An American Tragedy Chapter 31

In meantime, however, Asa’s condition had remained serious, and it was four entire months before it was possible for him to sit up again or for Mrs. Griffiths to dream of resuming her lecturing scheme. But by that time, public interest in her and her son’s fate was considerably reduced. No Denver paper was interested to finance her return for anything she could do for them. And as for the public in the vicinity of the crime, it remembered Mrs. Griffiths and her son most clearly, and in so far as she was concerned, sympathetically—but only, on the other hand, to think of him as one who probably was guilty and in that case, being properly punished for his crime—that it would be as well if an appeal were not taken—or—if it were—that it be refused. These guilty criminals with their interminable appeals!

And with Clyde where he was, more and more executions—although as he found—and to his invariable horror, no one ever became used to such things there; farmhand Mowrer for the slaying of his former employer; officer Riordan for the slaying of his wife—and a fine upstanding officer too but a minute before his death; and afterwards, within the month, the going of the Chinaman, who seemed, for some reason, to endure a long time (and without a word in parting to any one—although it was well known that he spoke a few words of English). And after him Larry Donahue, the overseas soldier—with a grand call—just before the door closed behind: “Good-by boys. Good luck.”

And after him again—but, oh—that was so hard; so much closer to Clyde—so depleting to his strength to think of bearing this deadly life here without—Miller Nicholson—no less. For after five months in which they had been able to walk and talk and call to each other from time to time from their cells and Nicholson had begun to advise him as to books to read—as well as one important point in connection with his own case—on appeal—or in the event of any second trial, i.e.,—that the admission of Roberta’s letters as evidence, as they stood, at least, be desperately fought on the ground that the emotional force of them was detrimental in the case of any jury anywhere, to a calm unbiased consideration of the material facts presented by them—and that instead of the letters being admitted as they stood they should be digested for the facts alone and that digest—and that only offered to the jury. “If your lawyers can get the Court of Appeals to agree to the soundness of that you will win your case sure.”

And Clyde at once, after inducing a personal visit on the part of Jephson, laying this suggestion before him and hearing him say that it was sound and that he and Belknap would assuredly incorporate it in their appeal.

Yet not so long after that the guard, after locking his door on returning from the courtyard whispered, with a nod in the direction of Nicholson’s cell, “His next. Did he tell you? Within three days.”

And at once Clyde shriveling—the news playing upon him as an icy and congealing breath. For he had just come from the courtyard with him where they had walked and talked of another man who had just been brought in—a Hungarian of Utica who was convicted of burning his paramour—in a furnace—then confessing it—a huge, rough, dark, ignorant man with a face like a gargoyle. And Nicholson saying he was more animal than man, he was sure. Yet no word about himself. And in three days! And he could walk and talk as though there was nothing to happen, although, according to the guard, he had been notified the night before.

And the next day the same—walking and talking as though nothing had happened—looking up at the sky and breathing the air. Yet Clyde, his companion, too sick and feverish—too awed and terrified from merely thinking on it all night to be able to say much of anything as he walked but thinking: “And he can walk here. And be so calm. What sort of a man is this?” and feeling enormously overawed and weakened.

The following morning Nicholson did not appear—but remained in his cell destroying many letters he had received from many places. And near noon, calling to Clyde who was two cells removed from him on the other side: “I’m sending you something to remember me by.” But not a word as to his going.

And then the guard bringing two books—Robinson Crusoe and the Arabian Nights. That night Nicholson’s removal from his cell—and the next morning before dawn the curtains; the same procession passing through, which was by now an old story to Clyde. But somehow this was so different—so intimate—so cruel. And as he passed, calling: “God bless you all. I hope you have good luck and get out.” And then that terrible stillness that followed the passing of each man.

