An American Tragedy Chapter 19

October 15—with gray clouds and a sharp, almost January wind that herded the fallen leaves into piles and then scurried them in crisp and windy gusts like flying birds here and there. And, in spite of the sense of struggle and tragedy in the minds of many, with an electric chair as the shadowy mental background to it all, a sense of holiday or festival, with hundreds of farmers, woodsmen, traders, entering in Fords and Buicks—farmer wives and husbands—daughters and sons—even infants in arms. And then idling about the public square long before the time for court to convene, or, as the hour neared, congregating before the county jail in the hope of obtaining a glimpse of Clyde, or before the courthouse door nearest the jail, which was to be the one entrance to the courtroom for the public and Clyde, and from which position they could see and assure entrance into the courtroom itself when the time came. And a flock of pigeons parading rather dismally along the cornices and gutters of the upper floor and roof of the ancient court.

And with Mason and his staff—Burton Burleigh, Earl Newcomb, Zillah Saunders, and a young Bridgeburg law graduate by the name of Manigault—helping to arrange the order of evidence as well as direct or instruct the various witnesses and venire-men who were already collecting in the antechamber of the now almost nationally known attorney for the people. And with cries outside of: “Peanuts!” “Popcorn!” “Hot dogs!” “Get the story of Clyde Griffiths, with all the letters of Roberta Alden. Only twenty-five cents!” (This being a set of duplicate copies of Roberta’s letters which had been stolen from Mason’s office by an intimate of Burton Burleigh’s and by him sold to a penny-dreadful publisher of Binghamton, who immediately issued them in pamphlet form together with an outline of “the great plot” and Roberta’s and Clyde’s pictures.)

And in the meantime, over in the reception or conference room of the jail, Alvin Belknap and Reuben Jephson, side by side with Clyde, neatly arrayed in the very suit he had sought to sink forever in the waters of Lower Twelfth Lake. And with a new tie and shirt and shoes added in order to present him in his Lycurgus best. Jephson, long and lean and shabbily dressed as usual, but with all of that iron and power that so impressed Clyde in every line of his figure and every movement or gesture of his body. Belknap—looking like an Albany beau—the one on whom was to fall the burden of the opening presentation of the case as well as the cross-examining, now saying: “Now you’re not going to get frightened or show any evidence of nervousness at anything that may be said or done at any time, are you, Clyde? We’re to be with you, you know, all through the trial. You sit right between us. And you’re going to smile and look unconcerned or interested, just as you wish, but never fearful—but not too bold or gay, you know, so that they’d feel that you’re not taking this thing seriously. You understand—just a pleasant, gentlemanly, and sympathetic manner all the time. And not frightened. For that will be certain to do us and you great harm. Since you’re innocent, you have no real reason to be frightened—although you’re sorry, of course. You understand all that, I know, by now.”

“Yes, sir, I understand,” replied Clyde. “I will do just as you say. Besides, I never struck her intentionally, and that’s the truth. So why should I be afraid?” And here he looked at Jephson, on whom, for psychic reasons, he depended most. In fact the words he had just spoken were the very words which Jephson had so drilled into him during the two months just past. And catching the look, Jephson now drew closer and fixing Clyde with his gimlet and yet encouraging and sustaining blue eyes, began:

“You’re not guilty! You’re not guilty, Clyde, see? You understand that fully by now, and you must always believe and remember that, because it’s true. You didn’t intend to strike her, do you hear? You swear to that. You have sworn it to me and Belknap here, and we believe you. Now, it doesn’t make the least bit of difference that because of the circumstances surrounding all this we are not going to be able to make the average jury see this or believe it just as you tell it. That’s neither here nor there. I’ve told you that before. You know what the truth is—and so do we. But, in order to get justice for you, we’ve had to get up something else—a dummy or substitute for the real fact, which is that you didn’t strike her intentionally, but which we cannot hope to make them see without disguising it in some way. You get that, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Clyde, always over-awed and intrigued by this man.

“And for that reason, as I’ve so often told you, we’ve invented this other story about a change of heart. It’s not quite true as to time, but it is true that you did experience a change of heart there in the boat. And that’s our justification. But they’d never believe that under all of the peculiar circumstances, so we’re merely going to move that change of heart up a little, see? Make it before you ever went into that boat at all. And while we know it isn’t true that way, still neither is the charge that you intentionally struck her true, and they’re not going to electrocute you for something that isn’t true—not with my consent, at least.” He looked into Clyde’s eyes for a moment more, and then added: “It’s this way, Clyde. It’s like having to pay for potatoes, or for suits of clothes, with corn or beans instead of money, when you have money to pay with but when, because of the crazy notions on the part of some one, they won’t believe that the money you have is genuine. So you’ve got to use the potatoes or beans. And beans is what we’re going to give ’em. But the justification is that you’re not guilty. You’re not guilty. You’ve sworn to me that you didn’t intend to strike her there at the last, whatever you might have been provoked to do at first. And that’s enough for me. You’re not guilty.”

