An American Tragedy Chapter 16

The result of all this, however, was that it was finally decided that perhaps the easiest and safest defense that could be made, assuming that the Griffiths family of Lycurgus would submit to it, would be that of insanity or “brain storm”—a temporary aberration due to love and an illusion of grandeur aroused in Clyde by Sondra Finchley and the threatened disruption by Roberta of all his dreams and plans. But after consultation with Catchuman and Darrah Brookhart at Lycurgus, and these in turn conferring with Samuel and Gilbert Griffiths, it was determined that this would not do. For to establish insanity or “brain storm” would require previous evidence or testimony to the effect that Clyde was of none too sound mind, erratic his whole life long, and with certain specific instances tending to demonstrate how really peculiar he was—relatives (among them the Griffiths of Lycurgus themselves, perhaps), coming on to swear to it—a line of evidence, which, requiring as it would, outright lying and perjury on the part of many as well as reflecting on the Griffiths’ blood and brain, was sufficient to alienate both Samuel and Gilbert to the extent that they would have none of it. And so Brookhart was compelled to assure Belknap that this line of defense would have to be abandoned.

Such being the case, both Belknap and Jephson were once more compelled to sit down and consider. For any other defense which either could think of now seemed positively hopeless.

“I want to tell you one thing!” observed the sturdy Jephson, after thumbing through the letters of both Roberta and Sondra again. “These letters of this Alden girl are the toughest things we’re going to have to face. They’re likely to make any jury cry if they’re read right, and then to introduce those letters from that other girl on top of these would be fatal. It will be better, I think, if we do not mention hers at all, unless he does. It will only make it look as though he had killed that Alden girl to get rid of her. Mason couldn’t want anything better, as I see it.” And with this Belknap agreed most heartily.

At the same time, some plan must be devised immediately. And so, out of these various conferences, it was finally deduced by Jephson, who saw a great opportunity for himself in this matter, that the safest possible defense that could be made, and one to which Clyde’s own suspicious and most peculiar actions would most exactly fit, would be that he had never contemplated murder. On the contrary, being a moral if not a physical coward, as his own story seemed to suggest, and in terror of being exposed and driven out of Lycurgus and of the heart of Sondra, and never as yet having told Roberta of Sondra and thinking that knowledge of this great love for her (Sondra) might influence Roberta to wish to be rid of him, he had hastily and without any worse plan in mind, decided to persuade Roberta to accompany him to any near-by resort but not especially Grass Lake or Big Bittern, in order to tell her all this and so win his freedom—yet not without offering to pay her expenses as nearly as he could during her very trying period.

“All well and good,” commented Belknap. “But that involves his refusing to marry her, doesn’t it? And what jury is going to sympathize with him for that or believe that he didn’t want to kill her?”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” replied Jephson, a little testily. “So far it does. Sure. But you haven’t heard me to the end yet. I said I had a plan.”

“All right, then what is it?” replied Belknap most interested.

“Well, I’ll tell you—my plan’s this—to leave all the facts just as they are, and just as he tells them, and just as Mason has discussed them so far, except, of course, his striking her—and then explain them—the letters, the wounds, the bag, the two hats, everything—not deny them in any way.”

And here he paused and ran his long, thin, freckled hands eagerly through his light hair and looked across the grass of the public square to the jail where Clyde was, then toward Belknap again.

“All very good, but how?” queried Belknap.

“There’s no other way, I tell you,” went on Jephson quite to himself, and ignoring his senior, “and I think this will do it.” He turned to look out the window again, and began as though talking to some one outside: “He goes up there, you see, because he’s frightened and because he has to do something or be exposed. And he signs those registers just as he did because he’s afraid to have it known by anybody down there in Lycurgus that he is up there. And he has this plan about confessing to her about this other girl. BUT,” and now he paused and looked fixedly at Belknap, “and this is the keystone of the whole thing—if this won’t hold water, then down we go! Listen! He goes up there with her, frightened, and not to marry her or to kill her but to argue with her to go away. But once up there and he sees how sick she is, and tired, and sad—well, you know how much she still loves him, and he spends two nights with her, see?”

“Yes, I see,” interrupted Belknap, curiously, but not quite so dubiously now. “And that might explain those nights.”

