An American Tragedy Chapter 15

Mr. Reuben Jephson was decidedly different from Belknap, Catchuman, Mason, Smillie—in fact any one, thus far, who had seen Clyde or become legally interested in this case. He was young, tall, thin, rugged, brown, cool but not cold spiritually, and with a will and a determination of the tensile strength of steel. And with a mental and legal equipment which for shrewdness and self-interest was not unlike that of a lynx or a ferret. Those shrewd, steel, very light blue eyes in his brown face. The force and curiosity of the long nose. The strength of the hands and the body. He had lost no time, as soon as he discovered there was a possibility of their (Belknap & Jephson) taking over the defense of Clyde, in going over the minutes of the coroner’s inquest as well as the doctors’ reports and the letters of Roberta and Sondra. And now being faced by Belknap who was explaining that Clyde did now actually admit to having plotted to kill Roberta, although not having actually done so, since at the fatal moment, some cataleptic state of mind or remorse had intervened and caused him to unintentionally strike her—he merely stared without the shadow of a smile or comment of any kind.

“But he wasn’t in such a state when he went out there with her, though?”


“Nor when he swam away afterwards?”


“Nor when he went through those woods, or changed to another suit and hat, or hid that tripod?”


“Of course you know, constructively, in the eyes of the law, if we use his own story, he’s just as guilty as though he had struck her, and the judge would have to so instruct.”

“Yes, I know. I’ve thought of all that.”

“Well, then——”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Jephson, it’s a tough case and no mistake. It looks to me now as though Mason has all the cards. If we can get this chap off, we can get anybody off. But as I see it. I’m not so sure that we want to mention that cataleptic business yet—at least not unless we want to enter a plea of insanity or emotional insanity, or something like that—about like that Harry Thaw case, for instance.” He paused and scratched his slightly graying temple dubiously.

“You think he’s guilty, of course?” interpolated Jephson, dryly.

“Well, now, as astonishing as it may seem to you, no. At least, I’m not positive that I do. To tell you the truth, this is one of the most puzzling cases I have ever run up against. This fellow is by no means as hard as you think, or as cold—quite a simple, affectionate chap, in a way, as you’ll see for yourself—his manner, I mean. He’s only twenty-one or two. And for all his connections with these Griffiths, he’s very poor—just a clerk, really. And he tells me that his parents are poor, too. They run a mission of some kind out west—Denver, I believe—and before that in Kansas City. He hasn’t been home in four years. In fact, he got into some crazy boy scrape out there in Kansas City when he was working for one of the hotels as a bell-boy, and had to run away. That’s something we’ve got to look out for in connection with Mason—whether he knows about that or not. It seems he and a bunch of other bell-hops took some rich fellow’s car without his knowing it, and then because they were afraid of being late, they ran over and killed a little girl. We’ve got to find out about that and prepare for it, for if Mason does know about it, he’ll spring it at the trial, and just when he thinks we’re least expecting it.”

“Well, he won’t pull that one,” replied Jephson, his hard, electric, blue eyes gleaming, “not if I have to go to Kansas City to find out.”

And Belknap went on to tell Jephson all that he knew about Clyde’s life up to the present time—how he had worked at dish-washing, waiting on table, soda-clerking, driving a wagon, anything and everything, before he had arrived in Lycurgus—how he had always been fascinated by girls—how he had first met Roberta and later Sondra. Finally how he found himself trapped by one and desperately in love with the other, whom he could not have unless he got rid of the first one.

“And notwithstanding all that, you feel a doubt as to whether he did kill her?” asked Jephson, at the conclusion of all this.

“Yes, as I say, I’m not at all sure that he did. But I do know that he is still hipped over this second girl. His manner changed whenever he or I happened to mention her. Once, for instance, I asked him about his relations with her—and in spite of the fact that he’s accused of seducing and killing this other girl, he looked at me as though I had said something I shouldn’t have—insulted him or her.” And here Belknap smiled a wry smile, while Jephson, his long, bony legs propped against the walnut desk before him, merely stared at him.

“You don’t say,” he finally observed.

