© T8RUGRAM, 2018
© Original, 2018
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?”
“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 subpoenas 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 tonight or much before the down train. We may have to stay up there until tomorrow. 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 subpoenas, 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.
The information obtained by Coroner Heit and his assistant was of a singular and disturbing character. In the first instance, because of the disappearance of a boat and an apparently happy and attractive couple bent on sight-seeing, an early morning search, instigated by the inn-keeper of this region, had revealed, in Moon Cove, the presence of the overturned canoe, also the hat and veil. And immediately such available employees, as well as guides and guests of the Inn, as could be impressed, had begun diving into the waters or by means of long poles equipped with hooks attempting to bring one or both bodies to the surface. The fact, as reported by Sim Shoop, the guide, as well as the innkeeper and the boathouse lessee, that the lost girl was both young and attractive and her companion seemingly a youth of some means, was sufficient to whet the interest of this lake group of woodsmen and inn employees to a point which verged on sorrow. And in addition, there was intense curiosity as to how, on so fair and windless a day, so strange an accident could have occurred.
But what created far more excitement after a very little time was the fact that at high noon one of the men who trolled – John Pole – a woodsman, was at last successful in bringing to the surface Roberta herself, drawn upward by the skirt of her dress, obviously bruised about the face – the lips and nose and above and below the right eye – a fact which to those who were assisting at once seemed to be suspicious. Indeed, John Pole, who with Joe Rainer at the oars was the one who had succeeded in bringing her to the surface, had exclaimed at once on seeing her: “Why, the pore little thing! She don’t seem to weigh more’n nothin’ at all. It’s a wonder tuh me she coulda sunk.” And then reaching over and gathering her in his strong arms, he drew her in, dripping and lifeless, while his companions signaled to the other searchers, who came swiftly. And putting back from her face the long, brown, thick hair which the action of the water had swirled concealingly across it, he had added: “I do declare, Joe! Looka here. It does look like the child mighta been hit by somethin’! Looka here, Joe!” And soon the group of woodsmen and inn guests in their boats alongside were looking at the brownish-blue marks on Roberta’s face.
And forthwith, even while the body of Roberta was being taken north to the boat-house, and the dragging for the body of the lost man was resumed, suspicions were being voiced in such phrases as: “Well, it looks kinda queer – them marks – an’ all – don’t it? It’s curious a boat like that coulda upset on a day like yesterday.” “We’ll soon know if he’s down there or not!”; the feeling, following failure after hours of fruitless search for him, definitely coalescing at last into the conclusion that more than likely he was not down there at all – a hard and stirring thought to all.
Subsequent to this, the guide who had brought Clyde and Roberta from Gun Lodge conferring with the inn-keepers at Big Bittern and Grass Lake, it was factually determined: (1) that the drowned girl had left her bag at Gun Lodge whereas Clifford Golden had taken his with him; (2) that there was a disturbing discrepancy between the registration at Grass Lake and that at Big Bittern, the names Carl Graham and Clifford Golden being carefully discussed by the two inn-keepers and the identity of the bearer as to looks established; and (3) that the said Clifford Golden or Carl Graham had asked of the guide who had driven him over to Big Bittern whether there were many people on the lake that day. And thereafter the suspicions thus far engendered further coalescing into the certainty that there had been foul play. There was scarcely any doubt of it.
Immediately upon his arrival Coroner Heit was made to understand that these men of the north woods were deeply moved and in addition determined in their suspicions. They did not believe that the body of Clifford Golden or Carl Graham had ever sunk to the bottom of the lake. With the result that Heit on viewing the body of the unknown girl laid carefully on a cot in the boat-house, and finding her young and attractive, was strangely affected, not only by her looks but this circumambient atmosphere of suspicion. Worse yet, on retiring to the office of the manager of the inn, and being handed the letter found in the pocket of Roberta’s coat, he was definitely swayed in the direction of a somber and unshakable suspicion. For he read:
Grass Lake, N. Y., July 8th.
We’re up here and we’re going to be married, but this is for your eyes alone. Please don’t show it to papa or any one, for it mustn’t become known yet. I told you why at Christmas. And you’re not to worry or ask any questions or tell any one except just that you’ve heard from me and know where I am – not anybody. And you mustn’t think I won’t be getting along all right because I will be. Here’s a big hug and kiss for each cheek, mamma. Be sure and make father understand that it’s all right without telling him anything, or Emily or Tom or Gifford, either, do you hear? I’m sending you nice, big kisses.
P.S. This must be your secret and mine until I write you different a little later on.
And in the upper right-hand corner of the paper, as well as on the envelope, were printed the words: “Grass Lake Inn, Grass Lake, N. Y., Jack Evans, Prop.” And the letter had evidently been written the morning after the night they had spent at Grass Lake as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Graham.
The waywardness of young girls!
