these soon died away, giving place to the long wild shrieks of distant horns in full cry.
Sparser by now having won a fair lead and realizing that a straight course was the least baffling to pursue, turned swiftly into McGee, a comparatively quiet thoroughfare along which he tore for a few blocks to the wide and winding Gillham Parkway, whose course was southward. But having followed that at terrific speed for a short distance, he again — at Thirty-first — decided to turn — the houses in the distance confusing him and the suburban country to the north seeming to offer the best opportunity for evading his pursuers. And so now he swung the car to the left into that thoroughfare, his thought here being that amid these comparatively quiet streets it was possible to wind in and out and so shake off pursuit — at least long enough to drop his passengers somewhere and return the car to the garage.
And this he would have been able to do had it not been for the fact that in turning into one of the more outlying streets of this region, where there were scarcely any houses and no pedestrians visible, he decided to turn off his lights, the better to conceal the whereabouts of the car. Then, still speeding east, north, and east and south by turns, he finally dashed into one street where, after a few hundred feet, the pavement suddenly ended. But because another cross street was visible a hundred feet or so further on, and he imagined that by turning into that he might find a paved thoroughfare again, he sped on and then swung sharply to the left, only to crash roughly into a pile of paving stones left by a contractor who was preparing to pave the way. In the absence of lights he had failed to distinguish this. And diagonally opposite to these, lengthwise of a prospective sidewalk, had been laid a pile of lumber for a house.
Striking the edge of the paving stones at high speed, he caromed, and all but upsetting the car, made directly for the lumber pile opposite, into which he crashed. Only instead of striking it head on, the car struck one end, causing it to give way and spread out, but only sufficiently to permit the right wheels to mount high upon it and so throw the car completely over onto its left side in the grass and snow beyond the walk. Then there, amid a crash of glass and the impacts of their own bodies, the occupants were thrown down in a heap, forward and to the left.
What happened afterwards is more or less of a mystery and a matter of confusion, not only to Clyde, but to all the others. For Sparser and Laura Sipe, being in front, were dashed against the wind-shield and the roof and knocked senseless, Sparser, having his shoulder, hip and left knee wrenched in such a way as to make it necessary to let him lie in the car as he was until an ambulance arrived. He could not possibly be lifted out through the door, which was in the roof as the car now lay. And in the second seat, Clyde, being nearest the door to the left and next to him Hortense, Lucille Nickolas and Ratterer, was pinioned under and yet not crushed by their combined weights. For Hortense in falling had been thrown completely over him on her side against the roof, which was now the left wall. And Lucille, next above her, fell in such a way as to lie across Clyde’s shoulders only, while Ratterer, now topmost of the four, had, in falling, been thrown over the seat in front of him. But grasping the steering wheel in front of him as he fell, the same having been wrenched from Sparser’s hands, he had broken his fall in part by clinging to it. But even so, his face and hands were cut and bruised and his shoulder, arm and hip slightly wrenched, yet not sufficiently to prevent his being of assistance to the others. For at once, realizing the plight of the others as well as his own, and stirred by their screams, Ratterer was moved to draw himself up and out through the top or side door which he now succeeded in opening, scrambling over the others to reach it.
Once out, he climbed upon the chassis beam of the toppled car, and, reaching down, caught hold of the struggling and moaning Lucille, who like the others was trying to climb up but could not. And exerting all his strength and exclaiming, “Be still, now, honey, I gotcha. You’re all right, I’ll getcha out,” he lifted her to a sitting position on the side of the door, then down in the snow, where he placed her and where she sat crying and feeling her arms and her head. And after her he helped Hortense, her left cheek and forehead and both hands badly bruised and bleeding, but not seriously, although she did not know that at the time. She was whimpering and shivering and shaking — a nervous chill having succeeded the dazed and almost unconscious state which had followed the first crash.
