An American Tragedy Chapter 14

Mr. Catchuman did not prove by any means to be the one to extract from Clyde anything more than had either Mason or Smillie. Although shrewd to a degree in piecing together out of the muddled statements of another such data as seemed most probable, still he was not so successful in the realm of the emotions, as was necessary in the case of Clyde. He was too legal, chilling—unemotional. And in consequence, after grilling Clyde for four long hours one hot July afternoon, he was eventually compelled to desist with the feeling that as a plotter of crime Clyde was probably the most arresting example of feeble and blundering incapacity he had ever met.

For since Smillie’s departure Mason had proceeded to the shores of Big Bittern with Clyde. And there discovered the tripod and camera. Also listened to more of Clyde’s lies. And as he now explained to Catchuman that, while Clyde denied owning a camera, nevertheless he had proof that he did own one and had taken it with him when he left Lycurgus. Yet when confronted with this fact by Catchuman, as the latter now noticed, Clyde had nothing to say other than that he had not taken a camera with him and that the tripod found was not the one belonging to any camera of his—a lie which so irritated Catchuman that he decided not to argue with him further.

At the same time, however, Brookhart having instructed him that, whatever his personal conclusions in regard to Clyde, a lawyer of sorts was indispensable—the charity, if not the honor, of the Griffiths being this much involved, the western Griffiths, as Brookhart had already explained to him, having nothing and not being wanted in the case anyhow—he decided that he must find one before leaving. In consequence, and without any knowledge of the local political situation, he proceeded to the office of Ira Kellogg, president of the Cataraqui County National Bank, who, although Catchuman did not know it, was high in the councils of the Democratic organization. And because of his religious and moral views, this same Kellogg was already highly incensed and irritated by the crime of which Clyde was accused. On the other hand, however, because as he well knew this case was likely to pave the way for an additional Republican sweep at the approaching primaries, he was not blind to the fact that some reducing opposition to Mason might not be amiss. Fate seemed too obviously to be favoring the Republican machine in the person of and crime committed by Clyde.

For since the discovery of this murder, Mason had been basking in such publicity and even nation-wide notoriety as had not befallen any district attorney of this region in years and years. Newspaper correspondents and reporters and illustrators from such distant cities as Buffalo, Rochester, Chicago, New York and Boston, were already arriving as everybody knew or saw, to either interview or make sketches or take photos of Clyde, Mason, the surviving members of the Alden family, et cetera, while locally Mason was the recipient of undiluted praise, even the Democratic voters in the county joining with the Republicans in assuring each other that Mason was all right, that he was handling this young murderer in the way that he deserved to be handled, and that neither the wealth of the Griffiths nor of the family of that rich girl whom he appeared to have been trying to capture, was influencing this young tribune of the people in the least. He was a real attorney. He had not “allowed any grass to grow under his feet, you bet.”

Indeed previous to Catchuman’s visit, a coroner’s jury had been called, with Mason attending and directing even, the verdict being that the dead girl had come to her death through a plot devised and executed by one Clyde Griffiths who was then and there in the county jail of Bridgeburg and that he be held to await the verdict of the County Grand Jury to whom his crime was soon to be presented. And Mason, through an appeal to the Governor, as all now knew was planning to secure a special sitting of the Supreme Court, which would naturally involve an immediate session of the County Grand Jury in order to hear the evidence and either indict or discharge Clyde. And now, Catchuman arriving to inquire where he was likely to find a local lawyer of real ability who could be trusted to erect some sort of a defense for Clyde. And immediately as an offset to all this there popped into Kellogg’s mind the name and reputation of one Hon. Alvin Belknap, of Belknap and Jephson, of this same city—an individual who had been twice state senator, three times Democratic assemblyman from this region, and more recently looked upon by various Democratic politicians as one who would be favored with higher honors as soon as it was possible to arrange an issue which would permit the Democrats to enter into local office. In fact, only three years before, in a contest with Mason for the district attorneyship, this same Belknap had run closer to victory than any other candidate on the Democratic ticket. Indeed, so rounded a man was he politically that this year he had been slated for that very county judgeship nomination which Mason had in view. And but for this sudden and most amazing development in connection with Clyde, it had been quite generally assumed that Belknap, once nominated, would be elected. And although Mr. Kellogg did not quite trouble to explain to Catchuman all the complicated details of this very interesting political situation, he did explain that Mr. Belknap was a very exceptional man, almost the ideal one, if one were looking for an opponent to Mason.