“MIGHT? Would!” replied Jephson, slyly and calmly, his harebell eyes showing only cold, eager, practical logic, no trace of emotion or even sympathy of any kind, really. “Well, while he’s up there with her under those conditions—so close to her again, you see” (and his facial expression never altered so much as by a line) “he experiences a change of heart. You get me? He’s sorry for her. He’s ashamed of himself—his sin against her. That ought to appeal to these fellows around here, these religious and moral people, oughtn’t it?”

“It might,” quietly interpolated Belknap, who by now was very much interested and a little hopeful.

“He sees that he’s done her a wrong,” continued Jephson, intent, like a spider spinning a web, on his own plan, “and in spite of all his affection for this other girl, he’s now ready to to the right thing by this Alden girl, do you see, because he’s sorry and ashamed of himself. That takes the black look off his plotting to kill her while spending those two nights in Utica and Grass Lake with her.”

“He still loves the other girl, though?” interjected Belknap.

“Well, sure. He likes her at any rate, has been fascinated by that life down there and sort of taken out of himself, made over into a different person, but now he’s ready to marry Roberta, in case, after telling her all about this other girl and his love for her, she still wants him to.”

“I see. But how about the boat now and that bag and his going up to this Finchley girl’s place afterwards?”

“Just a minute! Just a minute! I’ll tell you about that,” continued Jephson, his blue eyes boring into space like a powerful electric ray. “Of course, he goes out in the boat with her, and of course he takes that bag, and of course he signs those registers falsely, and walks away through those woods to that other girl, after Roberta is drowned. But why? Why? Do you want to know why? I’ll tell you! He felt sorry for her, see, and he wanted to marry her, or at least he wanted to do the right thing by her at the very last there. Not before, not before, remember, but after he had spent a night with her in Utica and another one in Grass Lake. But once she was drowned—and accidentally, of course, as he says, there was his love for that other girl. He hadn’t ceased loving her even though he was willing to sacrifice her in order to do the right thing by Roberta. See?”

“I see.”

“And how are they going to prove that he didn’t experience a change of heart if he says he did and sticks to it?”

“I see, but he’ll have to tell a mighty convincing story,” added Belknap, a little heavily. “And how about those two hats? They’re going to have to be explained.”

“Well, I’m coming to those now. The one he had was a little soiled. And so he decided to buy another. As for that story he told Mason about wearing a cap, well, he was frightened and lied because he thought he would have to get out of it. Now, of course, before he goes to that other girl afterwards—while Roberta is still alive, I mean, there’s his relationship with the other girl, what he intends to do about her. He’s talking to Roberta, now you see,” he continued, “and that has to be disposed of in some way. But, as I see it, that’s easy, for of course after he experiences a change of heart and wants to do the right thing by Roberta, all he has to do is to write that other girl or go to her and tell her—about the wrong he has done Roberta.”


“For, as I see it now, she can’t be kept out of the case entirely, after all. We’ll have to ring her in, I’m afraid.”

“All right; then we have to,” said Belknap.

“Because you see, if Roberta still feels that he ought to marry her—he’ll go first and tell that Finchley girl that he can’t marry her—that he’s going away—that is, if Roberta doesn’t object to his leaving her that long, don’t you see?”


“If she does, he’ll marry her, either at Three Mile Bay or some other place.”


“But you don’t want to forget that while she’s still alive he’s puzzled and distressed. And it’s only after that second night, at Grass Lake, that he begins to see how wrong all his actions have been, you understand. Something happens. Maybe she cries or talks about wanting to die, like she does in those letters.”


“And so he wants a quiet place where they can sit down in peace and talk, where no one else will see or hear them.”

“Yes, yes—go on.”

“Well, he thinks of Big Bittern. He’s been up there once before or they’re near there, then, and just below there, twelve miles, is Three Mile Bay, where, if they decide to marry, they can.”

“I see.”

“If not, if she doesn’t want to marry him after his full confession, he can row her back to the inn, can’t he, and he or she can stay there or go on.”

“Yes, yes.”

“In the meantime, not to have any delay or be compelled to hang about that inn—it’s rather expensive, you know, and he hasn’t any too much money—he takes that lunch in his bag. Also his camera, because he wants to take some pictures. For if Mason should turn up with that camera, it’s got to be explained, and it will be better explained by us than it will be by him, won’t it?”

