An American Tragedy Chapter 18

The telegram, worded in the spirit just described, was forthwith despatched care of Belknap and Jephson, who immediately counseled Clyde what to reply—that all was well with him; that he had the best of advice and would need no financial aid. Also that until his lawyers advised it, it would be best if no member of the family troubled to appear, since everything that could possibly be done to aid him was already being done. At the same time they wrote Mrs. Griffiths, assuring her of their interest in Clyde and advising her to let matters rest as they were for the present.

Despite the fact that the Griffiths were thus restrained from appearing in the east, neither Belknap nor Jephson were averse to some news of the existence, whereabouts, faith and sympathy of Clyde’s most immediate relatives creeping into the newspapers, since the latter were so persistent in referring to his isolation. And in this connection they were aided by the fact that his mother’s telegram on being received in Bridgeburg was at once read by individuals who were particularly interested in the case and by them whispered to the public and the press, with the result that in Denver the family was at once sought out and interviewed. And shortly after, there was circulated in all the papers east and west a more or less complete account of the present state of Clyde’s family, the nature of the mission conducted by them, as well as their narrow and highly individualistic religious beliefs and actions, even the statement that often in his early youth Clyde had been taken into the streets to sing and pray—a revelation which shocked Lycurgus and Twelfth Lake society about as much as it did him.

At the same time, Mrs. Griffiths, being an honest woman and whole-heartedly sincere in her faith and in the good of her work, did not hesitate to relate to reporter after reporter who called, all the details of the missionary work of her husband and herself in Denver and elsewhere. Also that neither Clyde nor any of the other children had ever enjoyed the opportunities that come to most. However, her boy, whatever the present charge might be, was not innately bad, and she could not believe that he was guilty of any such crime. It was all an unfortunate and accidental combination of circumstances which he would explain at the trial. However, whatever foolish thing he might have done, it was all to be attributed to an unfortunate accident which broke up the mission work in Kansas City a few years before and compelled the removal of the family from there to Denver, leaving Clyde to make his way alone. And it was because of advice from her that he had written her husband’s rich brother in Lycurgus, which led to his going there—a series of statements which caused Clyde in his cell to tingle with a kind of prideful misery and resentment and forced him to write his mother and complain. Why need she always talk so much about the past and the work that she and his father were connected with, when she knew that he had never liked it and resented going on the streets? Many people didn’t see it as she and his father did, particularly his uncle and cousin and all those rich people he had come to know, and who were able to make their way in so different and much more brilliant fashion. And now, as he said to himself, Sondra would most certainly read this—all that he had hoped to conceal.

Yet even in the face of all this, because of so much sincerity and force in his mother, he could not help but think of her with affection and respect, and because of her sure and unfailing love for him, with emotion. For in answer to his letter she wrote that she was sorry if she had hurt his feelings or injured him in any way. But must not the truth be shown always? The ways of God were for the best and surely no harm could spring from service in His cause. He must not ask her to lie. But if he said the word, she would so gladly attempt to raise the necessary money and come to his aid—sit in his cell and plan with him—holding his hands—but as Clyde so well knew and thought at this time and which caused him to decide that she must not come yet—demanding of him the truth—with those clear, steady blue eyes of hers looking into his own. He could not stand that now.

For, frowning directly before him, like a huge and basalt headland above a troubled and angry sea, was the trial itself, with all that it implied—the fierce assault of Mason which he could only confront, for the most part, with the lies framed for him by Jephson and Belknap. For, although he was constantly seeking to salve his conscience with the thought that at the last moment he had not had the courage to strike Roberta, nevertheless this other story was so terribly difficult for him to present and defend—a fact which both Belknap and Jephson realized and which caused the latter to appear most frequently at Clyde’s cell door with the greeting: “Well, how’s tricks to-day?”

The peculiarly rusty and disheveled and indifferently tailored character of Jephson’s suits! The worn and disarranged effect of his dark brown soft hat, pulled low over his eyes! His long, bony, knotty hands, suggesting somehow an enormous tensile strength. And the hard, small blue eyes filled with a shrewd, determined cunning and courage, with which he was seeking to inoculate Clyde, and which somehow did inoculate him!

