An American Tragedy Chapter 1

Cataraqui County extending from the northernmost line of the village known as Three Mile Bay on the south to the Canadian border, on the north a distance of fifty miles. And from Senaschet and Indian Lakes on the east to the Rock and Scarf Rivers on the west—a width of thirty miles. Its greater portion covered by uninhabited forests and lakes, yet dotted here and there with such villages and hamlets as Koontz, Grass Lake, North Wallace, Brown Lake, with Bridgeburg, the county seat, numbering no less than two thousand souls of the fifteen thousand in the entire county. And the central square of the town occupied by the old and yet not ungraceful county courthouse, a cupola with a clock and some pigeons surmounting it, the four principal business streets of the small town facing it.

In the office of the County Coroner in the northeast corner of the building on Friday, July ninth, one Fred Heit, coroner, a large and broad-shouldered individual with a set of gray-brown whiskers such as might have graced a Mormon elder. His face was large and his hands and his feet also. And his girth was proportionate.

At the time that this presentation begins, about two-thirty in the afternoon, he was lethargically turning the leaves of a mail-order catalogue for which his wife had asked him to write. And while deciphering from its pages the price of shoes, jackets, hats, and caps for his five omnivorous children, a greatcoat for himself of soothing proportions, high collar, broad belt, large, impressive buttons chancing to take his eye, he had paused to consider regretfully that the family budget of three thousand dollars a year would never permit of so great luxury this coming winter, particularly since his wife, Ella, had had her mind upon a fur coat for at least three winters past.

However his thoughts might have eventuated on this occasion, they were interrupted by the whirr of a telephone bell.

“Yes, this is Mr. Heit speaking—Wallace Upham of Big Bittern. Why, yes, go on, Wallace—young couple drowned—all right, just wait a minute——”

He turned to the politically active youth who drew a salary from the county under the listing of “secretary to the coroner”—“Get these points, Earl.” Then into the telephone: “All right, Wallace, now give me all the facts—everything—yes. The body of the wife found but not that of the husband—yes—a boat upset on the south shore—yes—straw hat without any lining—yes—some marks about her mouth and eye—her coat and hat at the inn—yes—a letter in one of the pockets of the coat—addressed to who?—Mrs. Titus Alden, Biltz, Mimico County—yes—still dragging for the man’s body, are they?—yes—no trace of him yet—I see. All right, Wallace—— Well—I’ll tell you, Wallace, have them leave the coat and hat just where they are. Let me see—it’s two-thirty now. I’ll be up on the four o’clock. The bus from the inn there meets that, doesn’t it? Well, I’ll be over on that, sure—— And, Wallace, I wish you’d write down the names of all present who saw the body brought up. What was that?—eighteen feet of water at least?—yes—a veil caught in one of the rowlocks—yes—a brown veil—yes—sure, that’s all—— Well, then have them leave everything just as found, Wallace, and I’ll be right up. Yes, Wallace, thank you— Goodbye.”

Slowly Mr. Heit restored the receiver to the hook and as slowly arose from the capacious walnut-hued chair in which he sat, stroking his heavy whiskers, while he eyed Earl Newcomb, combination typist, record clerk, and what not.

“You got all that down, did you, Earl?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, you better get your hat and coat and come along with me. We’ll have to catch that 3:10. You can fill in a few subpœnas on the train. I should say you better take fifteen or twenty—to be on the safe side, and take the names of such witnesses as we can find on the spot. And you better call up Mrs. Heit and say ’taint likely I’ll be home for dinner to-night or much before the down train. We may have to stay up there until to-morrow. You never can tell in these cases how they’re going to turn out and it’s best to be on the safe side.”

Heit turned to a coat-room in one corner of the musty old room and extracted a large, soft-brimmed, straw hat, the downward curving edges of which seemed to heighten the really bland and yet ogreish effect of his protruding eyes and voluminous whiskers, and having thus equipped himself, said: “I’m just going in the sheriff’s office a minute, Earl. You’d better call up the Republican and the Democrat and tell ’em about this, so they won’t think we’re slightin’ ’em. Then I’ll meet you down at the station.” And he lumbered out.

And Earl Newcomb, a tall, slender, shock-headed young man of perhaps nineteen, and of a very serious, if at times befuddled, manner, at once seized a sheaf of subpœnas, and while stuffing these in his pocket, sought to get Mrs. Heit on the telephone. And then, after explaining to the newspapers about a reported double drowning at Big Bittern, he seized his own blue-banded straw hat, some two sizes too large for him, and hurried down the hall, only to encounter, opposite the wide-open office door of the district attorney, Zillah Saunders, spinster and solitary stenographer to the locally somewhat famous and mercurial Orville W. Mason, district attorney. She was on her way to the auditor’s office, but being struck by the preoccupation and haste of Mr. Newcomb, usually so much more deliberate, she now called: “Hello, Earl. What’s the rush? Where you going so fast?”

“Double drowning up at Big Bittern, we hear. Maybe something worse. Mr. Heit’s going up and I’m going along. We have to make that 3:10.”

“Who said so? Is it anyone from here?”

“Don’t know yet, but don’t think so. There was a letter in the girl’s pocket addressed to some one in Biltz, Mimico County, a Mrs. Alden. I’ll tell you when we get back or I’ll telephone you.”

“My goodness, if it’s a crime, Mr. Mason’ll be interested, won’t he?”

“Sure, I’ll telephone him, or Mr. Heit will. If you see Bud Parker or Karel Badnell, tell ’em I had to go out of town, and call up my mother for me, will you, Zillah, and tell her, too. I’m afraid I won’t have time.”

“Sure I will, Earl.”


And, highly interested by this latest development in the ordinary humdrum life of his chief, he skipped gayly and even eagerly down the south steps of the Cataraqui County Courthouse, while Miss Saunders, knowing that her own chief was off on some business connected with the approaching County Republican Convention, and there being no one else in his office with whom she could communicate at this time, went on to the auditor’s office, where it was possible to retail to any who might be assembled there, all that she had gathered concerning this seemingly important lake tragedy.