An American Tragedy Chapter 27

The dreary aftermath of a great contest and a great failure, with the general public from coast to coast—in view of this stern local interpretation of the tragedy—firmly convinced that Clyde was guilty and, as heralded by the newspapers everywhere, that he had been properly convicted. The pathos of that poor little murdered country girl! Her sad letters! How she must have suffered! That weak defense! Even the Griffiths of Denver were so shaken by the evidence as the trial had progressed that they scarcely dared read the papers openly—one to the other—but, for the most part, read of it separately and alone, whispering together afterwards of the damning, awful deluge of circumstantial evidence. Yet, after reading Belknap’s speech and Clyde’s own testimony, this little family group that had struggled along together for so long coming to believe in their own son and brother in spite of all they had previously read against him. And because of this—during the trial as well as afterwards—writing him cheerful and hopeful letters, based frequently on letters from him in which he insisted over and over again that he was not guilty. Yet once convicted, and out of the depths of his despair wiring his mother as he did—and the papers confirming it—absolute consternation in the Griffiths family. For was not this proof? Or, was it? All the papers seemed to think so. And they rushed reporters to Mrs. Griffiths, who, together with her little brood, had sought refuge from the unbearable publicity in a remote part of Denver entirely removed from the mission world. A venal moving-van company had revealed her address.

And now this American witness to the rule of God upon earth, sitting in a chair in her shabby, nondescript apartment, hard-pressed for the very means to sustain herself—degraded by the milling forces of life and the fell and brutal blows of chance—yet serene in her trust—and declaring: “I cannot think this morning. I seem numb and things look strange to me. My boy found guilty of murder! But I am his mother and I am not convinced of his guilt by any means! He has written me that he is not guilty and I believe him. And to whom should he turn with the truth and for trust if not to me? But there is He who sees all things and who knows.”

At the same time there was so much in the long stream of evidence, as well as Clyde’s first folly in Kansas City, that had caused her to wonder—and fear. Why was he unable to explain that folder? Why couldn’t he have gone to the girl’s aid when he could swim so well? And why did he proceed so swiftly to the mysterious Miss X—whoever she was? Oh, surely, surely, surely, she was not going to be compelled, in spite of all her faith, to believe that her eldest—the most ambitious and hopeful, if restless, of all of her children, was guilty of such a crime! No! She could not doubt him—even now. Under the merciful direction of a living God, was it not evil in a mother to believe evil of a child, however dread his erring ways might seem? In the silence of the different rooms of the mission, before she had been compelled to remove from there because of curious and troublesome visitors, had she not stood many times in the center of one of those miserable rooms while sweeping and dusting, free from the eye of any observer—her head thrown back, her eyes closed, her strong, brown face molded in homely and yet convinced and earnest lines—a figure out of the early Biblical days of her six-thousand-year-old world—and earnestly directing her thoughts to that imaginary throne which she saw as occupied by the living, giant mind and body of the living God—her Creator. And praying by the quarter and the half hour that she be given strength and understanding and guidance to know of her son’s innocence or guilt—and if innocent that this searing burden of suffering be lifted from him and her and all those dear to him and her—or if guilty, she be shown how to do—how to endure the while he be shown how to wash from his immortal soul forever the horror of the thing he had done—make himself once more, if possible, white before the Lord.

“Thou art mighty, O God, and there is none beside Thee. Behold, to Thee all things are possible. In Thy favor is Life. Have mercy, O God. Though his sins be as scarlet, make him white as snow. Though they be red like crimson, make them as wool.”

Yet in her then—and as she prayed—was the wisdom of Eve in regard to the daughters of Eve. That girl whom Clyde was alleged to have slain—what about her? Had she not sinned too? And was she not older than Clyde? The papers said so. Examining the letters, line by line, she was moved by their pathos and was intensely and pathetically grieved for the misery that had befallen the Aldens. Nevertheless, as a mother and woman full of the wisdom of ancient Eve, she saw how Roberta herself must have consented—how the lure of her must have aided in the weakening and the betrayal of her son. A strong, good girl would not have consented—could not have. How many confessions about this same thing had she not heard in the mission and at street meetings? And might it not be said in Clyde’s favor—as in the very beginning of life in the Garden of Eden—“the woman tempted me”?

Truly—and because of that——

“His mercy endureth forever,” she quoted. And if His mercy endureth—must that of Clyde’s mother be less?