“And not only that,” went on Belknap, “but he said, ‘Why, no, of course not. She wouldn’t allow anything like that, and besides,’ and then he stopped. ‘And besides what, Clyde,’ I asked. ‘Well, you don’t want to forget who she is.’ ‘Oh, I see,’ I said. And then, will you believe it, he wanted to know if there wasn’t some way by which her name and those letters she wrote him couldn’t be kept out of the papers and this case—her family prevented from knowing so that she and they wouldn’t be hurt too much.”

“Not really? But what about the other girl?”

“That’s just the point I’m trying to make. He could plot to kill one girl and maybe even did kill her, for all I know, after seducing her, but because he was being so sculled around by his grand ideas of this other girl, he didn’t quite know what he was doing, really. Don’t you see? You know how it is with some of these young fellows of his age, and especially when they’ve never had anything much to do with girls or money, and want to be something grand.”

“You think that made him a little crazy, maybe?” put in Jephson.

“Well, it’s possible—confused, hypnotized, loony—you know—a brain storm as they say down in New York. But he certainly is still cracked over that other girl. In fact, I think most of his crying in jail is over her. He was crying, you know, when I went in to see him, sobbing as if his heart would break.”

Meditatively Belknap scratched his right ear. “But just the same, there certainly is something to this other idea—that his mind was turned by all this—that Alden girl forcing him on the one hand to marry her while the other girl was offering to marry him. I know. I was once in such a scrape myself.” And here he paused to relate that to Jephson. “By the way,” he went on, “he says we can find that item about that other couple drowning in The Times-Union of about June 18th or 19th.”

“All right,” replied Jephson, “I’ll get it.”

“What I want you to do to-morrow,” continued Belknap, “is to go over there with me and see what impression you get of him. I’ll be there to see if he tells it all to you in the same way. I want your own individual viewpoint of him.”

“You most certainly will get it,” snapped Jephson.

Belknap and Jephson proceeded the next day to visit Clyde in jail. And Jephson, after interviewing him and meditating once more on his strange story, was even then not quite able to make up his mind whether Clyde was as innocent of intending to strike Roberta as he said, or not. For if he were, how could he have swum away afterward, leaving her to drown? Decidedly it would be more difficult for a jury than for himself, even, to be convinced.

At the same time, there was that contention of Belknap’s as to the possibility of Clyde’s having been mentally upset or unbalanced at the time that he accepted The Times-Union plot and proceeded to act on it. That might be true, of course, yet personally, to Jephson at least, Clyde appeared to be wise and sane enough now. As Jephson saw him, he was harder and more cunning than Belknap was willing to believe—a cunning, modified of course, by certain soft and winning social graces for which one could hardly help liking him. However, Clyde was by no means as willing to confide in Jephson as he had been in Belknap—an attitude which did little to attract Jephson to him at first. At the same time, there was about Jephson a hard, integrated earnestness which soon convinced Clyde of his technical, if not his emotional interest. And after a while he began looking toward this younger man, even more than toward Belknap as the one who might do most for him.

“Of course, you know that those letters which Miss Alden wrote you are very strong?” began Jephson, after hearing Clyde restate his story.

“Yes, sir.”

“They’re very sad to any one who doesn’t know all of the facts, and on that account they are likely to prejudice any jury against you, especially when they’re put alongside Miss Finchley’s letters.”

“Yes, I suppose they might,” replied Clyde, “but then, she wasn’t always like that, either. It was only after she got in trouble and I wanted her to let me go that she wrote like that.”

“I know. I know. And that’s a point we want to think about and maybe bring out, if we can. If only there were some way to keep those letters out,” he now turned to Belknap to say. Then, to Clyde, “but what I want to ask you now is this—you were close to her for something like a year, weren’t you?”


“In all of that time that you were with her, or before, was she ever friendly, or maybe intimate, with any other young man anywhere—that is, that you know of?”

As Clyde could see, Jephson was not afraid, or perhaps not sufficiently sensitive, to refrain from presenting any thought or trick that seemed to him likely to provide a loophole for escape. But, far from being cheered by this suggestion, he was really shocked. What a shameful thing in connection with Roberta and her character it would be to attempt to introduce any such lie as this. He could not and would not hint at any such falsehood, and so he replied:

“No, sir. I never heard of her going with any one else. In fact, I know she didn’t.”