At that moment, Clyde, lifting his bewildered head above the side door of the car, his left cheek, shoulder and arm bruised, but not otherwise injured, was thinking that he too must get out of this as quickly as possible. A child had been killed; a car stolen and wrecked; his job was most certainly lost; the police were in pursuit and might even find them there at any minute. And below him in the car was Sparser, prone where he fell, but already being looked to by Ratterer. And beside him Laura Sipe, also unconscious. He felt called upon to do something — to assist Ratterer, who was reaching down and trying to lay hold of Laura Sipe without injuring her. But so confused were his thoughts that he would have stood there without helping any one had it not been for Ratterer, who called most irritably, “Give us a hand here, Clyde, will you? Let’s see if we can get her out. She’s fainted.” And Clyde, turning now instead of trying to climb out, began to seek to lift her from within, standing on the broken glass window of the side beneath his feet and attempting to draw her body back and up off the body of Sparser. But this was not possible. She was too limp — too heavy. He could only draw her back — off the body of Sparser — and then let her rest there, between the second and first seats on the car’s side.
But, meanwhile, at the back Hegglund, being nearest the top and only slightly stunned, had managed to reach the door nearest him and throw it back. Thus, by reason of his athletic body, he was able to draw himself up and out, saying as he did so: “Oh, Jesus, what a finish! Oh, Christ, dis is de limit! Oh, Jesus, we better beat it outa dis before de cops git here.”
At the same time, however, seeing the others below him and hearing their cries, he could not contemplate anything so desperate as desertion. Instead, once out, he turned and making out Maida below him, exclaimed: “Here, for Christ’s sake, gimme your hand. We gotta get outa dis and dam quick, I tell ya.” Then turning from Maida, who for the moment was feeling her wounded and aching head, he mounted the top chassis beam again and, reaching down, caught hold of Tina Kogel, who, only stunned, was trying to push herself to a sitting position while resting heavily on top of Higby. But he, relieved of the weight of the others, was already kneeling, and feeling his head and face with his hands.
“Gimme your hand, Dave,” called Hegglund. “Hurry! For Christ’s sake! We ain’t got no time to lose around here. Are ya hurt? Christ, we gotta git outa here, I tellya. I see a guy comin’ acrost dere now an’ I doughno wedder he’s a cop or not.” He started to lay hold of Higby’s left hand, but as he did so Higby repulsed him.
“Huh, uh,” he exclaimed. “Don’t pull. I’m all right. I’ll get out by myself. Help the others.” And standing up, his head above the level of the door, he began to look about within the car for something on which to place his foot. The back cushion having fallen out and forward, he got his foot on that and raised himself up to the door level on which he sat and drew out his leg. Then looking about, and seeing Hegglund attempting to assist Ratterer and Clyde with Sparser, he went to their aid.
Outside, some odd and confusing incidents had already occurred. For Hortense, who had been lifted out before Clyde, and had suddenly begun to feel her face, had as suddenly realized that her left cheek and forehead were not only scraped but bleeding. And being seized by the notion that her beauty might have been permanently marred by this accident, she was at once thrown into a state of selfish panic which caused her to become completely oblivious, not only to the misery and injury of the others, but to the danger of discovery by the police, the injury to the child, the wreck of this expensive car — in fact everything but herself and the probability or possibility that her beauty had been destroyed. She began to whimper on the instant and wave her hands up and down. “Oh, goodness, goodness, goodness!” she exclaimed desperately. “Oh, how dreadful! Oh, how terrible! Oh, my face is all cut.” And feeling an urgent compulsion to do something about it, she suddenly set off (and without a word to any one and while Clyde was still inside helping Ratterer) south along 35th Street, toward the city where were lights and more populated streets. Her one thought was to reach her own home as speedily as possible in order that she might do something for herself.
Of Clyde, Sparser, Ratterer and the other girls — she really thought nothing. What were they now? It was only intermittently and between thoughts of her marred beauty that she could even bring herself to think of the injured child — the horror of which as well as the pursuit by the police, maybe, the fact that the car did not belong to Sparser or that it was wrecked, and that they were all liable to arrest in consequence, affecting her but slightly. Her one thought in regard to Clyde was that he was the one who had invited her to this ill-fated journey — hence that he was to blame, really. Those beastly boys — to think they should have gotten her into this and then didn’t have brains enough to manage better.
