The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XV. A Knocking in the Hold
It rained heavily all that day. Late in the afternoon we got some wind, and all hands turned out to trim sail. Action was a relief, and the weather suited our disheartened state better than had the pitiless August sun, the glaring white of deck and canvas, and the heat.
The heavy drops splashed and broke on top of the jolly-boat, and, as the wind came up, it rode behind us like a live thing.
Our distress signal hung sodden, too wet to give more than a dejected response to the wind that tugged at it. Late in the afternoon we sighted a large steamer, and when, as darkness came on, she showed no indication of changing her course, Burns and I sent up a rocket and blew the fog horn steadily. She altered her course then and came towards us, and we ran up our code flags for immediate assistance; but she veered off shortly after, and went on her way. We made no further effort to attract her attention. Burns thought her a passenger steamer for the Bermudas, and, as her way was not ours, she could not have been of much assistance.
One or two of the men were already showing signs of strain. Oleson, the Swede, developed a chill, followed by fever and a mild delirium, and Adams complained of sore throat and nausea. Oleson's illness was genuine enough. Adams I suspected of malingering. He had told the men he would not go up to the crow's-nest again without a revolver, and this I would not permit.
Our original crew had numbered nine - with the cook and Williams, eleven. But the two Negroes were not seamen, and were frightened into a state bordering on collapse. Of the men actually useful, there were left only five: Clarke, McNamara, Charlie Jones, Burns, and myself; and I was a negligible quantity as regarded the working of the ship.
With Burns and myself on guard duty, the burden fell on Clarke, McNamara, and Jones. A suggestion of mine that we release Singleton was instantly vetoed by the men. It was arranged, finally, that Clarke and McNamara take alternate watches at the wheel, and Jones be given the lookout for the night, to be relieved by either Burns or myself.
I watched the weather anxiously. We were too short-handed to manage any sort of a gale; and yet, the urgency of our return made it unwise to shorten canvas too much. It was as well, perhaps, that I had so much to distract my mind from the situation in the after house.
The second of the series of curious incidents that complicated our return voyage occurred that night. I was on watch from eight bells midnight until four in the morning. Jones was in the crow's-nest, McNamara at the wheel. I was at the starboard forward corner of the after house, looking over the rail. I thought that I had seen the lights of a steamer.
The rain had ceased, but the night was still very dark. I heard a sort of rapping from the forward house, and took a step toward it, listening. Jones heard it, too, and called down to me, nervously, to see what was wrong.
I called up to him, cautiously, to come dawn and take my place while I investigated. I thought it was Singleton. When Jones had taken up his position at the companionway, I went forward. The knocking continued, and I traced it to Singleton's cabin. His window was open, being too small for danger, but barred across with strips of wood outside, like those in the after house. But he was at the door, hammering frantically. I called to him through the open window, but the only answer was renewed and louder pounding.
I ran around to his door, and felt for the key, which I carried.
"What is the matter?" I called.
"Who is it?"
"For God's sake, open the door!"
I unlocked it and threw it open. He retreated before me, with his hands out, and huddled against the wall beside the window. I struck a match. His face was drawn and distorted, and he held his arm up as if to ward off a blow.
I lighted the lamp, for there were no electric lights in the forward house, and stared at him, amazed. Satisfied that I was really Leslie, he had stooped, and was fumbling under the window. When he straightened, he held something out to me in the palm of his shaking hand. I saw, with surprise, that it was a tobacco-pouch.
"Well?" I demanded.
"It was on the ledge," he said hoarsely. "I put it there myself. All the time I was pounding, I kept saying that, if it was still there, it was not true - I'd just fancied it. If the pouch was on the floor, I'd know."
"It was there," he said, looking over his shoulder. "It's been there three times, looking in - all in white, and grinning at me."
"It - it hasn't got any face."
"How could it grin - at you if it has n't any face?" I demanded impatiently. "Pull yourself together and tell me what you saw."
It was some time before he could tell a connected story, and, when he did, I was inclined to suspect that he had heard us talking the night before, had heard Adams's description of the intruder on the forecastle-head, and that, what with drink and terror, he had fancied the rest. And yet, I was not so sure.
"I was asleep, the first time," he said. "I don't know how long ago it was. I woke up cold, with the feeling that something was looking at me. I raised up in bed, and there was a thing at the window. It was looking in."