“Very good! That settles that,” snapped Jephson. “I judged from her letters that what you say is true. At the same time, we must know all the facts. It might make a very great difference if there were some one else.”

And at this point Clyde could not quite make sure whether he was attempting to impress upon him the value of this as an idea or not, but just the same he decided it was not right even to consider it. And yet he was thinking: If only this man could think of a real defense for me! He looks so shrewd.

“Well, then,” went on Jephson, in the same hard, searching tone, devoid, as Clyde saw it, of sentiment or pity of any kind, “here’s something else I want to ask you. In all the time that you knew her, either before you were intimate with her or afterwards, did she ever write you a mean or sarcastic or demanding or threatening letter of any kind?”

“No, sir, I can’t say that she ever did,” replied Clyde, “in fact, I know she didn’t. No, sir. Except for those few last ones, maybe—the very last one.”

“And you never wrote her any, I suppose?”

“No, sir, I never wrote her any letters.”


“Well, she was right there in the factory with me, you see. Besides at the last there, after she went home, I was afraid to.”

“I see.”

At the same time, as Clyde now proceeded to point out, and that quite honestly, Roberta could be far from sweet-tempered at times—could in fact be quite determined and even stubborn. And she had paid no least attention to his plea that her forcing him to marry her now would ruin him socially as well as in every other way, and that even in the face of his willingness to work along and pay for her support—an attitude which, as he now described it, was what had caused all the trouble—whereas Miss Finchley (and here he introduced an element of reverence and enthusiasm which Jephson was quick to note) was willing to do everything for him.

“So you really loved that Miss Finchley very much then, did you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you couldn’t care for Roberta any more after you met her?”

“No, no. I just couldn’t.”

“I see,” observed Jephson, solemnly nodding his head, and at the same time meditating on how futile and dangerous, even, it might be to let the jury know that. And then thinking that possibly it were best to follow the previous suggestion of Belknap’s, based on the customary legal proceeding of the time, and claim insanity, or a brain storm, brought about by the terrifying position in which he imagined himself to be. But apart from that he now proceeded:

“You say something came over you when you were in the boat out there with her on that last day—that you really didn’t know what you were doing at the time that you struck her?”

“Yes, sir, that’s the truth.” And here Clyde went on to explain once more just what his state was at that time.

“All right, all right, I believe you,” replied Jephson, seemingly believing what Clyde said but not actually able to conceive it at that. “But you know, of course, that no jury, in the face of all these other circumstances, is going to believe that,” he now announced. “There are too many things that’ll have to be explained and that we can’t very well explain as things now stand. I don’t know about that idea.” He now turned and was addressing Belknap. “Those two hats, that bag—unless we’re going to plead insanity or something like that. I’m not so sure about all this. Was there ever any insanity in your family that you know of?” he now added, turning to Clyde once more.

“No, sir, not that I know of.”

“No uncle or cousin or grandfather who had fits or strange ideas or anything like that?”

“Not that I ever heard of, no, sir.”

“And your rich relatives down there in Lycurgus—I suppose they’d not like it very much if I were to step up and try to prove anything like that?”

“I’m afraid they wouldn’t, no, sir,” replied Clyde, thinking of Gilbert.

“Well, let me see,” went on Jephson after a time. “That makes it rather hard. I don’t see, though, that anything else would be as safe.” And here he turned once more to Belknap and began to inquire as to what he thought of suicide as a theory, since Roberta’s letters themselves showed a melancholy trend which might easily have led to thoughts of suicide. And could they not say that once out on the lake with Clyde and pleading with him to marry her, and he refusing to do so, she had jumped overboard. And he was too astounded and mentally upset to try to save her.

“But what about his own story that the wind had blown his hat off, and in trying to save that he upset the boat?” interjected Belknap, and exactly as though Clyde were not present.

“Well, that’s true enough, too, but couldn’t we say that perhaps, since he was morally responsible for her condition, which in turn had caused her to take her life, he did not want to confess to the truth of her suicide?”

At this Clyde winced, but neither now troubled to notice him. They talked as though he was not present or could have no opinion in the matter, a procedure which astonished but by no means moved him to object, since he was feeling so helpless.

“But the false registrations! The two hats—the suit—his bag!” insisted Belknap staccatically, a tone which showed Clyde how serious Belknap considered his predicament to be.