“If ye have faith, so much as the grain of a mustard seed,” she quoted to herself—and now, in the face of these importuning reporters added: “Did my son kill her? That is the question. Nothing else matters in the eyes of our Maker,” and she looked at the sophisticated, callous youths with the look of one who was sure that her God would make them understand. And even so they were impressed by her profound sincerity and faith. “Whether or not the jury has found him guilty or innocent is neither here nor there in the eyes of Him who holds the stars in the hollow of His hand. The jury’s finding is of men. It is of the earth’s earthy. I have read his lawyer’s plea. My son himself has told me in his letters that he is not guilty. I believe my son. I am convinced that he is innocent.”

And Asa in another corner of the room, saying little. Because of his lack of comprehension of the actualities as well as his lack of experience of the stern and motivating forces of passion, he was unable to grasp even a tithe of the meaning of this. He had never understood Clyde or his lacks or his feverish imaginings, so he said, and preferred not to discuss him.

“But,” continued Mrs. Griffiths, “at no time have I shielded Clyde in his sin against Roberta Alden. He did wrong, but she did wrong too in not resisting him. There can be no compromising with sin in any one. And though my heart goes out in sympathy and love to the bleeding heart of her dear mother and father who have suffered so, still we must not fail to see that this sin was mutual and that the world should know and judge accordingly. Not that I want to shield him,” she repeated. “He should have remembered the teachings of his youth.” And here her lips compressed in a sad and somewhat critical misery. “But I have read her letters too. And I feel that but for them, the prosecuting attorney would have no real case against my son. He used them to work on the emotions of the jury.” She got up, tried as by fire, and exclaimed, tensely and beautifully: “But he is my son! He has just been convicted. I must think as a mother how to help him, however I feel as to his sin.” She gripped her hands together, and even the reporters were touched by her misery. “I must go to him! I should have gone before. I see it now.” She paused, discovering herself to be addressing her inmost agony, need, fear, to these public ears and voices, which might in no wise understand or care.

“Some people wonder,” now interrupted one of these same—a most practical and emotionally calloused youth of Clyde’s own age—“why you weren’t there during the trial. Didn’t you have the money to go?”

“I had no money,” she replied simply. “Not enough, anyhow. And besides, they advised me not to come—that they did not need me. But now—now I must go—in some way—I must find out how.” She went to a small shabby desk, which was a part of the sparse and colorless equipment of the room. “You boys are going downtown,” she said. “Would one of you send a telegram for me if I give you the money?”

“Sure!” exclaimed the one who had asked her the rudest question. “Give it to me. You don’t need any money. I’ll have the paper send it.” Also, as he thought, he would write it up, or in, as part of his story.

She seated herself at the yellow and scratched desk and after finding a small pad and pen, she wrote: “Clyde—Trust in God. All things are possible to Him. Appeal at once. Read Psalm 51. Another trial will prove your innocence. We will come to you soon. Father and Mother.”

“Perhaps I had just better give you the money,” she added, nervously, wondering whether it would be well to permit a newspaper to pay for this and wondering at the same time if Clyde’s uncle would be willing to pay for an appeal. It might cost a great deal. Then she added: “It’s rather long.”

“Oh, don’t bother about that!” exclaimed another of the trio, who was anxious to read the telegram. “Write all you want. We’ll see that it goes.”

“I want a copy of that,” added the third, in a sharp and uncompromising tone, seeing that the first reporter was proceeding to take and pocket the message. “This isn’t private. I get it from you or her—now!”

And at this, number one, in order to avoid a scene, which Mrs. Griffiths, in her slow way, was beginning to sense, extracted the slip from his pocket and turned it over to the others, who there and then proceeded to copy it.

