An American Tragedy Chapter 3

Coroner Heit, his official duties completed for the time being, found himself pondering, as he traveled south on the lake train, how he was to proceed farther. What was the next step he should take in this pathetic affair? For the coroner, as he had looked at Roberta before he left was really deeply moved. She seemed so young and innocent-looking and pretty. The little blue serge dress lying heavily and clinging tightly to her, her very small hands folded across her breast, her warm, brown hair still damp from its twenty-four hours in the water, yet somehow suggesting some of the vivacity and passion that had invested her in life—all seemed to indicate a sweetness which had nothing to do with crime.

But deplorable as it might be, and undoubtedly was, there was another aspect of the case that more vitally concerned himself. Should he go to Biltz and convey to the Mrs. Alden of the letter the dreadful intelligence of her daughter’s death, at the same time inquiring about the character and whereabouts of the man who had been with her, or should he proceed first to District Attorney Mason’s office in Bridgeburg and having imparted to him all of the details of the case, allow that gentleman to assume the painful responsibility of devastating a probably utterly respectable home? For there was the political situation to be considered. And while he himself might act and so take personal credit, still there was this general party situation to be thought of. A strong man should undoubtedly head and so strengthen the party ticket this fall and here was the golden opportunity. The latter course seemed wiser. It would provide his friend, the district attorney, with his great chance. Arriving in Bridgeburg in this mood, he ponderously invaded the office of Orville W. Mason, the district attorney, who immediately sat up, all attention, sensing something of import in the coroner’s manner.

Mason was a short, broad-chested, broad-backed and vigorous individual physically, but in his late youth had been so unfortunate as to have an otherwise pleasant and even arresting face marred by a broken nose, which gave to him a most unprepossessing, almost sinister, look. Yet he was far from sinister. Rather, romantic and emotional. His boyhood had been one of poverty and neglect, causing him in his later and somewhat more successful years to look on those with whom life had dealt more kindly as too favorably treated. The son of a poor farmer’s widow, he had seen his mother put to such straits to make ends meet that by the time he reached the age of twelve he had surrendered nearly all of the pleasures of youth in order to assist her. And then, at fourteen, while skating, he had fallen and broken his nose in such a way as to forever disfigure his face. Thereafter, feeling himself handicapped in the youthful sorting contests which gave to other boys the female companions he most craved, he had grown exceedingly sensitive to the fact of his facial handicap. And this had eventually resulted in what the Freudians are accustomed to describe as a psychic sex scar.

At the age of seventeen, however, he had succeeded in interesting the publisher and editor of the Bridgeburg Republican to the extent that he was eventually installed as official local news-gatherer of the town. Later he came to be the the Cataraqui County correspondent of such papers as the Albany Times-Union and the Utica Star, ending eventually at the age of nineteen with the privilege of studying law in the office of one ex-Judge Davis Richofer, of Bridgeburg. And a few years later, after having been admitted to the bar, he had been taken up by several county politicians and merchants who saw to it that he was sent to the lower house of the state legislature for some six consecutive years, where, by reason of a modest and at the same time shrewd and ambitious willingness to do as he was instructed, he attained favor with those at the capital while at the same time retaining the good will of his home-town sponsors. Later, returning to Bridgeburg and possessing some gifts of oratory, he was given, first, the position of assistant district attorney for four years, and following that elected auditor, and subsequently district attorney for two terms of four years each. Having acquired so high a position locally, he was able to marry the daughter of a local druggist of some means, and two children had been born to them.

In regard to this particular case he had already heard from Miss Saunders all she knew of the drowning, and, like the coroner, had been immediately impressed with the fact that the probable publicity attendant on such a case as this appeared to be might be just what he needed to revive a wavering political prestige and might perhaps solve the problem of his future. At any rate he was most intensely interested. So that now, upon sight of Heit, he showed plainly the keen interest he felt in the case.

“Well, Colonel Heit?”

“Well, Orville, I’m just back from Big Bittern. It looks to me as though I’ve got a case for you now that’s going to take quite a little of your time.”

Heit’s large eyes bulged and conveyed hints of much more than was implied by his non-committal opening remark.

“You mean that drowning up there?” returned the district attorney.

“Yes, sir. Just that,” replied the coroner.

