An American Tragedy Chapter 44

And then on his return to Lycurgus early Monday morning, the following letter from Roberta,


My dear, I have often heard the saying, “it never rains but it pours,” but I never knew what it meant until to-day. About the first person I saw this morning was Mr. Wilcox, a neighbor of ours, who came to say that Mrs. Anse would not be out to-day on account of some work she had to do for Mrs. Dinwiddie in Biltz, although when she left yesterday everything had been prepared for her so that I could help her a little with the sewing and so hurry things up a bit. And now she won’t be here until to-morrow. Next word came that Mother’s sister, Mrs. Nichols, is very ill and Mother had to go over to her house at Baker’s Pond, which is about twelve miles east of here, Tom driving her, although he ought to be here to help father with all the work that there is to do about the farm. And I don’t know if Mother will be able to get back before Sunday. If I were better and didn’t have all this work of my own on my hands I would have to go too, I suppose, although Mother insists not.

Next, Emily and Tom, thinking all is going so well with me and that I might enjoy it, were having four girls and four boys come here to-night for a sort of June moon-party, with ice cream and cake to be made by Emily and Mother and myself. But now, poor dear, she has to do a lot of telephoning over Mr. Wilcox’s phone, which we share, in order to put it off until some day next week, if possible. And she’s just heartsick and gloomy, of course.

As for myself, I’m trying to keep a stiff upper lip, as the saying is. But it’s pretty hard, dear, I’ll tell you. For so far I have only had three small telephone talks with you, saying that you didn’t think you would have the necessary money before July fifth. And to put the finishing touches on it, as I only learned to-day, Mamma and Papa have about decided to go to my Uncle Charlie’s in Hamilton for over the fourth (from the fourth to the fifteenth) and take me with them, unless I decide to return to Lycurgus, while Tom and Emily visit with my sister at Homer. But, dear, I can’t do that, as you know. I’m too sick and worried. Last night I vomited dreadful and have been half dead on my feet all day, and I am just about crazy to-night.

Dear, what can we do? Can’t you come for me before July third, which will be the time they will be going? You will have to come for me before then, really, because I just can’t go up there with them. It’s fifty miles from here. I could say I would go up there with them if only you would be sure to come for me before they start. But I must be absolutely sure that you are coming—absolutely.

Clyde, I have done nothing but cry since I got here. If you were only here I wouldn’t feel so badly. I do try to be brave, dear, but how can I help thinking at times that you will never come for me when you haven’t written me one single note and have only talked to me three times since I’ve been up here. But then I say to myself you couldn’t be so mean as that, and especially since you have promised. Oh, you will come, won’t you? Everything worries me so now, Clyde, for some reason and I’m so frightened, dear. I think of last summer and then this one, and all my dreams. It won’t make any real difference to you about your coming a few days sooner than you intended, will it, dear? Even if we have to get along on a little less. I know that we can. I can be very saving and economical. I will try to have my dresses made by then. If not, I will do with what I have and finish them later. And I will try and be brave, dear, and not annoy you much, if only you will come. You must, you know, Clyde. It can’t be any other way, although for your sake now I wish it could.

Please, please, Clyde, write and tell me that you will be here at the end of the time that you said. I worry so and get so lonesome off here all by myself. I will come straight back to you if you don’t come by the time you said. I know you will not like me to say this, but, Clyde, I can’t stay here and that’s all there is to it. And I can’t go away with Mamma and Papa either, so there is only one way out. I don’t believe I will sleep a wink to-night, so please write me and in your letter tell me over and over not to worry about your not coming for me. If you could only come to-day, dear, or this week-end, I wouldn’t feel so blue. But nearly two weeks more! Every one is in bed and the house is still, so I will stop.

But please write me, dear, right away, or if you won’t do that call me up sure to-morrow, because I just can’t rest one single minute until I do hear from you.

Your miserable ROBERTA.


P. S.: This is a horrid letter, but I just can’t write a better one. I’m so blue.

But the day this letter arrived in Lycurgus Clyde was not there to answer it at once. And because of that, Roberta being in the darkest and most hysterical mood and thought, sat down on Saturday afternoon and, half-convinced as she was that he might already have departed for some distant point without any word to her, almost shrieked or screamed, if one were to properly characterize the mood that animated the following:

Biltz, Saturday, June 14th.


