An American Tragedy Chapter 26

The remainder of the trial consisted of the testimony of eleven witnesses—four for Mason and seven for Clyde. One of the latter—a Dr. A. K. Sword, of Rehobeth—chancing to be at Big Bittern on the day that Roberta’s body was returned to the boat-house, now declared that he had seen and examined it there and that the wounds, as they appeared then, did not seem to him as other than such as might have been delivered by such a blow as Clyde admitted to having struck accidentally, and that unquestionably Miss Alden had been drowned while conscious—and not unconscious, as the state would have the jury believe—a result which led Mason into an inquiry concerning the gentleman’s medical history, which, alas, was not as impressive as it might have been. He had been graduated from a second-rate medical school in Oklahoma and had practised in a small town ever since. In addition to him—and entirely apart from the crime with which Clyde was charged—there was Samuel Yearsley, one of the farmers from around Gun Lodge, who, driving over the road which Roberta’s body had traveled in being removed from Big Bittern to Gun Lodge, now earnestly swore that the road, as he had noticed in driving over it that same morning, was quite rough—making it possible for Belknap, who was examining him, to indicate that this was at least an approximate cause of the extra-severity of the wounds upon Roberta’s head and face. This bit of testimony was later contradicted, however, by a rival witness for Mason—the driver for Lutz Brothers, no less, who as earnestly swore that he found no ruts or rough places whatsoever in the road. And again there were Liggett and Whiggam to say that in so far as they had been able to note or determine, Clyde’s conduct in connection with his technical efforts for Griffiths & Company had been attentive, faithful and valuable. They had seen no official harm in him. And then several other minor witnesses to say that in so far as they had been able to observe his social comings and goings, Clyde’s conduct was most circumspect, ceremonious and guarded. He had done no ill that they knew of. But, alas, as Mason in cross-examining them was quick to point out, they had never heard of Roberta Alden or her trouble or even of Clyde’s social relationship with her.

Finally many small and dangerous and difficult points having been bridged or buttressed or fended against as well as each side could, it became Belknap’s duty to say his last word for Clyde. And to this he gave an entire day, most carefully, and in the spirit of his opening address, retracing and emphasizing every point which tended to show how, almost unconsciously, if not quite innocently, Clyde had fallen into the relationship with Roberta which had ended so disastrously for both. Mental and moral cowardice, as he now reiterated, inflamed or at least operated on by various lacks in Clyde’s early life, plus new opportunities such as previously had never appeared to be within his grasp, had affected his “perhaps too pliable and sensual and impractical and dreamy mind.” No doubt he had not been fair to Miss Alden. No question as to that. He had not. But on the other hand—and as had been most clearly shown by the confession which the defense had elicited—he had not proved ultimately so cruel or vile as the prosecution would have the public and this honorable jury believe. Many men were far more cruel in their love life than this young boy had ever dreamed of being, and of course they were not necessarily hung for that. And in passing technically on whether this boy had actually committed the crime charged, it was incumbent upon this jury to see that no generous impulse relating to what this poor girl might have suffered in her love-relations with this youth be permitted to sway them to the belief or decision that for that this youth had committed the crime specifically stated in the indictment. Who among both sexes were not cruel at times in their love life, the one to the other?

And then a long and detailed indictment of the purely circumstantial nature of the evidence—no single person having seen or heard anything of the alleged crime itself, whereas Clyde himself had explained most clearly how he came to find himself in the peculiar situation in which he did find himself. And after that, a brushing aside of the incident of the folder, as well as Clyde’s not remembering the price of the boat at Big Bittern, his stopping to bury the tripod and his being so near Roberta and not aiding her, as either being mere accidents of chance, or memory, or, in the case of his failing to go to her rescue, of his being dazed, confused; frightened—“hesitating fatally but not criminally at the one time in his life when he should not have hesitated”—a really strong if jesuitical plea which was not without its merits and its weight.

