An American Tragedy Chapter 12

And then out of the north woods a crime sensation of the first magnitude, with all of those intriguingly colorful, and yet morally and spiritually atrocious, elements—love, romance, wealth, poverty, death. And at once picturesque accounts of where and how Clyde had lived in Lycurgus, with whom he had been connected, how he had managed to conceal his relations with one girl while obviously planning to elope with another—being wired for and published by that type of editor so quick to sense the national news value of crimes such as this. And telegrams of inquiry pouring in from New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco and other large American cities east and west, either to Mason direct or the representatives of the Associated or United Press in this area, asking for further and more complete details of the crime. Who was this beautiful wealthy girl with whom it was said this Griffiths was in love? Where did she live? What were Clyde’s exact relations with her? Yet Mason, over-awed by the wealth of the Finchleys and the Griffiths, loath to part with Sondra’s name, simply asserting for the present that she was the daughter of a very wealthy manufacturer in Lycurgus, whose name he did not care to furnish—yet not hesitating to show the bundle of letters carefully tied with a ribbon by Clyde.

But Roberta’s letters on the other hand being described in detail,—even excerpts of some of them—the more poetic and gloomy being furnished the Press for use, for who was there to protect her. And on their publication a wave of hatred for Clyde as well as a wave of pity for her—the poor, lonely, country girl who had had no one but him—and he cruel, faithless,—a murderer even. Was not hanging too good for him? For en route to and from Bear Lake, as well as since, Mason had pored over these letters. And because of certain intensely moving passages relating to her home life, her gloomy distress as to her future, her evident loneliness and weariness of heart, he had been greatly moved, and later had been able to convey this feeling to others—his wife and Heit and the local newspapermen. So much so that the latter in particular were sending from Bridgeburg vivid, if somewhat distorted, descriptions of Clyde, his silence, his moodiness, and his hard-heartedness.

And then a particularly romantic young reporter from The Star, of Utica arriving at the home of the Aldens, there was immediately given to the world a fairly accurate picture of the weary and defeated Mrs. Alden, who, too exhausted to protest or complain, merely contented herself with a sincere and graphic picture of Roberta’s devotion to her parents, her simple ways of living, her modesty, morality, religious devotion—how once the local pastor of the Methodist Church had said that she was the brightest and prettiest and kindest girl he had ever known, and how for years before leaving home she had been as her mother’s own right hand. And that undoubtedly because of her poverty and loneliness in Lycurgus, she had been led to listen to the honeyed words of this scoundrel, who, coming to her with promises of marriage, had lured her into this unhallowed and, in her case, all but unbelievable relationship which had led to her death. For she was good and pure and sweet and kind always. “And to think that she is dead. I can’t believe it.”

It was so that her mother was quoted.

“Only Monday a week ago she was about—a little depressed, I thought, but smiling, and for some reason which I thought odd at the time went all over the place Monday afternoon and evening, looking at things and gathering some flowers. And then she came over and put her arms around me and said: ‘I wish I were a little girl again, Mamma, and that you would take me in your arms and rock me like you used to.’ And I said, ‘Why, Roberta, what makes you so sad to-night, anyhow?’ And she said, ‘Oh, nothing. You know I’m going back in the morning. And somehow I feel a little foolish about it to-night.’ And to think that it was this trip that was in her mind. I suppose she had a premonition that all would not work out as she had planned. And to think he struck my little girl, she who never could harm anything, not even a fly.” And here, in spite of herself, and with the saddened Titus in the background, she began to cry silently.

But from the Griffiths and other members of this local social world, complete and almost unbreakable silence. For in so far as Samuel Griffiths was concerned, it was impossible for him at first either to grasp or believe that Clyde could be capable of such a deed. What! That bland and rather timid and decidedly gentlemanly youth, as he saw him, charged with murder? Being rather far from Lycurgus at the time—Upper Saranac—where he was reached with difficulty by Gilbert,—he was almost unprepared to think, let alone act. Why, how impossible! There must be some mistake here. They must have confused Clyde with some one else.

Nevertheless, Gilbert proceeding to explain that it was unquestionably true, since the girl had worked in the factory under Clyde, and the district attorney at Bridgeburg with whom he had already been in communication had assured him that he was in possession of letters which the dead girl had written to Clyde and that Clyde did not attempt to deny them.

