The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XVII. The Axe is Gone
My first thought was of the after house. Jones, who had been fond of Burns, was working over him, muttering to himself. I felt his heart, which was beating slowly but regularly, and, convinced that he was not dying, ran down into the after house. The cabin was empty: evidently the guard around the pearl handled revolver had been given up on the false promise of peace. All the lights were going, however, and the heat was suffocating.
I ran to Miss Lee's door, and tried it. It was locked, but almost instantly she spoke from inside:
"What is it?"
"Nothing much. Can you come out?"
She came a moment later, and I asked her to call into each cabin to see if every one was safe. The result was reassuring - no one had been disturbed; and I was put to it to account to Miss Lee for my anxiety without telling her what had happened. I made some sort of excuse, which I have forgotten, except that she evidently did not believe it.
On deck, the men were gathered around Burns. There were ominous faces among them, and mutterings of hatred and revenge; for Burns had been popular - the best-liked man among them all. Jones, wrought to the highest pitch, had even shed a few shamefaced tears, and was obliterating the humiliating memory by an extra brusqueness of manner.
We carried the injured man aft, and with such implements as I had I cleaned and dressed the wound. It needed sewing, and it seemed best to do it before he regained consciousness. Jones and Adams went below to the forecastle, therefore, and brought up my amputating set, which contained, besides its knives, some curved needles and surgical silk, still in good condition.
I opened the case, and before the knives, the long surgeon's knives which were in use before the scalpel superseded them, they fell back, muttering and amazed.
I did not know that Elsa Lee also was watching until, having requested Jones, who had been a sailmaker, to thread the needles, his trembling hands refused their duty. I looked up, searching the group for a competent assistant, and saw the girl. She had dressed, and the light from the lantern beside me on the deck threw into relief her white figure among the dark ones. She came forward as my eyes fell on her.
"Let me try," she said; and, kneeling by the lantern, in a moment she held out the threaded needle. Her hand was quite steady. She made an able assistant, wiping clean the oozing edges of the wound so that I could see to clip the bleeding vessels, and working deftly with the silk and needles to keep me supplied. My old case yielded also a roll or so of bandage. By the time Burns was attempting an incoordinate movement or two, the operation was over and the instruments put out of sight.
His condition was good. The men carried him to the tent, where Jones sat beside him, and the other men stood outside, uneasy and watchful, looking in.
The operating-case, with its knives, came in for its share of scrutiny, and I felt that an explanation was due the men. To tell the truth, I had forgotten all about the case. Perhaps I swaggered just a bit as I went over to wash my hands. It was my first opportunity, and I was young, and the Girl was there.
"I see you looking at my case, boys," I said. "Perhaps I'm a little late explaining, but I guess after what you've seen you'll understand. The case belonged to my grandfather, who was a surgeon. He was in the war. That case was at Gettysburg."
"And because of your grandfather you brought it on shipboard!" Clarke said nastily.
"No. I'm a cub doctor myself. I'd been sick, and I needed the sea and a rest."
They were not so impressed as I had expected - or perhaps they had known all along. Sailors are a secretive lot.
"I'm thinking we'll all be getting a rest soon," a voice said. "What are you going to do with them knives?"
I had an inspiration. "I'm going to leave that to you men," I said. "You may throw them overboard, if you wish - but, if you do, take out the needles and the silk; we may need them."
There followed a savage but restrained argument among the men. Jones, from the tent, called out irritably: -
"Don't be fools, you fellows. This happened while Leslie was asleep. I'll swear he never moved after he lay down."
The crew reached a decision shortly after that, and came to me in a body.
"We think," Oleson said, "that we'll lock them in the captain's cabin, with the axe."
"Very well," I said. "Burns has the key around his neck."
Clarke, I think it was, went into the tent, and came out again directly.
"There's no key around his neck," he said gruffly.
"It may have slipped around under his back."
"It isn't there at all."
I ran into the tent, where Jones, having exhausted the resources of the injured man's clothing, was searching among the blankets on which he lay. There was no key. I went out to the men again, bewildered. The dawn had come, a pink and rosy dawn that promised another stifling day. It revealed the disarray of the deck - he basins, the old mahogany amputating-case with its lock plate of bone, the stained and reddened towels; and it showed the brooding and overcast faces of the men.
"Isn't it there?" I asked. "Our agreement was for me to carry the key to Singleton's cabin and Burns the captain's."
Miss Lee, by the rail, came forward slowly, and looked up at me.
"Isn't it possible," she said, "that, knowing where the key was, some one wished to get it, and so -" She indicated the tent and Burns.
I knew then. How dull I had been, and stupid! The men caught her meaning, too, and we tramped heavily forward, the girl and I leading.
