An American Tragedy Chapter 4

Orville Mason could readily sympathize with a family which on sight struck him as having, perhaps, like himself endured the whips, the scorns and contumelies of life. As he drove up in his official car from Bridgeburg at about four o’clock that Saturday afternoon, there was the old tatterdemalion farmhouse and Titus Alden himself in his shirt-sleeves and overalls coming up from a pig-pen at the foot of the hill, his face and body suggesting a man who is constantly conscious of the fact that he has made out so poorly. And now Mason regretted that he had not telephoned before leaving Bridgeburg, for he could see that the news of his daughter’s death would shock such a man as this most terribly. At the same time, Titus, noting his approach and assuming that it might be some one who was seeking a direction, civilly approached him.

“Is this Mr. Titus Alden?”

“Yes, sir, that’s my name.”

“Mr. Alden, my name is Mason. I am from Bridgeburg, district attorney of Cataraqui County.”

“Yes, sir,” replied Titus, wondering by what strange chance the district attorney of so distant a county should be approaching and inquiring of him. And Mason now looked at Titus, not knowing just how to begin. The bitterness of the news he had to impart—the crumpling power of it upon such an obviously feeble and inadequate soul. They had paused under one of the large, dark fir trees that stood in front of the house. The wind in its needles was whispering its world-old murmur.

“Mr. Alden,” began Mason, with more solemnity and delicacy than ordinarily characterized him, “you are the father of a girl by the name of Bert, or possibly Alberta, are you not? I’m not sure that I have the name right.”

“Roberta,” corrected Titus Alden, a titillating sense of something untoward affecting his nerves as he said it.

And Mason, before making it impossible, probably, for this man to connectedly inform him concerning all that he wished to know, now proceeded to inquire: “By the way, do you happen to know a young man around here by the name of Clifford Golden?”

“I don’t recall that I ever hard of any such person,” replied Titus, slowly.

“Or Carl Graham?”

“No, sir. No one by that name either that I recall now.”

“I thought so,” exclaimed Mason, more to himself than to Titus. “By the way,” this shrewdly and commandingly, “where is your daughter now?”

“Why, she’s in Lycurgus at present. She works there. But why do you ask? Has she done anything she shouldn’t—been to see you about anything?” He achieved a wry smile while his gray-blue eyes were by now perturbed by puzzled inquiry.

“One moment, Mr. Alden,” proceeded Mason, tenderly and yet most firmly and effectively. “I will explain everything to you in a moment. Just now I want to ask a few necessary questions.” And he gazed at Titus earnestly and sympathetically. “How long has it been since you last saw your daughter?”

“Why, she left here last Tuesday morning to go back to Lycurgus. She works down there for the Griffiths Collar & Shirt Company. But——?”

“Now, one moment,” insisted the district attorney determinedly, “I’ll explain all in a moment. She was up here over the week-end, possibly. Is that it?”

“She was up here on a vacation for about a month,” explained Titus, slowly and meticulously. “She wasn’t feeling so very good and she came home to rest up a bit. But she was all right when she left. You don’t mean to tell me, Mr. Mason, that anything has gone wrong with her, do you?” He lifted one long, brown hand to his chin and cheek in a gesture of nervous inquiry. “If I thought there was anything like that——?” He ran his hand through his thinning gray hair.

“Have you had any word from her since she left here?” Mason went on quietly, determined to extract as much practical information as possible before the great blow fell. “Any information that she was going anywhere but back there?”

“No, sir, we haven’t. She’s not hurt in any way, is she? She’s not done anything that’s got her into trouble? But, no, that couldn’t be. But your questions! The way you talk.” He was now trembling slightly, the hand that sought his thin, pale lips, visibly and aimlessly playing about his mouth. But instead of answering, the district attorney drew from his pocket the letter of Roberta to her mother, and displaying only the handwriting on the envelope, asked: “Is that the handwriting of your daughter?”