“Very well, then,” countered Samuel. “Don’t act hastily, and above all, don’t talk to anyone outside of Smillie or Gotboy until I see you. Where’s Brookhart?”—referring to Darrah Brookhart, of counsel for Griffiths & Company.

“He’s in Boston to-day,” returned his son. “I think he told me last Friday that he wouldn’t be back here until Monday or Tuesday.”

“Well, wire him that I want him to return at once. Incidentally, have Smillie see if he can arrange with the editors of The Star and Beacon down there to suspend any comment until I get back. I’ll be down in the morning. Also tell him to get in the car and run up there” (Bridgeburg) “to-day if he can. I must know from first hand all there is to know. Have him see Clyde if he can, also this district attorney, and bring down any news that he can get. And all the newspapers. I want to see for myself what has been published.”

And at approximately the same time, in the home of the Finchleys on Fourth Lake, Sondra herself, after forty-eight hours of most macerating thoughts spent brooding on the astounding climax which had put a period to all her girlish fancies in regard to Clyde, deciding at last to confess all to her father, to whom she was more drawn than to her mother. And accordingly approaching him in the library, where usually he sat after dinner, reading or considering his various affairs. But having come within earshot of him, beginning to sob, for truly she was stricken in the matter of her love for Clyde, as well as her various vanities and illusions in regard to her own high position, the scandal that was about to fall on her and her family. Oh, what would her mother say now, after all her warnings? And her father? And Gilbert Griffiths and his affianced bride? And the Cranstons, who except for her influence over Bertine, would never have been drawn into this intimacy with Clyde?

Her sobs arresting her father’s attention, he at once paused to look up, the meaning of this quite beyond him. Yet instantly sensing something very dreadful, gathering her up in his arms, and consolingly murmuring: “There, there! For heaven’s sake, what’s happened to my little girl now? Who’s done what and why?” And then, with a decidedly amazed and shaken expression, listening to a complete confession of all that had occurred thus far—the first meeting with Clyde, her interest in him, the attitude of the Griffiths, her letters, her love, and then this—this awful accusation and arrest. And if it were true! And her name were used, and her daddy’s! And once more she fell to weeping as though her heart would break, yet knowing full well that in the end she would have her father’s sympathy and forgiveness, whatever his subsequent suffering and mood.

And at once Finchley, accustomed to peace and order and tact and sense in his own home, looking at his daughter in an astounded and critical and yet not uncharitable way, and exclaiming: “Well, well, of all things! Well, I’ll be damned! I am amazed, my dear! I am astounded! This is a little too much, I must say. Accused of murder! And with letters of yours in your own handwriting, you say, in his possession, or in the hands of this district attorney, for all we know by now. Tst! Tst! Tst! Damned foolish, Sondra, damned foolish! Your mother has been talking to me for months about this, and you know I was taking your word for it against hers. And now see what’s happened! Why couldn’t you have told me or listened to her? Why couldn’t you have talked all this over with me before going so far? I thought we understood each other, you and I. Your mother and I have always acted for your own good, haven’t we? You know that. Besides, I certainly thought you had better sense. Really, I did. But a murder case, and you connected with it! My God!”

He got up, a handsome blond man in carefully made clothes, and paced the floor, snapping his fingers irritably, while Sondra continued to weep. Suddenly, ceasing his walking, he turned again toward her and resumed with: “But, there, there! There’s no use crying over it. Crying isn’t going to fix it. Of course, we may be able to live it down in some way. I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t guess what effect this is likely to have on you personally. But one thing is sure. We do want to know something about those letters.”

And forthwith, and while Sondra wept on, he proceeded first to call his wife in order to explain the nature of the blow—a social blow that was to lurk in her memory as a shadow for the rest of her years—and next to call up Legare Atterbury, lawyer, state senator, chairman of the Republican State Central Committee and his own private counsel for years past, to whom he explained the amazing difficulty in which his daughter now found herself. Also to inquire what was the most advisable thing to be done.

“Well, let me see,” came from Atterbury, “I wouldn’t worry very much if I were you, Mr. Finchley. I think I can do something to straighten this out for you before any real public damage is done. Now, let me see. Who is the district attorney of Cataraqui County, anyhow? I’ll have to look that up and get in touch with him and call you back. But never mind, I promise you I’ll be able to do something—keep the letters out of the papers, anyhow. Maybe out of the trial—I’m not sure—but I am sure I can fix it so that her name will not be mentioned, so don’t worry.”