I am writing to tell you that I am coming back to Lycurgus. I simply can’t stay here any longer. Mamma worries and wonders why I cry so much, and I am just about sick. I know I promised to stay until the 25th or 26th, but then you said you would write me, but you never have—only an occasional telephone message when I am almost crazy. I woke up this morning and couldn’t help crying right away and this afternoon my headache is dreadful.

I’m so afraid you won’t come and I’m so frightened, dear. Please come and take me away some place, anywhere, so I can get out of here and not worry like I do. I’m so afraid in the state that I’m in that Papa and Mamma may make me tell the whole affair or that they will find it out for themselves.

Oh, Clyde, you will never know. You have said you would come, and sometimes I just know you will. But at other times I get to thinking about other things and I’m just as certain you won’t, especially when you don’t write or telephone. I wish you would write and say that you will come just so I can stand to stay here. Just as soon as you get this, I wish you would write me and tell me the exact day you can come—not later than the first, really, because I know I cannot stand to stay here any longer than then. Clyde, there isn’t a girl in the whole world as miserable as I am, and you have made me so. But I don’t mean that, either, dear. You were good to me once, and you are now, offering to come for me. And if you will come right away I will be so grateful. And when you read this, if you think I am unreasonable, please do not mind it, Clyde, but just think I am crazy with grief and worry and that I just don’t know what to do. Please write me, Clyde. If you only knew how I need a word.


This letter, coupled as it was with a threat to come to Lycurgus, was sufficient to induce in Clyde a state not unlike Roberta’s. To think that he had no additional, let alone plausible, excuse to offer Roberta whereby she could be induced to delay her final and imperative demand. He racked his brains. He must not write her any long and self-incriminating letters. That would be foolish in the face of his determination not to marry her. Besides his mood at the moment, so fresh from the arms and kisses of Sondra, was not for anything like that. He could not, even if he would.

At the same time, something must be done at once, as he could see, in order to allay her apparently desperate mood. And ten minutes after he had finished reading the last of these two letters, he was attempting to reach Roberta over the telephone. And finally getting her after a troublesome and impatient half-hour, he heard her voice, thin and rather querulous as it seemed to him at first, but really only because of a poor connection, saying: “Hello, Clyde, hello. Oh, I’m so glad you called. I’ve been terribly nervous. Did you get my two letters? I was just about to leave here in the morning if I didn’t hear from you by then. I just couldn’t stand not to hear anything. Where have you been, dear? Did you read what I said about my parents going away? That’s true. Why don’t you write, Clyde, or call me up anyhow? What about what I said in my letter about the third? Will you be sure and come then? Or shall I meet you somewhere? I’ve been so nervous the last three or four days, but now that I hear you again, maybe I’ll be able to quiet down some. But I do wish you would write me a note every few days anyhow. Why won’t you, Clyde? You haven’t even written me one since I’ve been here. I can’t tell you what a state I’m in and how hard it is to keep calm now.”

Plainly Roberta was very nervous and fearsome as she talked. As a matter of fact, except that the home in which she was telephoning was deserted at the moment she was talking very indiscreetly, it seemed to Clyde. And it aided but little in his judgment for her to explain that she was all alone and that no one could hear her. He did not want her to use his name or refer to letters written to him.

Without talking too plainly, he now tried to make it clear that he was very busy and that it was hard for him to write as much as she might think necessary. Had he not said that he was coming on the 28th or thereabouts if he could? Well, he would if he could, only it looked now as though it might be necessary for him to postpone it for another week or so, until the seventh or eighth of July—long enough for him to get together an extra fifty for which he had a plan, and which would be necessary for him to have. But really, which was the thought behind this other, long enough for him to pay one more visit to Sondra as he was yearning to do, over the next week-end. But this demand of hers, now! Couldn’t she go with her parents for a week or so and then let him come for her there or she come to him? It would give him more needed time, and——

But at this Roberta, bursting forth in a storm of nervous disapproval—saying that most certainly if that were the case she was going back to her room at the Gilpins’, if she could get it, and not waste her time up there getting ready and waiting for him when he was not coming—he suddenly decided that he might as well say that he was coming on the third, or that if he did not, that at least by then he would have arranged with her where to meet him. For even by now, he had not made up his mind as to how he was to do. He must have a little more time to think—more time to think.

