The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XIV. From the Crow's Nest
The night passed without incident, except for one thing that we were unable to verify. At six bells, during the darkest hour of the night that precedes the early dawn of summer, Adams, from the crow's-nest, called down, in a panic, that there was something crawling on all fours on the deck below him.
Burns, on watch at the companionway, ran forward with his revolver, and narrowly escaped being brained - Adams at that moment flinging down a marlinespike that he had carried aloft with him.
I heard the crash and joined Burns, and together we went over the deck and, both houses. Everything was quiet: the crew in various attitudes of exhausted sleep, their chests and dittybags around them; Oleson at the wheel; and Singleton in his jail-room, breathing heavily.
Adams's nerve was completely gone, and, being now thoroughly awake, I joined him in the crow's-nest. Nothing could convince him that he had been the victim of a nervous hallucination. He stuck to his story firmly.
"It was on the forecastle-head first," he maintained. "I saw it gleaming."
"Sort of shining," he explained. "It came up over the rail, and at first it stood up tall, like a white post."
"You didn't say before that it was white."
"It was shining," he said slowly, trying to put his idea into words. "Maybe not exactly white, but light-colored. It stood still for so long, I thought I must be mistaken - that it was a light on the rigging. Then I got to thinking that there wasn't no place for a light to come from just there."
That was true enough.
"First it was as tall as a man, or taller maybe," he went on. "Then it seemed about half that high and still in the same place. Then it got lower still, and it took to crawling along on its belly. It was then I yelled."
I looked down. The green starboard light threw a light over only a small part of the deck. The red light did no better. The masthead was possibly thirty feet above the hull, and served no illuminating purpose whatever. From the bridge forward the deck was practically dark.
"You yelled, and then what happened?"
His reply was vague - troubled.
"I'm not sure," he said slowly. "It seemed to fade away. The white got smaller - went to nothing, like a cloud blown away in a gale. I flung the spike."
I accepted the story with outward belief and a mental reservation. But I did not relish the idea of the spike Adams had thrown lying below on deck. No more formidable weapon short of an axe, could be devised. I said as much.
"I'm going down for it," I said; "if you're nervous, you'd better keep it by you. But don't drop it on everything that moves below. You almost got Burns."
I went down cautiously, and struck a match where Adams had indicated the spike. It was not there. Nor had Burns picked it up. A splintered board showed where it had struck, and a smaller indentation where it had rebounded; but the marlinespike was gone, and Burns had not seen it. We got a lantern and searched systematically, without result. Burns turned to me a face ghastly in the oil light.
"Somebody has it," he said, "and there will be more murder! Oh, my God, Leslie!"
"When you went back after the alarm, did you count the men?"
"No; Oleson said no one had come forward. They could not have passed without his seeing them. He has the binnacle lantern and two other lights."
"And no one came from the after house?"
Eight bells rang out sharply. The watch changed. I took the revolver and Burns's position at the companionway, while Burns went aft. He lined up the men by the binnacle light, and went over them carefully. The marlinespike was not found; but he took from the cook a long meat-knife, and brought both negro and knife forward to me. The man was almost collapsing with terror. He maintained that he had taken the knife for self-protection, and we let him go with a warning.
Dawn brought me an hour's sleep, the first since my awakening in the storeroom. When I roused, Jones at the wheel had thrown an extra blanket over me, for the morning was cool and a fine rain was falling.
The men were scattered around in attitudes of dejection, one or two of them leaning over the rail, watching the jolly-boat, riding easily behind us. Jones heard me moving, and turned.
"Your friend below must be pretty bad, sir," he said. "Your lady-love has been asking for you. I wouldn't let them wake you."
"My - what?"
He waxed apologetic at once.
"That's just my foolishness, Leslie," he said. "No disrespect to the lady, I'm sure. If it ain't so, it ain't, and no harm done. If it is so, why, you needn't be ashamed, boy. 'The way of a man with a maid,' says the Book."
"You should have called me, Jones," I said sharply. "And no nonsense of that sort with the men."
He looked hurt, but made no reply beyond touching his cap. And, while I am mentioning that, I may speak of the changed attitude of the men toward me from the time they put me in charge. Whether the deference was to the office rather than the man, or whether in placing me in authority they had merely expressed a general feeling that I was with them rather than of them, I do not know. I am inclined to think the former. The result, in any case, was the same. They deferred to me whenever possible, brought large and small issues alike to me, served me my food alone, against my protestations, and, while navigating the ship on their own responsibility, took care to come to me for authority for everything.