“Yes, sir, that’s her handwriting,” replied Titus, his voice rising slightly. “But what is this, Mr. District Attorney? How do you come to have that? What’s in there?” He clinched his hands in a nervous way, for in Mason’s eyes he now clearly foresaw tragedy in some form. “What is this—this—what has she written in that letter? You must tell me—if anything has happened to my girl!” He began to look excitedly about as though it were his intention to return to the house for aid—to communicate to his wife the dread that was coming upon him—while Mason, seeing the agony into which he had plunged him, at once seized him firmly and yet kindly by the arms and began:

“Mr. Alden, this is one of those dark times in the lives of some of us when all the courage we have is most needed. I hesitate to tell you because I am a man who has seen something of life and I know how you will suffer.”

“She is hurt. She is dead, maybe,” exclaimed Titus, almost shrilly, the pupils of his eyes dilating.

Orville Mason nodded.

“Roberta! My first born! My God! Our Heavenly Father!” His body crumpled as though from a blow and he leaned to steady himself against an adjacent tree. “But how? Where? In the factory by a machine? Oh, dear God!” He turned as though to go to his wife, while the strong, scar-nosed district attorney sought to detain him.

“One moment, Mr. Alden, one moment. You must not go to your wife yet. I know this is very hard, terrible, but let me explain. Not in Lycurgus. Not by any machine. No! No—drowned! In Big Bittern. She was up there on an outing on Thursday, do you understand? Do you hear? Thursday. She was drowned in Big Bittern on Thursday in a boat. It overturned.”

The excited gestures and words of Titus at this point so disturbed the district attorney that he found himself unable to explain as calmly as he would have liked the process by which even an assumed accidental drowning had come about. From the moment the word death in connection with Roberta had been used by Mason, the mental state of Alden was that of one not a little demented. After his first demands he now began to vent a series of animal-like groans as though the breath had been knocked from his body. At the same time, he bent over, crumpled up as from pain—then struck his hands together and threw them to his temples.

“My Roberta dead! My daughter! Oh, no, no, Roberta! Oh, my God! Not drowned! It can’t be. And her mother speaking of her only an hour ago. This will be the death of her when she hears it. It will kill me, too. Yes, it will. Oh, my poor, dear, dear girl. My darling! I’m not strong enough to stand anything like this, Mr. District Attorney.”

He leaned heavily and wearily upon Mason’s arms while the latter sustained him as best he could. Then, after a moment, he turned questioningly and erratically toward the front door of the house at which he gazed as one might who was wholly demented. “Who’s to tell her?” he demanded. “How is any one to tell her?”

“But, Mr. Alden,” consoled Mason, “for your own sake, for your wife’s sake, I must ask you now to calm yourself and help me consider this matter as seriously as you would if it were not your daughter. There is much more to this than I have been able to tell you. But you must be calm. You must allow me to explain. This is all very terrible and I sympathize with you wholly. I know what it means. But there are some dreadful and painful facts that you will have to know about. Listen. Listen.”

And then, still holding Titus by the arm he proceeded to explain as swiftly and forcefully as possible, the various additional facts and suspicions in connection with the death of Roberta, finally giving him her letter to read, and winding up with: “A crime! A crime, Mr. Alden! That’s what we think over in Bridgeburg, or at least that’s what we’re afraid of—plain murder, Mr. Alden, to use a hard, cold word in connection with it.” He paused while Alden, struck by this—the element of crime—gazed as one not quite able to comprehend. And, as he gazed, Mason went on: “And as much as I respect your feelings, still as the chief representative of the law in my county, I felt it to be my personal duty to come here to-day in order to find out whether there is anything that you or your wife or any of your family know about this Clifford Golden, or Carl Graham, or whoever he is who lured your daughter to that lonely lake up there. And while I know that the blackest of suffering is yours right now, Mr. Alden, I maintain that it should be your wish, as well as your duty, to do whatever you can to help us clear up this matter. This letter here seems to indicate that your wife at least knows something concerning this individual—his name, anyhow.” And he tapped the letter significantly and urgently.