And so now he altered his tone greatly and said: “But listen, Bert. Please don’t be angry with me. You talk as though I didn’t have any troubles in connection with all this, either. You don’t know what this may be going to cost me before I’m through with it, and you don’t seem to care much. I know you’re worried and all that, but what about me? I’m doing the very best I can now, Bert, with all I have to think about. And won’t you just be patient now until the third, anyhow? Please do. I promise to write you and if I don’t, I’ll call you up every other day. Will that be all right? But I certainly don’t want you to be using my name like you did a while ago. That will lead to trouble, sure. Please don’t. And when I call again, I’ll just say it’s Mr. Baker asking, see, and you can say it’s any one you like afterwards. And then, if by any chance anything should come up that would stop our starting exactly on the third, why you can come back here if you want to, see, or somewhere near here, and then we can start as soon as possible after that.”

His tone was so pleading and soothing, infused as it was—but because of his present necessity only with a trace of that old tenderness and seeming helplessness which, at times, had quite captivated Roberta, that even now it served to win her to a bizarre and groundless gratitude. So much so that at once she had replied, warmly and emotionally, even: “Oh, no, dear. I don’t want to do anything like that. You know I don’t. It’s just because things are so bad as they are with me and I can’t help myself now. You know that, Clyde, don’t you? I can’t help loving you. I always will, I suppose. And I don’t want to do anything to hurt you, dear, really I don’t if I can help it.”

And Clyde, hearing the ring of genuine affection, and sensing anew his old-time power over her, was disposed to reënact the räle of lover again, if only in order to dissuade Roberta from being too harsh and driving with him now. For while he could not like her now, he told himself, and could not think of marrying her, still in view of this other dream he could at least be gracious to her—could he not?—Pretend! And so this conversation ended with a new peace based on this agreement.


The preceding day—a day of somewhat reduced activities on the lakes from which he had just returned—he and Sondra and Stuart and Bertine, together with Nina Temple and a youth named Harley Baggott, then visiting the Thurstons, had motored first from Twelfth Lake to Three Mile Bay, a small lakeside resort some twenty-five miles north, and from thence, between towering walls of pines, to Big Bittern and some other smaller lakes lost in the recesses of the tall pines of the region to the north of Trine Lake. And en route, Clyde, as he now recalled, had been most strangely impressed at moments and in spots by the desolate and for the most part lonely character of the region. The narrow and rain-washed and even rutted nature of the dirt roads that wound between tall, silent and darksome trees—forests in the largest sense of the word—that extended for miles and miles apparently on either hand. The decadent and weird nature of some of the bogs and tarns on either side of the only comparatively passable dirt roads which here and there were festooned with funereal or viperous vines, and strewn like deserted battlefields with soggy and decayed piles of fallen and crisscrossed logs—in places as many as four deep—one above the other—in the green slime that an undrained depression in the earth had accumulated. The eyes and backs of occasional frogs that, upon lichen or vine or moss-covered stumps and rotting logs in this warm June weather, there sunned themselves apparently undisturbed; the spirals of gnats, the solitary flick of a snake’s tail as disturbed by the sudden approach of the machine, one made off into the muck and the poisonous grasses and water-plants which were thickly imbedded in it.

And in seeing one of these Clyde, for some reason, had thought of the accident at Pass Lake. He did not realize it, but at the moment his own subconscious need was contemplating the loneliness and the usefulness at times of such a lone spot as this. And at one point it was that a wier-wier, one of the solitary water-birds of this region, uttered its ouphe and barghest cry, flying from somewhere near into some darker recess within the woods. And at this sound it was that Clyde had stirred nervously and then sat up in the car. It was so very different to any bird-cry he had ever heard anywhere.

“What was that?” he asked of Harley Baggott, who sat next him.


“Why, that bird or something that just flew away back there just now?”

“I didn’t hear any bird.”

“Gee! That was a queer sound. It makes me feel creepy.”

As interesting and impressive as anything else to him in this almost tenantless region had been the fact that there were so many lonesome lakes, not one of which he had ever heard of before. The territory through which they were speeding as fast as the dirt roads would permit, was dotted with them in these deep forests of pine. And only occasionally in passing near one, were there any signs indicating a camp or lodge, and those to be reached only by some half-blazed trail or rutty or sandy road disappearing through darker trees. In the main, the shores of the more remote lakes passed, were all but untenanted, or so sparsely that a cabin or a distant lodge to be seen across the smooth waters of some pine-encircled gem was an object of interest to all.

Why must he think of that other lake in Massachusetts! That boat! The body of that girl found—but not that of the man who accompanied her! How terrible, really!

