Chapter XVI. Jones Stumbles Over Something
 

I find, from my journal, that the next seven days passed without marked incident. Several times during that period we sighted vessels, ail outward bound, and once we were within communicating distance of a steam cargo boat on her way to Venezuela. She lay to and sent her first mate over to see what could be done.

He was a slim little man with dark eyes and a small mustache above a cheerful mouth. He listened in silence to my story, and shuddered when I showed him the jolly-boat. But we were only a few days out by that time, and, after all, what could they do? He offered to spare us a hand, if it could be arranged; but, Adams having recovered by that time, we decided to get along as we were. A strange sight we must have presented to the tidy little officer in his uniform and black tie: a haggard, unshaven lot of men, none too clean, all suffering from strain and lack of sleep, with nerves ready to snap; a white yacht, motionless, her sails drooping, - for not a breath of air moved, - with unpolished brasses and dirty decks; in charge of all, a tall youth, unshaven like the rest, and gaunt from sickness, who hardly knew a nautical phrase, who shook the little officer's hand with a ferocity of welcome that made him change color, and whose uniform consisted of a pair of dirty khaki trousers and a khaki shirt, open at the neck; and behind us, wallowing in the trough of the sea as the Ella lay to, the jolly-boat, so miscalled, with its sinister cargo.

The Buenos Aires went on, leaving us a bit cheered, perhaps, but none the better off, except that she verified our bearings. The after house had taken no notice of the incident. None of the women had appeared, nor did they make any inquiry of the cook when he carried down their dinner that night.. As entirely as possible, during the week that had passed, they had kept to themselves. Turner was better, I imagined; but, the few times when Elsa Lee appeared at the companion for a breath of air, I was off duty and missed her. I thought it was by design, and I was desperate for a sight of her.

Mrs. Johns came on deck once or twice while I was there, but she chose to ignore me. The stewardess, however, was not so partisan, and, the day before we met the Buenos Aires, she spent a little time on deck, leaning against the rail and watching me with alert black eyes.

"What are you going to do when you get to land, Mr. Captain Leslie?" she asked. "Are you going to put us all in prison?"

"That's as may be," I evaded. She was a pretty little woman, plump and dark, and she slid her hand along the rail until it touched mine. Whereon, I did the thing she was expecting, and put my fingers over hers. She flushed a little, and dimpled.

"You are human, aren't you?" she asked archly. "I am not afraid of you."

"No one is, I am sure."

"Silly! Why, they are all afraid of you, down there." She jerked her head toward the after house. "They want to offer you something, but none of them will do it."

"Offer me something?"

She came a little closer, so that her round shoulder touched mine.

"Why not? You need money, I take it. And that's the one thing they have - money."

I began to understand her.

"I see," I said slowly. "They want to bribe me.

She shrugged her shoulders.

"That is a nasty word. They might wish to buy - a key or two that you carry."

"The storeroom key, of course. But what other?"

She looked around - we were alone. A light breeze filled the sails and flicked the end of a scarf she wore against my face.

"The key to the captain's cabin," she said, very low.

That was what they wished to buy: the incriminating key to the storeroom, found on Turner's floor, and access to the axe, with its telltale prints on the handle.

The stewardess saw my face harden, and put her hand on my arm.

"Now I am afraid of you!" she cried: "When you look like that!"

".Mrs. Sloane," I said, "I do not know that you were asked to do this - I think not. But if you were, say for me what I am willing to say for myself: I shall tell what I know, and there is not money enough in the world to prevent my telling it straight. The right man is going to be punished, and the key to the storeroom will be given to the police, and to no one else."

"But - the other key?"

"That is not in my keeping."

"I do not believe you!"

"I am sorry," I said shortly. "As a matter of fact, Burns has that."

By the look of triumph in her eyes I knew I had told her what she wanted to know. She went below soon after, and I warned Burns that he would probably be approached in the same way.

"Not that I am afraid," I added. "But keep the little Sloane woman at a distance. She's quite capable of mesmerizing you with her eyes and robbing you with her hands at the same time."

"I'd rather you'd carry it," he said, "although I'm not afraid of the lady. It's not likely, after

He did not finish, but he glanced aft toward the jollyboat. Poor Burns! I believe he had really cared for the Danish girl. Perhaps I was foolish, but I refused to take the key from him; I felt sure he could be trusted.

The murders had been committed on the early morning of Wednesday, the 12th It was on the following Tuesday that Mrs. Sloane and I had our little conversation on deck, and on Wednesday we came up with the Buenos Aires.

