An American Tragedy Chapter 9

In the absence of Clyde, the impressions taken by Mr. Mason of the world in which he moved here, complementing and confirming those of Lycurgus and Sharon, were sufficient to sober him in regard to the ease (possibly) with which previously he had imagined it might be possible to convict him. For about him was such a scene as suggested all the means as well as the impulse to quiet such a scandal as this. Wealth. Luxury. Important names and connections to protect no doubt. Was it not possible that the rich and powerful Griffiths, their nephew seized in this way and whatever his crime, would take steps to secure the best legal talent available, in order to protect their name? Unquestionably—and then with such adjournments as it was possible for such talent to secure, might it not be possible that long before he could hope to convict him, he himself would automatically be disposed of as a prosecutor and without being nominated for and elected to the judgeship he so craved and needed.

Sitting before the circle of attractive tents that faced the lake and putting in order a fishing-pole and reel, was Harley Baggott, in a brightly-colored sweater and flannel trousers. And through the open flies of several tents, glimpses of individuals—Sondra, Bertine, Wynette and others—busy about toilets necessitated by the recent swim. Being dubious because of the smartness of the company as to whether it was politically or socially wise to proclaim openly the import of his errand, he chose to remain silent for a time, reflecting on the difference between the experiences of his early youth and that of Roberta Alden and these others. Naturally as he saw it a man of this Griffiths’ connections would seek to use a girl of Roberta’s connections thus meanly and brutally and hope to get away with it. Yet, eager to make as much progress as he could against whatever inimical fates might now beset him, he finally approached Baggott, and most acidly, yet with as much show of genial and appreciative sociability as he could muster, observed:

“A delightful place for a camp, eh?”

“Yeh, we think so.”

“Just a group from the estates and hotels about Sharon, I suppose?”

“Yeh. The south and west shore principally.”

“Not any of the Griffiths, other than Mr. Clyde, I presume?”

“No, they’re still over at Greenwood, I think.”

“You know Mr. Clyde Griffiths personally, I suppose?”

“Oh, sure—he’s one of the party.”

“You don’t happen to know how long he’s been up here this time, I presume—up with the Cranstons, I mean.”

“Since Friday, I think. I saw him Friday morning, anyhow. But he’ll be back here soon and you can ask him yourself,” concluded Baggott, beginning to sense that Mr. Mason was a little too inquisitive and in addition not of either his or Clyde’s world.

And just then, Frank Harriet, with a tennis racquet under his arm, striding across the foreground.

“Where to, Frankie?”

“To try those courts Harrison laid out up here this morning.”

“Who with?”

“Violet, Nadine and Stuart.”

“Any room for another court?”

“Sure, there’s two. Why not get Bert, and Clyde, and Sondra, and come up?”

“Well, maybe, after I get this thing set.”

And Mason at once thinking: Clyde and Sondra. Clyde Griffiths and Sondra Finchley—the very girl whose notes and cards were in one of his pockets now. And might he not see her here, along with Clyde—possibly later talk to her about him?

But just then, Sondra and Bertine and Wynette coming out of their respective tents. And Bertine calling: “Oh, say, Harley, seen Nadine anywhere?”

“No, but Frank just went by. He said he was going up to the courts to play with her and Violet and Stew.”

“Yes? Well, then, come on, Sondra. You too, Wynette. We’ll see how it looks.”

Bertine, as she pronounced Sondra’s name, turned to take her arm, which gave Mason the exact information and opportunity he desired—that of seeing and studying for a moment the girl who had so tragically and no doubt all unwittingly replaced Roberta in Clyde’s affections. And, as he could see for himself, more beautiful, more richly appareled than ever the other could have hoped to be. And alive, as opposed to the other now dead and in a morgue in Bridgeburg.

But even as he gazed, the three tripping off together arm in arm, Sondra calling back to Harley: “If you see Clyde, tell him to come on up, will you?” And he replying: “Do you think that shadow of yours needs to be told?”

Mason, impressed by the color and the drama, looked intently and even excitedly about. Now it was all so plain why he wanted to get rid of the girl—the true, underlying motive. That beautiful girl there, as well as this luxury to which he aspired. And to think that a young man of his years and opportunities would stoop to such a horrible trick as that! Unbelievable! And only four days after the murder of the other poor girl, playing about with this beautiful girl in this fashion, and hoping to marry her, as Roberta had hoped to marry him. The unbelievable villainies of life!

