An American Tragedy Chapter 33

The depression resulting even after two days was apparent to the Reverend McMillan, who was concerned to know why. More recently, he had been led to believe by Clyde’s manner, his visits, if not the fact that the totality of his preachments, had not been greeted with as much warmth as he would have liked, that by degrees Clyde was being won to his own spiritual viewpoint. With no little success, as it had seemed to him, he had counseled Clyde as to the folly of depression and despair. “What! Was not the peace of God within his grasp and for the asking. To one who sought God and found Him, as he surely would, if he sought, there could be no sorrow, but only joy. ‘Hereby know we that we dwell in Him, and He in us, because He hath given us of His spirit.’” So he preached or read,—until finally—two weeks after receiving the letter from Sondra and because of the deep depression into which he had sunk on account of it, Clyde was finally moved to request of him that he try to induce the warden to allow him to be taken to some other cell or room apart from this room or cell which seemed to Clyde to be filled with too many of his tortured thoughts, in order that he might talk with him and get his advice. As he told the Reverend McMillan, he did not appear to be able to solve his true responsibility in connection with all that had so recently occurred in his life, and because of which he seemed not to be able to find that peace of mind of which McMillan talked so much. Perhaps…,—there must be something wrong with his viewpoint. Actually he would like to go over the offense of which he was convicted and see if there was anything wrong in his understanding of it. He was not so sure now. And McMillan, greatly stirred,—an enormous spiritual triumph, this—as he saw it—the true reward of faith and prayer, at once proceeding to the warden, who was glad enough to be of service in such a cause. And he permitted the use of one of the cells in the old death house for as long as he should require, and with no guard between himself and Clyde—one only remaining in the general hall outside.

And there Clyde began the story of his relations with Roberta and Sondra. Yet because of all that had been set forth at the trial, merely referring to most of the evidence—apart from his defense—the change of heart, as so; afterwards dwelling more particularly on the fatal adventure with Roberta in the boat. Did the Reverend McMillan—because of the original plotting—and hence the original intent—think him guilty?—especially in view of his obsession over Sondra—all his dreams in regard to her—did that truly constitute murder? He was asking this because, as he said, it was as he had done—not as his testimony at the trial had indicated that he had done. It was a lie that he had experienced a change of heart. His attorneys had counseled that defense as best, since they did not feel that he was guilty, and had thought that plan the quickest route to liberty. But it was a lie. In connection with his mental state also there in the boat, before and after her rising and attempting to come to him,—and that blow, and after,—he had not told the truth either—quite. That unintentional blow, as he now wished to explain, since it affected his efforts at religious meditation,—a desire to present himself honestly to his Creator, if at all (he did not then explain that as yet he had scarcely attempted to so present himself)—there was more to it than he had been able yet to make clear, even to himself. In fact even now to himself there was much that was evasive and even insoluble about it. He had said that there had been no anger—that there had been a change of heart. But there had been no change of heart. In fact, just before she had risen to come to him, there had been a complex troubled state, bordering, as he now saw it, almost upon trance or palsy, and due—but he could scarcely say to what it was due, exactly. He had thought at first—or afterwards—that it was partly due to pity for Roberta—or, at least the shame of so much cruelty in connection with her—his plan to strike her. At the same time there was anger, too,—hate maybe—because of her determination to force him to do what he did not wish to do. Thirdly—yet he was not so sure as to that—(he had thought about it so long and yet he was not sure even now)—there might have been fear as to the consequences of such an evil deed—although, just at that time, as it seemed to him now, he was not thinking of the consequences—or of anything save his inability to do as he had come to do—and feeling angry as to that.

Yet in the blow—the accidental blow that had followed upon her rising and attempting to come to him, had been some anger against her for wanting to come near him at all. And that it was perhaps—he was truly not sure, even now, that had given that blow its so destructive force. It was so afterward, anyhow, that he was compelled to think of it. And yet there was also the truth that in rising he was seeking to save her—even in spite of his hate. That he was also, for the moment at least, sorry for that blow. Again, though, once the boat had upset and both were in the water—in all that confusion, and when she was drowning, he had been moved by the thought: “Do nothing.” For thus he would be rid of her. Yes, he had so thought. But again, there was the fact that all through, as Mr. Belknap and Mr. Jephson had pointed out, he had been swayed by his obsession for Miss X, the super motivating force in connection with all of this. But now, did the Reverend McMillan, considering all that went before and all that came after—the fact that the unintentional blow still had had anger in it—angry dissatisfaction with her—really—and that afterwards he had not gone to her rescue—as now—honestly and truly as he was trying to show—did he think that that constituted murder—mortal blood guilt for which spiritually, as well as legally, he might be said to deserve death? Did he? He would like to know for his own soul’s peace—so that he could pray, maybe.

