The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview

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11. The Dead Line

 

Mrs. Johns and the stewardess came up late in the afternoon. We had railed off a part of the deck around the forward companionway for them, and none of the crew except the man on guard was allowed inside the ropes. After a consultation, finding the ship very short-handed, and unwilling with the night coming on to trust any of the men, Burns and I decided to take over this duty ourselves, and; by stationing ourselves at the top of the companionway, to combine the duties of officer on watch and guard of the after house. To make the women doubly secure, we had Oleson nail all the windows closed, although they were merely portholes. Jones was no longer on guard below, and I had exchanged Singleton's worthless revolver for my own serviceable one.

Mrs. Johns, carefully dressed, surveyed the railed-off deck with raised eyebrows.

"For - us?" she asked, looking at me. The men were gathered about the wheel aft, and were out of ear-shot. Mrs. Sloane had dropped into a steamer-chair, and was lying back with closed eyes.

"Yes, Mrs. Johns."

"Where have you put them?"

I pointed to where the jolly-boat, on the port side of the ship, swung on its davits.

"And the mate, Mr. Singleton?"

"He is in the forward house."

"What did you do with the - the weapon?"

"Why do you ask that?"

"Morbid curiosity," she said, with a lightness of tone that rang false to my ears. "And then - naturally, I should like to be sure that it is safely overboard, so it will not be" - she shivered - " used again."

"It is not overboard, Mrs. Johns," I said gravely. "It is locked in a safe place, where it will remain until the police come to take it."

"You are rather theatrical, aren't you?" she scoffed, and turned away. But a second later she came back to me, and put her hand on my arm. "Tell me where it is," she begged. "You are making a mystery of it, and I detest mysteries."

I saw under her mask of lightness then: she wanted desperately to know where the axe was. Her eyes fell, under my gaze.

"I am sorry. There is no mystery. It is simply locked away for safe-keeping."

She bit her lip.

"Do you know what I think?" she said slowly. "I think you have hypnotized the crew, as you did me - at first. Why has no one remembered that you were in the after house last night, that you found poor Wilmer Vail, that you raised the alarm, that you discovered the captain and Karen? Why should I not call the men here and remind them of all that?"

"I do not believe you will. They know I was locked in the storeroom. The door - the lock -"

"You could have locked yourself in."

"You do not know what you are saying!"

But I had angered her, and she went on cruelly: -

"Who are you, anyhow? You are not a sailor. You came here and were taken on because you told a hard-luck story. How do we know that you came from a hospital? Men just out of prison look as you did. Do you know what we called you, the first two days out? We called you Elsa's jail-bird And now, because you have dominated the crew, we are in your hands!"

"Do Mrs. Turner and Miss Lee think that?"

"They feel as I do. This is a picked crew men the Turner line has employed for years."

"You are very brave, Mrs. Johns," I said. "If I were what you think I am, I would be a dangerous enemy."

"I am not afraid of you."

I thought fast. She was right. It had not occurred to me before, but it swept over me overwhelmingly.

"You are leaving me only one thing to do," I said. "I shall surrender myself to the men at once." I took out my revolver and held it out to her. "This rope is a dead- line. The crew know, and you will have no trouble; but you must stand guard here until some one else is sent."

She took the revolver without a word, and, somewhat dazed by this new turn of events, I went aft. The men were gathered there, and I surrendered myself. They listened in silence while I told them the situation. Burns, who had been trying to sleep, sat up and stared at me incredulously.

"It will leave you pretty short-handed, boys," I finished, "but you'd better fasten me up somewhere. But I want to be sure of one thing first: whatever happens, keep the guard for the women."

"We'd like to talk it over, Leslie," Burns said, after a word with the others.

I went forward a few feet, taking care to remain where they could see me, and very soon they called me. There had been a dispute, I believe. Adams and McNamara stood off from the others, their faces not unfriendly, but clearly differing from the decision. Charlie Jones, who, by reason of long service and a sort of pious control he had in the forecastle, was generally spokesman for the crew, took a step or two toward me.

"We'll not do it, boy," he said. "We think we know a man when we see one, as well as having occasion to know that you're white all through. And we're not inclined to set the talk of women against what we think best to do. So you stick to your job, and we're back of you."

In spite of myself, I choked up. I tried to tell them what their loyalty meant to me; but I could only hold out my hand, and, one by one, they came up and shook it solemnly.

"We think," McNamara said, when, last of all, he and Adams came up, "that it would be best, lad, if we put down in the log-book all that has happened last night and to-day, and this just now, too. It's fresh in our minds now, and it will be something to go by."

So Burns and I got the log-book from the captain's cabin. The axe was there, where we had placed it earlier in the day, lying on the white cover of the bed. The room was untouched, as the dead man had left it - a collar on the stand, brushes put down hastily, a half-smoked cigar which had burned a long scar on, the wood before it had gone out. We went out silently, Burns carrying the book, I locking the door behind us.

