An American Tragedy Chapter 13

And then on the following morning Samuel Griffiths, with his own son Gilbert standing by, in the large drawing room of their Wykeagy Avenue mansion, listening to Smillie’s report of his conference with Clyde and Mason. And Smillie reporting all he had heard and seen. And with Gilbert Griffiths, unbelievably shaken and infuriated by all this, exclaiming at one point:

“Why, the little devil! The little beast! But what did I tell you, Dad? Didn’t I warn you against bringing him on?”

And Samuel Griffiths after meditating on this reference to his earlier sympathetic folly now giving Gilbert a most suggestive and intensely troubled look, which said: Are we here to discuss the folly of my original, if foolish, good intentions, or the present crisis? And Gilbert thinking: The murderer! And that wretched little show-off, Sondra Finchley, trying to make something of him in order to spite me, Gilbert, principally, and so getting herself smirched. The little fool! But it served her right. She would get her share of this now. Only it would cause him and his father and all of them infinite trouble also. For was this not an ineradicable stain which was likely to defile all—himself, his fiancĂ©e, Bella, Myra, his parents—and perhaps cost them their position here in Lycurgus society? The tragedy! Maybe an execution! And in this family!

Yet Samuel Griffiths, on his part, going back in his mind to all that had occurred since Clyde had arrived in Lycurgus.

His being left to work in that basement at first and ignored by the family. Left to his own devices for fully eight months. Might not that have been at least a contributing cause to all this horror? And then being put over all those girls! Was not that a mistake? He could see all this now clearly, although by no means condoning Clyde’s deed in any way—far from it. The wretchedness of such a mind as that—the ungoverned and carnal desires! The uncontrollable brutality of seducing that girl and then because of Sondra—the pleasant, agreeable little Sondra—plotting to get rid of her! And now in jail, and offering no better explanation of all the amazing circumstances, as reported by Smillie, than that he had not intended to kill her at all—had not even plotted to do so—that the wind had blown his hat off! How impossibly weak! And with no suitable explanation for the two hats, or the missing suit, or of not going to the aid of the drowning girl. And those unexplained marks on her face. How strongly all these things pointed to his guilt.

“For God’s sake,” exclaimed Gilbert, “hasn’t he anything better than that to offer, the little fool!” And Smillie replied that that was all he could get him to say, and that Mr. Mason was absolutely and quite dispassionately convinced of his guilt. “Dreadful! Dreadful!” put in Samuel. “I really can’t grasp it yet. I can’t! It doesn’t seem possible that any one of my blood could be guilty of such a thing!” And then getting up and walking the floor in real and crushing distress and fear. His family! Gilbert and his future! Bella, with all her ambitions and dreams! And Sondra! And Finchley!

He clinched his hands. He knitted his brows and tightened his lips. He looked at Smillie, who, immaculate and sleek, showed nevertheless the immense strain that was on him, shaking his head dismally whenever Griffiths looked at him.

And then after nearly an hour and a half more of such questioning and requestioning as to the possibility of some other interpretation than the data furnished by Smillie would permit, Griffiths, senior, pausing and declaring: “Well, it does look bad, I must say. Still, in the face of what you tell me, I can’t find it in me to condemn completely without more knowledge than we have here. There may be some other facts not as yet come to light—he won’t talk, you say, about most things—some little details we don’t know about—some slight excuse of some kind—for without that this does appear to be a most atrocious crime. Has Mr. Brookhart got in from Boston?”

“Yes, sir, he’s here,” replied Gilbert. “He telephoned Mr. Smillie.”

“Well, have him come out here at two this afternoon to see me. I’m too tired to talk more about this right now. Tell him all that you have told me, Smillie. And then come back here with him at two. It may be that he will have some suggestion to make that will be of value to us, although just what I can’t see. Only one thing I want to say—I hope he isn’t guilty. And I want every proper step taken to discover whether he is or not, and if not, to defend him to the limit of the law. But no more than that. No trying to save anybody who is guilty of such a thing as this—no, no, no!—not even if he is my nephew! Not me! I’m not that kind of a man! Trouble or no trouble—disgrace or no disgrace—I’ll do what I can to help him if he’s innocent—if there’s even the faintest reason for believing so. But guilty? No! Never! If this boy is really guilty, he’ll have to take the consequences. Not a dollar—not a penny—of my money will I devote to any one who could be guilty of such a crime, even if he is my nephew!”