“Any more preachers around to-day? Any more country girls or Mason’s boys?” For during this time, because of the enormous interest aroused by the pitiable death of Roberta, as well as the evidence of her rich and beautiful rival, Clyde was being visited by every type of shallow crime-or-sex-curious country bumpkin lawyer, doctor, merchant, yokel evangelist or minister, all friends or acquaintances of one or another of the officials of the city, and who, standing before his cell door betimes, and at the most unexpected moments, and after surveying him with curious, or resentful, or horrified eyes, asked such questions as: “Do you pray, brother? Do you get right down on your knees and pray?” (Clyde was reminded of his mother and father at such times.) Had he made his peace with God? Did he actually deny that he had killed Roberta Alden? In the case of three country girls: “Would you mind telling us the name of the girl you are supposed to be in love with, and where she is now? We won’t tell any one. Will she appear at the trial?” Questions which Clyde could do no more than ignore, or if not, answer as equivocally or evasively or indifferently as possible. For although he was inclined to resent them, still was he not being constantly instructed by both Belknap and Jephson that for the good of his own cause he must try to appear genial and civil and optimistic? Then there came also newspaper men, or women, accompanied by artists or photographers, to interview and make studies of him. But with these, for the most part and on the advice of Belknap and Jephson he refused to communicate or said only what he was told to say.

“You can talk all you want,” suggested Jephson, genially, “so long as you don’t say anything. And the stiff upper lip, you know. And the smile that won’t come off, see? Not failing to go over that list, are you?” (He had provided Clyde with a long list of possible questions which no doubt would be asked him on the stand and which he was to answer according to answers typewritten beneath them, or to suggest something better. They all related to the trip to Big Bittern, his reason for the extra hat, his change of heart—why, when, where.) “That’s your litany, you know.” And then he might light a cigarette without ever offering one to Clyde, since for the sake of a reputation for sobriety he was not to smoke here.

And for a time, after each visit, Clyde finding himself believing that he could and would do exactly as Jephson had said—walk briskly and smartly into court—bear up against every one, every eye, even that of Mason himself—forget that he was afraid of him, even when on the witness stand—forget all the terror of those many facts in Mason’s possession, which he was to explain with this list of answers—forget Roberta and her last cry, and all the heartache and misery that went with the loss of Sondra and her bright world.

Yet, with the night having once more fallen, or the day dragging on with only the lean and bearded Kraut or the sly and evasive Sissel, or both, hanging about, or coming to the door to say, “Howdy!” or to discuss something that had occurred in town, or to play chess, or checkers, Clyde growing more and more moody and deciding, maybe, that there was no real hope for him after all. For how alone he was, except for his attorneys and mother and brother and sisters! Never a word from Sondra, of course. For along with her recovery to some extent from her original shock and horror, she was now thinking somewhat differently of him—that after all it was for love of her, perhaps, that he had slain Roberta and made himself the pariah and victim that he now was. Yet, because of the immense prejudice and horror expressed by the world, she was by no means able to think of venturing to send him a word. Was he not a murderer? And in addition, that miserable western family of his, pictured as street preachers, and he, too,—or as a singing and praying boy from a mission! Yet occasionally returning in thought, and this quite in spite of herself, to his eager, unreasoning and seemingly consuming enthusiasm for her. (How deeply he must have cared to venture upon so deadly a deed!) And hence wondering whether at some time, once this case was less violently before the public eye, it might not be possible to communicate with him in some guarded and unsigned way, just to let him know, perhaps, that because of his great love for her she desired him to know that he was not entirely forgotten. Yet as instantly deciding, no, no—her parents—if they should learn—or guess—or the public, or her one-time associates. Not now, oh, not now at least. Maybe later if he were set free—or—or—convicted—she couldn’t tell. Yet suffering heartaches for the most part—as much as she detested and abhorred the horrible crime by which he had sought to win her.

And in the interim, Clyde in his cell, walking to and fro, or looking out on the dull square through the heavily barred windows, or reading and re-reading the newspapers, or nervously turning the pages of magazines or books furnished by his counsel, or playing chess or checkers, or eating his meals, which, by special arrangement on the part of Belknap and Jephson (made at the request of his uncle), consisted of better dishes than were usually furnished to the ordinary prisoner.

Yet with the iterated and reiterated thought, based on the seemingly irreparable and irreconcilable loss of Sondra, as to whether it was possible for him to go on with this—make this, as he at times saw it, almost useless fight.

At times, in the middle of the night or just before dawn, with all the prison silent—dreams—a ghastly picture of all that he most feared and that dispelled every trace of courage and drove him instantly to his feet, his heart pounding wildly, his eyes strained, a cold damp upon his face and hands. That chair, somewhere in the State penitentiary. He had read of it—how men died in it. And then he would walk up and down, thinking how, how, in case it did not come about as Jephson felt so sure that it would—in case he was convicted and a new trial refused—then, well—then, might one be able to break out of such a jail as this, maybe, and run away? These old brick walls. How thick were they? But was it possible that with a hammer or a stone, or something that some one might bring him—his brother Frank, or his sister Julia, or Ratterer, or Hegglund—if only he could get in communication with some one of them and get him or her to bring him something of the kind—— If only he could get a saw, to saw those bars! And then run, run, as he should have in those woods up there that time! But how? And whither?