“You’ve some reason for thinking there’s something wrong up there?”

“Well, the truth is, Orville, I think there’s hardly a doubt that this is a case of murder.” Heit’s heavy eyes glowed somberly. “Of course, it’s best to be on the safe side, and I’m only telling you this in confidence, because even yet I’m not absolutely positive that that young man’s body may not be in the lake. But it looks mighty suspicious to me, Orville. There’s been at least fifteen men up there in row-boats all day yesterday and to-day, dragging the south part of that lake. I had a number of the boys take soundings here and there, and the water ain’t more than twenty-five feet deep at any point. But so far they haven’t found any trace of him. They brought her up about one o’clock yesterday, after they’d been only dragging a few hours, and a mighty pretty girl she is too, Orville—quite young—not more than eighteen or twenty, I should say. But there are some very suspicious circumstances about it all that make me think that he ain’t in there. In fact, I never saw a case that I thought looked more like a devilish crime than this.”

As he said this, he began to search in the right-hand pocket of his well-worn and baggy linen suit and finally extracted Roberta’s letter, which he handed his friend, drawing up a chair and seating himself while the district attorney proceeded to read.

“Well, this does look rather suspicious, don’t it?” he announced, as he finished. “You say they haven’t found him yet. Well, have you communicated with this woman to see what she knows about it?”

“No, Orville, I haven’t,” replied Heit, slowly and meditatively. “And I’ll tell you why. The fact is, I decided up there last night that this was something I had better talk over with you before I did anything at all. You know what the political situation here is just now. And how the proper handling of a case like this is likely to affect public opinion this fall. And while I certainly don’t think we ought to mix politics in with crime there certainly is no reason why we shouldn’t handle this in such a way as to make it count in our favor. And so I thought I had better come and see you first. Of course, if you want me to, Orville, I’ll go over there. Only I was thinking that perhaps it would be better for you to go, and find out just who this fellow is and all about him. You know what a case like this might mean from a political point of view, if only we clean it up, and I know you’re the one to do it, Orville.”

“Thanks, Fred, thanks,” replied Mason, solemnly, tapping his desk with the letter and squinting at his friend. “I’m grateful to you for your opinion and you’ve outlined the very best way to go about it, I think. You’re sure no one outside yourself has seen this letter?”

“Only the envelope. And no one but Mr. Hubbard, the proprietor of the inn up there, has seen that, and he told me that he found it in her pocket and took charge of it for fear it might disappear or be opened before I got there. He said he had a feeling there might be something wrong the moment he heard of the drowning. The young man had acted so nervous—strange-like, he said.”

“Very good, Fred. Then don’t say anything more about it to any one for the present, will you? I’ll go right over there, of course. But what else did you find, anything?” Mr. Mason was quite alive now, interrogative, dynamic, and a bit dictatorial in his manner, even to his old friend.

“Plenty, plenty,” replied the coroner, most sagely and solemnly. “There were some suspicious cuts or marks under the girl’s right eye and above the left temple, Orville, and across the lip and nose, as though the poor little thing mighta been hit by something—a stone or a stick or one of those oars that they found floating up there. She’s just a child yet, Orville, in looks and size, anyhow—a very pretty girl—but not as good as she might have been, as I’ll show you presently.” At this point the coroner paused to extract a large handkerchief and blow into it a very loud blast, brushing his beard afterward in a most orderly way. “I didn’t have time to get a doctor up there and besides I’m going to hold the inquest down here, Monday, if I can. I’ve ordered the Lutz boys to go up there to-day and bring her body down. But the most suspicious of all the evidence that has come to light so far, Orville, is the testimony of two men and a boy who live up at Three Mile Bay and who were walking up to Big Bittern on Thursday night to hunt and fish. I had Earl take down their names and subpœna ’em for the inquest next Monday.”

And the coroner proceeded to detail their testimony about their accidental meeting of Clyde.

“Well, well!” interjected the district attorney, thoroughly interested.

