The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXI. "A Bad Woman"
Charlie Jones was called first, on the second day of the trial. He gave his place of birth as Pennsylvania, and his present shore address as a Sailors' Christian Home in New York. He offered, without solicitation, the information that he had been twenty-eight years in the Turner service, and could have been "up at the top," but preferred the forecastle, so that he could be an influence to the men.
His rolling gait, twinkling blue eyes, and huge mustache, as well as the plug of tobacco which he sliced with a huge knife, put the crowd in good humor, and relieved somewhat the somberness of the proceedings.
"Where were you between midnight and 4 A.M. on the morning of August i2?"
"At the wheel."
"You did not leave the wheel during that time?"
"When was that?"
"After they found the captain's body. I went to the forward companion and looked down."
"Is a helmsman permitted to leave his post?"
"With the captain lying dead down in a pool of blood, I should think-"
"Never mind thinking. Is he?"
"What did you do with the wheel when you left it?"
"Lashed it. There are two rope-ends, with loops, to lash it with. When I was on the Sarah Winters -"
"Stick to the question. Did you see the mate, Mr. Singleton, during your watch?"
"Every half-hour from 12.30 to 1.30. He struck the bells. After that he said he was sick. He thought he'd been poisoned. He said he was going forward to lie down, and for me to strike them."
"Who struck the bell at three o'clock?"
"I did, sir."
"When did you hear a woman scream?"
"Just before that."
"What did you do?"
"Nothing. It was the Hansen woman. I did n't like her. She was a bad woman. When I told her what she was, she laughed."
"Were you ever below in the after house?"
"No, sir; not since the boat was fixed up."
"What could you see through the window beside the wheel?"
"It looked into the chart-room. If the light was on, I could see all but the floor."
"Between the hours of I A.m. and 3 A.m., did any one leave or enter the after house by the after companion?"
"Yes, sir. Mr. Singleton went down into the chart-room, and came back again in five or ten minutes."
"At what time?"
"At four bells - two o'clock."
"No one else?"
"No, sir; but I saw Mr. Turner -"
"Confine yourself to the question. What was Mr. Singleton's manner at the time you mention?"
"He was excited. He brought up a bottle of whiskey from the chart-room table, and drank what was left in it. Then he muttered something, and threw the empty bottle over the rail. He said he was still sick."
The cross-examination confined itself to one detail of Charlie Jones's testimony.
"Did you, between midnight and 3 A.M., see any one in the chart-room besides the mate?"
"Yes - Mr. Turner."
"You say you cannot see into the chart-room from the wheel at night. How did you see him?"
"He turned on the light. He seemed to be looking for something."
"Was he dressed?"
"Can you describe what he wore?"
"Yes, sir. His coat was off. He had a white shirt and a white vest."
"Were the shirt and vest similar to these I show you?"
"Most of them things look alike to me. Yes, sir."
The defense had scored again. But it suffered at the hands of Burns, the next witness. I believe the prosecution had intended to call Turner at this time; but, after a whispered conference with Turner's attorneys, they made a change. Turner, indeed, was in no condition to go on the stand. He was pallid and twitching, and his face was covered with sweat.
Burns corroborated the testimony against Singleton - his surly temper, his outbursts of rage, his threats against the captain. And he brought out a new point: that Jones, the helmsman, had been afraid of Singleton that night, and had asked not to be left alone at the wheel.
During this examination the prosecution for the first time made clear their position: that the captain was murdered first; that Vail interfered, and, pursued by Singleton, took refuge in his bunk, where he was slaughtered; that the murderer, bending to inspect his horrid work, had unwittingly touched the bell that roused Karen Hansen, and, crouching in the chartroom with the axe, had struck her as she opened the door.
The prosecution questioned Burns about the axe and its disappearance.
"Who suggested that the axe be kept in the captain's cabin?"
"Leslie, acting as captain."
"Who had the key?"
"I carried it on a strong line around my neck."
"Whose arrangement was that?"
"Leslie's. He had the key to Mr. Singleton's cabin, and I carried this one. We divided the responsibility."