“Well, whatever theory we advance, those things will have to be accounted for in some way,” replied Jephson, dubiously. “We can’t admit the true story of his plotting without an insanity plea, not as I see it—at any rate. And unless we use that, we’ve got that evidence to deal with whatever we do.” He threw up his hands wearily and as if to say: I swear I don’t know what to do about this.

“But,” persisted Belknap, “in the face of all that, and his refusal to marry her, after his promises referred to in her letters—why, it would only react against him, so that public opinion would be more prejudiced against him than ever. No, that won’t do,” he concluded. “We’ll have to think of something which will create some sort of sympathy for him.”

And then once more turning to Clyde as though there had been no such discussion. And looking at him as much as to say: “You are a problem indeed.” And then Jephson, observing: “And, oh, yes, that suit you dropped in that lake up there near the Cranstons’—describe the spot to me as near as you can where you threw it—how far from the house was it?” He waited until Clyde haltingly attempted to recapture the various details of the hour and the scene as he could recall it.

“If I could go up there, I could find it quick enough.”

“Yes, I know, but they won’t let you go up there without Mason being along,” he returned. “And maybe not even then. You’re in prison now, and you can’t be taken out without the state’s consent, you see. But we must get that suit.” Then turning to Belknap and lowering his voice, he added: “We want to get it and have it cleaned and submit it as having been sent away to be cleaned by him—not hidden, you see.”

“Yes, that’s so,” commented Belknap idly while Clyde stood listening curiously and a little amazed by this frank program of trickery and deception on his behalf.

“And now in regard to that camera that fell in the lake—we have to try and find that, too. I think maybe Mason may know about it or suspect that it’s there. At any rate it’s very important that we should find it before he does. You think that about where that pole was that day you were up there is where the boat was when it overturned?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, we must see if we can get that,” he continued, turning to Belknap. “We don’t want that turning up in the trial, if we can help it. For without that, they’ll have to be swearing that he struck her with that tripod or something that he didn’t, and that’s where we may trip ’em up.”

“Yes, that’s true, too,” replied Belknap.

“And now in regard to the bag that Mason has. That’s another thing I haven’t seen yet, but I will see it to-morrow. Did you put that suit, as wet as it was, in the bag when you came out of the water?”

“No, sir, I wrung it out first. And then I dried it as much as I could. And then I wrapped it up in the paper that we had the lunch in and then put some dry pine needles underneath it in the bag and on top of it.”

“So there weren’t any wet marks in the bag after you took it out, as far as you know?”

“No, sir, I don’t think so.”

“But you’re not sure?”

“Not exactly sure now that you ask me—no, sir.”

“Well, I’ll see for myself to-morrow. And now as to those marks on her face, you have never admitted to any one around here or anywhere that you struck her in any way?”

“No, sir.”

“And the mark on the top of her head was made by the boat, just as you said?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But the others you think you might have made with the camera?”

“Yes, sir. I suppose they were.”

“Well, then, this is the way it looks to me,” said Jephson, again turning to Belknap. “I think we can safely say when the time comes that those marks were never made by him at all, see?—but by the hooks and the poles with which they were scraping around up there when they were trying to find her. We can try it, anyhow. And if the hooks and poles didn’t do it,” he added, a little grimly and dryly, “certainly hauling her body from that lake to that railroad station and from there to here on the train might have.”

“Yes, I think Mason would have a hard time proving that they weren’t made that way,” replied Belknap.

“And as for that tripod, well, we’d better exhume the body and make our own measurements, and measure the thickness of the edge of that boat, so that it may not be so easy for Mason to make any use of the tripod now that he has it, after all.”

Mr. Jephson’s eyes were very small and very clear and very blue, as he said this. His head, as well as his body, had a thin, ferrety look. And it seemed to Clyde, who had been observing and listening to all this with awe, that this younger man might be the one to aid him. He was so shrewd and practical, so very direct and chill and indifferent and yet confidence-inspiring, quite like an uncontrollable machine of a kind which generates power.

And when at last these two were ready to go, he was sorry. For with them near him, planning and plotting in regard to himself, he felt so much safer, stronger, more hopeful, more certain of being free, maybe, at some future date.