An American Tragedy Chapter 6

In interim the mental state of Clyde since that hour when, the water closing over Roberta, he had made his way to the shore, and then, after changing his clothes, had subsequently arrived at Sharon and the lakeside lodge of the Cranstons, was almost one of complete mental derangement, mainly caused by fear and confusion in his own mind as to whether he did or did not bring about her untimely end. At the same time at the lakeside the realization that if by any chance he were then and there found, skulking south rather than returning north to the inn at Big Bittern to report this seeming accident, there would be sufficient hardness and cruelty to the look of it all to convince any one that a charge of murder should be made against him, had fiercely tortured him. For, as he now saw it, he really was not guilty—was he, since at the last moment he had experienced that change of heart?

But who was going to believe that now, since he did not go back to explain? And it would never do to go back now! For if Sondra should hear that he had been on this lake with this factory girl—that he had registered with her as husband and wife… God!

And then trying to explain to his uncle afterwards, or his cold, hard cousin—or all those smart, cynical Lycurgus people! No! No! Having gone so far he must go on. Disaster—if not death—lay in the opposite direction. He would have to make the best of this terrible situation—make the best of this plan that had ended so strangely and somewhat exculpatorily for him.

And yet these woods! This approaching night. The eerie loneliness and danger of it all now. How now to do, what to say, if met by any one. He was so confused—mentally and nervously sick. The crackle of a twig and he leaped forward as a hare.

And in this state it was that, after having recovered his bag and changed his clothes, wringing out his wet suit and attempting to dry it, then packing it in his bag under some dry twigs and pine-needles and burying the tripod beneath a rotting log, that he plunged into the woods after night had fallen. Yet meditating more and more on his very strange and perilous position. For supposing, just as he had unintentionally struck at her, and they had fallen into the water and she uttered those piercing and appealing cries, there had been some one on the shore—some one watching—one of those strong, hardy men whom he had seen loitering about during the day and who might even at this moment be sounding a local alarm that would bring a score of such men to the work of hunting for him this very night! A man hunt! And they would take him back and no one would ever believe that he had not intentionally struck her! They might even lynch him before he could so much as secure a fair trial. It was possible. It had been done. A rope around his neck. Or shot down in these woods, maybe. And without an opportunity to explain how it had all come about—how harried and tortured he had been by her for so long. They would never understand that.

And so thinking he hurried faster and faster—as fast as strong and serried and brambly young firs and dead branches that cracked most ominously at times would permit, thinking always as he went that the road to Three Mile Bay must be to his right hand, the moon to his left when it should rise.

But, God, what was that?

Oh, that terrible sound!

Like a whimpering, screeching spirit in this dark!


What was it?

He dropped his bag and in a cold sweat sunk down, crouching behind a tall, thick tree, rigid and motionless with fear.

That sound!

But only a screech-owl! He had heard it several weeks before at the Cranston lodge. But here! In this wood! This dark! He must be getting on and out of here. There was no doubt of that. He must not be thinking such horrible, fearful thoughts, or he would not be able to keep up his strength or courage at all.

But that look in the eyes of Roberta! That last appealing look! God! He could not keep from seeing it! Her mournful, terrible screams! Could he not cease from hearing them—until he got out of here anyhow?

Had she understood, when he struck her, that it was not intentional—a mere gesture of anger and protest? Did she know that now, wherever she was—in the bottom of the lake—or here in the dark of these woods beside him, mayhap? Ghosts! Hers. But he must get out of this—out of this! He must—and yet the safety of these woods, too. He must not be too brash in stepping out into any road, either. Pedestrians! People in search of him, maybe! But did people really live after death? Were there ghosts? And did they know the truth? Then she must know—but how he plotted before that, too. And what would she think of that! And was she here now reproachfully and gloomily pursuing him with mistaken accusations, as true as it might be that he had intended to kill her at first? He had! He had! And that was the great sin, of course. Even though he had not killed her, yet something had done it for him! That was true.

But ghosts—God—spirits that might pursue you after they were dead, seeking to expose and punish you—seeking to set people on your track, maybe! Who could tell? His mother had confessed to him and Frank and Esta and Julia that she believed in ghosts.