The moment the suggested element of violence and wrong against his daughter had been injected into this bitter loss, there was sufficient animal instinct, as well as curiosity, resentment and love of the chase inherent in Titus to cause him to recover his balance sufficiently to give silent and solemn ear to what the district attorney was saying. His daughter not only drowned, but murdered, and that by some youth who according to this letter she was intending to marry! And he, her father, not even aware of his existence! Strange that his wife should know and he not. And that Roberta should not want him to know.

And at once, born for the most part of religion, convention and a general rural suspicion of all urban life and the mystery and involuteness of its ungodly ways, there sprang into his mind the thought of a city seducer and betrayer—some youth of means, probably, whom Roberta had met since going to Lycurgus and who had been able to seduce her by a promise of marriage which he was not willing to fulfill. And forthwith there flared up in his mind a terrible and quite uncontrollable desire for revenge upon any one who could plot so horrible a crime as this against his daughter. The scoundrel! The raper! The murderer!

Here he and his wife had been thinking that Roberta was quietly and earnestly and happily pursuing her hard, honest way in Lycurgus in order to help them and herself. And from Thursday afternoon until Friday her body had lain beneath the waters of that lake. And they asleep in their comfortable beds, or walking about, totally unaware of her dread state. And now her body in a strange room or morgue somewhere, unseen and unattended by any of all those who loved her so—and to-morrow to be removed by cold, indifferent public officials to Bridgeburg.

“If there is a God,” he exclaimed excitedly, “He will not let such a scoundrel as this go unpunished! Oh, no, He will not! ‘I have yet to see,’” he suddenly quoted, “‘the children of the righteous forsaken or their seed begging for bread.’” At the same time, a quivering compulsion for action dominating him, he added: “I must talk to my wife about this right away. Oh, yes, I must. No, no, you wait here. I must tell her first, and alone. I’ll be back. I’ll be back. You just wait here. I know it will kill her. But she must know about this. Maybe she can tell us who this is and then we can catch him before he manages to get too far away. But, oh, my poor girl! My poor, dear Roberta! My good, kind, faithful daughter!”

And so, talking in a maundering manner, his eyes and face betraying an only half-sane misery, he turned, the shambling, automaton-like motions of his angular figure now directing him to a lean-to, where, as he knew, Mrs. Alden was preparing some extra dishes for the next day, which was Sunday. But once there he paused in the doorway without the courage to approach further, a man expressing in himself all the pathos of helpless humanity in the face of the relentless and inexplicable and indifferent forces of Life!

Mrs. Alden turned, and at the sight of his strained expression, dropped her own hands lifelessly, the message of his eyes as instantly putting to flight the simple, weary and yet peaceful contemplation in her own.

“Titus! For goodness’ sake! Whatever is the matter?”

Lifted hands, half-open mouth, an eerie, eccentric and uncalculated tensing and then widening of the eyelids, and then the word: “Roberta!”

“What about her? What about her? Titus—what about her?”

Silence. More of those nervous twitchings of the mouth, eyes, hands. Then… “Dead! She’s been—been drowned!” followed by his complete collapse on a bench that stood just inside the door. And Mrs. Alden, staring for a moment, at first not quite comprehending, then fully realizing, sinking heavily and without a word to the floor. And Titus, looking at her and nodding his head as if to say: “Quite right. So should it be. Momentary escape for her from the contemplation of this horrible fact.” And then slowly rising, going to her and kneeling beside her, straightening her out. Then as slowly going out to the door and around to the front of the house where Orville Mason was seated on the broken front steps, contemplating speculatively along with the afternoon sun in the west the misery that this lorn and incompetent farmer was conveying to his wife. And wishing for the moment that it might be otherwise—that no such case, however profitable to himself, had arisen.

But now, at sight of Titus Alden, he jumped up and preceded the skeleton-like figure into the lean-to. And finding Mrs. Alden, as small as her daughter nearly, and limp and still, he gathered her into his strong arms and carried her through the dining-room into the living-room, where stood an antiquated lounge, on which he laid her. And there, feeling for her pulse, and then hurrying for some water, while he looked for some one—a son, daughter, neighbor, any one. But not seeing any one, hurrying back with the water to dash a little of it on her face and hands.