Now, half-determining since Clyde did not appear, that he would proclaim himself and proceed to search for and seize his belongings here, Ed Swenk re-appearing and with a motion of the head indicating that Mason was to follow him. And once well within the shadow of the surrounding trees, indicating no less an individual than Nicholas Kraut, attended by a slim, neatly-dressed youth of about Clyde’s reported years, who, on the instant and because of the waxy paleness of his face, he assumed must be Clyde. And at once he now approached him, as might an angry wasp or hornet, only pausing first to ask of Swenk where he had been captured and by whom—then gazing at Clyde critically and austerely as befitted one who represented the power and majesty of the law.

“So you are Clyde Griffiths, are you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, Mr. Griffiths, my name is Orville Mason. I am the district attorney of the county in which Big Bittern and Grass Lake are situated. I suppose you are familiar enough with those two places by now, aren’t you?”

He paused to see the effect of this sardonic bit of commentary. Yet although he expected to see him wince and quail, Clyde merely gazed at him, his nervous, dark eyes showing enormous strain. “No, sir, I can’t say that I am.”

For with each step through the woods thus far back, there had been growing within him the utter and unshakable conviction that in the face of whatever seeming proof or charges might now appear, he dared not tell anything in regard to himself, his connection with Roberta, his visit to Big Bittern or Grass Lake. He dared not. For that would be the same as a confession of guilt in connection with something of which he was not really guilty. And no one must believe—never—Sondra, or the Griffiths, or any of these fine friends of his, that he could ever have been guilty of such a thought, even. And yet here they were, all within call, and at any moment might approach and so learn the meaning of his arrest. And while he felt the necessity for so denying any knowledge in connection with all this, at the same time he stood in absolute terror of this man—the opposition and irritated mood such an attitude might arouse in him. That broken nose. His large, stern eyes.

And then Mason, eyeing him as one might an unheard-of and yet desperate animal and irritated also by his denial, yet assuming from his blanched expression that he might and no doubt would shortly be compelled to confess his guilt, continuing with: “You know what you are charged with, Mr. Griffiths, of course.”

“Yes, sir, I just heard it from this man here.”

“And you admit it?”

“Why, no sir, of course I don’t admit it,” replied Clyde, his thin and now white lips drawn tight over his even teeth, his eyes full of a deep, tremulous yet evasive terror.

“Why, what nonsense! What effrontery! You deny being up to Grass Lake and Big Bittern on last Wednesday and Thursday?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, then,” and now Mason stiffened himself in an angry and at the same time inquisitorial way, “I suppose you are going to deny knowing Roberta Alden—the girl you took to Grass Lake, and then out on Big Bittern in that boat last Thursday—the girl you knew in Lycurgus all last year, who lived at Mrs. Gilpin’s and worked under you in your department at Griffiths & Company—the girl to whom you gave that toilet set last Christmas! I suppose you’re going to say that your name isn’t Clyde Griffiths and that you haven’t been living with Mrs. Peyton in Taylor Street, and that these aren’t letters and cards from your trunk there—from Roberta Alden and from Miss Finchley, all these cards and notes.” And extracting the letters and cards as he spoke and waving them before Clyde. And at each point in this harangue, thrusting his broad face, with its flat, broken nose and somewhat aggressive chin directly before Clyde’s, and blazing at him with sultry, contemptuous eyes, while the latter leaned away from him, wincing almost perceptibly and with icy chills running up and down his spine and affecting his heart and brain. Those letters! All this information concerning him! And back in his bag in the tent there, all those more recent letters of Sondra’s in which she dwelt on how they were to elope together this coming fall. If only he had destroyed them! And now this man might find those—would—and question Sondra maybe, and all these others. He shrunk and congealed spiritually, the revealing effects of his so poorly conceived and executed scheme weighing upon him as the world upon the shoulders of an inadequate Atlas.

And yet, feeling that he must say something and yet not admit anything. And finally replying: “My name’s Clyde Griffiths all right, but the rest of this isn’t true. I don’t know anything about the rest of it.”

“Oh, come now, Mr. Griffiths! Don’t begin by trying to play fast and loose with me. We won’t get anywhere that way. You won’t help yourself one bit by that with me, and besides I haven’t any time for that now. Remember these men here are witnesses to what you say. I’ve just come from Lycurgus—your room at Mrs. Peyton’s—and I have in my possession your trunk and this Miss Alden’s letters to you—indisputable proof that you did know this girl, that you courted and seduced her last winter, and that since then—this spring—when she became pregnant on your account, you induced her first to go home and then later to go away with you on this trip in order, as you told her, to marry her. Well, you married her all right—to the grave—that’s how you married her—to the water at the bottom of Big Bittern Lake! And you can actually stand here before me now, when I tell you that I have all the evidence I need right on my person, and say that you don’t even know her! Well, I’ll be damned!”