"Did you ever give the key to any one?"
"Did it ever leave you?"
"Not until it was taken away."
"When was that?"
"On Saturday morning, August 22, shortly before dawn."
"Tell what happened."
"I was knocked down from behind, while I was standing at the port forward corner of the after house. The key was taken from me while I was unconscious."
"Did you ever see the white object that has been spoken of by the crew?"
"No, sir. I searched the deck one night when Adams, the lookout, raised an alarm. We found nothing except -"
"He threw down a marlinespike at something moving in the bow. The spike disappeared. We couldn't find it, although we could see where it had struck the deck. Afterwards we found a marlinespike hanging over the ship's side by a lanyard. It might have been the one we looked for."
"A cord - a sort of rope."
"It could not have fallen over the side and hung there?"
"It was fastened with a Blackwell hitch."
"Show us what you mean."
On cross-examination by Singleton's attorney, Burns was forced to relate the incident of the night before his injury - that Mrs. Johns had asked to see the axe, and he had shown it to her. He maintained stoutly that she had not been near the bunk, and that the axe was there when he locked the door.
Adams, called, testified to seeing a curious, misty-white object on the forecastle-head. It had seemed to come over the bow. The marlinespike he threw had had no lanyard.
Mrs. Turner and Miss Lee escaped with a light examination. Their evidence amounted to little, and was practically the same. They had retired early, and did not rouse until I called them. They remained in their rooms most of the time after that, and were busy caring for Mr. Turner, who had been ill. Mrs. Turner was good enough to say that I had made them as safe and as comfortable as possible.
The number of witnesses to be examined, and the searching grilling to which most of them were subjected, would have dragged the case to interminable length, had it not been for the attitude of the judges, who discouraged quibbling and showed a desire to reach the truth with the least possible delay. One of the judges showed the wide and unbiased attitude of the court by a little speech after an especially venomous contest.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we are attempting to get to a solution of this thing. We are trying one man, it is true, but, in a certain sense, we are trying every member of the crew, every person who was on board the ship the night of the crime. We have a curious situation. The murderer is before us, either in the prisoner's dock or among the witnesses. Let us get at the truth without bickering."
Mrs. Johns was called, following Miss Lee. I watched her carefully on the stand. I had never fathomed Mrs. Johns, or her attitude toward the rest of the party. I had thought, at the beginning of the cruise, that Vail and she were incipient lovers. But she had taken his death with a calmness that was close to indifference. There was something strange and inexplicable in her tigerish championship of Turner - and it remains inexplicable even now. I have wondered since - was she in love with Turner, or was she only a fiery partisan? I wonder!
She testified with an insolent coolness that clearly irritated the prosecution - thinking over her replies, refusing to recall certain things, and eyeing the jury with long, slanting glances that set them, according to their type, either wriggling or ogling.
The first questions were the usual ones. Then:
"Do you recall the night of the 3 1st of July
"Can you be more specific?"
"I refer to the night when Captain Richardson found the prisoner in the chart-room and ordered him on deck."
"I recall that, yes."
"Where were you during the quarrel?"
"I was behind Mr. Vail."
"Tell us about it, please."
"It was an ordinary brawl. The captain knocked the mate down."
"Did you hear the mate threaten the captain?"
" No. He went on deck, muttering; I did not hear what was said."
"After the crimes, what did you do?"
"We established a dead-line at the foot of the forward companion. The other was locked."
"Was there a guard at the top of the companion?"
"Yes; but we trusted no one."
"Where was Mr. Turner?"
"Ill, in his cabin."
"Very. He was delirious."
"Did you allow any one down?"
"At first, Leslie, a sort of cabin-boy and deck steward, who seemed to know something of medicine. Afterward we would not allow him, either."
"We did not trust him."
"This Leslie -why had you asked him to sleep in the storeroom?"
"I - was afraid."
"Will you explain why you were afraid?"
"Fear is difficult to explain, isn't it? If one knows why one is afraid, one - er - generally isn't."