And here, firmly and convincingly, which was the illusion in regard to his own attitude which he was determined to convey to Clyde, he laid hold of his coat lapels, and after looking fixedly into his somewhat strained and now nervous brown eyes, added: “And now, whenever you get to feeling weak or nervous, or if, when you go on the stand, you think Mason is getting the best of you, I want you to remember this—just say to yourself—‘I’m not guilty! I’m not guilty! And they can’t fairly convict me unless I really am.’ And if that don’t pull you together, look at me. I’ll be right there. All you have to do, if you feel yourself rattled, is to look at me—right into my eyes, just as I’m looking at you now—and then you’ll know that I’m wanting you to brace up and do what I’m telling you to do now—swear to the things that we are asking you to swear to, however they may look like lies, and however you may feel about them. I’m not going to have you convicted for something you didn’t do, just because you can’t be allowed to swear to what is the truth—not if I can help it. And now that’s all.”

And here he slapped him genially and heartily on the back, while Clyde, strangely heartened, felt, for the time being at least, that certainly he could do as he was told, and would.

And then Jephson, taking out his watch and looking first at Belknap, then out of the nearest window through which were to be seen the already assembled crowds—one about the courthouse steps; a second including newspapermen and women, newspaper photographers and artists, gathered closely before the jail walk, and eagerly waiting to “snap” Clyde or any one connected with this case—went calmly on with:

“Well, it’s about time, I guess. Looks as though all Cataraqui would like to get inside. We’re going to have quite an audience.” And turning to Clyde once more, he added: “Now, you don’t want to let those people disturb you, Clyde. They’re nothing but a lot of country people come to town to see a show.”

And then the two of them, Belknap and Jephson, going out. And Kraut and Sissel coming in to take personal charge of Clyde, while the two lawyers, passing amid whispers, crossed over to the court building in the square of brown grass beyond.

And after them, and in less than five minutes, and preceded by Slack and Sissel and followed by Kraut and Swenk—yet protected on either side by two extra deputies in case there should be an outbreak or demonstration of any kind—Clyde himself, attempting to look as jaunty and nonchalant as possible, yet because of the many rough and strange faces about him—men in heavy racoon coats and caps, and with thick whiskers, or in worn and faded and nondescript clothes such as characterized many of the farmers of this region, accompanied by their wives and children, and all staring so strangely and curiously—he felt not a little nervous, as though at any moment there might be a revolver shot, or some one might leap at him with a knife—the deputies with their hands on their guns lending not a little to the reality of his mood. Yet only cries of: “Here he comes! Here he comes!” “There he is!” “Would you believe that he could do a thing like that?”

And then the cameras clicking and whirring and his two protectors shouldering closer and closer to him while he shrank down within himself mentally.

And then a flight of five brown stone steps leading up to an old courthouse door. And beyond that, an inner flight of steps to a large, long, brown, high-ceilinged chamber, in which, to the right and left, and in the rear facing east, were tall, thin, round-topped windows, fitted with thin panes, admitting a flood of light. And at the west end, a raised platform, with a highly ornamental, dark brown carved bench upon it. And behind it, a portrait—and on either side, north and south, and at the rear, benches and benches in rows—each tier higher than the other, and all crowded with people, the space behind them packed with standing bodies, and all apparently, as he entered, leaning and craning and examining him with sharp keen eyes, while there went about a conversational buzz or brrh. He could hear a general sssss—pppp—as he approached and passed through a gate to an open space beyond it, wherein, as he could see, were Belknap and Jephson at a table, and between them a vacant chair for him. And he could see and feel the eyes and faces on which he was not quite willing to look.

But directly before him, at another table in the same square, but more directly below the raised platform at the west end, as he could see now, were Mason and several men whom he seemed to recollect—Earl Newcomb and Burton Burleigh and yet another man whom he had never seen before, all four turning and gazing at him as he came.

And about this inner group, an outer circle of men and women writers and sketch artists.

And then, after a time, recalling Belknap’s advice, he managed to straighten up and with an air of studied ease and courage—which was belied to a certain extent by his strained, pale face and somewhat hazy stare—look at the writers and artists who were either studying or sketching him, and even to whisper: “Quite a full house, eh?” But just then, and before he could say anything more, a resounding whack, whack, from somewhere. And then a voice: “Order in the Court! His Honor, the Court! Everybody please rise!” And as suddenly the whispering and stirring audience growing completely silent. And then, through a door to the south of the dais, a large urbane and florid and smooth-faced man, who in an ample black gown, walked swiftly to the large chair immediately behind the desk, and after looking steadily upon all before him, but without appearing to see any one of them seated himself. Whereupon every one assembled in the courtroom sat down.