He recalled afterwards,—here in his room, after the last conversation with Roberta—that the car, after a few more miles, had finally swung into an open space at the north end of a long narrow lake—the south prospect of which appeared to be divided by a point or an island suggesting a greater length and further windings or curves than were visible from where the car had stopped. And except for the small lodge and boathouse at this upper end it had appeared so very lonesome—not a launch or canoe on it at the time their party arrived. And as in the case of all the other lakes seen this day, the banks to the very shore line were sentineled with those same green pines—tall, spear-shaped—their arms widespread like one outside his window here in Lycurgus. And beyond them in the distance, to the south and west, rose the humped and still smooth and green backs of the nearer Adirondacks. And the water before them, now ruffled by a light wind and glowing in the afternoon sun, was of an intense Prussian blue, almost black, which suggested, as was afterwards confirmed by a guide who was lounging upon the low veranda of the small inn—that it was very deep—“all of seventy feet not more than a hundred feet out from that boathouse.”

And at this point Harley Baggott, who was interested to learn more about the fishing possibilities of this lake in behalf of his father, who contemplated coming to this region in a few days, had inquired of the guide who appeared not to look at the others in the car: “How long is this lake, anyhow?”

“Oh, about seven miles.” “Any fish in it?” “Throw a line in and see. The best place for black bass and the like of that almost anywhere around here. Off the island down yonder, or just to the south of it round on the other side there, there’s a little bay that’s said to be one of the best fishin’ holes in any of the lakes up this way. I’ve seen a coupla men bring back as many as seventy-five fish in two hours. That oughta satisfy anybody that ain’t tryin’ to ruin the place for the rest of us.”

The guide, a thinnish, tall and wizened type, with a long, narrow head and small, keen, bright blue eyes laughed a yokelish laugh as he studied the group. “Not thinkin’ of tryin’ your luck to-day?”

“No, just inquiring for my dad. He’s coming up here next week, maybe. I want to see about accommodations.”

“Well, they ain’t what they are down to Racquette, of course, but then the fish down there ain’t what they are up here, either.” He visited all with a sly and wry and knowing smile.

Clyde had never seen the type before. He was interested by all the anomalies and contrarities of this lonesome world as contrasted with cities he had known almost exclusively, as well as the decidedly exotic and material life and equipment with which, at the Cranstons’ and elsewhere, he was then surrounded. The strange and comparatively deserted nature of this region as contrasted with the brisk and vigorous life of Lycurgus, less than a hundred miles to the south.

“The country up here kills me,” commented Stuart Finchley at this point. “It’s so near the Chain and yet it’s so different, scarcely any one living up here at all, it seems.”

“Well, except for the camps in summer and the fellows that come up to hunt moose and deer in the fall, there ain’t much of anybody or anything around here after September first,” commented the guide. “I’ve been guidin’ and trappin’ for nigh onto seventeen years now around here and ’cept for more and more people around some of the lakes below here—the Chain principally in summer—I ain’t seen much change. You need to know this country purty well if yer goin’t strike out anywhere away from the main roads, though o’ course about five miles to the west o’ here is the railroad. Gun Lodge is the station. We bring ’em by bus from there in the summer. And from the south end down there is a sorta road leadin’ down to Greys Lake and Three Mile Bay. You musta come along a part of it, since it’s the only road up into this country as yet. They’re talkin’ of cuttin’ one through to Long Lake sometime, but so far it’s mostly talk. But from most of these other lakes around here, there’s no road at all, not that an automobile could make. Just trails and there’s not even a decent camp on some o’ ’em. You have to bring your own outfit. But Ellis and me was over to Gun Lake last summer—that’s thirty miles west o’ here and we had to walk every inch of the way and carry our packs. But, oh, say, the fishin’ and moose and deer come right down to the shore in places to drink. See ’em as plain as that stump across the lake.”

And Clyde remembered that, along with the others, he had carried away the impression that for solitude and charm—or at least mystery—this region could scarcely be matched. And to think it was all so comparatively near Lycurgus—not more than a hundred miles by road; not more than seventy by rail, as he eventually came to know.

But now once more in Lycurgus and back in his room after just explaining to Roberta, as he had, he once more encountered on his writing desk, the identical paper containing the item concerning the tragedy at Pass Lake. And in spite of himself, his eye once more followed nervously and yet unwaveringly to the last word all the suggestive and provocative details. The uncomplicated and apparently easy way in which the lost couple had first arrived at the boathouse; the commonplace and entirely unsuspicious way in which they had hired a boat and set forth for a row; the manner in which they had disappeared to the north end; and then the upturned boat, the floating oars and hats near the shore. He stood reading in the still strong evening light. Outside the windows were the dark boughs of the fir tree of which he had thought the preceding day and which now suggested all those firs and pines about the shores of Big Bittern.