For plainly, as this letter indicated, these two had stayed together as man and wife at that inn when they were not as yet married. He winced as he read, for he had daughters of his own of whom he was exceedingly fond. But at this point he had a thought. A quadrennial county election was impending, the voting to take place the following November, at which were to be chosen for three years more the entire roster of county offices, his own included, and in addition this year a county judge whose term was for six years. In August, some six weeks further on, were to be held the county Republican and Democratic conventions at which were to be chosen the regular party nominees for these respective offices. Yet for no one of these places, thus far, other than that of the county judgeship, could the present incumbent of the office of district attorney possibly look forward with any hope, since already he had held the position of district attorney for two consecutive terms, a length of office due to the fact that not only was he a good orator of the inland political stripe but also, as the chief legal official of the county, he was in a position to do one and another of his friends a favor. But now, unless he were so fortunate as to be nominated and subsequently elected to this county judgeship, defeat and political doldrums loomed ahead. For during all his term of office thus far, there had been no really important case in connection with which he had been able to distinguish himself and so rightfully and hopefully demand further recognition from the people. But this…
But now, as the Coroner shrewdly foresaw, might not this case prove the very thing to fix the attention and favor of the people upon one man – the incumbent district attorney – a close and helpful friend of his, thus far – and so sufficiently redound to his credit and strength, and through him to the party ticket itself, so that at the coming election all might be elected – the reigning district attorney thus winning for himself not only the nomination for but his election to the six-year term judgeship. Stranger things than this had happened in the political world.
Immediately he decided not to answer any questions in regard to this letter, since it promised a quick solution of the mystery of the perpetrator of the crime, if there had been one, plus exceptional credit in the present political situation to whosoever should appear to be instrumental in the same. At the same time he at once ordered Earl Newcomb, as well as the guide who had brought Roberta and Clyde to Big Bittern, to return to Gun Lodge station from where the couple had come and say that under no circumstances was the bag held there to be surrendered to any one save himself or a representative of the district attorney. Then, when he was about to telephone to Biltz to ascertain whether there was such a family as Alden possessing a daughter by the name of Bert, or possibly Alberta, he was most providentially, as it seemed to him, interrupted by two men and a boy, trappers and hunters of this region, who, accompanied by a crowd of those now familiar with the tragedy, were almost tumultuously ushered into his presence. For they had news – news of the utmost importance! As they now related, with many interruptions and corrections, at about five o’clock of the afternoon of the day on which Roberta was drowned, they were setting out from Three Mile Bay, some twelve miles south of Big Bittern, to hunt and fish in and near this lake. And, as they now unanimously testified, on the night in question, at about nine o’clock, as they were nearing the south shore of Big Bittern – perhaps three miles to the south of it – they had encountered a young man, whom they took to be some stranger making his way from the inn at Big Bittern south to the village at Three Mile Bay. He was a smartishly and decidedly well dressed youth for these parts, as they now said – wearing a straw hat and carrying a bag, and at the time they wondered why such a trip on foot and at such an hour since there was a train south early next morning which reached Three Mile Bay in an hour’s time. And why, too, should he have been so startled at meeting them? For as they described it, on his encountering them in the woods thus, he had jumped back as though startled and worse – terrified – as though about to run. To be sure, the lantern one of them was carrying was turned exceedingly low, the moon being still bright, and they had walked quietly, as became men who were listening for wild life of any kind. At the same time, surely this was a perfectly safe part of the country, traversed for the most part by honest citizens such as themselves, and there was no need for a young man to jump as though he were seeking to hide in the brush. However, when the youth, Bud Brunig, who carried the light, turned it up the stranger seemed to recover his poise and after a moment in response to their “Howdy” had replied: “How do you do? How far is it to Three Mile Bay?” and they had replied, “About seven mile.” And then he had gone on and they also, discussing the encounter.
And now, since the description of this youth tallied almost exactly with that given by the guide who had driven Clyde over from Gun Lodge, as well as that furnished by the innkeepers at Big Bittern and Grass Lake, it seemed all too plain that he must be the same youth who had been in that boat with the mysterious dead girl.
At once Earl Newcomb suggested to his chief that he be permitted to telephone to the one inn-keeper at Three Mile Bay to see if by any chance this mysterious stranger had been seen or had registered there. He had not. Nor apparently at that time had he been seen by any other than the three men. In fact, he had vanished as though into air, although by nightfall of this same day it was established that on the morning following the chance meeting of the men with the stranger, a youth of somewhat the same description and carrying a bag, but wearing a cap – not a straw hat – had taken passage for Sharon on the small lake steamer “Cygnus” plying between that place and Three Mile Bay. But again, beyond that point, the trail appeared to be lost. No one at Sharon, at least up to this time, seemed to recall either the arrival or departure of any such person. Even the captain himself, as he later testified, had not particularly noted his debarkation – there were some fourteen others going down the lake that day and he could not be sure of any one person.
But in so far as the group at Big Bittern was concerned, the conclusion slowly but definitely impressed itself upon all those present that whoever this individual was, he was an unmitigated villain – a reptilian villain! And forthwith there was doubled and trebled in the minds of all a most urgent desire that he be overtaken and captured. The scoundrel! The murderer! And at once there was broadcast throughout this region by word of mouth, telephone, telegraph, to such papers as The Argus and Times–Union of Albany, and The Star of Lycurgus, the news of this pathetic tragedy with the added hint that it might conceal a crime of the gravest character.
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 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 hometown 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 subpoena ’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 subpoena 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.”