Mrs. Johns, sitting near the companionway with the revolver on her knee, looked up and eyed me coolly.

"So they would not do it!"

"I am sorry to disappoint you - they would not."

She held up my revolver to me, and smiled cynically.

"Remember," she said, "I only said you were a possibility."

"Thank you; I shall remember."

By unanimous consent, the task of putting down what had happened was given to me. I have a copy of the log-book before me now, the one that was used at the trial. The men read it through before they signed it.

August thirteenth.

This morning, between two-thirty and three o'clock, three murders were committed on the yacht Ella. At the request of Mrs. Johns, one of the party on board, I had moved to the after house to sleep, putting my blanket and pillow in the storeroom and sleeping on the floor there. Mrs. Johns gave, as her reason, a fear of something going wrong, as there was trouble between Mr. Turner and the captain. I slept with a revolver beside me and with the door of the storeroom open.

At some time shortly before three o'clock I wakened with a feeling of suffocation, and found that the door was closed and locked on the outside. I suspected a joke among the crew, and set to work with my pen-knife to unscrew the lock. When I had two screws out, a woman screamed, and I broke down the door.

As the main cabin was dark, I saw no one and could not tell where the cry came from. I ran into Mr. Vail's cabin, next the storeroom, and called him. His door was standing open. I heard him breathing heavily. Then the breathing stopped. I struck a match, and found him dead. His head had been crushed in with an axe, the left hand cut off, and there were gashes on the right shoulder and the abdomen.

I knew the helmsman would be at the wheel, and ran up the after companionway to him and told him. Then I ran forward and called the first mate, Mr. Singleton, who was on duty. He had been drinking. I asked him to call the captain, but he did not. He got his revolver, and we hurried down the forward companion. The body of the captain was lying at the foot of the steps, his head on the lowest stair. He had been killed like Mr. Vail. His cap had been placed over his face.

The mate collapsed on the steps. I found the light switch and turned it on. There was no one in the cabin or in the chart-room. I ran to Mr. Turner's room, going through Mr. Vail's and through the bathroom. Mr. Turner was in bed, fully dressed. I could not rouse him. Like the mate, he had been drinking.

The mate had roused the crew, and they gathered in the chart-room. I told them what had happened, and that the murderer must be among us. I suggested that they stay together, and that they submit to being searched for weapons.

They went on deck in a body, and I roused the women and told them. Mrs. Turner asked me to tell the two maids, who slept in a cabin off the chartroom. I found their door unlocked, and, receiving no answer, opened it. Karen Hansen, the lady's-maid, was on the floor, dead, with her skull crushed in. The stewardess, Henrietta Sloane, was fainting in her bunk. An axe had been hurled through the doorway as the Hansen woman fell, and was found in the stewardess's bunk.

Dawn coming by that time, I suggested a guard at the two companionways, and this was done. The men were searched and all weapons taken from them. Mr. Singleton was under suspicion, it being known that he had threatened the captain's life, and Oleson, a lookout, claiming to have seen him forward where the axe was kept.

The crew insisted that Singleton be put in irons. He made no objection, and we locked him in his own room in the forward house. Owing to the loss of Schwartz, the second mate, already recorded in this log-book (see entry for August ninth), the death of the captain, and the imprisonment of the first mate, the ship was left without officers. Until Mr. Turner could make an arrangement, the crew nominated Burns, one of themselves, as mate, and asked me to assume command. I protested that I knew nothing of navigation, but agreed on its being represented that, as I was not one of them, there could be i11 feeling.

The ship was searched, on the possibility of finding a stowaway in the hold. But nothing was found. I divided the men into two watches, Burns taking one and I the other. We nailed up the after companionway, and forbade any member of the crew to enter the after house. The forecastle was also locked, the men bringing their belongings on deck. The stewardess recovered and told her story, which, in her own writing, will be added to this record.

The bodies of the dead were brought on deck and sewed into canvas, and later, with appropriate services, placed in the jolly-boat, it being the intention, later on, to tow the boat behind us. Mr. Turner insisted that the bodies be buried at sea, and, on the crew opposing this, retired to his cabin, announcing that he considered the position of the men a mutiny.

Some feeling having arisen among the women of the party that I might know more of the crimes than was generally supposed, having been in the after house at the time they were committed, and having no references, I this afternoon voluntarily surrendered myself to Burns, acting first mate. The men, however, refused to accept this surrender, only two, Adams and McNamara, favoring it. I expect to give myself up to the police at the nearest port, until the matter is thoroughly probed.

The axe is locked in the captain's cabin.

(Signed) RALPH LESLIE.

John Robert Burns

Charles Klineordlinger (Jones)

William McNamara

Witnesses Carl L. Clarke

Joseph Q. Adams

John Oleson

Tom MacKenzie

Obadiah Williams