And Clyde thereafter—lonely—terribly so. Now there was no one here—no one—in whom he was interested. He could only sit and read—and think—or pretend to be interested in what these others said, for he could not really be interested in what they said. His was a mind that, freed from the miseries that had now befallen him, was naturally more drawn to romance than to reality. Where he read at all he preferred the light, romantic novel that pictured some such world as he would have liked to share, to anything that even approximated the hard reality of the world without, let alone this. Now what was going to become of him eventually? So alone was he! Only letters from his mother, brother and sisters. And Asa getting no better, and his mother not able to return as yet—things were so difficult there in Denver. She was seeking a religious school in which to teach somewhere—while nursing Asa. But she was asking the Rev. Duncan McMillan, a young minister whom she had encountered in Syracuse, in the course of her work there, to come and see him. He was so spiritual and so kindly. And she was sure, if he would but come, that Clyde would find him a helpful and a strong support in these, his dark and weary hours when she could no longer be with him herself.

For while Mrs. Griffiths was first canvassing the churches and ministers of this section for aid for her son, and getting very little from any quarter, she had met the Rev. Duncan McMillan in Syracuse, where he was conducting an independent, non-sectarian church. He was a young, and like herself or Asa, unordained minister or evangelist of, however, far stronger and more effective temperament religiously. At the time Mrs. Griffiths appeared on the scene, he had already read much concerning Clyde and Roberta—and was fairly well satisfied that, by the verdict arrived at, justice had probably been done. However, because of her great sorrow and troubled search for aid he was greatly moved.

He, himself, was a devoted son. And possessing a highly poetic and emotional though so far repressed or sublimated sex nature, he was one who, out of many in this northern region, had been touched and stirred by the crime of which Clyde was presumed to be guilty. Those highly emotional and tortured letters of Roberta’s! Her seemingly sad life at Lycurgus and Biltz! How often he had thought of those before ever he had encountered Mrs. Griffiths. The simple and worthy virtues which Roberta and her family had seemingly represented in that romantic, pretty country world from which they had derived. Unquestionably Clyde was guilty. And yet here, suddenly, Mrs. Griffiths, very lorn and miserable and maintaining her son’s innocence. At the same time there was Clyde in his cell doomed to die. Was it possible that by any strange freak or circumstance—a legal mistake had been made and Clyde was not as guilty as he appeared?

The temperament of McMillan was exceptional—tense, exotic. A present hour St. Bernard, Savonarola, St. Simeon, Peter the Hermit. Thinking of life, thought, all forms and social structures as the word, the expression, the breath of God. No less. Yet room for the Devil and his anger—the expelled Lucifer—going to and fro in the earth. Yet, thinking on the Beatitudes, on the Sermon on the Mount, on St. John and his direct seeing and interpretation of Christ and God. “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me, scattereth.” A strange, strong, tense, confused, merciful and too, after his fashion beautiful soul; sorrowing with misery yearning toward an impossible justice.

Mrs. Griffiths in her talks with him had maintained that he was to remember that Roberta was not wholly guiltless. Had she not sinned with her son? And how was he to exculpate her entirely? A great legal mistake. Her son was being most unjustly executed—and by the pitiful but none-the-less romantic and poetic letters of this girl which should never have been poured forth upon a jury of men at all. They were, as she now maintained, incapable of judging justly or fairly where anything sad in connection with a romantic and pretty girl was concerned. She had found that to be true in her mission work.

And this idea now appealed to the Rev. Duncan as important and very likely true. And perhaps, as she now contended, if only some powerful and righteous emissary of God would visit Clyde and through the force of his faith and God’s word make him see—which she was sure he did not yet, and which she in her troubled state, and because she was his mother, could not make him,—the blackness and terror of his sin with Roberta as it related to his immortal soul here and hereafter,—then in gratitude to, reverence and faith in God, would be washed away, all his iniquity, would it not? For irrespective of whether he had committed the crime now charged against him or not—and she was convinced that he had not—was he not, nevertheless, in the shadow of the electric chair—in danger at any time through death (even before a decision should be reached) of being called before his maker—and with the deadly sin of adultery, to say nothing of all his lies and false conduct, not only in connection with Roberta but that other girl there in Lycurgus, upon him? And by conversion and contrition should he not be purged of this? If only his soul were saved—she and he too would be at peace in this world.