And then at last the moon, after three such hours of stumbling, listening, waiting, perspiring, trembling. No one in sight now, thank God! And the stars overhead—bright and yet soft, as at Pine Point where Sondra was. If she could see him now, slipping away from Roberta dead in that lake, his own hat upon the waters there! If she could have heard Roberta’s cries! How strange, that never, never, never would he be able to tell her that because of her, her beauty, his passion for her and all that she had come to mean to him, he had been able to… to… to… well, attempt this terrible thing—kill a girl whom once he had loved. And all his life he would have this with him, now,—this thought! He would never be able to shake it off—never, never, never. And he had not thought of that, before. It was a terrible thing in its way, just that, wasn’t it?

But then suddenly there in the dark, at about eleven o’clock, as he afterwards guessed, the water having stopped his watch, and after he had reached the highroad to the west—and walked a mile or two,—those three men, quick, like ghosts coming out of the shadow of the woods. He thought at first that having seen him at the moment he had struck Roberta or the moment afterward, they had now come to take him. The sweating horror of that moment! And that boy who had held up the light the better to see his face. And no doubt he had evinced most suspicious fear and perturbation, since at the moment he was most deeply brooding on all that had happened, terrorized really by the thought that somehow, in some way, he had left some clue that might lead directly to him. And he did jump back, feeling that these were men sent to seize him. But at that moment, the foremost, a tall, bony man, without appearing to be more than amused at his obvious cowardice, had called, “Howdy, stranger!” while the youngest, without appearing to be suspicious at all, had stepped forward and then turned up the light. And it was then that he had begun to understand that they were just countrymen or guides—not a posse in pursuit of him—and that if he were calm and civil they would have no least suspicion that he was the murderer that he was.

But afterward he had said to himself—“But they will remember me, walking along this lonely road at this hour with this bag, won’t they?” And so at once he had decided that he must hurry—hurry—and not be seen by any others anywhere there.

Then, hours later and just as the moon was lowering toward the west, a sickly yellow pallor overspreading the woods and making the night even more wretched and wearisome, he had come to Three Mile Bay itself—a small collection of native and summer cottages nestling at the northernmost end of what was known as the Indian Chain. And in it, as he could see from a bend in the road, a few pale lights still twinkling. Stores. Houses. Street lamps. But all dim in the pale light—so dim and eerie to him. One thing was plain—at this hour and dressed as he was and with his bag in hand, he could not enter there. That would be to fix curiosity as well as suspicion on him, assuredly, if any one was still about. And as the launch that ran between this place and Sharon, from whence he would proceed to Pine Point, did not leave until eight-thirty, he must hide away in the meantime and make himself as presentable as possible.

And accordingly re-entering a thicket of pines that descended to the very borders of the town, there to wait until morning, being able to tell by a small clock-face which showed upon the sides of a small church tower, when the hour for emerging had arrived. But, in the interim debating,—“Was it wise so to do?” For who might not be here to wait for him? Those three men—or some one else who might have seen?—Or an officer, notified from somewhere else. Yet deciding after a time that it was best to go just the same. For to stalk along in the woods west of this lake—and by night rather than day—seeing that by day he might be seen, and when by taking this boat he could reach in an hour and a half—or two hours at the most—the Cranston lodge at Sharon, whereas by walking he would not arrive until to-morrow,—was not that unwise, more dangerous? Besides, he had promised Sondra and Bertine that he would be there Tuesday. And here it was Friday! Again, by tomorrow, might not a hue and cry be on—his description sent here and there—whereas this morning—well, how could Roberta have been found as yet? No, no. Better this way. For who knew him here—or could identify him as yet with either Carl Graham or Clifford Golden. Best go this way,—speedily, before anything else in connection with her developed. Yes, yes. And finally, the clock-hands pointing to eight-ten, making his way out, his heart beating heavily as he did so.

At the foot of this street was the launch which steamed from here to Sharon. And as he loitered he observed the bus from Raquette Lake approaching. It now occurred to him, if he encountered any one he knew on the steamer dock or boat, could he not say that he was fresh from Raquette Lake, where Sondra, as well as Bertine, had many friends, or in case they themselves came down on the boat, that he had been there the day before. What matter whose name or lodge he mentioned—an invented one, if need be.