And then Mason, blazing with his conviction that Clyde was a murderer of the coldest and blackest type, and spending an entire day in riddling the “spider’s tissue of lies and unsupported statements” with which the defense was hoping to divert the minds of the jury from the unbroken and unbreakable chain of amply substantiated evidence wherewith the prosecution had proved this “bearded man” to be the “red-handed murderer” that he was. And with hours spent in retracing the statements of the various witnesses. And other hours in denouncing Clyde, or re-telling the bitter miseries of Roberta—so much so that the jury, as well as the audience, was once more on the verge of tears. And with Clyde deciding in his own mind as he sat between Belknap and Jephson, that no jury such as this was likely to acquit him in the face of evidence so artfully and movingly recapitulated.

And then Oberwaltzer from his high seat finally instructing the jury: “Gentlemen—all evidence is, in a strict sense, more or less circumstantial, whether consisting of facts which permit the inference of guilt or whether given by an eyewitness. The testimony of an eyewitness is, of course, based upon circumstances.

“If any of the material facts of the case are at variance with the probability of guilt, it will be the duty of you gentlemen to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt raised.

“And it must be remembered that evidence is not to be discredited or decried because it is circumstantial. It may often be more reliable evidence than direct evidence.

“Much has been said here concerning motive and its importance in this case, but you are to remember that proof of motive is by no means indispensable or essential to conviction. While a motive may be shown as a circumstance to aid in fixing a crime, yet the people are not required to prove a motive.

“If the jury finds that Roberta Alden accidentally or involuntarily fell out of the boat and that the defendant made no attempt to rescue her, that does not make the defendant guilty and the jury must find the defendant ‘not guilty.’ On the other hand, if the jury finds that the defendant in any way, intentionally, there and then brought about or contributed to that fatal accident, either by a blow or otherwise, it must find the defendant guilty.

“While I do not say that you must agree upon your verdict, I would suggest that you ought not, any of you, place your minds in a position which will not yield if after careful deliberation you find you are wrong.”

So, Justice Oberwaltzer—solemnly and didactically from his high seat to the jury.

And then, that point having been reached, the jury rising and filing from the room at five in the afternoon. And Clyde immediately thereafter being removed to his cell before the audience proper was allowed to leave the building. There was constant fear on the part of the sheriff that he might be attacked. And after that five long hours in which he waited, walking to and fro, to and fro, in his cell, or pretending to read or rest, the while Kraut or Sissel, tipped by various representatives of the press for information as to how Clyde “took it” at this time, slyly and silently remained as near as possible to watch.

And in the meantime Justice Oberwaltzer and Mason and Belknap and Jephson, with their attendants and friends, in various rooms of the Bridgeburg Central Hotel, dining and then waiting impatiently, with the aid of a few drinks, for the jury to agree, and wishing and hoping that the verdict would be reached soon, whatever it might be.

And in the meantime the twelve men—farmers, clerks and storekeepers, re-canvassing for their own mental satisfaction the fine points made by Mason and Belknap and Jephson. Yet out of the whole twelve but one man—Samuel Upham, a druggist—(politically opposed to Mason and taken with the personality of Jephson)—sympathizing with Belknap and Jephson. And so pretending that he had doubts as to the completeness of Mason’s proof until at last after five ballots were taken he was threatened with exposure and the public rage and obloquy which was sure to follow in case the jury was hung. “We’ll fix you. You won’t get by with this without the public knowing exactly where you stand.” Whereupon, having a satisfactory drug business in North Mansfield, he at once decided that it was best to pocket this opposition to Mason and agree.

