The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview

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19. I Take The Stand

 

And now I come, with some hesitation, to the trial. Hesitation, because I relied on McWhirter to keep a record. And McWhirter, from his notes, appears to have been carried away at times by excitement, and either jotted down rows of unintelligible words, or waited until evening and made up his notes, like a woman's expense account, from a memory never noticeable for accuracy.

At dawn, the morning after we anchored, Charlie Jones roused me, grinning.

"Friend of yours over the rail, Leslie," he said. "Wants to take you ashore!"

I knew no one in Philadelphia except the chap who had taken me yachting once, and I felt pretty certain that he would not associate Leslie the football player with Leslie the sailor on the Ella. I went reluctantly to the rail, and looked down. Below me, just visible in the river mist of the early morning, was a small boat from which two men were looking up. One was McWhirter!

"Hello, old top," he cried. "Or is it you behind that beard? "

"It's I, all right, Mac," I said, somewhat huskily. What with seeing him again, his kindly face behind its glasses, the cheerful faith in me which was his contribution to our friendship, - even the way he shook his own hand in default of mine, - my throat tightened. Here, after all, was home and a friend.

He looked up at the rail, and motioned to a rope that hung there.

"Get your stuff and come with us for breakfast," he said. "You look as if you hadn't eaten since you left."

"I'm afraid I can't, Mac."

"They're not going to hold you, are they?"

"For a day or so, yes."

Mac's reply to this was a violent resume of the ancestry and present lost condition of the Philadelphia police, ending with a request that I jump over, and let them go to the place he had just designated as their abiding-place in eternity. On an officer lounging to the rail and looking down, however, he subsided into a low muttering.

The story of how McWhirter happened to be floating on the bosom of the Delaware River before five o'clock in the morning was a long one - it was months before I got it in full. Briefly, going home from the theater in New York the night before, he had bought an "extra" which had contained a brief account of the Ella's return. He seems to have gone into a frenzy of excitement at once. He borrowed a small car, - one scornfully designated as a "road louse," - and assembled in it, in wild confusion, one suit of clothes for me, his own and much too small, one hypodermic case, an armful of newspapers with red scare-heads, a bottle of brandy, a bottle of digitalis, one police card, and one excited young lawyer, of the same vintage in law that Mac and I were in medicine. At the last moment, fearful that the police might not know who I was, he had flung in a scrapbook in which he had pasted - with a glue that was to make his fortune - records of my exploits on the football field!

A dozen miles from Philadelphia the little machine had turned over on a curve, knocking all the law and most of the enthusiasm out of Walters, the legal gentleman, and smashing the brandy-bottle. McWhirter had picked himself up, kicked viciously at the car, and, gathering up his impedimenta, had made the rest of the journey by foot and street-car.

His wrath at finding me a prisoner was unbounded; his scorn at Walters, the attorney, for not confounding the police with law enough to free me, was furious and contemptuous. He picked up the oars in sullen silence, and, leaning on them, called a loud and defiant farewell for the benefit of the officer.

"All right," he said. "An hour or so won't make much difference. But you'll be free today, all right, all right. And don't let them bluff you, boy. If the police get funny, tackle them and throw 'em overboard, one by one. You can do it."

He made an insulting gesture at the police, picked up his oars, and rowed away into the mist.

But I was not free, that day, nor for many days. As I had expected, Turner, his family, Mrs. Johns, and the stewardess were released, after examination. The rest of us were taken to jail. Singleton as a suspect, the others to make sure of their presence at the trial.

The murders took place on the morning of August 12. The Grand jury met late in September, and found an indictment against Singleton. The trial began on the 16th of November.

The confinement was terrible. Accustomed to regular exercise as I was, I suffered mentally and physically. I heard nothing from Elsa Lee, and I missed McWhirter, who had got his hospital appointment, and who wrote me cheering letters on pages torn from order-books or on prescription-blanks. He was in Boston.

He got leave of absence for the trial, and, as I explained, the following notes are his, not mine. The case was tried in the United States Court, before Circuit Judge Willard and District judge McDowell. The United States was represented by a district attorney and two assistant attorneys. Singleton had retained a lawyer named Goldstein, a clever young Jew.

I was called first, as having found the bodies.

"Your name?"

"Ralph Leslie."

"Your age?"

"Twenty-four."

"When and where were you born?"

"November 18, 1887, in Columbus, Ohio."

"When did you ship on the yacht Ella?"

"On July 27."

"When did she sail?" "July 28."

"Are you a sailor by occupation?"

"No; I am a graduate of a medical college."

"What were your duties on the ship?"

"They were not well defined. I had been ill and was not strong. I was a sort of deck steward, I suppose. I also served a few meals in the cabin of the after house, when the butler was incapacitated."

"Where were you quartered?"

