The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XVIII. A Bad Combination
We picked up a pilot outside the Lewes breakwater a man of few words. I told him only the outlines of our story, and I believe he half discredited me at first. God knows, I was not a creditable object. When I took him aft and showed him the jolly-boat, he realized, at last, that he was face to face with a great tragedy, and paid it the tribute of throwing away his cigar.
He suggested our raising the yellow plague flag; and this we did, with a ready response from the quarantine officer. The quarantine officer came out in a power-boat, and mounted the ladder; and from that moment my command of the Ella ceased. Turner, immaculately dressed, pale, distinguished, member of the yacht club and partner in the Turner line, met him at the rail, and conducted him, with a sort of chastened affability, to the cabin.
Exhausted from lack of sleep, terrified with what had gone by and what was yet to come, unshaven and unkempt, the men gathered on the forecastle-head and waited.
The conference below lasted perhaps an hour. At the end of that time the quarantine officer came up and shouted a direction from below, as a result of which the jolly-boat was cut loose, and, towed by the tug, taken to the quarantine station. There was an argument, I believe, between Turner and the officer, as to allowing us to proceed up the river without waiting for the police. Turner prevailed, however, and, from the time we hoisted the yellow flag, we were on our way to the city, a tug panting beside us, urging the broad and comfortable lines of the old cargo boat to a semblance of speed.
The quarantine officer, a dapper little man, remained on the boat, and busied himself officiously, getting the names of the men, peering at Singleton through his barred window, and expressing disappointment at my lack of foresight in having the bloodstains cleared away.
"Every stain is a clue, my man, to the trained eye," he chirruped. "With an axe, too! What a brutal method! Brutal! Where is the axe?"
"Gone," I said patiently. "It was stolen out of the captain's cabin."
He eyed me over his glasses.
"That's very strange," he commented. "No stains, no axe! You fellows have been mighty careful to destroy the evidence, haven't you?"
All that long day we made our deliberate progress up the river. The luggage from the after house was carried up on deck by Adams and Clarke, and stood waiting for the customhouse.
Turner, his hands behind him, paced the deck hour by hour, his heavy face colorless. His wife, dark, repressed, with a look of being always on guard, watched him furtively. Mrs. Johns, dressed in black, talked to the doctor; and, from the notes he made, I knew she was telling the story of the tragedy. And here, there, and everywhere, efficient, normal, and so lovely that it hurt me to look at her, was Elsa. Williams, the butler, had emerged from his chrysalis of fright, and was ostentatiously looking after the family's comfort. No clearer indication could have been given of the new status of affairs than his changed attitude toward me. He came up to me, early in the afternoon, and demanded that I wash down the deck before the women came up.
I smiled down at him cheerfully.
"Williams," I said, "you are a coward -- a mean, white-livered coward. You have skulked in the after house, behind women, when there was man's work to do. If I wash that deck, it will be with you as a mop."
He blustered something about speaking to Mr. Turner and seeing that I did the work I was brought on board to do, and, seeing Turner's eye on us, finished his speech with an ugly epithet. My nerves were strained to the utmost: lack of sleep and food had done their work. I was no longer in command of the Ella; I was a common sailor, ready to vent my spleen through my fists.
I knocked him down with my open hand.
It was a barbarous and a reckless thing to do. He picked himself up and limped away, muttering. Turner had watched the scene with his cold blue eyes, and the little doctor with his near-sighted ones.
"A dangerous man, that!" said the doctor.
"Dangerous and intelligent," replied Turner. "A bad combination!"
It was late that night when the Ella anchored in the river at Philadelphia. We were not allowed to land. The police took charge of ship, crew, and passengers. The men slept heavily on deck, except Burns, who developed a slight fever from his injury, and moved about restlessly.
It seemed to me that the vigilance of the officers was exerted largely to prevent an escape from the vessel, and not sufficiently for the safety of those on board. I spoke of this, and a guard was placed at the companionway again. Thus I saw Elsa Lee for the last time until the trial.
She was dressed, as she had been in the afternoon, in a dark cloth suit of some sort, and I did not see her until I had spoken to the officer in charge. She turned, at my voice, and called me to join her where she stood.
"We are back again, Leslie."
"Yes, Miss Lee."
"Back to -what? To live the whole thing over again in a courtroom! If only we could go away, anywhere, and try to forget!"
She had not expected any answer, and I had none ready. I was thinking - Heaven help me - that there were things I would not forget if I could: the lift of her lashes as she looked, up at me; the few words we had had together, the day she had told me the deck was not clean; the night I had touched her hand with my lips.
"We are to be released, I believe," she said, "on our own - some legal term; I forget it."
"Yes. You do not know law as well as medicine?"
"I am sorry - no; and I know very little medicine."
"But you sewed up a wound!"
"As a matter of fact," I admitted, "that was my initial performance, and it is badly done. It - it puckers."
She turned on me a trifle impatiently.
"Why do you make such a secret of your identity?" she demanded. "Is it a pose? Or - have you a reason for concealing it?"
"It is not a pose; and I have nothing to be ashamed of, unless poverty -"
"Of course not. What do you mean by poverty?"
"The common garden variety sort. I have hardly a dollar in the world. As to my identity, - if it interests you at all, -, I graduated in medicine last June. I spent the last of the money that was to educate me in purchasing a dress suit to graduate in, and a supper by way of celebration. The dress suit helped me to my diploma. The supper gave me typhoid."
"So that was it!"
"Not jail, you see."
"And what are you going to do now?"
I glanced around to where a police officer stood behind us watchfully.
"Now? Why, now I go to jail in earnest."
"You have been very good to us," she said wistfully. "We have all been strained and nervous. Maybe you have not thought I noticed or - or appreciated what you were doing; but I have, always. You have given all of yourself for us. You have not slept or eaten. And now you are going to be imprisoned. It isn't just!"
I tied to speak lightly, to reassure her.
"Don't be unhappy about that," I said. "A nice, safe jail, where one may sleep and eat, and eat and sleep - oh, I shall be very comfortable! And if you wish to make me exceedingly happy, you will see that they let me have a razor."
But, to my surprise, she buried her face in her arms. I could not believe at first that she was crying. The policeman had wandered across to the other rail, and stood looking out at the city lights, his back to us. I put my hand out to touch her soft hair, then drew it back. I could not take advantage of her sympathy, of the hysterical excitement of that last night on the Ella. I put my hands in my pockets, and held them there, clenched, lest, in spite of my will, I reach out to take her in my arms.