And as he spoke his voice grew so loud that Clyde feared that it could be clearly heard in the camp beyond. And that Sondra herself might hear it and come over. And although at the outrush and jab and slash of such dooming facts as Mason so rapidly outlined, his throat tightened and his hands were with difficulty restrained from closing and clinching vise-wise, at the conclusion of it all he merely replied: “Yes, sir.”

“Well, I’ll be damned!” reiterated Mason. “I can well believe now that you would kill a girl and sneak away in just such a way as you did—and with her in that condition! But then to try to deny her own letters to you! Why, you might as well try to deny that you’re here and alive. These cards and notes here—what about them? I suppose they’re not from Miss Finchley? How about those? Do you mean to tell me these are not from her either?”

He waved them before Clyde’s eyes. And Clyde, seeing that the truth concerning these, Sondra being within call, was capable of being substantiated here and now, replied: “No, I don’t deny that those are from her.”

“Very good. But these others from your trunk in the same room are not from Miss Alden to you?”

“I don’t care to say as to that,” he replied, blinking feebly as Mason waved Roberta’s letters before him.

“Tst! Tst! Tst! Of all things,” clicked Mason in high dudgeon. “Such nonsense! Such effrontery! Oh, very well, we won’t worry about all that now. I can easily prove it all when the time comes. But how you can stand there and deny it, knowing that I have the evidence, is beyond me! A card in your own handwriting which you forgot to take out of the bag you had her leave at Gun Lodge while you took yours with you. Mr. Carl Graham, Mr. Clifford Golden, Mr. Clyde Griffiths,—a card on which you wrote ‘From Clyde to Bert, Merry Xmas.’ Do you remember that? Well, here it is.” And here he reached into his pocket and drew forth the small card taken from the toilet set and waved it under Clyde’s nose. “Have you forgotten that, too? Your own handwriting!” And then pausing and getting no reply, finally adding: “Why, what a dunce you are!—what a poor plotter, without even the brains not to use your own initials in getting up those fake names you had hoped to masquerade under—Mr. Carl Graham—Mr. Clifford Golden!”

At the same time, fully realizing the importance of a confession and wondering how it was to be brought about here and now, Mason suddenly—Clyde’s expression, his frozen-faced terror, suggesting the thought that perhaps he was too frightened to talk at once changed his tactics—at least to the extent of lowering his voice, smoothing the formidable wrinkles from his forehead and about his mouth.

“You see, it’s this way, Griffiths,” he now began, much more calmly and simply. “Lying or just foolish thoughtless denial under such circumstances as these can’t help you in the least. It can only harm you, and that’s the truth. You may think I’ve been a little rough so far, but it was only because I’ve been under a great strain myself in connection with this case, trying to catch up with some one I thought would be a very different type from yourself. But now that I see you and see how you feel about it all—how really frightened you are by what has happened—it just occurs to me that there may be something in connection with this case, some extenuating circumstances, which, if they were related by you now, might throw a slightly different light on all this. Of course, I don’t know. You yourself ought to be the best judge, but I’m laying the thought before you for what it’s worth. For, of course, here are these letters. Besides, when we get to Three Mile Bay to-morrow, as we will, I hope, there will be those three men who met you the other night walking south from Big Bittern. And not only those, but the innkeeper from Grass Lake, the innkeeper from Big Bittern, the boatkeeper up there who rented that boat, and the driver who drove you and Roberta Alden over from Gun Lodge. They will identify you. Do you think they won’t know you—not any of them—not be able to say whether you were up there with her or not, or that a jury when the time comes won’t believe them?”

And all this Clyde registered mentally like a machine clicking to a coin, yet said nothing,—merely staring, frozen.

“And not only that,” went on Mason, very softly and most ingratiatingly, “but there’s Mrs. Peyton. She saw me take these letters and cards out of that trunk of yours in your room and from the top drawer of your chiffonier. Next, there are all those girls in that factory where you and Miss Alden worked. Do you suppose they’re not going to remember all about you and her when they learn that she is dead? Oh, what nonsense! You ought to be able to see that for yourself, whatever you think. You certainly can’t expect to get away with that. It makes a sort of a fool out of you. You can see that for yourself.”

