The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter X. That's Mutiny
Exactly what occurred during Elsa Lee's visit to her brother-in-law's cabin I have never learned. He was sober, I know, and somewhat dazed, with no recollection whatever of the previous night, except a hazy idea that he had quarreled with Richardson.
Jones and I waited outside. He suggested that we have prayers over the bodies when we placed them in the boat, and I agreed to read the burial service from the Episcopal Prayer Book. The voices from Turner's cabin came steadily, Miss Lee's low tones, Turner's heavy bass only now and then. Once I heard her give a startled exclamation, and both Jones and I leaped to the door. But the next moment she was talking again quietly.
Ten minutes - fifteen - passed. I grew restless and took to wandering about the cabin. Mrs. Johns came to the door opposite, and asked to have tea sent down to the stewardess. I called the request up the companionway, unwilling to leave the cabin for a moment. When I came back, Jones was standing at the door of Vail's cabin, looking in. His face was pale.
"Look there!" he said hoarsely. "Look at the bell. He must have tried to push the button!"
I stared in. Williams had put the cabin to rights, as nearly as he could. The soaked mattress was gone, and a clean linen sheet was spread over the bunk. Poor Vail's clothing, as he had taken it off the night before, hung on a mahogany stand beside the bed, and above, almost concealed by his coat, was the bell. Jones's eyes were fixed on the darkish smear, over and around the bell, on the white paint.
I measured the height of the bell from the bed. It was well above, and to one side - a smear rather than a print, too indeterminate to be of any value, sinister, cruel.
"He did n't do that, Charlie," I said. "He couldn't have got up to it after - That is the murderer's mark. He leaned there, one hand against the wall, to look down at his work.
And, without knowing it, he pressed the button that roused the two women."
He had not heard the story of Henrietta Sloane, and, as we waited, I told him. Some of the tension was relaxing. He tried, in his argumentative German way, to drag me into a discussion as to the foreordination of a death that resulted from an accidental ringing of a bell. But my ears were alert for the voices near by, and soon Miss Lee opened the door.
Turner was sitting on his bunk. He had made an attempt to shave, and had cut his chin severely. He was in a dressing-gown, and was holding a handkerchief to his face; he peered at me over it with red-rimmed eyes.
"This - this is horrible, Leslie," he said. "I can hardly believe it."
"It is true, Mr: Turner."
He took the handkerchief away and looked to see if the bleeding had stopped. I believe he intended to impress us both with his coolness, but it was an unfortunate attempt. His lips, relieved of the pressure, were twitching; his nerveless fingers could hardly refold the handkerchief.
"Wh-why was I not - called at once?" he demanded.
"I notified you. You were - you must have gone to sleep again."
"I don't believe you called me. You're - lying, are n't you?" He got up, steadying himself by the wall, and swaying dizzily to the motion of the ship. "You shut me off down here, and then run things your own damned way." He turned on Miss Lee. "Where's Helen?"
"In her room, Marsh. She has one of her headaches. Please don't disturb her."
"Where's Williams?" He turned to me.
"I can get him for you."
"Tell him to bring me a highball. My mouth's sticky." He ran his tongue over his dry lips. "And - take a message from me to Richardson -" He stopped, startled. Indeed, Miss Lee and I had both started. "To who's running the boat, anyhow? Singleton?"
"Mr. Singleton is a prisoner in the forward house," I said gravely.
The effect of this was astonishing. He stared at us both, and, finding corroboration in Miss Lee's face, his own took on an instant expression of relief. He dropped to the side of the bed, and his color came slowly back. He even smiled - a crafty grin that was inexpressibly horrible.
"Singleton!" he said. "Why do they - how do they know it was he?"
"He had quarreled with the captain last night, and he was on duty at the time of the when the thing happened. The man at the wheel claims to have seen him in the chartroom just before, and there was other evidence, I believe. The lookout saw him forward, with something - possibly the axe. Not decisive, of course, but enough to justify putting him in irons. Somebody did it, and the murderer is on board, Mr. Turner."
His grin had faded, but the crafty look in his pale-blue eyes remained.
"The chart-room was dark. How could the steersman -" He checked himself abruptly, and looked at us both quickly. "Where are - they?" he asked in a different tone.
"We can't keep them in this weather."
"We must," I said. "We will have to get to the nearest port as quickly as we can, and surrender ourselves and the bodies. This thing will have to be sifted to the bottom, Mr. Turner. The innocent must not suffer for the guilty, and every one on the ship is under suspicion."