And then Atterbury in turn calling up Mason, whose name he found in his lawyers’ directory, and at once arranging for a conference with him, since Mason seemed to think that the letters were most vital to his case, although he was so much overawed by Atterbury’s voice that he was quick to explain that by no means had he planned as yet to use publicly the name of Sondra or the letters either, but rather to reserve their actuality for the private inspection of the grand jury, unless Clyde should choose to confess and avoid a trial.

But Atterbury, after referring back to Finchley and finding him opposed to any use of the letters whatsoever, or Sondra’s name either, assuring him that on the morrow or the day after he would himself proceed to Bridgeburg with some plans and political information which might cause Mason to think twice before he so much as considered referring to Sondra in any public way.

And then after due consideration by the Finchley family, it was decided that at once, and without explanation or apology to any one, Mrs. Finchley, Stuart and Sondra should leave for the Maine coast or any place satisfactory to them. Finchley himself proposed to return to Lycurgus and Albany. It was not wise for any of them to be about where they could be reached by reporters or questioned by friends. And forthwith, a hegira of the Finchleys to Narragansett, where under the name of Wilson they secluded themselves for the next six weeks. Also, and because of the same cause the immediate removal of the Cranstons to one of the Thousand Islands, where there was a summer colony not entirely unsatisfactory to their fancy. But on the part of the Baggotts and the Harriets, the contention that they were not sufficiently incriminated to bother and so remaining exactly where they were at Twelfth Lake. But all talking of Clyde and Sondra—this horrible crime and the probable social destruction of all those who had in any way been thus innocently defiled by it.

And in the interim, Smillie, as directed by Griffiths, proceeding to Bridgeburg, and after two long hours with Mason, calling at the jail to see Clyde. And because of authorization from Mason being permitted to see him quite alone in his cell. Smillie having explained that it was not the intention of the Griffiths to try to set up any defense for Clyde, but rather to discover whether under the circumstances there was a possibility for a defense, Mason had urged upon him the wisdom of persuading Clyde to confess, since, as he insisted, there was not the slightest doubt as to his guilt, and a trial would but cost the county money without result to Clyde—whereas if he chose to confess, there might be some undeveloped reasons for clemency—at any rate, a great social scandal prevented from being aired in the papers.

And thereupon Smillie proceeding to Clyde in his cell where brooding most darkly and hopelessly he was wondering how to do. Yet at the mere mention of Smillie’s name shrinking as though struck. The Griffiths—Samuel Griffiths and Gilbert! Their personal representative. And now what would he say? For no doubt, as he now argued with himself, Smillie, having talked with Mason, would think him guilty. And what was he to say now? What sort of a story tell—the truth or what? But without much time to think, for even while he was trying to do so Smillie had been ushered into his presence. And then moistening his dry lips with his tongue, he could only achieve, “Why, how do you do, Mr. Smillie?” to which the latter replied, with a mock geniality, “Why, hello, Clyde, certainly sorry to see you tied up in a place like this.” And then continuing: “The papers and the district attorney over here are full of a lot of stuff about some trouble you’re in, but I suppose there can’t be much to it—there must be some mistake, of course. And that’s what I’m up here to find out. Your uncle telephoned me this morning that I was to come up and see you to find out how they come to be holding you. Of course, you can understand how they feel down there. So they wanted me to come up and get the straight of it so as to get the charge dismissed, if possible—so now if you’ll just let me know the ins and outs of this—you know—that is—”

He paused there, confident because of what the district attorney had just told him, as well as Clyde’s peculiarly nervous and recessive manner, that he would not have very much that was exculpatory to reveal.

And Clyde, after moistening his lips once more, beginning with: “I suppose things do look pretty bad for me, Mr. Smillie. I didn’t think at the time that I met Miss Alden that I would ever get into such a scrape as this. But I didn’t kill her, and that’s the God’s truth. I never even wanted to kill her or take her up to that lake in the first place. And that’s the truth, and that’s what I told the district attorney. I know he has some letters from her to me, but they only show that she wanted me to go away with her—not that I wanted to go with her at all—”

He paused, hoping that Smillie would stamp this with his approval of faith. And Smillie, noting the agreement between his and Mason’s assertions, yet anxious to placate him, returned: “Yes, I know. He was just showing them to me.”

