The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XIII. The White Light
With the approach of night our vigilance was doubled. There was no thought of sleep among the crew, and, with the twilight, there was a distinct return of the terror of the morning.
Gathered around the wheel, the crew listened while Jones read evening prayer. Between the two houses, where the deck was roped off, Miss Lee was alone, pacing back and-forward, her head bent, her arms dropped listlessly.
The wind had gone, and the sails hung loose over our heads. I stood by the port rail. Although my back was toward Miss Lee, I was conscious of her every movement; and so I knew when she stooped under the rope and moved lightly toward the starboard rail.
Quick as she was, I was quicker. There was still light enough to see her face as she turned when I called to her:
"Miss Lee You must not leave the rope."
"I am sorry to seem arbitrary. It is for your own safety."
I was crossing the deck toward her as I spoke. I knew what she was going to do. I believe, when she saw my face, that she read my knowledge in it. She turned back from the rail and faced me.
"Surely I may go to the rail!"
"It would be unwise, if for no other reason than discipline."
"Discipline! Are you trying to discipline me?"
"Miss Lee, you do not seem to understand," I said, as patiently as I could. "Just now I am in charge of the Ella. It does not matter how unfit I am - the fact remains. Nor does it concern me that your brother-in-law owns the ship. I am in charge of it, and, God willing, there will be no more crimes on it. You will go back to the part of the deck that is reserved for you, or you will go below and stay there."
She flushed with anger, and stood there with her head thrown back, eyeing me with a contempt that cut me to the quick. The next moment she wheeled and, raising her hand, flung toward the rail the key to the storeroom door. I caught her hand - too late.
But fate was on my side, after all. As I stood, still gripping her wrist, the key fell ringing almost at my feet. It had struck one of the lower yard braces. I stooped, and, picking it up, pocketed it.
She was dazed, I think. She made no effort to free her arm, but she put her other hand to her heart unexpectedly, and I saw that she was profoundly shocked. I led her, unprotesting, to a deck-chair, and put her down in it; and still she had not spoken: She lay back and closed her eyes. She was too strong to faint; she was superbly healthy. But she knew as well as I did what that key meant, and she had delivered it into my hands. As for me, I was driven hard that night; for, as I stood there looking down at her, she held out her hand to me, palm up.
"Please!" she said pleadingly. "What does it mean to you, Leslie? We were kind to you, weren't we? When you were ill, we took you on, my sister and I, and now you hate us."
"He didn't know what he was doing. He wasn't sane. No sane man kills - that way. He had a revolver, if he had wanted - Please give me that key!"
"Some one will suffer. Would you have the innocent suffer with the guilty?"
"If they cannot prove it against any one -"
"They may prove it against me."
"I was in the after house," I said doggedly. "I was the one to raise an alarm and to find the bodies. You do not know anything about me. I am -'Elsa's jail-bird'!"
"Who told you that?"
"It does not matter - I know it. I told you the truth, Miss Elsa; I came here from the hospital. But I may have to fight for my life. Against the Turner money and influence, I have only - this key. Shall I give it to you?"
I held it out to her on the palm of my hand. It was melodramatic, probably; but I was very young, and by that time wildly in love with her. I thought, for a moment, that she would take it; but she only drew a deep breath and pushed my hand away.
"Keep it," she said. "I am ashamed."
We were silent after that, she staring out over the rail at the deepening sky; and, looking at her as one looks at a star, I thought she had forgotten my presence, so long she sat silent. The voices of the men aft died away gradually, as, one by one, they rolled themselves in blankets on the deck, not to sleep, but to rest and watch. The lookout, in his lonely perch high above the deck, called down guardedly to ask for company, and one of the crew went up.
When she turned to me again, it was to find my eyes fixed on her.
"You say you have neither money nor influence. And yet, you are a gentleman."
"I hope so."
"You know what I mean" - impatiently. "You are not a common sailor."
"I did not claim to be one."
"You are quite determined we shall not know anything about you?"
"There is nothing to know. I have given you my name, which is practically all I own in the world. I needed a chance to recover from an illness, and I was obliged to work. This offered the best opportunity to combine both."
"You are not getting much chance -to rest," she said, with a sigh, and got up. I went with her to the companionway, and opened the door. She turned and looked at me.
"Good-night, Miss Lee."
"I - I feel very safe with you on guard," she said, and held out her hand. I took it in mine, with my heart leaping. It was as cold as ice.
That night, at four bells, I mustered the crew as silently as possible around the jollyboat, and we lowered it into the water. The possibility of a dead calm had convinced me that the sooner it was done the better. We arranged to tow the boat astern, and Charlie Jones suggested a white light in its bow, so we could be sure at night that it had not broken loose.
Accordingly, we attached to the bow of the jolly-boat a tailed block with an endless fall riven through it, so as to be able to haul in and refill the lantern. Five bells struck by the time we had arranged the towing-line.
We dropped the jolly-boat astern and made fast the rope. It gave me a curious feeling, that small boat rising and falling behind us, with its dead crew, and its rocking light, and, on its side above the water-line, the black cross - a curious feeling of pursuit, as if, across the water, they in the boat were following us. And, perhaps because the light varied, sometimes it seemed to drop behind, as if wearying of the chase, and again, in great leaps, to be overtaking us, to be almost upon us.
An open boat with a small white light and a black cross on the side.