And with this slight introduction, Kellogg now offered personally to conduct Catchuman to Belknap and Jephson’s office, just across the way in the Bowers Block.

And then knocking at Belknap’s door, they were admitted by a brisk, medium-sized and most engaging-looking man of about forty-eight, whose gray-blue eyes at once fixed themselves in the mind of Catchuman as the psychic windows of a decidedly shrewd if not altogether masterful and broadgauge man. For Belknap was inclined to carry himself with an air which all were inclined to respect. He was a college graduate, and in his youth because of his looks, his means, and his local social position (his father had been a judge as well as a national senator from here), he had seen so much of what might be called near-city life that all those gaucheries as well as sex-inhibitions and sex-longings which still so greatly troubled and motivated and even marked a man like Mason had long since been covered with an easy manner and social understanding which made him fairly capable of grasping any reasonable moral or social complication which life was prepared to offer.

Indeed he was one who naturally would approach a case such as Clyde’s with less vehemence and fever than did Mason. For once, in his twentieth year, he himself had been trapped between two girls, with one of whom he was merely playing while being seriously in love with the other. And having seduced the first and being confronted with an engagement or flight, he had chosen flight. But not before laying the matter before his father, by whom he was advised to take a vacation, during which time the services of the family doctor were engaged with the result that for a thousand dollars and expenses necessary to house the pregnant girl in Utica, the father had finally extricated his son and made possible his return, and eventual marriage to the other girl.

And therefore, while by no means sympathizing with the more cruel and drastic phases of Clyde’s attempt at escape—as so far charged (never in all the years of his law practice had he been able to grasp the psychology of a murderer) still because of the rumored existence and love influence of a rich girl whose name had not as yet been divulged he was inclined to suspect that Clyde had been emotionally betrayed or bewitched. Was he not poor and vain and ambitious? He had heard so: had even been thinking that he—the local political situation being what it was might advantageously to himself—and perhaps most disruptingly to the dreams of Mr. Mason be able to construct a defense—or at least a series of legal contentions and delays which might make it not so easy for Mr. Mason to walk away with the county judgeship as he imagined. Might it not, by brisk, legal moves now—and even in the face of this rising public sentiment, or because of it,—be possible to ask for a change of venue—or time to develop new evidence in which case a trial might not occur before Mr. Mason was out of office. He and his young and somewhat new associate, Mr. Reuben Jephson, of quite recently the state of Vermont, had been thinking of it.

And now Mr. Catchuman accompanied by Mr. Kellogg. And thereupon a conference with Mr. Catchuman and Mr. Kellogg, with the latter arguing quite politically the wisdom of his undertaking such a defense. And his own interest in the case being what it was, he was not long in deciding, after a conference with his younger associate, that he would. In the long run it could not possibly injure him politically, however the public might feel about it now.

And then Catchuman having handed over a retainer to Belknap as well as a letter introducing him to Clyde, Belknap had Jephson call up Mason to inform him that Belknap & Jephson, as counsel for Samuel Griffiths on behalf of his nephew, would require of him a detailed written report of all the charges as well as all the evidence thus far accumulated, the minutes of the autopsy and the report of the coroner’s inquest. Also information as to whether any appeal for a special term of the Supreme Court had as yet been acted upon, and if so what judge had been named to sit, and when and where the Grand Jury would be gathered. Incidentally, he said, Messrs. Belknap and Jephson, having heard that Miss Alden’s body had been sent to her home for burial, would request at once a counsel’s agreement whereby it might be exhumed in order that other doctors now to be called by the defense might be permitted to examine it—a proposition which Mason at once sought to oppose but finally agreed to rather than submit to an order from a Supreme Court judge.

These details having been settled, Belknap announced that he was going over to the jail to see Clyde. It was late and he had had no dinner, and might get none now, but he wanted to have a “heart to heart” with this youth, whom Catchuman informed him he would find very difficult. But Belknap, buoyed up as he was by his opposition to Mason, his conviction that he was in a good mental state to understand Clyde, was in a high degree of legal curiosity. The romance and drama of this crime! What sort of a girl was this Sondra Finchley, of whom he had already heard through secret channels? And could she by any chance be brought to Clyde’s defense? He had already understood that her name was not to be mentioned—high politics demanding this. He was really most eager to talk to this sly and ambitious and futile youth.

