An American Tragedy Chapter 32

The personal conviction and force of such an individual as the Reverend McMillan, while in one sense an old story to Clyde and not anything which so late as eighteen months before could have moved him in any way (since all his life he had been accustomed to something like it), still here, under these circumstances, affected him differently. Incarcerated, withdrawn from the world, compelled by the highly circumscribed nature of this death house life to find solace or relief in his own thoughts, Clyde’s, like every other temperament similarly limited, was compelled to devote itself either to the past, the present or the future. But the past was so painful to contemplate at any point. It seared and burned. And the present (his immediate surroundings) as well as the future with its deadly fear of what was certain to happen in case his appeal failed, were two phases equally frightful to his waking consciousness.

What followed then was what invariably follows in the wake of every tortured consciousness. From what it dreads or hates, yet knows or feels to be unescapable, it takes refuge in that which may be hoped for—or at least imagined. But what was to be hoped for or imagined? Because of the new suggestion offered by Nicholson, a new trial was all that he had to look forward to, in which case, and assuming himself to be acquitted thereafter, he could go far, far away—to Australia—or Africa—or Mexico—or some such place as that, where, under a different name—his old connections and ambitions relating to that superior social life that had so recently intrigued him, laid aside, he might recover himself in some small way. But directly in the path of that hopeful imagining, of course, stood the death’s head figure of a refusal on the part of the Court of Appeals to grant him a new trial. Why not—after that jury at Bridgeburg? And then—as in that dream in which he turned from the tangle of snakes to face the tramping rhinoceros with its two horns—he was confronted by that awful thing in the adjoining room—that chair! That chair! Its straps and its flashes which so regularly dimmed the lights in this room. He could not bear to think of his entering there—ever. And yet supposing his appeal was refused! Away! He would like to think no more about it.

But then, apart from that what was there to think of? It was that very question that up to the time of the arrival of the Rev. Duncan McMillan, with his plea for a direct and certainly (as he insisted) fruitful appeal to the Creator of all things, that had been definitely torturing Clyde. Yet see—how simple was his solution!

“It was given unto you to know the Peace of God,” he insisted, quoting Paul and thereafter sentences from Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, on how easy it was—if Clyde would but repeat and pray as he had asked him to—for him to know and delight in the “peace that passeth all understanding.” It was with him, all around him. He had but to seek; confess the miseries and errors of his heart, and express contrition. “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. For what man is there of you whom, if his son ask bread, will give him a stone; or, if he ask fish, will give him a serpent?” So he quoted, beautifully and earnestly.

And yet before Clyde always was the example of his father and mother. What had they? It had not availed them much—praying. Neither, as he noticed here, did it appear to avail or aid these other condemned men, the majority of whom lent themselves to the pleas or prayers of either priest or rabbi or minister, one and the other of whom was about daily. Yet were they not led to their death just the same—and complaining or protesting, or mad like Cutrone, or indifferent? As for himself, up to this he had not been interested by any of these. Bunk. Notions. Of what? He could not say. Nevertheless, here was the appealing Rev. Duncan McMillan. His mild, serene eyes. His sweet voice. His faith. It moved and intrigued Clyde deeply. Could there—could there? He was so lonely—so despairing—so very much in need of help.

Was it not also true (the teaching of the Rev. McMillan—influencing him to that extent at least) that if he had led a better life—had paid more attention to what his mother had said and taught—not gone into that house of prostitution in Kansas City—or pursued Hortense Briggs in the evil way that he had—or after her, Roberta—had been content to work and save, as no doubt most men were—would he not be better off than he now was? But then again, there was the fact or truth of those very strong impulses and desires within himself that were so very, very hard to overcome. He had thought of those, too, and then of the fact that many other people like his mother, his uncle, his cousin, and this minister here, did not seem to be troubled by them. And yet also he was given to imagining at times that perhaps it was because of superior mental and moral courage in the face of passions and desires, equivalent to his own, which led these others to do so much better. He was perhaps just willfully devoting himself to these other thoughts and ways, as his mother and McMillan and most every one else whom he had heard talk since his arrest seemed to think.