He paused again, hoping for a confession. But Clyde still convinced that any admission in connection with Roberta or Big Bittern spelled ruin, merely stared while Mason proceeded to add:

“All right, Griffiths, I’m now going to tell you one more thing, and I couldn’t give you better advice if you were my own son or brother and I were trying to get you out of this instead of merely trying to get you to tell the truth. If you hope to do anything at all for yourself now, it’s not going to help you to deny everything in the way you are doing. You are simply making trouble and condemning yourself in other people’s eyes. Why not say that you did know her and that you were up there with her and that she wrote you those letters, and be done with it? You can’t get out of that, whatever else you may hope to get out of. Any sane person—your own mother, if she were here—would tell you the same thing. It’s too ridiculous and indicates guilt rather than innocence. Why not come clean here and now as to those facts, anyhow, before it’s too late to take advantage of any mitigating circumstances in connection with all this—if there are any? And if you do now, and I can help you in any way, I promise you here and now that I’ll be only too glad to do so. For, after all, I’m not out here just to hound a man to death or make him confess to something that he hasn’t done, but merely to get at the truth in the case. But if you’re going to deny that you even knew this girl when I tell you I have all the evidence and can prove it, why then——” and here the district attorney lifted his hands aloft most wearily and disgustedly.

But now as before Clyde remained silent and pale. In spite of all Mason had revealed, and all that this seemingly friendly, intimate advice seemed to imply, still he could not conceive that it would be anything less than disastrous for him to admit that he even knew Roberta. The fatality of such a confession in the eyes of these others here. The conclusion of all his dreams in connection with Sondra and this life. And so, in the face of this—silence, still. And at this, Mason, irritated beyond measure, finally exclaiming: “Oh, very well, then. So you’ve finally decided not to talk, have you?” And Clyde, blue and weak, replied: “I had nothing to do with her death. That’s all I can say now,” and yet even as he said it thinking that perhaps he had better not say that—that perhaps he had better say—well, what? That he knew Roberta, of course, had been up there with her, for that matter—but that he had never intended to kill her—that her drowning was an accident. For he had not struck her at all, except by accident, had he? Only it was best not to confess to having struck her at all, wasn’t it? For who under such circumstances would believe that he had struck her with a camera by accident. Best not to mention the camera, since there was no mention anywhere in the papers that he had had one with him.

And he was still cogitating while Mason was exclaiming: “Then you admit that you knew her?”

“No, sir.”

“Very well, then,” he now added, turning to the others, “I suppose there’s nothing for it but to take him back there and see what they know about him. Perhaps that will get something out of this fine bird—to confront him with his friends. His bag and things are still back there in one of those tents, I believe. Suppose we take him down there, gentlemen, and see what these other people know about him.”

And now, swiftly and coldly he turned, while Clyde, already shrinking at the horror of what was coming, exclaimed: “Oh, please, no! You don’t mean to do that, do you? Oh, you won’t do that! Oh, please, no!”

And at this point Kraut speaking up and saying: “He asked me back there in the woods if I wouldn’t ask you not to take him in there.” “Oh, so that’s the way the wind blows, is it?” exclaimed Mason at this. “Too thin-skinned to be shown up before ladies and gentlemen of the Twelfth Lake colony, but not even willing to admit that you knew the poor little working-girl who worked for you. Very good. Well, then, my fine friend, suppose you come through with what you really do know now, or down there you go.” And he paused a moment to see what effect that would have. “We’ll call all those people together and explain just how things are, and then see if you will be willing to stand there and deny everything!” But noting still a touch of hesitation in Clyde he now added: “Bring him along, boys.” And turning toward the camp he proceeded to walk in that direction a few paces while Kraut taking one arm, and Swenk another, and beginning to move Clyde he ended by exclaiming:

“Oh, please, no! Oh, I hope you won’t do anything like that, will you, Mr. Mason? Oh, I don’t want to go back there if you don’t mind. It isn’t that I’m guilty, but you can get all my things without my going back there. And besides it will mean so much to me just now.” Beads of perspiration once more burst forth on his pale face and hands and he was deadly cold.