“Is there a doctor anywhere near here?” He was addressing Titus, who was now kneeling by his wife.

“In Biltz—yes—Dr. Crane.”

“Have you—has any one around here a telephone?”

“Mr. Wilcox.” He pointed in the direction of the Wilcox’s, whose telephone Roberta had so recently used.

“Just watch her. I’ll be back.”

Forthwith he was out of the house and away to call Crane or any other doctor, and then as swiftly returning with Mrs. Wilcox and her daughter. And then waiting, waiting, until first neighbors arrived and then eventually Dr. Crane, with whom he consulted as to the advisability of discussing with Mrs. Alden yet this day the unescapable mystery which had brought him here. And Dr. Crane, very much impressed by Mr. Mason’s solemn, legal manner, admitting that it might even be best.

And at last Mrs. Alden treated with heroin and crooned and mourned over by all present, being brought to the stage where it was possible, slowly and with much encouragement, to hear in the first place what the extenuating circumstances were; next being questioned concerning the identity of the cryptic individual referred to in Roberta’s letter. The only person whom Mrs. Alden could recall as ever having been mentioned by Roberta as paying particular attention to her, and that but once the Christmas before, was Clyde Griffiths, the nephew of the wealthy Samuel Griffiths, of Lycurgus, and the manager of the department in which Roberta worked.

But this in itself, as Mason and the Aldens themselves at once felt, was something which assuredly could not be taken to mean that the nephew of so great a man could be accused of the murder of Roberta. Wealth! Position! Indeed, in the face of such an accusation Mason was inclined to pause and consider. For the social difference, between this man and this girl from his point of view seemed great. At that, it might be so. Why not? Was it not likely that a youth of such a secure position would possibly more than another, since she was so attractive as Heit had said, be the one to be paying casual and secret attention to a girl like Roberta? Did she not work in his uncle’s factory? And was she not poor? Besides, as Fred Heit had already explained, whoever it was that this girl was with at the time of her death, she had not hesitated to cohabit with him before marriage. And was that not part and parcel of a rich and sophisticated youth’s attitude toward a poor girl? By reason of his own early buffetings at the mood of chance and established prosperity the idea appealed to him intensely. The wretched rich! The indifferent rich! And here were her mother and father obviously believing most firmly in her innocence and virtue.

Further questioning of Mrs. Alden only brought out the fact that she had never seen this particular youth, and had never even heard of any other. The only additional data that either she or her husband could furnish was that during her last home-coming of a month Roberta had not been feeling at all well—drooped about the house and rested a good deal. Also that she had written a number of letters which she had given to the postman or placed in the delivery box at the road-crossing below. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Alden knew to whom they were addressed, although the postman would be likely to know, as Mason quickly thought. Also, during this period, she had been busy making some dresses, at least four. And during the latter part of her stay, she had been the recipient of a number of telephone calls—from a certain Mr. Baker, as Titus had heard Mr. Wilcox say. Also, on departing, she had taken only such baggage as she had brought with her—her small trunk and her bag. The trunk she had checked herself at the station, but just where, other than Lycurgus, Titus could not say.

But now, suddenly, since he was attaching considerable importance to the name Baker, there popped into Mason’s mind: “Clifford Golden! Carl Graham! Clyde Griffiths!” and at once the identity of the initials as well as the related euphony of the names gave him pause. An astounding coincidence truly, if this same Clyde Griffiths had nothing to do with this crime! Immediately he was anxious to go direct to the mailman and question him.

But since Titus Alden was important not only as a witness in identifying Roberta’s body and the contents of the suitcase left by her at Gun Lodge but also to persuade the postman to talk freely, he now asked him to dress and accompany him, assuring him that he would allow him to return to-morrow.