It was on Friday, therefore, two days after the cargo steamer had slid over the edge of the ocean, and left us, motionless, a painted ship upon a painted sea, that the incident happened that completed the demoralization of :he crew.

For almost a week the lookouts had reported 'All's well" in response to the striking of the ship's bell. The hysteria, as Burns and I dubbed it, of the white figure had died away as the men's nerves grew less irritated. Although we had found no absolute explanation of the marlinespike, an obvious one suggested itself. The men, although giving up their weapons without protest, had grumbled somewhat over being left without means of defense. It was entirely possible, we agreed, that the marlinespike had been so disposed, as some seaman's resort in time of need.

The cook, taking down the dinner on Friday evening, reported Mr. Turner up and about and partly dressed. The heat was frightful. All day we had had a following breeze, and it had been necessary to lengthen the towing-rope, dropping the jolly-boat well behind us. The men, saying little or nothing, dozed under their canvas; the helmsman drooped at the wheel. Under our feet the boards sent up simmering heat waves, and the brasses were too hot to touch.

At four o'clock Elsa Lee came on deck, and spoke to me for the first time in several days. She started when she saw me, and no wonder. In the frenzied caution of the day after the crimes, I had flung every razor overboard, and the result was as villainous a set of men as I have ever seen.

"Have you been ill again?" she asked.

I put my hand to my chin. "Not ill," I said; "merely unshaven."

"But you are pale, and your eyes are sunk in your head."

"We are very short-handed and - no one has slept much."

"Or eaten at all, I imagine," she said. "When do we get in?"

"I can hardly say. With this wind, perhaps Tuesday."

"Where?"

"Philadelphia."

"You intend to turn the yacht over to the police?"

"Yes, Miss Lee."

"Every one on it?"

"That is up to the police. They will probably not hold the women. You will be released, I imagine, on your own recognizance."

"And - Mr. Turner?"

"He will have to take his luck with the rest of us."

She asked me no further questions, but switched at once to what had brought her on deck.

"The cabin is unbearable," she said. "We are willing to take the risk of opening the after companion door."

But I could not allow this, and I tried to explain my reasons. The crew were quartered there, for one; for the other, whether they were willing to take the risk or not, I would not open it without placing a guard there, and we had no one to spare for the duty. I suggested that they use the part of the deck reserved for them, where it was fairly cool under the awning; and, after a dispute below, they agreed to this. Turner, very weak, came up the few steps slowly, but refused my proffered help. A little later, he called me from the rail and offered me a cigar. The change in him was startling.

We took advantage of their being on deck to open the windows and air the after house. But all were securely locked and barred before they went below again. It was the first time they had all been on deck together since the night of the 11th. It was a different crowd of people that sat there, looking over the rail and speaking in monosyllables: no bridge, no glasses clinking with ice, no elaborate toilets and carefully dressed hair, no flash of jewels, no light laughter following one of poor Vail's sallies.

At ten o'clock they went below, but not until I had quietly located every member of the crew. I had the watch from eight to twelve that night, and at half after ten Mrs. Johns came on deck again. She did not speak to me, but dropped into a steamer-chair and yawned, stretching out her arms. By the light of the companion lantern, I saw that she had put on one of the loose negligees she affected for undress, and her arms were bare except for a fall of lace.

At eight bells (midnight) Burns took my place. Charlie Jones was at the wheel, and McNamara in the crow's-nest. Mrs. Johns was dozing in her chair. The yacht was making perhaps four knots, and, far behind, the small white light of the jolly-boat showed where she rode.

I slept heavily, and at eight bells I rolled off my blanket and prepared to relieve Burns. I was stiff, weary, unrefreshed. The air was very still and we were hardly moving. I took a pail of water that stood near the rail, and, leaning far out, poured it over my head and shoulders. As I turned, dripping, Jones, relieved of the wheel, touched me on the arm.

"Go back to sleep, boy," he said kindly. "We need you, and we're goin' to need you more when we get ashore. You've been talkin' in your sleep till you plumb scared me."

But I was wide awake by that time, and he had had as little sleep as I had. I refused, and we went forward together, Jones to get coffee, which stood all night on the galley stove.

It was still dark. The dawn, even in the less than four weeks we had been out, came perceptibly later. At the port forward corner of the after house, Jones stumbled over something, and gave a sharp exclamation. The next moment he was on his knees, lighting a match.

Burns lay there on his face, unconscious, and bleeding profusely from a cut on the back of his head - but not dead.