“I knew he would,” continued Clyde, weakly. “But you know how it is sometimes, Mr. Smillie,” his voice, because of his fears that the sheriff or Kraut were listening, pitched very low. “A man can get in a jam with a girl when he never even intended to at first. You know that yourself. I did like Roberta at first, and that’s the truth, and I did get in with her just as those letters show. But you know that rule they have down there, that no one in charge of a department can have anything to do with any of the women under him. Well, that’s what started all the trouble for me, I guess. I was afraid to let any one know about it in the first place, you see.”

“Oh, I see.”

And so by degrees, and growing less and less tense as he proceeded, since Smillie appeared to be listening with sympathy, he now outlined most of the steps of his early intimacy with Roberta, together with his present defense. But with no word as to the camera, or the two hats or the lost suit, which things were constantly and enormously troubling him. How could he ever explain these, really? And with Smillie at the conclusion of this and because of what Mason had told him, asking: “But what about those two hats, Clyde? This man over here was telling me that you admit to having two straw hats—the one found on the lake and the one you wore away from there.”

And Clyde, forced to say something, yet not knowing what, replying: “But they’re wrong as to my wearing a straw hat away from there, Mr. Smillie, it was a cap.”

“I see. But still you did have a straw hat up at Bear Lake, he tells me.”

“Yes, I had one there, but as I told him, that was the one I had with me when I went up to the Cranstons’ the first time. I told him that. I forgot it and left it there.”

“Oh, I see. But now there was something about a suit—a gray one, I believe—that he says you were seen wearing up there but that he can’t find now? Were you wearing one?”

“No. I was wearing the blue suit I had on when I came down here. They’ve taken that away now and given me this one.”

“But he says that you say you had it dry-cleaned at Sharon but that he can’t find any one there who knows anything about it. How about that? Did you have it dry-cleaned there?”

“Yes, sir.”

“By whom?”

“Well, I can’t just remember now. But I think I can find the man if I were to go up there again—he’s near the depot,” but at the same time looking down and away from Smillie.

And then Smillie, like Mason before him, proceeding to ask about the bag in the boat, and whether it had not been possible, if he could swim to shore with his shoes and suit on, for him to have swam to Roberta and assisted her to cling to the overturned boat. And Clyde explaining, as before, that he was afraid of being dragged down, but adding now, for the first time, that he had called to her to hang on to the boat, whereas previously he had said that the boat drifted away from them. And Smillie recalled that Mason had told him this. Also, in connection with Clyde’s story of the wind blowing his hat off, Mason had said he could prove by witnesses, as well as the U. S. Government reports, that there was not a breath of air stirring on that most halcyon day. And so, plainly, Clyde was lying. His story was too thin. Yet Smillie, not wishing to embarrass him, kept saying: “Oh, I see,” or, “To be sure,” or “That’s the way it was, was it?”

And then finally asking about the marks on Roberta’s face and head. For Mason had called his attention to them and insisted that no blow from a boat would make both abrasions. But Clyde sure that the boat had only struck her once and that all the bruises had come from that or else he could not guess from what they had come. But then beginning to see how hopeless was all this explanation. For it was so plain from his restless, troubled manner that Smillie did not believe him. Quite obviously he considered his not having aided Roberta as dastardly—a thin excuse for letting her die.

And so, too weary and disheartened to lie more, finally ceasing. And Smillie, too sorry and disturbed to wish to catechize or confuse him further, fidgeting and fumbling and finally declaring: “Well, I’m afraid I’ll have to be going now, Clyde. The roads are pretty bad between here and Sharon. But I’ve been mighty glad to hear your side of it. And I’ll present it to your uncle just as you have told it to me. But in the meantime, if I were you, I wouldn’t do any more talking than I could help—not until you hear further from me. I was instructed to find an attorney up here to handle this case for you, if I could, but since it’s late and Mr. Brookhart, our chief counsel, will be back to-morrow, I think I’ll just wait until I can talk to him. So if you’ll take my advice, you’ll just not say anything until you hear from him or me. Either he’ll come or he’ll send some one—he’ll bring a letter from me, whoever he is, and then he’ll advise you.”

And with this parting admonition, leaving Clyde to his thoughts and himself feeling no least doubt of his guilt and that nothing less than the Griffiths’ millions, if so they chose to spend them, could save him from a fate which was no doubt due him.