"What sort of a thing?"
"What I told you - white."
"A white head?"
"It wasn't a head. For God's sake, Leslie! I can't tell you any more than that. I saw it. That's enough. I saw it three times."
"It isn't enough for me," I said doggedly. "It hadn't any head or face, but it looked in! It's dark out there. How could you see?"
For reply, he leaned over and, turning down the lamp, blew it out. We sat in the smoking darkness, and slowly, out of the thick night, the window outlined itself. I could see it distinctly. But how, white and faceless, had it stared in at the window, or reached through the bars, as Singleton declared it had done, and waved a fingerless hand at us?
He was in a state of mental and physical collapse, and begged so pitifully not to be left, that at last I told him I would take him with me, on his promise to remain in a chair until dawn, and to go back without demur. He sat near me, amidships, huddled down among the cushions of one of the wicker chairs, not sleeping, but staring straight out, motionless.
With the first light of dawn Burns relieved me, and I went forward with Singleton. He dropped into his bunk, and was asleep almost immediately. Then, inch by inch, I went over the deck for footprints, for any clue to what, under happier circumstances, I should have considered a ghastly hoax. But the deck was slippery and sodden, the rail dripping, and between the davits where the jolly-boat had swung was stretched a line with a shirt of Burns's hung on it, absurdly enough, to dry. Poor Burns, promoted to the dignity of first mate, and trying to dress the part!
Oleson and Adams made no attempt to work that day; indeed, Oleson was not able. As I had promised, the breakfast for the after house was placed on the companion steps by Tom, the cook, whence it was removed by Mrs. Sloane. I saw nothing of either Elsa Lee or Mrs. Johns. Burns was inclined to resent the deadline the women had drawn below, and suggested that, since they were so anxious to take care of themselves, we give up guarding the after house and let them do it. We were short-handed enough, he urged, and, if they were going to take that attitude, let them manage. I did not argue, but my eyes traveled over the rail to where the jolly-boat rose to meet the fresh sea of the morning, and he colored. After that he made no comment.
Singleton awakened before noon, and ate his first meal since the murders. He looked better, and we had a long talk, I outside the window and he within. He held to his story of the night before, but was still vague as to just how the thing looked. Of what it was he seemed to have no doubt. It was the specter of either the captain or Vail; he excluded the woman, because she was shorter. As I stood outside, he measured on me the approximate height of the apparition - somewhere about five feet eight. He could see Burns's shirt, he admitted, but the thing had been close to the window.
I found myself convinced against my will, and that afternoon, alone, I made a second and more thorough examination of the forecastle and the hold. In the former I found nothing. Having been closed for over twenty-four hours, it was stifling and full of odors. The crew, abandoning it in haste, had left it in disorder. I made a systematic search, beginning forward and working back. I prodded in and under bunks, and moved the clothing that hung on every hook and swung, to the undoing of my nerves, with every swell. Much curious salvage I found under mattresses and beneath bunks: a rosary and a dozen filthy pictures under the same pillow; more than one bottle of whiskey; and even, where it had been dropped in the haste of flight, a bottle of cocaine. The bottle set me to thinking: had we a "coke" fiend on board, and, if we had, who was it?
The examination of the hold led to one curious and not easily explained discovery. The Ella was in gravel ballast, and my search there was difficult and nerve-racking. The creaking of the girders and floor-plates, the groaning overhead of the trestle-trees, and once an unexpected list that sent me careening, head first, against a ballast-tank, made my position distinctly disagreeable. And above all the incidental noises of a ship's hold was one that I could not place - a regular knocking, which kept time with the list of the boat.
I located it at last, approximately, at one of the ballast ports, but there was nothing to be seen. The port had been carefully barred and calked over. The sound was not loud. Down there among the other noises, I seemed to feel as well as hear it. I sent Burns down, and he came up, puzzled.
"It's outside," he said. "Something cracking against her ribs."
"You didn't notice it yesterday, did you?"
"No; but yesterday we were not listening for noises."
The knocking was on the port side. We went forward together, and, leaning well out, looked over the rail.
The missing marlinespike was swinging there, banging against the hull with every roll of the ship. It was fastened by a rope lanyard to a large bolt below the rail, and fastened with what Burns called a Blackwall hitch - a sailor's knot.