"In the forecastle, with the crew, until a day or so before the murders. Then I moved into the after house, and slept in a storeroom there."

"Why did you make the change?"

"Mrs. Johns, a guest, asked me to do so. She said she was nervous."

"Who slept in the after house?"

"Mr. and Mrs. Turner, Miss Lee, Mrs. Johns, and Mr. Vail. The stewardess, Mrs. Sloane, and Karen Hansen, a maid, also slept there; but their room opened from the chartroom."

A diagram of the after house was here submitted to the jury. For the benefit of the reader, I reproduce it roughly. I have made no attempt to do more than to indicate the relative positions of rooms and companionways.

Forward |_____|Compartment

___________________________|_____|_____________________________

\ bath  \                  |_____|                    /        /

\___ ___\                 |_____|                   /Turner's/

Mrs.\       \                                         /room_ __/

John's\                                               /____/   /

room  \       \             Main  Cabin             /    /   /

\___ ___\                                   /    /_ _/bath

Mrs.  \       \                                 / Vail's /room

Turner's \___    \                               /________/

room   \  \                                  /  ______/linen

\  \____\                           /__/store/

bath  \  \    \                         /__ room /

\  \    \                       /___/____/

\__\                          /general /

Miss    \       \                   /supplies/

Lee's  \       \                 /________/

room  \_______\______    _____/________/butler's

\_maid's\  Chart Room          / pantry

\\ room    used as library   /

bunk---\\ ___  \ and lounge____   /

\_\__\__\_________|____|_/

bunk    (wheel)|____|

 

"State what happened on the night of August ii and early morning of August i2."

"I slept in the storeroom in the after house. As it was very hot, I always left the door open. The storeroom itself was a small room, lined with shelves, and reached by a passageway. The door was at the end of the passage. I wakened because of the heat, and found the door locked on the outside. I lit a match, and found I could unscrew the lock with my knife. I thought I had been locked in as a joke by the crew. While I was kneeling, some one passed outside the door."

"How did you know that?"

"I felt a board rise under my knee as if the other end had been trod on. Shortly after, a woman screamed, and I burst open the door."

"How long after you felt the board rise?" "Perhaps a minute, possibly two."

"Go on."

"Just after, the ship's bell struck six - three o'clock. The main cabin was dark.

There was a light in the chart-room, from the binnacle light. I felt my way to Mr. Vail's room. I heard him breathing. His door was open. I struck a match and looked at him. He had stopped breathing."

"What was the state of his bunk?"

"Disordered -horrible. He was almost hacked to pieces."

"Go on."

"I ran back and got my revolver. I thought there had been a mutiny-"

"Confine yourself to what you saw and did. The court is not interested in what you thought."

"I am only trying to explain what I did. I ran back to the storeroom and got my revolver, and ran back through the chart-room to the after companion, which had a hood. I thought that if any one was lying in ambush, the hood would protect me until I could get to the deck. I told the helmsman what had happened, and ran forward. Mr. Singleton was on the forecastle-head. We went below together, and found the captain lying at the foot of the forward companion, also dead."

"At this time, had you called the owner of the ship?"

"No. I called him then. But I could not rouse him."

"Explain what you mean by that."

"He had been drinking."

There followed a furious wrangle over this point; but the prosecuting attorney succeeded in having question and answer stand.

"What did you do next?"

"The mate had called the crew. I wakened Mrs. Turner, Miss Lee, and Mrs. Johns, and then went to the chart-room to call the women there. The door was open an inch or so. I received no answer to my knock, and pulled it open. Karen Hansen, the maid, was dead on the floor, and the stewardess was in her bunk, in a state of collapse."

"State where you found the axe with which the crimes were committed."

"It was found in the stewardess's bunk."

"Where is this axe now?"

"It was stolen from the captain's cabin, where it was locked for safe keeping, and presumably thrown overboard. At least, we didn't find it."

"I see you are consulting a book to refresh your memory. What is this book?"

"The ship's log."

"How does it happen to be in your possession?"

"The crew appointed me captain. As such, I kept the log-book. It contains a full account of the discovery of the bodies, witnessed by all the men."

"Is it in your writing?"

"Yes; it is in my writing."

"You read it to the men, and they signed it?"

"No; they read it themselves before they signed it."

After a wrangle as to my having authority to make a record in the log-book, the prosecuting attorney succeeded in having the book admitted as evidence, and read to the jury the entry of August 13.

Having thus proved the crimes, I was excused, to be recalled later. The defense reserving its cross-examination, the doctor from the quarantine station was called next, and testified to the manner of death. His testimony was revolting, and bears in no way on the story, save in one particular - a curious uniformity in the mutilation of the bodies of Vail and Captain Richardson - a sinister similarity that was infinitely shocking. In each case the forehead, the two arms, and the abdomen had received a frightful blow. In the case of the Danish girl there was only one wound - the injury on the head.