The Reverend McMillan hearing all this—and never in his life before having heard or having had passed to him so intricate and elusive and strange a problem—and because of Clyde’s faith in and regard for him, enormously impressed. And now sitting before him quite still and pondering most deeply, sadly and even nervously—so serious and important was this request for an opinion—something which, as he knew, Clyde was counting on to give him earthly and spiritual peace. But, none-the-less, the Reverend McMillan was himself too puzzled to answer so quickly.

“Up to the time you went in that boat with her, Clyde, you had not changed in your mood toward her—your intention to—to——”

The Reverend McMillan’s face was gray and drawn. His eyes were sad. He had been listening, as he now felt, to a sad and terrible story—an evil and cruel self-torturing and destroying story. This young boy—really——! His hot, restless heart which plainly for the lack of so many things which he, the Reverend McMillan, had never wanted for, had rebelled. And because of that rebellion had sinned mortally and was condemned to die. Indeed his reason was as intensely troubled as his heart was moved.

“No, I had not.”

“You were, as you say, angry with yourself for being so weak as not to be able to do what you had planned to do.”

“In a way it was like that, yes. But then I was sorry, too, you see. And maybe afraid. I’m not exactly sure now. Maybe not, either.”

The Reverend McMillan shook his head. So strange! So evasive! So evil! And yet——

“But at the same time, as you say, you were angry with her for having driven you to that point.”


“Where you were compelled to wrestle with so terrible a problem?”


“Tst! Tst! Tst! And so you thought of striking her.”

“Yes, I did.”

“But you could not.”


“Praised be the mercy of God. Yet in the blow that you did strike—unintentionally—as you say—there was still some anger against her. That was why the blow was so—so severe. You did not want her to come near you.”

“No, I didn’t. I think I didn’t, anyhow. I’m not quite sure. It may be that I wasn’t quite right. Anyhow—all worked up, I guess—sick almost. I—I——” In his uniform—his hair cropped so close, Clyde sat there, trying honestly now to think how it really was (exactly) and greatly troubled by his inability to demonstrate to himself even—either his guilt or his lack of guilt. Was he—or was he not? And the Reverend McMillan—himself intensely strained, muttering: “Wide is the gate and broad the way that leadeth to destruction.” And yet finally adding: “But you did rise to save her.”

“Yes, afterwards, I got up. I meant to catch her after she fell back. That was what upset the boat.”

“And you did really want to catch her?”

“I don’t know. At the moment I guess I did. Anyhow I felt sorry, I think.”

“But can you say now truly and positively, as your Creator sees you, that you were sorry—or that you wanted to save her then?”

“It all happened so quick, you see,” began Clyde nervously—hopelessly, almost, “that I’m not just sure. No, I don’t know that I was so very sorry. No. I really don’t know, you see, now. Sometimes I think maybe I was, a little, sometimes not, maybe. But after she was gone and I was on shore, I felt sorry—a little. But I was sort of glad, too, you know, to be free, and yet frightened, too——You see——”

“Yes, I know. You were going to that Miss X. But out there, when she was in the water——?”


“You did not want to go to her rescue?”


“Tst! Tst! Tst! You felt no sorrow? No shame? Then?”

“Yes, shame, maybe. Maybe sorrow, too, a little. I knew it was terrible. I felt that it was, of course. But still—you see——”

“Yes, I know. That Miss X. You wanted to get away.”

“Yes—but mostly I was frightened, and I didn’t want to help her.”

“Yes! Yes! Tst! Tst! Tst! If she drowned you could go to that Miss X. You thought of that?” The Reverend McMillan’s lips were tightly and sadly compressed.


“My son! My son! In your heart was murder then.”

“Yes, yes,” Clyde said reflectively. “I have thought since it must have been that way.”

The Reverend McMillan paused and to hearten himself for this task began to pray—but silently—and to himself: “Our Father who art in Heaven—hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done—on earth as it is in Heaven.” He stirred again after a time.

“Ah, Clyde. The mercy of God is equal to every sin. I know it. He sent His own son to die for the evil of the world. It must be so—if you will but repent. But that thought! That deed! You have much to pray for, my son—much. Oh, yes. For in the sight of God, I fear,—yes——And yet——I must pray for enlightenment. This is a strange and terrible story. There are so many phases. It may be but pray. Pray with me now that you and I may have light.” He bowed his head. He sat for minutes in silence—while Clyde, also, in silence and troubled doubt, sat before him. Then, after a time he began:

“Oh, Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger; neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure. Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak. Heal me in my shame and sorrow for my soul is wounded and dark in Thy sight. Oh, let the wickedness of my heart pass. Lead me, O God, into Thy righteousness. Let the wickedness of my heart pass and remember it not.”