What did it all mean? Was there a God? Did He interfere in the affairs of men as Mr. McMillan was now contending? Was it possible that one could turn to Him, or at least some creative power, in some such hour as this and when one had always ignored Him before, and ask for aid? Decidedly one needed aid under such circumstances—so alone and ordered and controlled by law—not man—since these, all of them, were the veriest servants of the law. But would this mysterious power be likely to grant aid? Did it really exist and hear the prayers of men? The Rev. McMillan insisted yes. “He hath said God hath forgotten; He hideth His face. But He has not forgotten. He has not hidden His face.” But was that true? Was there anything to it? Tortured by the need of some mental if not material support in the face of his great danger, Clyde was now doing what every other human in related circumstances invariably does—seeking, and yet in the most indirect and involute and all but unconscious way, the presence or existence at least of some superhuman or supernatural personality or power that could and would aid him in some way—beginning to veer—however slightly or unconsciously as yet,—toward the personalization and humanization of forces, of which, except in the guise of religion, he had not the faintest conception. “The Heavens declare the Glory of God, and the Firmament sheweth His handiwork.” He recalled that as a placard in one of his mother’s mission windows. And another which read: “For He is Thy life and Thy length of Days.” Just the same—and far from it as yet, even in the face of his sudden predisposition toward the Rev. Duncan McMillan, was he seriously moved to assume that in religion of any kind was he likely to find surcease from his present miseries?

And yet the weeks and months going by—the Rev. McMillan calling regularly thereafter, every two weeks at the longest, sometimes every week and inquiring after his state, listening to his wants, advising him as to his health and peace of mind. And Clyde, anxious to retain his interest and visits, gradually, more and more, yielding himself to his friendship and influence. That high spirituality. That beautiful voice. And quoting always such soothing things. “Brethren now are we the children of God. And it doth not yet appear what we shall be; but we know that when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And every man that has this hope in him purifieth himself even as He is pure.”

“Hereby know that we dwell in Him and He in us, because He hath given us of His spirit.”

“For ye are bought with a price.”

“Of His own will begot He us with the word of truth, and we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures. And every good and every perfect gift is from above and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”

“Draw nigh unto God and He will draw nigh unto you.”

He was inclined, at times, to feel that there might be peace and strength—aid, even—who could say, in appealing to this power. It was the force and the earnestness of the Rev. McMillan operating upon him.

And yet, the question of repentance—and with it confession. But to whom? The Rev. Duncan McMillan, of course. He seemed to feel that it was necessary for Clyde to purge his soul to him—or some one like him—a material and yet spiritual emissary of God. But just there was the trouble. For there was all of that false testimony he had given in the trial, yet on which had been based his appeal. To go back on that now, and when his appeal was pending. Better wait, had he not, until he saw how that appeal had eventuated.

But, ah, how shabby, false, fleeting, insincere. To imagine that any God would bother with a person who sought to dicker in such a way. No, no. That was not right either. What would the Rev. McMillan think of him if he knew what he was thinking?

But again there was the troubling question in his own mind as to his real guilt—the amount of it. True there was no doubt that he had plotted to kill Roberta there at first—a most dreadful thing as he now saw it. For the complications and the fever in connection with his desire for Sondra having subsided somewhat, it was possible on occasion now for him to reason without the desperate sting and tang of the mental state that had characterized him at the time when he was so immediately in touch with her. Those terrible, troubled days when in spite of himself—as he now understood it (Belknap’s argument having cleared it up for him) he had burned with that wild fever which was not unakin in its manifestations to a form of insanity. The beautiful Sondra! The glorious Sondra! The witchery and fire of her smile then! Even now that dreadful fever was not entirely out but only smoldering—smothered by all of the dreadful things that had since happened to him.

Also, it must be said on his behalf now, must it not—that never, under any other circumstances, would he have succumbed to any such terrible thought or plot as that—to kill any one—let alone a girl like Roberta—unless he had been so infatuated—lunatic, even. But had not the jury there at Bridgeburg listened to that plea with contempt? And would the Court of Appeals think differently? He feared not. And yet was it not true? Or was he all wrong? Or what? Could the Rev. McMillan or any one else to whom he would explain tell him as to that? He would like to talk to him about it—confess everything perhaps, in order to get himself clear on all this. Further, there was the fact that having plotted for Sondra’s sake (and God, if no one else, knew that) he still had not been able to execute it. And that had not been brought out in the trial, because the false form of defense used permitted no explanation of the real truth then—and yet it was a mitigating circumstance, was it not—or would the Rev. McMillan think so? A lie had to be used, as Jephson saw it. But did that make it any the less true?