Before I went below that morning, I suggested that some of the spare canvas be used to erect a shelter on the after deck, and this was done. The rain by that time was driving steadily - a summer rain without wind. The men seemed glad to have occupation, and, from that time on, the tent which they erected over the hatchway aft of the wheel was their living and eating quarters. It added something to their comfort: I wag not so certain that it added to their security.
Tuner was violent that day. I found all four women awake and dressed, and Mrs. Turner, whose hour it was on duty, in a chair outside the door. The stewardess, her arm in a sling, was making tea over a spirit-lamp, and Elsa was helping her. Mrs. Johns was stretched on a divan, and on the table lay a small revolver.
Clearly, Elsa had told the incident of the key. I felt at once the atmosphere of antagonism. Mrs. Johns watched me coolly from under lowered eyelids. The stewardess openly scowled. And Mrs. Turner rose hastily, and glanced at Mrs. Johns, as if in doubt. Elsa had her back to me, and was busy with the cups.
"I'm afraid you've had a bad night," I said.
"A very bad night," Mrs. Turner replied stiffly.
"Very marked. He has talked of a white figure - we cannot quite make it out. It seems to be Wilmer - Mr. Vail."
She had not opened the door, but stood, nervously twisting her fingers, before it.
"The bromides had no effect?"
She glanced helplessly at the others. "None," she said, after a moment.
Elsa Lee wheeled suddenly and glanced scornfully at her sister.
"Why don't you tell him?" she demanded. "Why don't you say you didn't give the bromides?"
Mrs. Johns raised herself on her elbow and looked at me.
"Why should we?" she asked. "How do we know what you are giving him? You are not friendly to him or to us. We know what you are trying to do - you are trying to save yourself, at any cost. You put a guard at the companionway. You rail off the deck for our safety. You drop the storeroom key in Mr. Turner's cabin, where Elsa will find it, and will be obliged to acknowledge she found it, and then take it from her by force, so you can show it later on and save yourself!"
Elsa turned on her quickly.
"I told you how he got it, Adele. I tried to throw it -"
"Oh, if you intend to protect him!"
"I am rather bewildered," I said slowly; "but, under the circumstances, I suppose you do not wish me to look after Mr. Turner?"
"We think not" - from Mrs. Turner.
"How will you manage alone?"
Mrs. Johns got up and lounged to the table. She wore a long satin negligee of some sort, draped with lace. It lay around her on the floor in gleaming lines of soft beauty. Her reddish hair was low on her neck, and she held a cigarette, negligently, in her teeth. All the women smoked, Mrs. Johns incessantly.
She laid one hand lightly on the revolver, and flicked the ash from her cigarette with the other.
"We have decided," she said insolently, "that, if the crew may establish a dead-line, so may we. Our dead-line is the foot of the companionway. One of us will be on watch always. I am an excellent shot."
"I do not doubt it." I faced her. "I am afraid you will suffer for air; otherwise, the arrangement is good. You relieve me of part of the responsibility for your safety. Tom will bring your food to the steps and leave it there."
"With good luck, two weeks will see us in port; and then -"
"In port! You are taking us back?"
She picked up the revolver and examined it absently. Then she glanced at me, and shrugged her shoulders. "How can we know? Perhaps this is a mutiny, and you are on your way to some God forsaken island. That's the usual thing among pirates, isn't it?"
"I have no answer to that, Mrs. Johns," I said quietly, and turned to where Elsa sat.
"I shall not come back unless you send for me," I said. "But I want you to know that my one object in life from now on is to get you back safely to land; that your safety comes first, and that the vigilance on deck in your interest will not be relaxed."
"Fine words!" the stewardess muttered.
The low mumbling from Turner's room had persisted steadily. Now it rose again in the sharp frenzy that had characterized it through the long night.
"Don't look at me like that, man!" he cried, and then "He's lost a hand! A hand!"
Mrs. Turner went quickly into the cabin, and the sounds ceased. I looked at Elsa, but she avoided my eyes. I turned heavily and went up the companionway.