Clyde—his head down—sat still—very still. He, himself, was at last shaken and mournful. No doubt his sin was very great. Very, very terrible! And yet—— But then, the Reverend McMillan ceasing and rising, he, too, rose, the while McMillan added: “But I must go now. I must think—pray. This has troubled and touched me deeply. Oh, very, Lord. And you—my son—you return and pray—alone. Repent. Ask of God on your knees His forgiveness and He will hear you. Yes, He will. And to-morrow—or as soon as I honestly can—I will come again. But do not despair. Pray always—for in prayer alone, prayer and contrition, is salvation. Rest in the strength of Him who holds the world in the hollow of His hand. In His abounding strength and mercy, is peace and forgiveness. Oh, yes.”

He struck the iron door with a small key ring that he carried and at once the guard, hearing it, returned.

Then having escorted Clyde to his cell and seen him once more shut within that restraining cage, he took his own departure, heavily and miserably burdened with all that he had heard. And Clyde was left to brood on all he had said—and how it had affected McMillan, as well as himself. His new friend’s stricken mood. The obvious pain and horror with which he viewed it all. Was he really and truly guilty? Did he really and truly deserve to die for this? Was that what the Reverend McMillan would decide? And in the face of all his tenderness and mercy?

And another week in which, moved by Clyde’s seeming contrition, and all the confusing and extenuating circumstances of his story, and having wrestled most earnestly with every moral aspect of it, the Reverend McMillan once more before his cell door—but only to say that however liberal or charitable his interpretation of the facts, as at last Clyde had truthfully pictured them, still he could not feel that either primarily or secondarily could he be absolved from guilt for her death. He had plotted—had he not? He had not gone to her rescue when he might have. He had wished her dead and afterwards had not been sorry. In the blow that had brought about the upsetting of the boat had been some anger. Also in the mood that had not permitted him to strike. The facts that he had been influenced by the beauty and position of Miss X to the plotting of this deed, and, after his evil relations with Roberta, that she had been determined he should marry her, far from being points in extenuation of his actions, were really further evidence of his general earthly sin and guilt. Before the Lord then he had sinned in many ways. In those dark days, alas, as Mr. McMillan saw it, he was little more than a compound of selfishness and unhallowed desire and fornication against the evil of which Paul had thundered. It had endured to the end and had not changed—until he had been taken by the law. He had not repented—not even there at Bear Lake where he had time for thought. And besides, had he not, from the beginning to end, bolstered it with false and evil pretenses? Verily.

On the other hand, no doubt if he were sent to the chair now in the face of his first—and yet so clear manifestation of contrition—when now, for the first time he was beginning to grasp the enormity of his offense—it would be but to compound crime with crime—the state in this instance being the aggressor. For, like the warden and many others, McMillan was against capital punishment—preferring to compel the wrong-doer to serve the state in some way. But, none-the-less, he felt himself compelled to acknowledge, Clyde was far from innocent. Think as he would—and however much spiritually he desired to absolve him, was he not actually guilty?

In vain it was that McMillan now pointed out to Clyde that his awakened moral and spiritual understanding more perfectly and beautifully fitted him for life and action than ever before. He was alone. He had no one who believed in him. No one. He had no one, whom, in any of his troubled and tortured actions before that crime saw anything but the darkest guilt apparently. And yet—and yet—(and this despite Sondra and the Reverend McMillan and all the world for that matter, Mason, the jury at Bridgeburg, the Court of Appeals at Albany, if it should decide to confirm the jury at Bridgeburg), he had a feeling in his heart that he was not as guilty as they all seemed to think. After all they had not been tortured as he had by Roberta with her determination that he marry her and thus ruin his whole life. They had not burned with that unquenchable passion for the Sondra of his beautiful dream as he had. They had not been harassed, tortured, mocked by the ill-fate of his early life and training, forced to sing and pray on the streets as he had in such a degrading way, when his whole heart and soul cried out for better things. How could they judge him, these people, all or any one of them, even his own mother, when they did not know what his own mental, physical and spiritual suffering had been? And as he lived through it again in his thoughts at this moment the sting and mental poison of it was as real to him as ever. Even in the face of all the facts and as much as every one felt him to be guilty, there was something so deep within him that seemed to cry out against it that, even now, at times, it startled him. Still—there was the Reverend McMillan—he was a very fair and just and merciful man. Surely he saw all this from a higher light and better viewpoint than his own. While at times he felt strongly that he was innocent, at others he felt that he must be guilty.

Oh, these evasive and tangled and torturesome thoughts!! Would he never be able—quite—to get the whole thing straightened out in his own mind?