And then to the left, yet below the judge, at a smaller desk, a smaller and older individual standing and calling, “Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the honorable, the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of Cataraqui, draw near and give attention. This court is now in session!”

And after that this same individual again rising and beginning: “The State of New York against Clyde Griffiths.” Then Mason, rising and standing before his table, at once announced: “The People are ready.” Whereupon Belknap arose, and in a courtly and affable manner, stated: “The defendant is ready.”

Then the same clerk reached into a square box that was before him, and drawing forth a piece of paper, called “Simeon Dinsmore,” whereupon a little, hunched and brown-suited man, with claw-like hands, and a ferret-like face, immediately scuttled to the jury box and was seated. And once there he was approached by Mason, who, in a brisk manner—his flat-nosed face looking most aggressive and his strong voice reaching to the uttermost corners of the court, began to inquire as to his age, his business, whether he was single or married, how many children he had, whether he believed or did not believe in capital punishment. The latter question as Clyde at once noted seemed to stir in him something akin to resentment or suppressed emotion of some kind, for at once and with emphasis, he answered: “I most certainly do—for some people”—a reply which caused Mason to smile slightly and Jephson to turn and look toward Belknap, who mumbled sarcastically: “And they talk about the possibility of a fair trial here.” But at the same time Mason feeling that this very honest, if all too convinced farmer, was a little too emphatic in his beliefs, saying: “With the consent of the Court, the People will excuse the talesman.” And Belknap, after an inquiring glance from the Judge, nodding his agreement, at which the prospective juror was excused.

And the clerk, immediately drawing out of the box a second slip of paper, and then calling: “Dudley Sheerline!” Whereupon, a thin, tall man of between thirty-eight and forty, neatly dressed and somewhat meticulous and cautious in his manner, approached and took his place in the box. And Mason once more began to question him as he had the other.

In the meantime, Clyde, in spite of both Belknap’s and Jephson’s preliminary precautions, was already feeling stiff and chill and bloodless. For, decidedly, as he could feel, this audience was inimical. And amid this closely pressing throng, as he now thought, with an additional chill, there must be the father and mother, perhaps also the sisters and brothers, of Roberta, and all looking at him, and hoping with all their hearts, as the newspapers during the weeks past informed him, that he would be made to suffer for this.

And again, all those people of Lycurgus and Twelfth Lake, no one of whom had troubled to communicate with him in any way, assuming him to be absolutely guilty, of course—were any of those here? Jill or Gertrude or Tracy Trumbull, for instance? Or Wynette Phant or her brother? She had been at that camp at Bear Lake the day he was arrested. His mind ran over all the social personages whom he had encountered during the last year and who would now see him as he was—poor and commonplace and deserted, and on trial for such a crime as this. And after all his bluffing about his rich connections here and in the west. For now, of course, they would believe him as terrible as his original plot, without knowing or caring about his side of the story—his moods and fears—that predicament that he was in with Roberta—his love for Sondra and all that she had meant to him. They wouldn’t understand that, and he was not going to be allowed to tell anything in regard to it, even if he were so minded.

And yet, because of the advice of Belknap and Jephson, he must sit up and smile, or at least look pleasant and meet the gaze of every one boldly and directly. And in consequence, turning, and for the moment feeling absolutely transfixed. For there—God, what a resemblance!—to the left of him on one of those wall benches, was a woman or girl who appeared to be the living image of Roberta! It was that sister of hers—Emily—of whom she had often spoken—but oh, what a shock! His heart almost stopped. It might even be Roberta! And transfixing him with what ghostly, and yet real, and savage and accusing eyes! And next to her another girl, looking something like her, too—and next to her that old man, Roberta’s father—that wrinkled old man whom he had encountered that day he had called at his farm door for information, now looking at him almost savagely, a gray and weary look that said so plainly: “You murderer! You murderer!” And beside him a mild and small and ill-looking woman of about fifty, veiled and very shrunken and sunken-eyed, who, at his glance dropped her own eyes and turned away, as if stricken with a great pain, not hate. Her mother—no doubt of it. Oh, what a situation was this! How unthinkably miserable! His heart fluttered. His hands trembled.