“I see, I see,” exclaimed Belknap, intensely interested by now and actually smiling and beginning to rub his hands.

“So they go out on the lake.”


“And they row around.”


“And finally after lunch on shore, some pictures taken—”


“He decides to tell her just how things stand with him. He’s ready, willing—”

“I get you.”

“Only just before doing that, he wants to take one or two more pictures of her there in the boat, just off shore.”


“And then he’ll tell her, see?”


“And so they go out in the boat again for a little row, just as he did, see?”


“But because they intend to go ashore again for some flowers, he’s left the bag there, see? That explains the bag.”


“But before taking any more pictures there, in the boat on the water, he begins to tell her about his love for this other girl—that if she wants him to, now he’ll marry her and then write this Sondra a letter. Or, if she feels she doesn’t want to marry him with him loving this other girl…”

“Yes, go on!” interrupted Belknap, eagerly.

“Well,” continued Jephson, “he’ll do his best to take care of her and support her out of the money he’ll have after he marries the rich girl.”


“Well, she wants him to marry her and drop this Miss Finchley!”

“I see.”

“And he agrees?”


“Also she’s so grateful that in her excitement, or gratitude, she jumps up to come toward him, you see?”


“And the boat rocks a little, and he jumps up to help her because he’s afraid she’s going to fall, see?”

“Yes, I see.”

“Well, now if we wanted to we could have him have that camera of his in his hand or not, just as you think fit.”

“Yes, I see what you’re driving at.”

“Well, whether he keeps it in his hand or doesn’t, there’s some misstep on his part or hers, just as he says, or just the motion of the two bodies, causes the boat to go over, and he strikes her, or not, just as you think fit, but accidentally, of course.”

“Yes, I see, and I’ll be damned!” exclaimed Belknap. “Fine, Reuben! Excellent! Wonderful, really!”

“And the boat strikes her too, as well as him, a little, see?” went on Jephson, paying no attention to this outburst, so interested was he in his own plot, “and makes him a little dizzy, too.”

“I see.”

“And he hears her cries and sees her, but he’s a little stunned himself, see? And by the time he’s ready to do something—”

“She’s gone,” concluded Belknap, quietly. “Drowned. I get you.”

“And then, because of all those other suspicious circumstances and false registrations—and because now she’s gone and he can’t do anything more for her, anyhow—her relatives might not want to know her condition, you know—”

“I see.”

“He slips away, frightened, a moral coward, just as we’ll have to contend from the first, anxious to stand well with his uncle and not lose his place in this world. Doesn’t that explain it?”

“About as well as anything could explain it, Reuben, I think. In fact, I think it’s a plausible explanation and I congratulate you. I don’t see how any one could hope to find a better. If that doesn’t get him off, or bring about a disagreement, at least we might get him off with, well, say, twenty years, don’t you think?” And very much cheered, he got up, and after eyeing his long, thin associate admiringly, added: “Fine!” while Jephson, his blue eyes for all the world like windless, still pools, looked steadily back.

“But of course you know what that means?” Jephson now added, calmly and softly.

“That we have to put him on the witness stand? Surely, surely. I see that well enough. But it’s his only chance.”

“And he won’t strike people as a very steady or convincing fellow, I’m afraid—too nervous and emotional.”

“Yes, I know all that,” replied Belknap, quickly. “He’s easily rattled. And Mason will go after him like a wild bull. But we’ll have to coach him as to all this—drill him. Make him understand that it’s his only chance—that his very life depends on it. Drill him for months.”

“If he fails, then he’s gone. If only we could do something to give him courage—teach him to act it out.” Jephson’s eyes seemed to be gazing directly before him at the very courtroom scene in which Clyde on the stand would have Mason before him. And then picking up Roberta’s letters (copies of them furnished by Mason) and looking at them, he concluded: “If it only weren’t for these—here.” He weighed them up and down in his hand. “Christ!” he finally concluded, darkly. “What a case! But we’re not licked yet, not by a darn sight! Why, we haven’t begun to fight yet. And we’ll get a lot of publicity, anyhow. By the way,” he added, “I’m having a fellow I know down near Big Bittern dredge for that camera to-night. Wish me luck.”

“Do I?” was all Belknap replied.