So Clyde not being able to take advantage truly of either the tenderness and faith and devotion of so good and pure a soul as the Reverend McMillan or the all merciful and all powerful God of whom here he stood as the ambassador. What was he to do, really? How pray, resignedly, unreservedly, faithfully? And in that mood—and because of the urge of the Reverend Duncan, who was convinced by Clyde’s confession that he must have been completely infused with the spirit of God, once more thumbing through the various passages and chapters pointed out to him—reading and re-reading the Psalms most familiar to him, seeking from their inspiration to catch the necessary contrition—which once caught would give him that peace and strength which in those long and dreary hours he so much desired. Yet never quite catching it.

Parallel with all this, four more months passed. And at the end of that time—in January, 19—, the Court of Appeals finding (Fulham, Jr., reviewing the evidence as offered by Belknap and Jephson)—with Kincaid, Briggs, Truman and Dobshutter concurring, that Clyde was guilty as decided by the Cataraqui County jury and sentencing him to die at some time within the week beginning February 28th or six weeks later—and saying in conclusion:

“We are mindful that this is a case of circumstantial evidence and that the only eyewitness denies that death was the result of crime. But in obedience to the most exacting requirements of that manner of proof, the counsel for the people, with very unusual thoroughness and ability has investigated and presented evidence of a great number of circumstances for the purpose of truly solving the question of the defendant’s guilt or innocence.

“We might think that the proof of some of these facts standing by themselves was subject to doubt by reason of unsatisfactory or contradictory evidence, and that other occurrences might be so explained or interpreted as to be reconcilable with innocence. The defense—and very ably—sought to enforce this view.

“But taken all together and considered as a connected whole, they make such convincing proof of guilt that we are not able to escape from its force by any justifiable process of reasoning and we are compelled to say that not only is the verdict not opposed to the weight of evidence, and to the proper inference to be drawn from it, but that it is abundantly justified thereby. Decision of the lower court unanimously confirmed.”

On hearing this, McMillan, who was in Syracuse at the time, hurrying to Clyde in the hope that before the news was conveyed officially, he should be there to encourage him spiritually, since, only with the aid of the Lord, as he saw it—the eternal and ever present help in trouble—would Clyde be able to endure so heavy a blow. And finding him—for which he was most deeply grateful—wholly unaware of what had occurred, since no news of any kind was conveyed to any condemned man until the warrant for his execution had arrived.

After a most tender and spiritual conversation—in which he quoted from Matthew, Paul and John as to the unimportance of this world—the true reality and joy of the next—Clyde was compelled to learn from McMillan that the decision of the court had gone against him. And that though McMillan talked of an appeal to the Governor which he—and some others whom he was sure to be able to influence would make—unless the Governor chose to act, within six weeks, as Clyde knew, he would be compelled to die. And then, once the force of that fact had finally burst on him—and while McMillan talked on about faith and the refuge which the mercy and wisdom of God provided—Clyde, standing before him with more courage and character showing in his face and eyes than at any time previously in his brief and eager career.

“So they decided against me. Now I will have to go through that door after all,—like all those others. They’ll draw the curtains for me, too. Into that other room—then back across the passage—saying good-bye as I go, like those others. I will not be here any more.” He seemed to be going over each step in his mind—each step with which he was so familiar, only now, for the first time, he was living it for himself. Now, in the face of this dread news, which somehow was as fascinating as it was terrible, feeling not as distrait or weak as at first he had imagined he would be. Rather, to his astonishment, considering all his previous terror in regard to this, thinking of what he would do, what he would say, in an outwardly calm way.

Would he repeat prayers read to him by the Reverend McMillan here? No doubt. And maybe gladly, too. And yet—

In his momentary trance he was unconscious of the fact that the Reverend Duncan was whispering:

“But you see we haven’t reached the end of this yet. There is a new Governor coming into office in January. He is a very sensible and kindly man, I hear. In fact I know several people who know him—and it is my plan to see him personally—as well as to have some other people whom I know write him on the strength of what I will tell them.”

But from Clyde’s look at the moment, as well as what he now said, he could tell that he was not listening.

“My mother. I suppose some one ought to telegraph her. She is going to feel very bad.” And then: “I don’t suppose they believed that those letters shouldn’t have been introduced just as they were, did they? I thought maybe they would.” He was thinking of Nicholson.

“Don’t worry, Clyde,” replied the tortured and saddened McMillan, at this point more eager to take him in his arms and comfort him than to say anything at all. “I have already telegraphed your mother. As for that decision—I will see your lawyers right away. Besides—as I say—I propose to see the Governor myself. He is a new man, you see.”

Once more he was now repeating all that Clyde had not heard before.