And turning and slowly and heavily moving toward the rear staircase, while Smillie, wide-eyed, gazed after him in awe. The power of him! The decision of him! The fairness of him in such a deadly crisis! And Gilbert equally impressed, also sitting and staring. His father was a man, really. He might be cruelly wounded and distressed, but, unlike himself, he was neither petty nor revengeful.

And next Mr. Darrah Brookhart, a large, well-dressed, well-fed, ponderous and cautious corporation lawyer, with one eye half concealed by a drooping lid and his stomach rather protuberant, giving one the impression of being mentally if not exactly physically suspended, balloon-wise, in some highly rarefied atmosphere where he was moved easily hither and yon by the lightest breath of previous legal interpretations or decisions of any kind. In the absence of additional facts, the guilt of Clyde (to him) seemed obvious. Or, waiving that, as he saw it after carefully listening to Smillie’s recounting of all the suspicious and incriminating circumstances, he would think it very difficult to construct an even partially satisfactory defense, unless there were some facts favoring Clyde which had not thus far appeared. Those two hats, that bag—his slipping away like that. Those letters. But he would prefer to read them. For upon the face of the data so far, unquestionably public sentiment would be all against Clyde and in favor of the dead girl and her poverty and her class, a situation which made a favorable verdict in such a backwoods county seat as Bridgeburg almost impossible. For Clyde, although himself poor, was the nephew of a rich man and hitherto in good standing in Lycurgus society. That would most certainly tend to prejudice country-born people against him. It would probably be better to ask for a change of venue so as to nullify the force of such a prejudice.

On the other hand, without first sending a trained cross-examiner to Clyde—one, who being about to undertake the defense should be able to extract the facts from him on the plea that on his truthful answers depended his life—he would not be able to say whether there was any hope or not. In his office was a certain Mr. Catchuman, a very able man, who might be sent on such a mission and on whose final report one could base a reasonable opinion. However, there were now various other aspects of such a case as this which, in his estimation, needed to be carefully looked into and decided upon. For, of course, as Mr. Griffiths and his son so well knew, in Utica, New York City, Albany (and now that he came to think of it, more particularly in Albany, where were two brothers, Canavan & Canavan, most able if dubious individuals), there were criminal lawyers deeply versed in the abstrusities and tricks of the criminal law. And any of them—no doubt—for a sufficient retainer, and irrespective of the primary look of a situation of this kind, might be induced to undertake such a defense. And, no doubt, via change of venue, motions, appeals, etc., they might and no doubt would be able to delay and eventually effect an ultimate verdict of something less than death, if such were the wish of the head of this very important family. On the other hand, there was the undeniable fact that such a hotly contested trial as this would most assuredly prove to be would result in an enormous amount of publicity, and did Mr. Samuel Griffiths want that? For again, under such circumstances, was it not likely to be said, if most unjustly, of course, that he was using his great wealth to frustrate justice? The public was so prejudiced against wealth in such cases. Yet, some sort of a defense on the part of the Griffiths would certainly be expected by the public, whether subsequently the same necessity for such defense was criticized by them or not.

And in consequence, it was now necessary for Mr. Griffiths and his son to decide how they would prefer to proceed—whether with very distinguished criminal lawyers such as the two he had just named, or with less forceful counsel, or none. For, of course, it would be possible, and that quite inconspicuously, to supply Clyde with a capable and yet thoroughly conservative trial lawyer—some one residing and practising in Bridgeburg possibly—whose duty it would be to see that all blatant and unjustified reference to the family on the part of the newspapers was minimized.

And so, after three more hours of conference, it was finally decided by Samuel himself that at once Mr. Brookhart was to despatch his Mr. Catchuman to Bridgeburg to interview Clyde, and thereafter, whatever his conclusions as to his guilt or innocence, he was to select from the local array of legal talent—for the present, anyhow—such a lawyer as would best represent Clyde fairly. Yet with no assurances of means or encouragement to do more than extract from Clyde the true details of his relationship to this charge. And those once ascertained to center upon such a defense as would most honestly tend to establish only such facts as were honestly favorable to Clyde—in short, in no way, either by legal chicane or casuistry or trickery of any kind, to seek to establish a false innocence and so defeat the ends of justice.