The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XII. The First Mate Talks
Williams came up on deck late that afternoon, with a scared face, and announced that Mr. Turner had locked himself in his cabin, and was raving in delirium on the other side of the door. I sent Burns down having decided, in view of Mrs. Johns's accusation, to keep away from the living quarters of the family. Burns's report corroborated what Williams had said. Turner was in the grip of delirium tremens, and the Ella was without owner or officers.
Turner refused to open either door for us. As well as we could make out, he was moving rapidly but almost noiselessly up and down the room, muttering to himself, now and then throwing himself on the bed, only to get up at once. He rang his bell a dozen times, and summoned Williams, only, in reply to the butler's palpitating knock, to stand beyond the door and refuse to open it or to voice any request. The situation became so urgent that finally I was forced to go down, with no better success.
Mrs. Turner dragged herself across, on the state of affairs being reported to her, and, after two or three abortive attempts, succeeded in getting a reply from him.
"Marsh!" she called. "I want to talk to you. Let me in."
"They'll get us," he said craftily.
"Us? Who is with you?"
"Vail," he replied promptly. "He's here talking. He won't let me sleep."
"Tell him to give you the key and you will keep it for him so no one can get him," I prompted. I had had some experience with such cases in the hospital.
She tried it without any particular hope, but it succeeded immediately. He pushed the key out under the door, and almost at once we heard him throw himself on the bed, as if satisfied that the problem of his security was solved.
Mrs. Turner held the key out to me, but I would not take it.
"Give it to Williams," I said. "You must understand, Mrs. Turner, that I cannot take it.
She was a woman of few words, and after a glance at my determined face she turned to the butler.
"You will have to look after Mr. Turner, Williams. See that he is comfortable, and try to keep him in bed."
Williams put out a trembling hand, but, before he took the key, Turner's voice rose petulantly on the other side of the door.
"For God's sake, Wilmer," he cried plaintively, "get out and let me sleep I haven't slept for a month."
Williams gave a whoop of fear, and ran out of the cabin, crying that the ship was haunted and that Vail had come back. From that moment, I believe, the after house was the safest spot on the ship. To my knowledge, no member of the crew so much as passed it on the starboard side, where Vail's and Turner's cabins were situated. It was the one good turn the owner of the Ella did us on that hideous return journey; for, during most of the sixteen days that it took us to get back, he lay in his cabin, alternating the wild frenzy of delirium tremens with quieter moments when he glared at us with crafty, murderous eyes, and picked incessantly at the bandages that tied him down. Not an instant did he sleep, that we could discover; and always, day or night, Vail was with him, and they were quarreling. The four women took care of him as best they could. For a time they gave him the bromides I prepared, taking my medical knowledge without question. In the horror of the situation, curiosity had no place, and class distinctions were forgotten. That great leveler, a common trouble, put Henrietta Sloane, the stewardess, and the women of the party at the same table in the after house, where none ate, and placed the responsibility for the ship, although, I was nominally in command, on the shoulders of all the men. And there sprang up among them a sort of esprit de corps, curious under the circumstances, and partly explained, perhaps, by the belief that in imprisoning Singleton they had the murderer safely in hand. What they thought of Turner's possible connection with the crime, I do not know.
Personally, I was convinced that Turner was guilty. Perhaps, lulled into a false security by the incarceration of the two men, we unconsciously relaxed our vigilance. But by the first night the crew were somewhat calmer. Here and there a pipe was lighted, and a plug of tobacco went the rounds. The forecastle supper, served on deck, was eaten; and Charlie Jones, securing a permission that I thought it best to grant, went forward and painted a large black cross on the side of the jolly-boat, and below it the date, August 13, 1911. The crew watched in respectful silence.
The weather was in our favor, the wind `on our quarter, a blue sky heaped with white cloud masses, with the sunset fringed with the deepest rose. The Ella made no great way, but sailed easily. Burns and I alternated at the forward companionway, and, although the men were divided into watches, the entire crew was on duty virtually all the time.
I find, on consulting the book in which I recorded, beginning with that day, the incidents of the return voyage, that two things happened that evening. One was my interview with Singleton; the other was my curious and depressing clash with Elsa Lee, on the deck that night.
Turner being quiet and Burns on watch at the beginning of the second dog watch, six o'clock, I went forward to the room where Singleton was imprisoned. Burns gave me the key, and advised me to take a weapon. I did not, however, nor was it needed.
The first mate was sitting on the edge of his bunk, in his attitude of the morning, his head in his hands. As I entered, he looked up and nodded. His color was still bad; he looked ill and nervous, as might have been expected after his condition the night before.
"For God's sake, Leslie," he said, "tell them to open the window. I'm choking!"
He was right: the room was stifling. I opened the door behind me, and stood in the doorway, against a rush for freedom. But he did not move. He sank back into his dejected attitude.