“Don’t want to go, eh?” exclaimed Mason, pausing as he heard this. “It would hurt your pride, would it, to have ’em know? Well, then, supposing you just answer some of the things I want to know—and come clean and quick, or off we go—and that without one more moment’s delay! Now, will you answer or won’t you?” And again he turned to confront Clyde, who, with lips trembling and eyes confused and wavering, nervously and emphatically announced:

“Of course I knew her. Of course I did. Sure! Those letters show that. But what of it? I didn’t kill her. And I didn’t go up there with her with any intention of killing her, either. I didn’t. I didn’t, I tell you! It was all an accident. I didn’t even want to take her up there. She wanted me to go—to go away with her somewhere, because—because, well you know—her letters show. And I was only trying to get her to go off somewhere by herself, so she would let me alone, because I didn’t want to marry her. That’s all. And I took her out there, not to kill her at all, but to try to persuade her, that’s all. And I didn’t upset the boat—at least, I didn’t mean to. The wind blew my hat off, and we—she and I—got up at the same time to reach for it and the boat upset—that’s all. And the side of it hit her on the head. I saw it, only I was too frightened the way she was struggling about in the water to go near her, because I was afraid that if I did she might drag me down. And then she went down. And I swam ashore. And that’s the God’s truth!”

His face, as he talked, had suddenly become all flushed, and his hands also. Yet his eyes were tortured, terrified pools of misery. He was thinking—but maybe there wasn’t any wind that afternoon and maybe they would find that out. Or the tripod hidden under a log. If they found that, wouldn’t they think he hit her with that? He was wet and trembling.

But already Mason was beginning to question him again.

“Now, let’s see as to this a minute. You say you didn’t take her up there with any intention of killing her?”

“No, sir, I didn’t.”

“Well, then, how was it that you decided to write your name two different ways on those registers up there at Big Bittern and Grass Lake?”

“Because I didn’t want any one to know that I was up there with her.”

“Oh, I see. Didn’t want any scandal in connection with the condition she was in?”

“No, sir. Yes, sir, that is.”

“But you didn’t mind if her name was scandalized in case she was found afterwards?”

“But I didn’t know she was going to be drowned,” replied Clyde, slyly and shrewdly, sensing the trap in time.

“But you did know that you yourself weren’t coming back, of course. You knew that, didn’t you?”

“Why, no, sir, I didn’t know that I wasn’t coming back. I thought I was.”

“Pretty clever. Pretty clever,” thought Mason to himself, but not saying so, and then, rapidly: “And so in order to make everything easy and natural as possible for you to come back, you took your own bag with you and left hers up there. Is that the way? How about that?”

“But I didn’t take it because I was going away. We decided to put our lunch in it.”

“We, or you?”


“And so you had to carry that big bag in order to take a little lunch along, eh? Couldn’t you have taken it in a paper, or in her bag?”

“Well, her bag was full, and I didn’t like to carry anything in a paper.”

“Oh, I see. Too proud and sensitive, eh? But not too proud to carry a heavy bag all the way, say twelve miles, in the night to Three Mile Bay, and not ashamed to be seen doing it, either, were you?”

“Well, after she was drowned and I didn’t want to be known as having been up there with her, and had to go along——”

He paused while Mason merely looked at him, thinking of the many, many questions he wanted to ask him—so many, many more, and which, as he knew or guessed, would be impossible for him to explain. Yet it was getting late, and back in the camp were Clyde’s as yet unclaimed belongings—his bag and possibly that suit he had worn that day at Big Bittern—a gray one as he had heard—not this one. And to catechize him here this way in the dusk, while it might be productive of much if only he could continue it long enough, still there was the trip back, and en route he would have ample time to continue his questionings.

And so, although he disliked much so to do at the moment, he now concluded with: “Oh, well, I tell you, Griffiths, we’ll let you rest here for the present. It may be that what you are saying is so—I don’t know. I most certainly hope it is, for your sake. At any rate, you go along there with Mr. Kraut. He’ll show you where to go.”

And then turning to Swenk and Kraut, he exclaimed: “All right, boys. I’ll tell you how we’ll do. It’s getting late and we’ll have to hurry a little if we expect to get anywhere yet tonight. Mr. Kraut, suppose you take this young man down where those other two boats are and wait there. Just halloo a little as you go along to notify the sheriff and Sissel that we’re ready. And then Swenk and I’ll be along in the other boat as soon as we can.”

And so saying and Kraut obeying, he and Swenk proceeded inward through the gathering dusk to the camp, while Kraut with Clyde went west, hallooing for the sheriff and his deputy until a response was had.