“Then, another thing, Orville,” continued the coroner, “I had Earl telephone the Three Mile Bay people, the owner of the hotel there as well as the postmaster and the town marshal, but the only person who appears to have seen the young man is the captain of that little steamboat that runs from Three Mile Bay to Sharon. You know the man, I guess, Captain Mooney. I left word with Earl to subpœna him too. According to him, about eight-thirty, Friday morning, or just before his boat started for Sharon on its first trip, this same young man, or some one very much like the description furnished, carrying a suitcase and wearing a cap—he had on a straw hat when those three men met him—came on board and paid his way to Sharon and got off there. Good-looking young chap, the captain says. Very spry and well-dressed, more like a young society man than anything else, and very stand-offish.”

“Yes, yes,” commented Mason.

“I also had Earl telephone the people at Sharon—whoever he could reach—to see if he had been seen there getting off, but up to the time I left last night no one seemed to remember him. But I left word for Earl to telegraph a description of him to all the resort hotels and stations hereabouts so that if he’s anywhere around, they’ll be on the lookout for him. I thought you’d want me to do that. But I think you’d better give me a writ for that bag at Gun Lodge station. That may contain something we ought to know. I’ll go up and get it myself. Then I want to go to Grass Lake and Three Mile Bay and Sharon yet to-day, if I can, and see what else I can find. But I’m afraid, Orville, it’s a plain case of murder. The way he took that young girl to that hotel up there at Grass Lake and then registered under another name at Big Bittern, and the way he had her leave her bag and took his own with him!” He shook his head most solemnly. “Those are not the actions of an honest young man, Orville, and you know it. What I can’t understand is how her parents could let her go off like that anywhere with a man without knowing about him in the first place.”

“That’s true,” replied Mason, tactfully, but made intensely curious by the fact that it had at least been partially established that the girl in the case was not as good as she should have been. Adultery! And with some youth of means, no doubt, from some one of the big cities to the south. The prominence and publicity with which his own activities in connection with this were very likely to be laden! At once he got up, energetically stirred. If he could only catch such a reptilian criminal, and that in the face of all the sentiment that such a brutal murder was likely to inspire! The August convention and nominations. The fall election.

“Well, I’ll be switched,” he exclaimed, the presence of Heit, a religious and conservative man, suppressing anything more emphatic. “I do believe we’re on the trail of something important, Fred. I really think so. It looks very black to me—a most damnable outrage. I suppose the first thing to do, really, is to telephone over there and see if there is such a family as Alden and exactly where they live. It’s not more than fifty miles direct by car, if that much. Poor roads, though,” he added. Then: “That poor woman. I dread that scene. It will be a painful one, I know.”

Then he called Zillah and asked her to ascertain if there was such a person as Titus Alden living near Biltz. Also, exactly how to get there. Next he added: “The first thing to do will be to get Burton back here” (Burton being Burton Burleigh, his legal assistant, who had gone away for a week-end vacation) “and put him in charge so as to furnish you whatever you need in the way of writs and so on, Fred, while I go right over to see this poor woman. And then, if you’ll have Earl go back up there and get that suitcase, I’ll be most obliged to you. I’ll bring the father back with me, too, to identify the body. But don’t say anything at all about this letter now or my going over there until I see you later, see.” He grasped the hand of his friend. “In the meantime,” he went on, a little grandiosely, now feeling the tang of great affairs upon him, “I want to thank you, Fred. I certainly do, and I won’t forget it, either. You know that, don’t you?” He looked his old friend squarely in the eye. “This may turn out better than we think. It looks to be the biggest and most important case in all my term of office, and if we can only clean it up satisfactorily and quickly, before things break here this fall, it may do us all some good, eh?”

“Quite so, Orville, quite so,” commented Fred Heit. “Not, as I said before, that I think we ought to mix politics in with a thing like this, but since it has come about so——” he paused, meditatively.

“And in the meantime,” continued the district attorney, “if you’ll have Earl have some pictures made of the exact position where the boat, oars, and hat were found, as well as mark the spot where the body was found, and subpœna as many witnesses as you can, I’ll have vouchers for it all put through with the auditor. And to-morrow or Monday I’ll pitch in and help myself.”

And here he gripped Heit’s right hand—then patted him on the shoulder. And Heit, much gratified by his various moves so far—and in consequence hopeful for the future—now took up his weird straw hat and buttoning his thin, loose coat, returned to his office to get his faithful Earl on the long distance telephone to instruct him and to say that he was returning to the scene of the crime himself.