And so, at last, making his way to the boat and boarding it. And later at Sharon, leaving it again and without, as he thought, appearing to attract any particular attention at either end. For, although there were some eleven passengers, all strangers to him, still no one other than a young country girl in a blue dress and a white straw hat, whom he guessed to be from this vicinity, appeared to pay any particular attention to him. And her glances were admiring rather than otherwise, although sufficient, because of his keen desire for secrecy, to cause him to retire to the rear of the boat, whereas the others appeared to prefer the forward deck. And once in Sharon, knowing that the majority were making for the railway station to catch the first morning train down, he followed briskly in their wake, only to turn into the nearest lunch-room in order to break the trail, as he hoped. For although he had walked the long distance from Big Bittern to Three Mile Bay, and previously had rowed all afternoon, and merely made a pretense of eating the lunch which Roberta had prepared at Grass Lake, still even now he was not hungry. Then seeing a few passengers approaching from the station, yet none whom he knew, he joined these again as though just coming to the inn and launch from the train.

For at this time there had come to him the thought that this south train from Albany, as well as Utica being due here at this hour, it was only natural that he should seem to come on that. Pretending first, therefore, to be going to the station, yet stopping en route to telephone Bertine and Sondra that he was here, and being assured that a car rather than a launch would be sent for him, he explained that he would be waiting on the west veranda of the inn. En route also he stopped at a news stand for a morning paper, although he knew there could be nothing in it as yet. And he had barely crossed to the veranda of the inn and seated himself before the Cranston car approached.

And in response to the greeting of the Cranston family chauffeur, whom he knew well, and who smiled most welcomingly, he was now able to achieve a seemingly easy and genial smile, though still inwardly troubled by his great dread. For no doubt by now, as he persistently argued with himself, the three men whom he had met had reached Big Bittern. And by now both Roberta and he must assuredly have been missed, and maybe, who knows, the upturned boat with his hat and her veil discovered! If so, might they not have already reported that they had seen such a man as himself, carrying a bag, and making his way to the south in the night? And, if so, would not that, regardless of whether the body was found or not, cause them to become dubious as to whether a double drowning had occurred? And supposing by some strange chance her body should come to the surface? Then what? And might there not be a mark left by that hard blow he had given her? If so, would they not suspect murder, and his body not coming up and those men describing the man they had seen, would not Clifford Golden or Carl Graham be suspected of murder?

But neither Clifford Golden nor Carl Graham were Clyde Griffiths by any means. And they could not possibly identify Clyde Griffiths—with either Clifford Golden or Carl Graham. For had he not taken every precaution, even searching through Roberta’s bag and purse there at Grass Lake while at his request after breakfast she had gone back to see about the lunch? Had he not? True, he had found those two letters from that girl, Theresa Bouser, addressed to Roberta at Biltz, and he had destroyed them before ever leaving for Gun Lodge. And as for that toilet set in its original case, with the label “Whitely-Lycurgus” on it, while it was true that he had been compelled to leave that, still might not any one—Mrs. Clifford Golden, or Mrs. Carl Graham—have bought that in Whitely’s, and so without the possibility of its being traced to him? Assuredly. And as for her clothes, even assuming that they did go to prove her identity, would it not be assumed, by her parents as well as others, that she had gone on this trip with a strange man by the name of Golden or Graham, and would they not want that hushed up without further ado? At any rate, he would hope for the best—keep up his nerve, put on a strong, pleasant, cheerful front here, so that no one would think of him as the one, since he had not actually killed her, anyhow.

Here he was in this fine car. And Sondra, as well as Bertine, waiting for him. He would have to say that he was just up from Albany—had been on some errand over there for his uncle which had taken all of this time since Tuesday. And while he should be blissfully happy with Sondra, still here were all of those dreadful things of which now all of the time he would be compelled to think. The danger that in some inadvertent way he had not quite covered all the tracks that might lead to him. And if he had not! Exposure! Arrest! Perhaps a hasty and unjust conviction—punishment, even! Unless he was able to explain about that accidental blow. The end of all his dreams in connection with Sondra—Lycurgus—the great life that he had hoped for himself. But could he explain as to that? Could he? God!