The other girls, apart from Laura Sipe, were not seriously injured — any of them. They were more frightened than anything else, but now that this had happened they were in a panic, lest they be overtaken by the police, arrested, exposed and punished. And accordingly they stood about, exclaiming “Oh, gee, hurry, can’t you? Oh, dear, we ought all of us to get away from here. Oh, it’s all so terrible.” Until at last Hegglund exclaimed: “For Christ’s sake, keep quiet, cantcha? We’re doing de best we can, cantcha see? You’ll have de cops down on us in a minute as it is.”
And then, as if in answer to his comment, a lone suburbanite who lived some four blocks from the scene across the fields and who, hearing the crash and the cries in the night, had ambled across to see what the trouble was, now drew near and stood curiously looking at the stricken group and the car.
“Had an accident, eh?” he exclaimed, genially enough. “Any one badly hurt? Gee, that’s too bad. And that’s a swell car, too. Can I help any?”
Clyde, hearing him talk and looking out and not seeing Hortense anywhere, and not being able to do more for Sparser than stretch him in the bottom of the car, glanced agonizingly about. For the thought of the police and their certain pursuit was strong upon him. He must get out of this. He must not be caught here. Think of what would happen to him if he were caught — how he would be disgraced and punished probably — all his fine world stripped from him before he could say a word really. His mother would hear — Mr. Squires — everybody. Most certainly he would go to jail. Oh, how terrible that thought was — grinding really like a macerating wheel to his flesh. They could do nothing more for Sparser, and they only laid themselves open to being caught by lingering. So asking, “Where’d Miss Briggs go?” he now began to climb out, then started looking about the dark and snowy fields for her. His thought was that he would first assist her to wherever she might desire to go.
But just then in the distance was heard the horns and the hum of at least two motorcycles speeding swiftly in the direction of this very spot. For already the wife of the suburbanite, on hearing the crash and the cries in the distance, had telephoned the police that an accident had occurred here. And now the suburbanite was explaining: “That’s them. I told the wife to telephone for an ambulance.” And hearing this, all these others now began to run, for they all realized what that meant. And in addition, looking across the fields one could see the lights of these approaching machines. They reached Thirty-first and Cleveland together. Then one turned south toward this very spot, along Cleveland Avenue. And the other continued east on Thirty-first, reconnoitering for the accident.
“Beat it, for God’s sake, all of youse,” whispered Hegglund, excitedly. “Scatter!” And forthwith, seizing Maida Axelrod by the hand, he started to run east along Thirty-fifth Street, in which the car then lay — along the outlying eastern suburbs. But after a moment, deciding that that would not do either, that it would be too easy to pursue him along a street, he cut northeast, directly across the open fields and away from the city.
And now, Clyde, as suddenly sensing what capture would mean — how all his fine thoughts of pleasure would most certainly end in disgrace and probably prison, began running also. Only in his case, instead of following Hegglund or any of the others, he turned south along Cleveland Avenue toward the southern limits of the city. But like Hegglund, realizing that that meant an easy avenue of pursuit for any one who chose to follow, he too took to the open fields. Only instead of running away from the city as before, he now turned southwest and ran toward those streets which lay to the south of Fortieth. Only much open space being before him before he should reach them, and a clump of bushes showing in the near distance, and the light of the motorcycle already sweeping the road behind him, he ran to that and for the moment dropped behind it.
Only Sparser and Laura Sipe were left within the car, she at that moment beginning to recover consciousness. And the visiting stranger, much astounded, was left standing outside.
“Why, the very idea!” he suddenly said to himself. “They must have stolen that car. It couldn’t have belonged to them at all.”
And just then the first motorcycle reaching the scene, Clyde from his not too distant hiding place was able to overhear. “Well, you didn’t get away with it after all, did you? You thought you were pretty slick, but you didn’t make it. You’re the one we want, and what’s become of the rest of the gang, eh? Where are they, eh?”
And hearing the suburbanite declare quite definitely that he had nothing to do with it, that the real occupants of the car had but then run away and might yet be caught if the police wished, Clyde, who was still within earshot of what was being said, began crawling upon his hands and knees at first in the snow south, south and west, always toward some of those distant streets which, lamplit and faintly glowing, he saw to the southwest of him, and among which presently, if he were not captured, he hoped to hide — to lose himself and so escape — if the fates were only kind — the misery and the punishment and the unending dissatisfaction and disappointment which now, most definitely, it all represented to him.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53