He fell into a passion at that, insisting that the bodies be buried at once, asserting his ownership of the vessel as his authority, demanding to know what I, a forecastle hand, had to say about it, flinging up and down the small room, showering me with invective and threats, and shoving Miss Lee aside when she laid a calming hand on his arm. The cut on his chin was bleeding again, adding to his wild and sinister expression. He ended by demanding Williams.
I opened the door and called to Charlie Jones to send the butler, and stood by, waiting for the fresh explosion that was coming. Williams shakily confessed that there was no whiskey on board.
"Where is it?" Turner thundered.
Williams looked at me. He was in a state of inarticulate fright.
"I ordered it overboard," I said.
Turner whirled on me, incredulity and rage in his face.
I put the best face I could on the matter, and eyed him steadily. "There has been too much drinking on this ship," I said. "If you doubt it, go up and look at the three bodies on the deck."
"What have you to do about it?" His eyes were narrowed; there was menace in every line of his face.
"With Schwartz gone, Captain Richardson dead, and Singleton in irons, the crew had no officers. They asked me to take charge."
"So! And you used your authority to meddle with what does not concern you The ship has an officer while I am on it. And there will be no mutiny."
He flung into the main cabin, and made for the forward companionway. I stepped back to allow Miss Lee to precede me. She was standing, her back to the dressing-stand, facing the door. She looked at me and made a helpless gesture with her hands, as if the situation were beyond her. Then I saw her look down. She took a quick step or two toward the door, and, stooping picked up some small object from almost under my foot. The incident would have passed without notice, had she not, in attempting to wrap it in her handkerchief, dropped it. I saw then that it was a key.
"Let me get it for you" I said. To my amazement, she put her foot over it.
"please see what Mr: Turner is doing," she said. "It is the key to my jewel-case."
"Will you let me see it?"
"It is not the key to a jewel-case."
"It does not concern you what it is."
"It is the key to the storeroom door"
"You are stronger than I am. You look the brute. You can knock me away and get it."
I knew then, of course, that it was the storeroom key. But I could not take it by force. And so defiantly she faced me, so valiant was every line of her slight figure, that I was ashamed of my impulse to push her aside and take it. I loved her with every inch of my overgrown body, and I did the thing she knew I would do. I bowed and left the cabin. But I had no intention of losing the key. I could not take it by force, but she knew as well as I did what finding it there in Turner's room meant. Turner had locked me in. But I must be able to prove it - my wits against hers, and the advantage mine. I had the women under guard.
I went up on deck.
A curious spectacle revealed itself. Turner, purple with anger, was haranguing the men, who stood amidships, huddled together, but grim and determined withal. Burns, a little apart from the rest, was standing, sullen, his arms folded. As Turner ceased, he took a step forward.
"You are right, Mr. Turner," he said. "It's your ship, and it's up to you to say where she goes and how she goes, sir. But some one will hang for this, Mr. Turner, - some one that's on this deck now; and the bodies are going back with us - likewise the axe. There ain't going to be a mistake - the right man is going to swing."
"Yes, sir," Burns acknowledged, his face paling a little. "I guess you could call it that."
Turner swung on his heel and went below, where Jones, relieved of guard duty by Burns, reported him locked in his room, refusing admission to his wife and Miss Lee, both of whom had knocked on the door.
The trouble with Turner added to the general misery of the situation. Burns got our position at noon with more or less exactness, and the general working of the Ella went on well enough. But the situation was indescribable. Men started if a penknife dropped, and swore if a sail flapped. The call of the boatswain's pipe rasped their ears, and the preparation for stowing the bodies in the jolly-boat left them unnerved and sick. Some sort of a meal was cooked, but no one could eat; Williams brought up, untasted, the luncheon he had carried down to the after house.
At two o'clock all hands gathered amidships, and the bodies were carried forward to where the boat, lowered in its davits and braced, lay on the deck. It had been lined with canvas and tarpaulin, and a cover of similar material lay ready to be nailed in place. All the men were bareheaded. Many were in tears. Miss Lee came forward with us, and it was from her prayer-book that I, too moved for self-consciousness, read the burial-service.
"I am the resurrection and the life," I read huskily.
The figures at my feet, in their canvas shrouds, rolled gently with the rocking of the ship; the sun beat down on the decks, on the bare heads of the men, on the gilt edges of the prayer-book, gleaming in the light, on the last of the land-birds, drooping in the heat on the main cross.-trees.
". . . For man walketh in a vain shadow," I read, "and disquieteth himself in vain . . . .
"O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence, and be no more seen."