However, on reaching the jail, and after showing Sheriff Slack a letter from Catchuman and asking as a special favor to himself that he be taken upstairs to some place near Clyde’s cell in order that, unannounced, he might first observe Clyde, he was quietly led to the second floor and, the outside door leading to the corridor which faced Clyde’s cell being opened for him, allowed to enter there alone. And then walking to within a few feet of Clyde’s cell he was able to view him—at the moment lying face down on his iron cot, his arms above his head, a tray of untouched food standing in the aperture, his body sprawled and limp. For, since Catchuman’s departure, and his second failure to convince any one of his futile and meaningless lies, he was more despondent than ever. In fact, so low was his condition that he was actually crying, his shoulders heaving above his silent emotion. At sight of this, and remembering his own youthful escapades, Belknap now felt intensely sorry for him. No soulless murderer, as he saw it, would cry.

Approaching Clyde’s cell door, after a pause, he began with: “Come, come, Clyde! This will never do. You mustn’t give up like this. Your case mayn’t be as hopeless as you think. Wouldn’t you like to sit up and talk to a lawyer fellow who thinks he might be able to do something for you? Belknap is my name—Alvin Belknap. I live right here in Bridgeburg and I have been sent over by that other fellow who was here a while ago—Catchuman, wasn’t that his name? You didn’t get along with him so very well, did you? Well, I didn’t either. He’s not our kind, I guess. But here’s a letter from him authorizing me to represent you. Want to see it?”

He poked it genially and authoritatively through the narrow bars toward which Clyde, now curious and dubious, approached. For there was something so whole-hearted and unusual and seemingly sympathetic and understanding in this man’s voice that Clyde took courage. And without hesitancy, therefore, he took the letter and looked at it, then returned it with a smile.

“There, I thought so,” went on Belknap, most convincingly and pleased with his effect, which he credited entirely to his own magnetism and charm. “That’s better. I know we’re going to get along. I can feel it. You are going to be able to talk to me as easily and truthfully as you would to your mother. And without any fear that any word of anything you ever tell me is going to reach another ear, unless you want it to, see? For I’m going to be your lawyer, Clyde, if you’ll let me, and you’re going to be my client, and we’re going to sit down together to-morrow, or whenever you say so, and you’re going to tell me all you think I ought to know, and I’m going to tell you what I think I ought to know, and whether I’m going to be able to help you. And I’m going to prove to you that in every way that you help me, you’re helping yourself, see? And I’m going to do my damnedest to get you out of this. Now, how’s that, Clyde?”

He smiled most encouragingly and sympathetically—even affectionately. And Clyde, feeling for the first time since his arrival here that he had found some one in whom he could possibly confide without danger, was already thinking it might be best if he should tell this man all—everything—he could not have said why, quite, but he liked him. In a quick, if dim way he felt that this man understood and might even sympathize with him, if he knew all or nearly all. And after Belknap had detailed how eager this enemy of his—Mason—was to convict him, and how, if he could but devise a reasonable defense, he was sure he could delay the case until this man was out of office, Clyde announced that if he would give him the night to think it all out, to-morrow or any time he chose to come back, he would tell him all.

And then, the next day Belknap sitting on a stool and munching chocolate bars, listened while Clyde before him on his iron cot, poured forth his story—all the details of his life since arriving at Lycurgus—how and why he had come there, the incident of the slain child in Kansas City, without, however, mention of the clipping which he himself had preserved and then forgotten; his meeting with Roberta, and his desire for her; her pregnancy and how he had sought to get her out of it—on and on until, she having threatened to expose him, he had at last, and in great distress and fright, found the item in The Times-Union and had sought to emulate that in action. But he had never plotted it personally, as Belknap was to understand. Nor had he intentionally killed her at the last. No, he had not. Mr. Belknap must believe that, whatever else he thought. He had never deliberately struck her. No, no, no! It had been an accident. There had been a camera, and the tripod reported to have been found by Mason was unquestionably his tripod. Also, he had hidden it under a log, after accidentally striking Roberta with the camera and then seeing that sink under the waters, where no doubt it still was, and with pictures of himself and Roberta on the film it contained, if they were not dissolved by the water. But he had not struck her intentionally. No—he had not. She had approached and he had struck, but not intentionally. The boat had upset. And then as nearly as he could, he described how before that he had seemed to be in a trance almost, because having gone so far he could go no farther.