And after a first and later a second pleading letter from Mrs. Griffiths, in which, after she had arrived at Denver, she set forth Clyde’s loneliness and need of counsel and aid, the Rev. Duncan setting forth for Auburn. And once there—having made it clear to the warden what his true purpose was—the spiritual salvation of Clyde’s soul, for his own, as well as his mother and God’s sake, he was at once admitted to the death house and to Clyde’s presence—the very door of his cell, where he paused and looked through, observing Clyde lying most wretchedly on his cot trying to read. And then McMillan outlining his tall, thin figure against the bars and without introduction of any kind, beginning, his head bowed in prayer:


“Have mercy upon me, O God, according to Thy loving-kindness; according unto the multitude of Thy tender mercies, blot out my transgressions.”

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”

“For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.”

“Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight, that Thou mightest be justified when Thou speakest and be clear when Thou judgest.”

“Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

“Behold, Thou desireth truth in the inward parts; and in the hidden part Thou shalt make me to know wisdom.”

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.”

“Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which Thou hast broken may rejoice.”

“Hide Thy face from my sins, and blot out all mine iniquities.”

“Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.”

“Cast me not away from Thy presence; and take not Thy holy spirit away from me.”

“Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free spirit.”

“Then will I teach transgressors Thy ways; and sinners will be converted unto Thee.”

“Deliver me from blood guiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation, and my tongue shall sing aloud of Thy righteousness.”

“O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.”

“For Thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it; Thou delightest not in burnt offering.”

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise.”


He paused—but only after he had intoned, and in a most sonorous and really beautiful voice the entire 51st Psalm. And then looking up, because Clyde, much astonished, had first sat up and then risen—and curiously enticed by the clean and youthful and vigorous if pale figure had approached nearer the cell door, he now added:

“I bring you, Clyde, the mercy and the salvation of your God. He has called on me and I have come. He has sent me that I may say unto you though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white—like snow. Though they be red, like crimson, they shall be as wool. Come now, let us reason together with the Lord.”

He paused and stared at Clyde tenderly. A warm, youthful, half smile, half romantic, played about his lips. He liked the youth and refinement of Clyde, who, on his part was plainly taken by this exceptional figure. Another religionist, of course. But the Protestant chaplain who was here was nothing like this man—neither so arresting nor attractive.

“Duncan McMillan is my name,” he said, “and I come from the work of the Lord in Syracuse. He has sent me—just as he sent your mother to me. She has told me all that she believes. I have read all that you have said. And I know why you are here. But it is to bring you spiritual joy and gladness that I am here.”

And he suddenly quoted from Psalms 13:2, “‘How shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart, daily.’ That is from Psalms 13:2. And here is another thing that now comes to me as something that I should say to you. It is from the Bible, too—the Tenth Psalm: ‘He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved, for I shall never be in adversity.’ But you are in adversity, you see. We all are, who live in sin. And here is another thing that comes to me, just now to say. It is from Psalm 10:11: ‘He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten. He hideth His face.’ And I am told to say to you that He does not hide His face. Rather I am told to quote this to you from the Eighteenth Psalm: ‘They prevented me in the day of my calamity, but the Lord was my stay. He sent from above, He took me, He drew me out of many waters.’

“‘He delivered me from my strong enemy.

“‘And from them which hated me, for they were too many for me.

“‘He brought me forth also unto a large place.

“‘He delivered me because He delighted in me.’

“Clyde, those are all words addressed to you. They come to me here to say to you just as though they were being whispered to me. I am but the mouthpiece for these words spoken direct to you. Take counsel with your own heart. Turn from the shadow to the light. Let us break these bonds of misery and gloom; chase these shadows and this darkness. You have sinned. The Lord can and will forgive. Repent. Join with Him who has shaped the world and keeps it. He will not spurn your faith; He will not neglect your prayers. Turn—in yourself—in the confines of this cell—and say: ‘Lord, help me. Lord, hear Thou my prayer. Lord, lighten mine eyes!’