The door into the captain's room was open, and the axe was gone from the bunk. The key, with the cord that Burns had worn around his neck, was in the door, the string torn and pulled as if it had been jerked away from the unconscious man. Later on we verified this by finding, on the back of Bums's neck an abraded line two inches or so in length.
It was a strong cord - the kind a sailor pins his faith to, and uses indiscriminately to hold his trousers or his knife.
I ordered a rigid search of the deck, but the axe was gone. Nor was it ever found. It had taken its bloody story many fathoms deep into the old Atlantic, and hidden it, where many crimes have been hidden, in the ooze and slime of the sea-bottom.
That day was memorable for more than the attack on Burns. It marked a complete revolution in my idea of the earlier crimes, and of the criminal.
Two things influenced my change of mental attitude. The attack on Burns was one. I did not believe that Turner had strength enough to fell so vigorous a man, even with the capstan bar which we found lying near by. Nor could he have jerked and broken the amberline. Mrs. Johns I eliminated for the same reason, of course. I could imagine her getting the key by subtlety, wheedling the impressionable young sailor into compliance. But force!
The second reason was the stronger.
Singleton, the mate, had become a tractable and almost amiable prisoner. Like Turner, he was ugly only when he was drinking, and there was not even enough liquor on the Ella to revive poor Burns. He spent his days devising, with bits of wire, a ring puzzle that he intended should make his fortune. And I believe he contrived, finally, a clever enough bit of foolery. He was anxious to talk, and complained bitterly of loneliness, using every excuse to hold Tom, the cook, when he carried him his meals. He had asked for a Bible, too, and read it now and then.
The morning of Bums's injury, I visited Singleton.
The new outrage, coming at a time when they were slowly recovering confidence, had turned the men surly. The loss of the axe, the handle of which I had told them would, under skillful eyes, reveal the murderer as accurately as a photograph, was a serious blow. Again arose the specter of the innocent suffering for the guilty. They went doggedly about their work, and wherever they gathered there was muttered talk of the white figure. There was grumbling, too, over their lack of weapons for defense.
The cook was a ringleader of the malcontents. Certain utensils were allowed him; but he was compelled at night to lock them in the galley, after either Burns's inspection or mine, and to turn over the key to one of us.
On the morning after the attack, therefore, Tom, carrying Singleton's breakfast to him, told him at length what had occurred in the night, and dilated on his lack of self-defense should an attack be directed toward him.
Singleton promptly offered to make him, out of wire, a key to the galley door, so that he could get what he wanted from it. The cook was to take an impression of the lock. In exchange, Tom was to fetch him, from a hiding place which Singleton designated in the forward house, a bottle of whiskey.
The cook was a shrewd mulatto, and he let Singleton make the key. It was after ten that morning when he brought it to me. I was trying to get the details of his injury from Burns, at the time, in the tent.
"I didn't see or hear anything, Leslie," Burns said feebly. "I don't even remember being hit. I felt there was some one behind me. That was all."
"There had been nothing suspicious earlier in the night?"
He lay thinking. He was still somewhat confused.
"No - I think not. Or - yes, I thought once I saw some one standing by the mainmast -- behind it. It wasn't."
"How long was Mrs. Johns on deck?"
"Did she ask you to do something for her?"
Pale as he was, he colored; but he eyed me honestly.
"Yes. Don't ask me any more, Leslie. It had nothing to do with this."
"What did she ask you to do?" I persisted remorselessly.
"I don't want to talk; my head aches."
"Very well. Then I'll tell you what happened after I went off watch. No, I wasn't spying. I know the woman, that's all. She said you looked tired, and wouldn't it be all right if you sat down for a moment and talked to her."
"No; she said she was nervous."
"The same thing - only better. Then she persisted in talking of the crime, and finally she said she would like to see the axe. It wouldn't do any harm. She, wouldn't touch it."
He watched me uneasily.
"She didn't either," he said. "I'll swear to that, Leslie. She didn't go near the bunk. She covered her face with her hands, and leaned against the door. I thought she was going to faint."
"Against the door, of course! And got an impression of the key. The door opens in. She could take out the key, press it against a cake of wax or even a cake of soap in her hand, and slip it back into the lock again while you - What were you doing while she was doing all that?"
"She dropped her salts. I picked them up."
"Exactly! Well, the, axe is gone."
He started up on his elbow.
"Thrown overboard, probably. It is not in the cabin."
It was brutal, perhaps; but the situation was all of that. As Burns fell back, colorless, Tom, the cook, brought into the tent the wire key that Singleton had made.
That morning I took from inside of Singleton's mattress a bunch of keys, a long steel file, and the leg of one of his chairs, carefully unscrewed and wrapped at the end with wire a formidable club. One of the keys opened Singleton's door.
That was on Saturday. Early Monday morning we sighted land.