But in the meantime, Belknap, himself finally wearied and confused by this strange story, the impossibility as he now saw it of submitting to, let alone convincing, any ordinary backwoods jury of this region, of the innocence of these dark and bitter plans and deeds, finally in great weariness and uncertainty and mental confusion, even, getting up and placing his hands on Clyde’s shoulders, saying: “Well, that’ll be enough of this for to-day, Clyde, I think. I see how you felt and how it all came about—also I see how tired you are, and I’m mighty glad you’ve been able to give me the straight of this, because I know how hard it’s been for you to do it. But I don’t want you to talk any more now. There are going to be other days, and I have a few things I want to attend to before I take up some of the minor phases of this with you to-morrow or next day. Just you sleep and rest for the present. You’ll need all you can get for the work both of us will have to do a little later. But just now, you’re not to worry, because there’s no need of it, do you see? I’ll get you out of this—or we will—my partner and I. I have a partner that I’m going to bring around here presently. You’ll like him, too. But there are one or two things that I want you to think about and stick to—and one of these is that you’re not to let anybody frighten you into anything, because either myself or my partner will be around here once a day anyhow, and anything you have to say or want to know you can say or find out from us. Next you’re not to talk to anybody—Mason, the sheriff, these jailers, no one—unless I tell you to. No one, do you hear! And above all things, don’t cry any more. For if you are as innocent as an angel, or as black as the devil himself, the worst thing you can do is to cry before any one. The public and these jail officers don’t understand that—they invariably look upon it, as weakness or a confession of guilt. And I don’t want them to feel any such thing about you now, and especially when I know that you’re really not guilty. I know that now. I believe it. See! So keep a stiff upper lip before Mason and everybody.

“In fact, from now on I want you to try and laugh a little—or at any rate, smile and pass the time of day with these fellows around here. There’s an old saying in law, you know, that the consciousness of innocence makes any man calm. Think and look innocent. Don’t sit and brood and look as though you had lost your last friend, because you haven’t. I’m here, and so is my partner, Mr. Jephson. I’ll bring him around here in a day or two, and you’re to look and act toward him exactly as you have toward me. Trust him, because in legal matters he’s even smarter than I am in some ways. And to-morrow I’m going to bring you a couple of books and some magazines and papers, and I want you to read them or look at the pictures. They’ll help keep your mind off your troubles.”

Clyde achieved a rather feeble smile and nodded his head.

“From now on, too,—I don’t know whether you’re at all religious—but whether you are or not, they hold services here in the jail on Sundays, and I want you to attend ’em regularly—that is, if they ask you to. For this is a religious community and I want you to make as good an impression as you can. Never mind what people say or how they look—you do as I tell you. And if this fellow Mason or any of those fellows around here get to pestering you any more, send me a note.

“And now I’ll be going, so give me a cheerful smile as I go out—and another one as I come in. And don’t talk, see?”

Then shaking Clyde briskly by the shoulders and slapping him on the back, he strode out, actually thinking to himself: “But do I really believe that this fellow is as innocent as he says? Would it be possible for a fellow to strike a girl like that and not know that he was doing it intentionally? And then swimming away afterwards, because, as he says, if he went near her he thought he might drown too. Bad. Bad! What twelve men are going to believe that? And that bag, those two hats, that missing suit! And yet he swears he didn’t intentionally strike her. But what about all that planning—the intent—which is just as bad in the eyes of the law. Is he telling the truth or is he lying even now—perhaps trying to deceive himself as well as me? And that camera—we ought to get hold of that before Mason finds it and introduces it. And that suit. I ought to find that and mention it, maybe, so as to offset the look of its being hidden—say that we had it all the time—send it to Lycurgus to be cleaned. But no, no—wait a minute—I must think about that.”

And so on, point by point, while deciding wearily that perhaps it would be better not to attempt to use Clyde’s story at all, but rather to concoct some other story—this one changed or modified in some way which would make it appear less cruel or legally murderous.