“Do you think there is no God—and that He will not answer you? Pray. In your trouble turn to Him—not me—or any other. But to Him. Pray. Speak to Him. Call to Him. Tell Him the truth and ask for help. As surely as you are here before me—and if in your heart you truly repent of any evil you have done—truly, truly, you will hear and feel Him. He will take your hand. He will enter this cell and your soul. You will know Him by the peace and the light that will fill your mind and heart. Pray. And if you need me again to help you in any way—to pray with you—or to do you any service of any kind—to cheer you in your loneliness—you have only to send for me; drop me a card. I have promised your mother and I will do what I can. The warden has my address.” He paused, serious and conclusive in his tone—because up to this time, Clyde had looked more curious and astonished than anything else.

At the same time because of Clyde’s extreme youthfulness and a certain air of lonely dependence which marked him ever since his mother and Nicholson had gone: “I’ll always be in easy reach. I have a lot of religious work over in Syracuse but I’ll be glad to drop it at any time that I can really do anything more for you.” And here he turned as if to go.

But Clyde, now taken by him—his vital, confident and kindly manner—so different to the tense, fearful and yet lonely life here, called after him: “Oh, don’t go just yet. Please don’t. It’s very nice of you to come and see me and I’m obliged to you. My mother wrote me you might. You see, it’s very lonely here. I haven’t thought much of what you were saying, perhaps, because I haven’t felt as guilty as some think I am. But I’ve been sorry enough. And certainly any one in here prays a good deal.” His eyes looked very sad and strained.

And at once, McMillan, now deeply touched for the first time replied: “Clyde, you needn’t worry. I’ll come to see you again within a week, because now I see you need me. I’m not asking you to pray because I think you are guilty of the death of Roberta Alden. I don’t know. You haven’t told me. Only you and God know what your sins and your sorrows are. But I do know you need spiritual help and He will give you that—oh, fully. ‘The Lord will be a refuge for the oppressed; a refuge in time of trouble.’”

He smiled as though he were now really fond of Clyde. And Clyde feeling this and being intrigued by it, replied that there wasn’t anything just then that he wanted to say except to tell his mother that he was all right—and make her feel a little better about him, maybe, if he could. Her letters were very sad, he thought. She worried too much about him. Besides he, himself, wasn’t feeling so very good—not a little run down and worried these days. Who wouldn’t be in his position? Indeed, if only he could win to spiritual peace through prayer, he would be glad to do it. His mother had always urged him to pray—but up to now he was sorry to say he hadn’t followed her advice very much. He looked very distrait and gloomy—the marked prison pallor having long since settled on his face.

And the Reverend Duncan, now very much touched by his state, replied: “Well, don’t worry, Clyde. Enlightenment and peace are surely going to come to you. I can see that. You have a Bible there, I see. Open it anywhere in Psalms and read. The 51st, 91st, 23rd. Open to St. John. Read it all—over and over. Think and pray—and think on all the things about you—the moon, the stars, the sun, the trees, the sea—your own beating heart, your body and strength—and ask yourself who made them. How did they come to be? Then, if you can’t explain them, ask yourself if the one who made them and you—whoever he is, whatever he is, wherever he is, isn’t strong and wise enough and kind enough to help you when you need help—provide you with light and peace and guidance, when you need them. Just ask yourself what of the Maker of all this certain reality. And then ask Him—the Creator of it all—to tell you how and what to do. Don’t doubt. Just ask and see. Ask in the night—in the day. Bow your head and pray and see. Verily, He will not fail you. I know because I have that peace.”

He stared at Clyde convincingly—then smiled and departed. And Clyde, leaning against his cell door, began to wonder. The Creator! His Creator! The Creator of the World! …Ask and see——!

And yet—there was still lingering here in him that old contempt of his for religion and its fruits,—the constant and yet fruitless prayers and exhortations of his father and mother. Was he going to turn to religion now, solely because he was in difficulties and frightened like these others? He hoped not. Not like that, anyway.

Just the same the mood, as well as the temperament of the Reverend Duncan McMillan—his young, forceful, convinced and dramatic body, face, eyes, now intrigued and then moved Clyde as no religionist or minister in all his life before ever had. He was interested, arrested and charmed by the man’s faith—whether at once or not at all—ever—he could come to put the reliance in it that plainly this man did.