Then four hollow knocks on the door leading from the jury room to the courtroom. It was the foreman of the jury, Foster Lund, a dealer in cement, lime and stone. His great fist was knocking. And at that the hundreds who had crowded into the hot stuffy courtroom after dinner though many had not even left—stirred from the half stupor into which they had fallen. “What’s that? What’s happened? Is the jury ready to report? What’s the verdict?” And men and women and children starting up to draw nearer the excluding rail. And the two deputies on guard before the jury door beginning to call. “All right! All right! As soon as the judge comes.” And then other deputies hurrying to the prison over the way in order that the sheriff might be notified and Clyde brought over—and to the Bridgeburg Central Hotel to summon Oberwaltzer and all the others. And then Clyde, in a half stupor or daze from sheer loneliness and killing suspense, being manacled to Kraut and led over between Slack, Sissel and others. And Oberwaltzer, Mason, Belknap and Jephson and the entire company of newspaper writers, artists, photographers and others entering and taking the places that they had occupied all these long weeks. And Clyde winking and blinking as he was seated behind Belknap and Jephson now—not with them, for as stoutly manacled as he was to Kraut, he was compelled to sit by him. And then Oberwaltzer on the bench and the clerk in his place, the jury room door being opened and the twelve men filing solemnly in—quaint and varied figures in angular and for the most part much-worn suits of the readymade variety. And as they did so, seating themselves in the jury box, only to rise again at the command of the clerk, who began: “Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed on a verdict?”—yet without one of them glancing in the direction of either Belknap or Jephson or Clyde, which Belknap at once interpreted as fatal.

“It’s all off,” he whispered to Jephson. “Against us. I can tell.” And then Lund announcing: “We have. We find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree.” And Clyde, entirely dazed and yet trying to keep his poise and remain serene, gazing straight before him toward the jury and beyond, and with scarcely a blink of the eye. For had he not, in his cell the night before, been told by Jephson, who had found him deeply depressed, that the verdict in this trial, assuming that it proved to be unfavorable, was of no consequence. The trial from start to finish had been unfair. Prejudice and bias had governed its every step. Such bullying and browbeating and innuendo as Mason had indulged in before the jury would never pass as fair or adequate in any higher court. And a new trial—on appeal—would certainly be granted—although by whom such an appeal was to be conducted he was not now prepared to discuss.

And now, recalling that, Clyde saying to himself that it did not so much matter perhaps, after all. It could not, really—or could it? Yet think what these words meant in case he could not get a new trial! Death! That is what it would mean if this were final—and perhaps it was final. And then to sit in that chair he had seen in his mind’s eye for so long—these many days and nights when he could not force his mind to drive it away. Here it was again before him—that dreadful, ghastly chair—only closer and larger than ever before—there in the very center of the space between himself and Justice Oberwaltzer. He could see it plainly now—squarish, heavy-armed, heavy-backed, some straps at the top and sides. God! Supposing no one would help him now! Even the Griffiths might not be willing to pay out any more money! Think of that! The Court of Appeals to which Jephson and Belknap had referred might not be willing to help him either. And then these words would be final. They would! They would! God! His jaws moved slightly, then set—because at the moment he became conscious that they were moving. Besides, at that moment Belknap was rising and asking for an individual poll of the jury, while Jephson leaned over and whispered: “Don’t worry about it. It isn’t final. We’ll get a reversal as sure as anything.” Yet as each of the jurors was saying: “Yes”—Clyde was listening to them, not to Jephson. Why should each one say that with so much emphasis? Was there not one who felt that he might not have done as Mason had said—struck her intentionally? Was there not one who even half-believed in that change of heart which Belknap and Jephson had insisted that he had experienced? He looked at them all—little and big. They were like a blackish-brown group of wooden toys with creamish-brown or old ivory faces and hands. Then he thought of his mother. She would hear of this now, for here were all these newspaper writers and artists and photographers assembled to hear this. And what would the Griffiths—his uncle and Gilbert—think now? And Sondra! Sondra! Not a word from her. And through all this he had been openly testifying, as Belknap and Jephson had agreed that he must do—to the compelling and directing power of his passion for her—the real reason for all this! But not a word. And she would not send him any word now, of course—she who had been going to marry him and give him everything!