There were phases of this thing, the tangles and doubts involved in that dark, savage plot of his, as he now saw and brooded on it, which were not so easily to be disposed of. Perhaps the two worst were, first, that in bringing Roberta there to that point on that lake—that lone spot—and then growing so weak and furious with himself because of his own incapacity to do evil, he had frightened her into rising and trying to come to him. And that in the first instance made it possible for her to be thus accidentally struck by him and so made him, in part at least, guilty of that blow—or did it?—a murderous, sinful blow in that sense. Maybe. What would the Rev. McMillan say to that? And since because of that she had fallen into the water, was he not guilty of her falling? It was a thought that troubled him very much now—his constructive share of guilt in all that. Regardless of what Oberwaltzer had said there at the trial in regard to his swimming away from her—that if she had accidentally fallen in the water, it was no crime on his part, supposing he refused to rescue her,—still, as he now saw it, and especially when taken in connection with all that he had thought in regard to Roberta up to that moment, it was a crime just the same, was it not? Wouldn’t God—McMillan—think so? And unquestionably, as Mason had so shrewdly pointed out at the trial, he might have saved her. And would have too, no doubt, if she had been Sondra—or even the Roberta of the summer before. Besides, the fear of her dragging him down had been no decent fear. (It was at nights in his bunk at this time that he argued and reasoned with himself, seeing that McMillan was urging him now to repent and make peace with his God.) Yes, he would have to admit that to himself. Decidedly and instantly he would have sought to save her life, if it had been Sondra. And such being the case, he would have to confess that—if he confessed at all to the Rev. McMillan—or to whomever else one told the truth—when one did tell it—the public at large perhaps. But such a confession once made, would it not surely and truly lead to his conviction? And did he want to convict himself now and so die?

No, no, better wait a while perhaps—at least until the Court of Appeals had passed on his case. Why jeopardize his case when God already knew what the truth was? Truly, truly he was sorry. He could see how terrible all this was now—how much misery and heartache, apart from the death of Roberta, he had caused. But still—still—was not life sweet? Oh, if he could only get out! Oh, if he could only go away from here—never to see or hear or feel anything more of this terrible terror that now hung over him. The slow coming dark—the slow coming dawn. The long night! The sighs—the groans. The tortures by day and by night until it seemed at times as though he should go mad; and would perhaps except for McMillan, who now appeared devoted to him—so kind, appealing and reassuring, too, at times. He would just like to sit down some day—here or somewhere—and tell him all and get him to say how really guilty, if at all, he thought him to be—and if so guilty to get him to pray for him. At times he felt so sure that his mother’s and the Rev. Duncan McMillan’s prayers would do him so much more good with this God than any prayers of his own would. Somehow he couldn’t pray yet. And at times hearing McMillan pray, softly and melodiously, his voice entering through the bars—or, reading from Galatians, Thessalonians, Corinthians, he felt as though he must tell him everything, and soon.

But the days going by until finally one day six weeks after—and when because of his silence in regard to himself, the Rev. Duncan was beginning to despair of ever affecting him in any way toward his proper contrition and salvation—a letter or note from Sondra. It came through the warden’s office and by the hand of the Rev. Preston Guilford, the Protestant chaplain of the prison, but was not signed. It was, however, on good paper, and because the rule of the prison so requiring had been opened and read. Nevertheless, on account of the nature of the contents which seemed to both the warden and the Rev. Guilford to be more charitable and punitive than otherwise, and because plainly, if not verifiably, it was from that Miss X of repute or notoriety in connection with his trial, it was decided, after due deliberation, that Clyde should be permitted to read it—even that it was best that he should. Perhaps it would prove of value as a lesson. The way of the transgressor. And so it was handed to him at the close of a late fall day—after a long and dreary summer had passed (soon a year since he had entered here). And he taking it. And although it was typewritten with no date nor place on the envelope, which was postmarked New York—yet sensing somehow that it might be from her. And growing decidedly nervous—so much so that his hand trembled slightly. And then reading—over and over and over—during many days thereafter: “Clyde—This is so that you will not think that some one once dear to you has utterly forgotten you. She has suffered much, too. And though she can never understand how you could have done as you did, still, even now, although she is never to see you again, she is not without sorrow and sympathy and wishes you freedom and happiness.”