After cautioning Mrs. Alden to talk to no one in regard to this, he now proceeded to the post office to question the mailman. That individual when found, recalled, upon inquiry, and in the presence of Titus who stood like a galvanized corpse by the side of the district attorney, that not only had there been a few letters—no less than twelve or fifteen even—handed him by Roberta, during her recent stay here, but that all of them had been addressed to some one in Lycurgus by the name of—let him see—Clyde Griffiths—no less—care of General Delivery there. Forthwith, the district attorney proceeded with him to a local notary’s office where a deposition was made, after which he called his office, and learning that Roberta’s body had been brought to Bridgeburg, he drove there with as much speed as he could attain. And once there and in the presence of the body along with Titus, Burton Burleigh, Heit and Earl Newcomb, he was able to decide for himself, even while Titus, half demented, gazed upon the features of his child, first that she truly was Roberta Alden and next as to whether he considered her of the type who would wantonly yield herself to such a liaison as the registration at Grass Lake seemed to indicate. He decided he did not. This was a case of sly, evil seduction as well as murder. Oh, the scoundrel! And still at large. Almost the political value of all this was obscured by an angry social resentfulness against men of means in general.

But this particular contact with the dead, made at ten o’clock at night in the receiving parlors of the Lutz Brothers, Undertakers, and with Titus Alden falling on his knees by the side of his daughter and emotionally carrying her small, cold hands to his lips while he gazed feverishly and protestingly upon her waxy face, framed by her long brown hair, was scarcely such as to promise an unbiased or even legal opinion. The eyes of all those present were wet with tears.

And now Titus Alden injected a new and most dramatic note into the situation. For while the Lutz Brothers, with three of their friends who kept an automobile shop next door, Everett Beeker, the present representative of the Bridgeburg Republican, and Sam Tacksun, the editor and publisher of the Democrat, awesomely gazed over or between the heads of each other from without a side door which gave into the Lutzs’ garage, he suddenly rose and moving wildly toward Mason, exclaimed: “I want you to find the scoundrel who did this, Mr. District Attorney. I want him to be made to suffer as this pure, good girl has been made to suffer. She’s been murdered—that’s all. No one but a murderer would take a girl out on a lake like that and strike her as any one can see she has been struck.” He gestured toward his dead child. “I have no money to help prosecute a scoundrel like that. But I will work. I will sell my farm.”

His voice broke and seemingly he was in danger of falling as he turned toward Roberta again. And now, Orville Mason, swept into this father’s stricken and yet retaliatory mood, pressed forward to exclaim: “Come away, Mr. Alden. We know this is your daughter. I swear all you gentlemen as witnesses to this identification. And if it shall be proved that this little girl of yours was murdered, as it now seems, I promise you, Mr. Alden, faithfully and dutifully as the district attorney of this county, that no time or money or energy on my part will be spared to track down this scoundrel and hale him before the proper authorities! And if the justice of Cataraqui County is what I think it is, you can leave him to any jury which our local court will summon. And you won’t need to sell your farm, either.”

Mr. Mason, because of his deep, if easily aroused, emotion, as well as the presence of the thrilled audience, was in his most forceful as well as his very best oratorical mood.

And one of the Lutz Brothers—Ed—the recipient of all of the county coroner’s business—was moved to exclaim: “That’s the ticket, Orville. You’re the kind of a district attorney we like.” And Everett Beeker now called out: “Go to it, Mr. Mason. We’re with you to a man when it comes to that.” And Fred Heit, as well as his assistant, touched by Mason’s dramatic stand, his very picturesque and even heroic appearance at the moment, now crowded closer, Heit to take his friend by the hand, Earl to exclaim: “More power to you, Mr. Mason. We’ll do all we can, you bet. And don’t forget that bag that she left at Gun Lodge is over at your office. I gave it to Burton two hours ago.”

“That’s right, too. I was almost forgetting that,” exclaimed Mason, most calmly and practically at the moment, the previous burst of oratory and emotion having by now been somehow merged in his own mind with the exceptional burst of approval which up to this hour he had never experienced in any case with which previously he had been identified.