But in the meantime the crowd about him silent although—or perhaps because—intensely satisfied. The little devil hadn’t “gotten by.” He hadn’t fooled the twelve sane men of this county with all that bunk about a change of heart. What rot! While Jephson sat and stared, and Belknap, his strong face written all over with contempt and defiance, making his motions. And Mason and Burleigh and Newcomb and Redmond thinly repressing their intense satisfaction behind masks preternaturally severe, the while Belknap continued with a request that the sentence be put off until the following Friday—a week hence, when he could more conveniently attend, but with Justice Oberwaltzer replying that he thought not—unless some good reason could be shown. But on the morrow, if counsel desired, he would listen to an argument. If it were satisfactory he would delay sentence—otherwise, pronounce it the following Monday.

Yet, even so, Clyde was not concerned with this argument at the moment. He was thinking of his mother and what she would think—feel. He had been writing her so regularly, insisting always that he was innocent and that she must not believe all, or even a part, of what she read in the newspapers. He was going to be acquitted sure. He was going to go on the stand and testify for himself. But now… now… oh, he needed her now—so much. Quite every one, as it seemed now, had forsaken him. He was terribly, terribly alone. And he must send her some word quickly. He must. He must. And then asking Jephson for a piece of paper and a pencil, he wrote: “Mrs. Asa Griffiths, care of Star of Hope Mission, Denver, Colorado. Dear mother—I am convicted—Clyde.” And then handing that to Jephson, he asked him, nervously and weakly, if he would see that it was sent right away. “Right away, son, sure,” replied Jephson, touched by his looks, and waving to a press boy who was near gave it to him together with the money.

And then, while this was going on, all the public exits being locked until Clyde, accompanied by Sissel and Kraut, had been ushered through the familiar side entrance through which he had hoped to escape. And while all the press and the public and the still-remaining jury gazing, for even yet they had not seen enough of Clyde but must stare into his face to see how he was taking it. And because of the local feeling against him, Justice Oberwaltzer, at Slack’s request, holding court un-adjourned until word was brought that Clyde was once more locked in his cell, whereupon the doors were re-opened. And then the crowd surging out but only to wait at the courtroom door in order to glimpse, as he passed out, Mason, who now, of all the figures in this case, was the true hero—the nemesis of Clyde—the avenger of Roberta. But he not appearing at first but instead Jephson and Belknap together, and not so much depressed as solemn, defiant—Jephson, in particular, looking unconquerably contemptuous. Then some one calling: “Well, you didn’t get him off just the same,” and Jephson replying, with a shrug of his shoulders, “Not yet, but this county isn’t all of the law either.” Then Mason, immediately afterward—a heavy, baggy overcoat thrown over his shoulder, his worn soft hat pulled low over his eyes—and followed by Burleigh, Heit, Newcomb and others as a royal train—while he walked in the manner of one entirely oblivious of the meaning or compliment of this waiting throng. For was he not now a victor and an elected judge! And as instantly being set upon by a circling, huzzahing mass—the while a score of those nearest sought to seize him by the hand or place a grateful pat upon his arm or shoulder. “Hurrah for Orville!” “Good for you, Judge!” (his new or fast-approaching title). “By God! Orville Mason, you deserve the thanks of this county!” “Hy-oh! Heigh! Heigh!” “Three cheers for Orville Mason!” And with that the crowd bursting into three resounding huzzahs—which Clyde in his cell could clearly hear and at the same time sense the meaning of.

They were cheering Mason for convicting him. In that large crowd out there there was not one who did not believe him totally and completely guilty. Roberta—her letters—her determination to make him marry her—her giant fear of exposure—had dragged him down to this. To conviction. To death, maybe. Away from all he had longed for—away from all he had dreamed he might possess. And Sondra! Sondra! Not a word! Not a word! And so now, fearing that Kraut or Sissel or some one might be watching (ready to report even now his every gesture), and not willing to show after all how totally collapsed and despondent he really was, he sat down and taking up a magazine pretended to read, the while he looked far, far beyond it to other scenes—his mother—his brother and sisters—the Griffiths—all he had known. But finding these unsubstantiated mind visions a little too much, he finally got up and throwing off his clothes climbed into his iron cot.

“Convicted! Convicted!” And that meant that he must die! God! But how blessed to be able to conceal his face upon a pillow and not let any one see—however accurately they might guess!