The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart - HTML preview
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6. In The After House
The match burnt out, and I dropped it. I remember mechanically extinguishing the glowing end with my heel, and then straightening to such a sense of horror as I have never felt before or since. I groped for the door; I wanted air, space, the freedom from lurking death of the open deck.
I had been sleeping with my revolver beside me on the pantry floor. Somehow or other I got back there and found it. I made an attempt to find the switch for the cabin lights, and, failing, revolver in hand, I ran into the chart-room and up the after companionway. Charlie Jones was at the wheel, and by the light of a lantern I saw that he was bending to the right, peering in at the chartroom window. He turned when he heard me.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "I heard a yell a minute ago. Turner on the rampage?" He saw my revolver then, and, letting go the wheel, threw up both his hands. "Turn that gun away, you fool!"
I could hardly speak. I lowered the revolver and gasped: "Call the captain! Vail's been murdered!
"Good God!" he said. "Who did it?" He had taken the wheel again, and was bringing the ship back to her course. I was turning sick and dizzy, and I clutched at the railing of the companionway.
"I don't know. Where's the captain?"
"The mate's around." He raised his voice. "Mr. Singleton!" he called.
There was no time to lose, I felt. My nausea had left me. I ran forward to where I could dimly see Singleton looking in my direction.
"Singleton! Quick!" I called. "Bring your revolver."
He stopped and peered in my direction.
"Who is it?"
"Leslie. Come below, for God's sake!"
He came slowly toward me, and in a dozen words I told him what had happened. I saw then that he had been drinking. He reeled against me, and seemed at a loss to know what to do.
"Get your revolver," I said, "and wake the captain."
He disappeared into the forward house, to come back a moment later with a revolver. I had got a lantern in the mean time, and ran to the forward companionway which led into the main cabin. Singleton followed me.
"Where's the captain?" I asked.
"I didn't call him," Singleton replied, and muttered something unintelligible under his breath.
Swinging the lantern ahead of me, I led the way down the companionway. Something lay huddled at the foot. I had to step over it to get down. Singleton stood above, on the steps. I stooped and held the lantern close, and we both saw that it was the captain, killed as Vail had been. He was fully dressed except for his coat, and as he lay on his back, his cap had been placed over his mutilated face.
I thought I heard something moving behind me in the cabin, and wheeled sharply, holding my revolver leveled. The idea had come to me that the crew had mutinied, and that every one in the after house had been killed. The idea made me frantic; I thought of the women, of Elsa Lee, and I was ready to kill.
"Where is the light switch?" I demanded of Singleton, who was still on the companion steps, swaying.
"I don't know," he said, and collapsed, sitting huddled just above the captain's body, with his face in his hands.
I saw I need not look to him for help, and I succeeded in turning on the light in the swinging lamp in the center of the cabin. There was no sign of any struggle, and the cabin was empty. I went back to the captain's body, and threw a rug over it. Then I reached over and shook Singleton by the arm.
"Do something!" I raved. "Call the crew. Get somebody here, you drunken fool!" He rose and staggered up the companionway, and I ran to Miss Lee's door. It was closed and locked, as were all the others except Vail's and the one I had broken open. I reached Mr. Turner's door last. It was locked, and I got no response to my knock. I remembered that his room and Vail's connected through a bath, and, still holding my revolver leveled, I ran into Vail's room again, this time turning on the light.
A night light was burning in the bath-room, and the door beyond was unlocked. I flung it open and stepped in. Turner was lying on his bed, fully dressed, and at first I thought he too had been murdered. But he was in a drunken stupor. He sat up, dazed, when I shook him by the arm.
"Mr. Turner!" I cried. "Try to rouse yourself, man! The captain has been murdered, and Mr. Vail!"
He made an effort to sit up, swayed, and fell back again. His face was swollen and purplish, his eyes congested. He made an effort to speak, but failed to be intelligible. I had no time to waste. Somewhere on the Ella the murderer was loose. He must be found.
I flung out of Turner's cabin as the crew, gathered from the forecastle and from the decks, crowded down the forward companionway. I ran my eye over them. Every man was there, Singleton below by the captain's body, the crew, silent and horror-struck, grouped on the steps: Clarke, McNamara, Burns, Oleson, and Adams. Behind the crew, Charlie Jones had left the wheel and stood peering down, until sharply ordered back. Williams, with a bandage on his head, and Tom, the mulatto cook, were in the group.
I stood, revolver in hand, staring at the men. Among them, I felt sure, was the murderer. But which one? All were equally pale, equally terrified.
"Boys," I said, "Mr. Vail and your captain have been murdered. The murderer must be on the ship - one of ourselves." There was a murmur at that. "Mr. Singleton, I suggest that these men stay together in a body, and that no one be allowed to go below until all have been searched and all weapons taken from them."
Singleton had dropped into a chair, and sat with his face buried in his hands, his back to the captain's body. He looked up without moving, and his face was gray.
"All right," he said. "Do as you like. I'm sick."
He looked sick. Burns, who had taken Schwartz's place as second mate, left the group and came toward me.
"We'd better waken the women," he said. "If you'll tell them, Leslie, I'll take the crew on deck and keep them there."
Singleton seemed dazed, and when Burns spoke of taking the men on deck, he got up dizzily.
"I'm going too," he muttered. "I'll go crazy if I stay down here with that."
The rug had been drawn back to show the crew what had happened. I drew it reverently over the body again.
After the men had gone, I knocked at Mrs. Turner's door. It was some time before she roused; when she answered, her voice was startled.
"What is it?"
"It's Leslie, Mrs. Turner. Will you come to the door?"
"In a moment."
She threw on a dressing-gown, and opened the door.
"What is wrong?"
I told her, as gently as I could. I thought she would faint; but she pulled herself together and looked past me into the cabin.
"That is -?"
"The captain, Mrs. Turner."
"And Mr. Vail?"
"In his cabin."
"Where is Mr. Turner?"
"In his cabin, asleep."
She looked at me strangely, and, leaving the door, went into her sister's room, next. I heard Miss Lee's low cry of horror, and almost immediately the two women came to the doorway.
"Have you seen Mr. Turner?" Miss Lee demanded.
"Has Mrs. Johns been told?"
She went herself to Mrs. Johns's cabin, and knocked. She got an immediate answer, and Mrs. Johns, partly dressed, opened the door.
"What's the matter?" she demanded. "The whole crew is tramping outside my windows. I hope we haven't struck an iceberg."
"Adele, don't faint, please. Something awful has happened."
"Turner! He has killed some one finally!"
"Hush, for Heaven's sake! Wilmer has been murdered, Adele - and the captain."
Mrs. Johns had less control than the other women. She stood for an instant, with a sort of horrible grin on her face. Then she went down on the floor, full length, with a crash. Elsa Lee knelt beside her and slid a pillow under her head.
"Call the maids, Leslie," she said quietly. "Karen has something for this sort of thing. Tell her to bring it quickly."
I went the length of the cabin and into the chartroom. The maids' room was here, on the port-side, and thus aft of Mrs. Turner's and Miss Lee's rooms. It had one door only, and two small barred windows, one above each of the two bunks.
I turned on the chart-room lights. At the top of the after companionway the crew had been assembled, and Burns was haranguing them. I knocked at the maids' door, and, finding it unlocked, opened it an inch or so.
"Karen!" I called - and, receiving no answer: "Mrs. Sloane!" (the stewardess).
I opened the door wide and glanced in. Karen Hansen, the maid, was on the floor, dead. The stewardess, in collapse from terror, was in her bunk, uninjured.