But, good God! What was he thinking of anyhow? He, Clyde Griffiths! The nephew of Samuel Griffiths! What was “getting into” him? Murder! That’s what it was. This terrible item—this devil’s accident or machination that was constantly putting it before him! A most horrible crime, and one for which they electrocuted people if they were caught. Besides, he could not murder anybody—not Roberta, anyhow. Oh, no! Surely not after all that had been between them. And yet—this other world!—Sondra—which he was certain to lose now unless he acted in some way—

His hands shook, his eyelids twitched—then his hair at the roots tingled and over his body ran chill nervous titillations in waves. Murder! Or upsetting a boat at any rate in deep water, which of course might happen anywhere, and by accident, as at Pass Lake. And Roberta could not swim. He knew that. But she might save herself at that—scream—cling to the boat—and then—if there were any to hear—and she told afterwards! An icy perspiration now sprang to his forehead; his lips trembled and suddenly his throat felt parched and dry. To prevent a thing like that he would have to—to—but no—he was not like that. He could not do a thing like that—hit any one—a girl—Roberta—and when drowning or struggling. Oh, no, no—no such thing as that! Impossible.

He took his straw hat and went out, almost before any one heard him think, as he would have phrased it to himself, such horrible, terrible thoughts. He could not and would not think them from now on. He was no such person. And yet—and yet—these thoughts. The solution—if he wanted one. The way to stay here—not leave—marry Sondra—be rid of Roberta and all—all—for the price of a little courage or daring. But no!

He walked and walked—away from Lycurgus—out on a road to the southeast which passed through a poor and decidedly unfrequented rural section, and so left him alone to think—or, as he felt, not to be heard in his thinking.

Day was fading into dark. Lamps were beginning to glow in the cottages here and there. Trees in groups in fields or along the road were beginning to blur or smokily blend. And although it was warm—the air lifeless and lethargic—he walked fast, thinking, and perspiring as he did so, as though he were seeking to outwalk and outthink or divert some inner self that preferred to be still and think.

That gloomy, lonely lake up there!

That island to the south!

Who would see?

Who could hear?

That station at Gun Lodge with a bus running to it at this season of the year. (Ah, he remembered that, did he? The deuce!) A terrible thing, to remember a thing like that in connection with such a thought as this! But if he were going to think of such a thing as this at all, he had better think well—he could tell himself that—or stop thinking about it now—once and forever—forever. But Sondra! Roberta! If ever he were caught—electrocuted! And yet the actual misery of his present state. The difficulty! The danger of losing Sondra. And yet, murder—

He wiped his hot and wet face, and paused and gazed at a group of trees across a field which somehow reminded him of the trees of… well… he didn’t like this road. It was getting too dark out here. He had better turn and go back. But that road at the south and leading to Three Mile Bay and Greys Lake—if one chose to go that way—to Sharon and the Cranston Lodge—whither he would be going afterwards if he did go that way. God! Big Bittern—the trees along there after dark would be like that—blurred and gloomy. It would have to be toward evening, of course. No one would think of trying to… well… in the morning, when there was so much light. Only a fool would do that. But at night, toward dusk, as it was now, or a little later. But, damn it, he would not listen to such thoughts. Yet no one would be likely to see him or Roberta either—would they—there? It would be so easy to go to a place like Big Bittern—for an alleged wedding trip—would it not—over the Fourth, say—or after the fourth or fifth, when there would be fewer people. And to register as some one else—not himself—so that he could never be traced that way. And then, again, it would be so easy to get back to Sharon and the Cranstons’ by midnight, or the morning of the next day, maybe, and then, once there he could pretend also that he had come north on that early morning train that arrived about ten o’clock. And then…

Confound it—why should his mind keep dwelling on this idea? Was he actually planning to do a thing like this? But he was not! He could not be! He, Clyde Griffiths, could not be serious about a thing like this. That was not possible. He could not be. Of course! It was all too impossible, too wicked, to imagine that he, Clyde Griffiths, could bring himself to execute a deed like that. And yet…

And forthwith an uncanny feeling of wretchedness and insufficiency for so dark a crime insisted on thrusting itself forward. He decided to retrace his steps toward Lycurgus, where at least he could be among people.