So now to stay himself, he looked down, first at the hands of Belknap and Jephson on the table before him, since each was toying with a pencil poised above the pad of paper before them, as they gazed at Mason and whoever was in the jury box before him—a foolish-looking fat man now. What a difference between Jephson’s and Belknap’s hands—the latter so short and soft and white, the former’s so long and brown and knotty and bony. And Belknap’s pleasant and agreeable manner here in court—his voice—“I think I will ask the juror to step down”—as opposed to Mason’s revolver-like “Excused!” or Jephson’s slow and yet powerful, though whispered, “Better let him go, Alvin. Nothing in him for us.” And then all at once Jephson saying to him: “Sit up! Sit up! Look around! Don’t sag down like that. Look people in the eye. Smile naturally, Clyde, if you’re going to smile at all. Just look ’em in the eye. They’re not going to hurt you. They’re just a lot of farmers out sightseeing.”

But Clyde, noting at once that several reporters and artists were studying and then sketching or writing of him, now flushed hotly and weakly, for he could feel their eager eyes and their eager words as clearly as he could hear their scratching pens. And all for the papers—his blanching face and trembling hands—they would have that down—and his mother in Denver and everybody else there in Lycurgus would see and read—how he had looked at the Aldens and they had looked at him and then he had looked away again. Still—still—he must get himself better in hand—sit up once more and look about—or Jephson would be disgusted with him. And so once more he did his best to crush down his fear, to raise his eyes and then turn slightly and look about.

But in doing so, there next to the wall, and to one side of that tall window, and just as he had feared, was Tracy Trumbull, who evidently because of the law interest or his curiosity and what not—no pity or sympathy for him, surely—had come up for this day anyhow, and was looking, not at him for the moment, thank goodness, but at Mason, who was asking the fat man some questions. And next to him Eddie Sells, with nearsighted eyes equipped with thick lenses of great distance-power, and looking in Clyde’s direction, yet without seeing him apparently, for he gave no sign. Oh, how trying all this!

And five rows from them again, in another direction, Mr. and Mrs. Gilpin, whom Mason had found, of course. And what would they testify to now? His calling on Roberta in her room there? And how secret it had all been? That would be bad, of course. And of all people, Mr. and Mrs. George Newton! What were they going to put them on the stand for? To tell about Roberta’s life before she got to going with him, maybe? And that Grace Marr, whom he had seen often but met only once out there on Crum Lake, and whom Roberta had not liked any more. What would she have to say? She could tell how he had met Roberta, of course, but what else? And then—but, no, it could not be—and yet—yet, it was, too—surely—that Orrin Short, of whom he had asked concerning Glenn. Gee!—he was going to tell about that now, maybe—no doubt of it. How people seemed to remember things—more than ever he would have dreamed they would have.

And again, this side of that third window from the front, but beyond that dreaded group of the Aldens, that very large and whiskered man who looked something like an old-time Quaker turned bandit—Heit was his name. He had met him at Three Mile Bay, and again on that day on which he had been taken up to Big Bittern against his will. Oh, yes, the coroner he was. And beside him, that innkeeper up there who had made him sign the register that day. And next to him the boathouse-keeper who had rented him the boat. And next to him, that tall, lank guide who had driven him and Roberta over from Gun Lodge, a brown and wiry and loutish man who seemed to pierce him now with small, deep-set, animal-like eyes, and who most certainly was going to testify to all the details of that ride from Gun Lodge. Would his nervousness on that day, and his foolish qualms, be as clearly remembered by him as they were now by himself, And if so, how would that affect his plea of a change of heart? Would he not better talk all that over again with Jephson?

But this man Mason! How hard he was! How energetic! And how he must have worked to get all of these people here to testify against him! And now here he was, exclaiming as he chanced to look at him, and as he had in at least the last dozen cases (yet with no perceptible result in so far as the jury box was concerned), “Acceptable to the People!” But, invariably, whenever he had done so, Jephson had merely turned slightly, but without looking, and had said: “Nothing in him for us, Alvin. As set as a bone.” And then Belknap, courteous and bland, had challenged for cause and usually succeeded in having his challenge sustained.

But then at last, and oh, how agreeably, the clerk of the court announcing in a clear, thin, rasping and aged voice, a recess until two P. M. And Jephson smilingly turning to Clyde with: “Well, Clyde, that’s the first round—not so very much to it, do you think? And not very hard either, is it? Better go over there and get a good meal, though. It’ll be just as long and dull this afternoon.”

And in the meantime, Kraut and Sissel, together with the extra deputies, pushing close and surrounding him. And then the crowding and swarming and exclaiming: “There he is! There he is! Here he comes! Here Here!” And a large and meaty female pushing as close as possible and staring directly into his face, exclaiming as she did so: “Let me see him! I just want to get a good look at you, young man. I have two daughters of my own.” But without one of all those of Lycurgus or Twelfth Lake whom he had recognized in the public benches, coming near him. And no glimpse of Sondra anywhere, of course. For as both Belknap and Jephson had repeatedly assured him, she would not appear. Her name was not even to be mentioned, if possible. The Griffiths, as well as the Finchleys, were opposed.