At the same time that this was going on, the Griffiths of Lycurgus, having been consulted as to the wisdom and cost of a new trial, disclosed themselves as by no means interested, let alone convinced, that an appeal—at least at their expense—was justified. The torture and socially—if not commercially—destroying force of all this—every hour of it a Golgotha! Bella and her social future, to say nothing of Gilbert and his—completely overcast and charred by this awful public picture of the plot and crime that one of their immediate blood had conceived and executed! Samuel Griffiths himself, as well as his wife, fairly macerated by this blasting flash from his well-intentioned, though seemingly impractical and nonsensical good deed. Had not a long, practical struggle with life taught him that sentiment in business was folly? Up to the hour he had met Clyde he had never allowed it to influence him in any way. But his mistaken notion that his youngest brother had been unfairly dealt with by their father! And now this! This! His wife and daughter compelled to remove from the scene of their happiest years and comforts and live as exiles—perhaps forever—in one of the suburbs of Boston, or elsewhere—or forever endure the eyes and sympathy of their friends! And himself and Gilbert almost steadily conferring ever since as to the wisdom of uniting the business in stock form with some of the others of Lycurgus or elsewhere—or, if not that, of transferring, not by degrees but speedily, to either Rochester or Buffalo or Boston or Brooklyn, where a main plant might be erected. The disgrace of this could only be overcome by absenting themselves from Lycurgus and all that it represented to them. They must begin life all over again—socially at least. That did not mean so much to himself or his wife—their day was about over anyhow. But Bella and Gilbert and Myra—how to rehabilitate them in some way, somewhere?

And so, even before the trial was finished, a decision on the part of Samuel and Gilbert Griffiths to remove the business to South Boston, where they might decently submerge themselves until the misery and shame of this had in part at least been forgotten.

And because of this further aid to Clyde absolutely refused. And Belknap and Jephson then sitting down together to consider. For obviously, their time being as valuable as it was—devoted hitherto to the most successful practice in Bridgeburg—and with many matters waiting on account of the pressure of this particular case—they were by no means persuaded that either their practical self-interest or their charity permitted or demanded their assisting Clyde without further recompense. In fact, the expense of appealing this case was going to be considerable as they saw it. The record was enormous. The briefs would be large and expensive, and the State’s allowance for them was pitifully small. At the same time, as Jephson pointed out, it was folly to assume that the western Griffiths might not be able to do anything at all. Had they not been identified with religious and charitable work this long while? And was it not possible, the tragedy of Clyde’s present predicament pointed out to them, that they might through appeals of various kinds raise at least sufficient money to defray the actual costs of such an appeal? Of course, they had not aided Clyde up to the present time but that was because his mother had been notified that she was not needed. It was different now.

“Better wire her to come on,” suggested Jephson, practically. “We can get Oberwaltzer to set the sentence over until the tenth if we say that she is trying to come on here. Besides, just tell her to do it and if she says she can’t we’ll see about the money then. But she’ll be likely to get it and maybe some towards the appeal too.”

And forthwith a telegram and a letter to Mrs. Griffiths, saying that as yet no word had been said to Clyde but none-the-less his Lycurgus relatives had declined to assist him further in any way. Besides, he was to be sentenced not later than the tenth, and for his own future welfare it was necessary that some one—preferably herself—appear. Also that funds to cover the cost of an appeal be raised, or at least the same guaranteed.

And then Mrs. Griffiths, on her knees praying to her God to help her. Here, now, he must show his Almighty hand—his never-failing mercy. Enlightenment and help must come from somewhere—otherwise how was she to get the fare, let alone raise money for Clyde’s appeal?

Yet as she prayed—on her knees—a thought. The newspapers had been hounding her for interviews. They had followed her here and there. Why had she not gone to her son’s aid? What did she think of this? What of that? And now she said to herself, why should she not go to the editor of one of the great papers so anxious to question her always and tell him how great was her need? Also, that if he would help her to reach her son in time to be with him on his day of sentence that she, his mother, would report the same for him. These papers were sending their reporters here, there—even to the trial, as she had read. Why not her—his mother? Could she not speak and write too? How many, many tracts had she not composed?

And so now to her feet—only to sink once more on her knees: “Thou hast answered me, oh, my God!” she exclaimed. Then rising, she got out her ancient brown coat, the commonplace brown bonnet with strings—based on some mood in regard to religious livery—and at once proceeded to the largest and most important newspaper. And because of the notoriety of her son’s trial she was shown directly to the managing editor, who was as much interested as he was impressed and who listened to her with respect and sympathy. He understood her situation and was under the impression that the paper would be interested in this. He disappeared for a few moments—then returned. She would be employed as a correspondent for a period of three weeks, and after that until further notice. Her expenses to and fro would be covered. An assistant, into whose hands he would now deliver her would instruct her as to the method of preparing and filing her communications. He would also provide her with some ready cash. She might even leave tonight if she chose—the sooner, the better. The paper would like a photograph or two before she left. But as he talked, and as he noticed, her eyes were closed—her head back. She was offering thanks to the God who had thus directly answered her plea.