"Will you eat some soup, if I send it?"
He shook his head.
"Is there anything you care for?"
"Better let me starve; I'm gone, anyhow."
"Singleton," I said, "I wish you would tell me about last night. If you did it, we've got you. If you didn't, you'd better let me take your own account of what happened, while it's fresh in your mind. Or, better still, write it yourself."
He held out his right-hand. I saw that it was shaking violently.
"Couldn't hold a pen," he said tersely. "Wouldn't be believed, anyhow."
The air being somewhat better, I closed and locked the door again, and, coming in, took out my notebook and pencil. He watched me craftily. "You can write it," he said, "if you'll give it to me to keep. I'm not going to put the rope around my own neck. If it's all right, my lawyers will use it. If it is n't -" He shrugged his shoulders.
I had never liked the man, and his tacit acknowledgment that he might incriminate himself made me eye him with shuddering distaste. But I took down his story, and reproduce it here, minus the technicalities and profanity with which it was interlarded.
Briefly, Singleton's watch began at midnight. The captain, who had been complaining of lumbago, had had the cook prepare him a mustard poultice, and had retired early. Burns was on watch from eight to twelve, and, on coming into the forward house at a quarter after eleven o'clock to eat his night lunch, reported to Singleton that the captain was in bed and that Mr. Turner had been asking for him. Singleton, therefore, took his cap and went on deck. This was about twenty minutes after eleven. He had had a drink or two earlier in the evening, and he took another in his cabin when he got his cap.
He found Turner in the. chart-house, playing solitaire and drinking. He was alone, and he asked Singleton to join him. The first mate looked at his watch and accepted the invitation, but decided to look around the forward house to be sure the captain was asleep. He went on deck. He could hear Burns and the lookout talking. The forward house was dark. He listened outside the captain's door, and heard him breathing heavily, as if asleep. He stood there for a moment. He had an uneasy feeling that some one was watching him. He thought of Schwartz, and was uncomfortable. He did not feel the whiskey at all.
He struck a light and looked around. There was no one in sight. He could hear Charlie Jones in the forecastle drumming on his banjo, and Burns whistling the same tune as he went aft to strike the bell. (It was the duty of the officer on watch to strike the hour.) It was then half after eleven. As he passed the captain's door again, his foot struck something, and it fell to the floor. He was afraid the captain had been roused, and stood still until he heard him breathing regularly again. Then he stooped down. His foot had struck an axe upright against the captain's door, and had knocked it down.
The axe belonged on the outer wall of the forward house. It was a rule that it must not be removed from its place except in emergency, and the first mate carried it out and leaned it against the forward port corner of the after house when he went below. Later, on his watch, he carried it forward and put it where it belonged.
He found Turner waiting on deck, and together they descended to the chart-room. He was none too clear as to what followed. They drank together. Vail tried to get Turner to bed, and failed. He believed that Burns had called the captain. The captain had ordered him to the deck, and there had been a furious quarrel. He felt ill by that time, and, when he went on watch at midnight, Burns was uncertain about leaving him. He was not intoxicated, he maintained, until after half-past one. He was able to strike the bell without difficulty, and spoke, each time he went aft, to Charlie Jones, who was at the wheel.
After that, however, he suddenly felt strange. He thought he had been doped, and told the helmsman so. He asked Jones to strike the bell for him, and, going up on the forecastle head, lay down on the boards and fell asleep. He did not waken until he heard six bells struck - three o'clock. And, before he had fully roused, I had called him.
"Then," I said, "when the lookout saw you with the axe, you were replacing it?"
"The lookout says you were not on deck between two and three o'clock."
"How does he know? I was asleep."
"You had threatened to get the captain."
"I had a revolver; I didn't need to use an axe."
Much as I disliked the man, I was inclined to believe his story, although I thought he was keeping something back. I leaned forward.
"Singleton,"- I said, "if you didn't do it, and I want to think you did not, - who did?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"We have women aboard. We ought to know what precautions to take."
"I wasn't the only man on deck that night. Burns was about, and he had a quarrel with the Hansen woman. Jones was at the wheel, too. Why don't you lock up Jones?"
"We are all under suspicion," I admitted. "But you had threatened the captain."
"I never threatened the girl, or Mr. Vail."
I had no answer to this, and we both fell silent. Singleton was the first to speak:-
"How are you going to get back? The men can sail a course, but who is to lay it out? Turner? No Turner ever knew anything about a ship but what it made for him."
"Turner is sick. Look here, Singleton, you want to get back as much as we do, or more. Wouldn't you be willing to lay a course, if you were taken out once a day? Burns is doing it, but he doesn't pretend to know much about it, and - we have the bodies."
But he turned ugly again, and refused to help unless he was given his freedom, and that I knew the crew would not agree to.
"You'll be sick enough before you get back!" he snarled.