"That's a bit subtle, I'm afraid. You were afraid, then, without knowing why?"
"Had you a revolver on board?'"
"Whose revolver was kept on the cabin table?"
"Mine. I always carry one."
"Then - have you one with you now?"
"When you asked the sailor Burns to let you see the axe, what did you give as a reason?"
"The truth - curiosity."
"Then, having seen the axe, where did you go?"
"Please explain the incident of the two articles Mr. Goldstein showed to the jury yesterday, the shirt and waistcoat."
"That was very simple. Mr. Turner had been very ill. We took turns in caring for him. I spilled a bowl of broth over the garments that were shown, and rubbed them out in the bathroom. They were hung in the cabin used by Mr. Vail to dry, and I forgot them when we were packing."
The attorney for the defense cross-examined her:
"What color were the stains you speak of?"
"Darkish - red-brown."
"What sort of broth did you spill?"
"That's childish, isn't it? I don't recall."
"You recall its color."
"It was beef broth."
"Mrs. Johns, on the night you visited the forward house and viewed the axe, did you visit it again?"
"The axe, or the forward house?"
She made one of her long pauses. Finally: -
"Between three and four o'clock."
"Who went with you?"
"I went alone."
"Why did you go beyond the line that was railed off for your safety?"
(Sharply.) "Because I wished to. I was able to take care of myself."
"Why did you visit the forward house?"
"I was nervous and could not sleep. I thought no one safe while the axe was on the ship."
"Did you see the body of Burns, the sailor, lying on the deck at that time?"
"He might have been there; I did not see him."
"Are you saying that you went to the forward house to throw the axe overboard?"
"Yes - if I could get in."
"Did you know why the axe was being kept?"
"Because the murders had been committed with it."
"Had you heard of any finger-prints on the handle?"
"Did it occur to you that you were interfering with justice in disposing of the axe?"
"Do you mean justice or law? They are not the same."
"Tell us about your visit to the forward house."
"It was between two and three. I met no one. I had a bunch of keys from the trunks and from four doors in the after house. Miss Lee knew I intended to try to get rid of the axe. I did not need my keys. The door was open --wide open. I - I went in, and -"
Here, for the first time, Mrs. Johns's composure forsook her. She turned white, and her maid passed up to her a silver smelling-salts bottle.
"What happened when you went in?"
"It was dark. I stood just inside. Then something rushed past me and out of the door, a something - I don't know what - a woman, I thought at first, in white."
"If the room was dark, how could you tell it was white?"
"There was a faint light -enough to see that. There was no noise - just a sort of swishing sound."
"What did you do then?"
"I waited a moment, and hurried back to the after house."
"Was the axe gone then?"
"I do not know."
"Did you see the axe at that time?"
"Did you touch it?"
"I have never touched it, at that time or before."
She could not be shaken in her testimony and was excused. She had borne her grilling exceedingly well, and, in spite of her flippancy, there was a ring of sincerity about the testimony that gave it weight.
Following her evidence, the testimony of Tom, the cook, made things look bad for Singleton, by connecting him with Mrs. Johns's intruder in the captain's room. He told of Singleton's offer to make him a key to the galley with wire. It was clear that Singleton had been a prisoner in name only, and this damaging statement was given weight when, on my recall later, I identified the bunch of keys, the file, and the club that I had taken from Singleton's mattress. It was plain enough that, with Singleton able to free himself as he wished, the attack on Burns and the disappearance of the axe were easily enough accounted for. It would have been possible, also, to account for the white figure that had so alarmed the men, on the same hypothesis. Cross-examination of Tom by Mr. Goldstein, Singleton's attorney, brought out one curious fact. He had made no dark soup or broth for the after house. Turner had taken nothing during his illness but clam bouillon, made with milk, and the meals served to the four women had been very light. "They lived on toast and tea, mostly," he said.
That completed the taking of evidence for the day. In spite of the struggles of the clever young Jew, the weight of testimony was against Singleton. But there were curious discrepancies.
Turner went on the stand the neat morning.