But no signature—no trace of her own handwriting. She was afraid to sign her name and she was too remote from him in her mood now to let him know where she was. New York! But it might have been sent there from anywhere to mail. And she would not let him know—would never let him know—even though he died here later, as well he might. His last hope—the last trace of his dream vanished. Forever! It was at that moment, as when night at last falls upon the faintest remaining gleam of dusk in the west. A dim, weakening tinge of pink—and then the dark.

He seated himself on his cot. The wretched stripes of his uniform and his gray felt shoes took his eye. A felon. These stripes. These shoes. This cell. This uncertain, threatening prospect so very terrible to contemplate at any time. And then this letter. So this was the end of all that wonderful dream! And for this he had sought so desperately to disengage himself from Roberta—even to the point of deciding to slay her. This! This! He toyed with the letter, then held it quite still. Where was she now? Who in love with, maybe? She had had time to change perhaps. She had only been captivated by him a little, maybe. And then that terrible revelation in connection with him had destroyed forever, no doubt, all sentiment in connection with him. She was free. She had beauty—wealth. Now some other——

He got up and walked to his cell door to still a great pain. Over the way, in that cell the Chinaman had once occupied, was a Negro—Wash Higgins. He had stabbed a waiter in a restaurant, so it was said, who had refused him food and then insulted him. And next to him was a young Jew. He had killed the proprietor of a jewelry store in trying to rob it. But he was very broken and collapsed now that he was here to die—sitting for the most part all day on his cot, his head in his hands. Clyde could see both now from where he stood—the Jew holding his head. But the Negro on his cot, one leg above the other, smoking—and singing—

“Oh, big wheel ro-a-lin’… hmp!

Oh, big wheel ro-a-lin’… hmp!

Oh, big wheel ro-a-lin’… hmp!

Foh me! Foh me!”

And then Clyde, unable to get away from his own thoughts, turning again.

Condemned to die! He. And this was the end as to Sondra. He could feel it. Farewell. “Although she is never to see you again.” He threw himself on his couch—not to weep but to rest—he felt so weary. Lycurgus. Fourth Lake. Bear Lake. Laughter—kisses—smiles. What was to have been in the fall of the preceding year. And now—a year later.

But then,—that young Jew. There was some religious chant into which he fell when his mental tortures would no longer endure silence. And oh, how sad. Many of the prisoners had cried out against it. And yet, oh, how appropriate now, somehow.

“I have been evil. I have been unkind. I have lied. Oh! Oh! Oh! I have been unfaithful. My heart has been wicked. I have joined with those who have done evil things. Oh! Oh! Oh! I have stolen. I have been false. I have been cruel! Oh! Oh! Oh!”

And the voice of Big Tom Rooney sentenced for killing Thomas Tighe, a rival for the hand of an underworld girl. “For Christ’s sake! I know you feel bad. But so do I. Oh, for God’s sake, don’t do that!”

Clyde, on his cot, his thoughts responding rhythmically to the chant of the Jew—and joining with him silently—“I have been evil. I have been unkind. I have lied. Oh! Oh! Oh! I have been unfaithful. My heart has been wicked. I have joined with those who have done evil things. Oh! Oh! Oh! I have been false. I have been cruel. I have sought to murder. Oh! Oh! Oh! And for what? A vain—impossible dream! Oh! Oh! Oh!… Oh! Oh! Oh!…”

When the guard, an hour later, placed his supper on the shelf in the door, he made no move. Food! And when the guard returned in another thirty minutes, there it was, still untouched, as was the Jew’s—and was taken away in silence. Guards knew when blue devils had seized the inmates of these cages. They couldn’t eat. And there were times, too, when even guards couldn’t eat.