Chapter XXIII. Free Again
 

With the submission of the case to the jury, the witnesses were given their freedom. McWhirter had taken a room for me for a day or two to give me time to look about; and, his own leave of absence from his hospital being for ten days, we had some time together.

My situation was better than it had been in the summer. I had my strength again, although the long confinement had told on me. But my position was precarious enough. I had my pay from the Ella, and nothing else. And McWhirter, with a monthly stipend from his hospital of twenty-five dollars, was not much better off.

My first evening of freedom we spent at the theater. We bought the best seats in the house, and we dressed for the occasion - being in the position of having nothing to wear between shabby everyday wear and evening clothes.

"It is by way of celebration," Mac said, as he put a dab of shoe-blacking over a hole in his sock; "you having been restored to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That's the game, Leslie - the pursuit of happiness."

I was busy with a dress tie that I had washed and dried by pasting it on a mirror, an old trick of mine when funds ran low. I was trying to enter into Mac's festive humor, but I had not reacted yet from the horrors of the past few months.

"Happiness!" I said scornfully. "Do you call this happiness?"

He put up the blacking, and, coming to me, stood eyeing me in the mirror as I arranged my necktie.

"Don't be bitter," he said. "Happiness was my word. The Good Man was good to you when he made you. That ought to be a source of satisfaction. And as for the girl -"

"What girl?"

"If she could only see you now. Why in thunder didn't you take those clothes on board? I wanted you to. Couldn't a captain wear a dress suit on special occasions?"

"Mac," I said gravely, "if you will think a moment, you will remember that the only special occasions on the Ella, after I took charge, were funerals. Have you sat through seven days of horrors without realizing that?"

Mac had once gone to Europe on a liner, and, having exhausted his funds, returned on a cattle-boat.

"All the captains I ever knew," he said largely, "were a fussy lot - dressed to kill, and navigating the boat from the head of a dinner-table. But I suppose you know. I was only regretting that she hadn't seen you the way you're looking now. That's all. I suppose I may regret, without hurting your feelings!"

He dropped all mention of Elsa after that, for a long time. But I saw him looking at me, at intervals, during the evening, and sighing. He was still regretting!

We enjoyed the theater, after all, with the pent-up enthusiasm of long months of work and strain. We laughed at the puerile fun, encored the prettiest of the girls, and swaggered in the lobby between acts, with cigarettes. There we ran across the one man I knew in Philadelphia, and had supper after the play with three or four fellows who, on hearing my story, persisted in believing that I had sailed on the Ella as a lark or to follow a girl. My simple statement that I had done it out of necessity met with roars of laughter and finally I let it go at that.

It was after one when we got back to the lodging-house, being escorted there in a racing car by a riotous crowd that stood outside the door, as I fumbled for my key, and screeched in unison: "Leslie! Leslie! Leslie! Sic 'em!" before they drove away.

The light in the dingy lodging-house parlor was burning full, but the hall was dark. I stopped inside and lighted a cigarette.

"Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, Mac!" I said. "I've got the first two, and the other can be had - for the pursuit."

Mac did not reply: he was staring into the parlor. Elsa Lee was standing by a table, looking at me.

She was very nervous, and tried to explain her presence in a breath - with the result that she broke down utterly and had to stop. Mac, his jovial face rather startled, was making for the stairs; but I sternly brought him back and presented him. Whereon, being utterly confounded, he made the tactful remark that he would have to go and put out the milk-bottles: it was almost morning!

She had been waiting since ten o'clock, she said. A taxicab, with her maid, was at the door. They were going back to New York in the morning, and things were terribly wrong.

"Wrong? You need not mind Mr. McWhirter. He is as anxious as I am to be helpful."

"There are detectives watching Marshall; we saw one to-day at the hotel. If the jury disagrees - and the lawyers think they will - they will arrest him."

I thought it probable. There was nothing I could say. McWhirter made an effort to reassure her.

"It wouldn't be a hanging matter, anyhow," he said. "There's a lot against him, but hardly a jury in the country would hang a man for something he did, if he could prove he was delirious the next day." She paled at this dubious comfort, but it struck her sense of humor, too, for she threw me a fleeting smile.

"I was to ask you to do something," she said. "None of us can, for we are being watched. I was probably followed here. The Ella is still in the river, with only a watchman on board. We want you to go there to-night, if you can."

"To the Ella?"

She was feeling in her pocketbook, and now she held out to me an envelope addressed in a sprawling hand to Mr. Turner at his hotel.

"Am I to open it?"

"Please."

I unfolded a sheet of ruled note-paper of the most ordinary variety. It had been opened and laid flat, and on it, in black ink, was a crude drawing of the deck of the Ella, as one would look down on it from aloft. Here and there were small crosses in red ink, and, overlying it all from bow to stern, a red axe. Around the border, not written, but printed in childish letters, were the words: "NOT YET. HA, HA." In a corner was a drawing of a gallows, or what passes in the everyday mind for a gallows, and in the opposite corner an open book.

"You see," she said, "it was mailed downtown late this afternoon. The hotel got it at seven o'clock. Marshall wanted to get a detective, but I thought of you. I knew - you knew the boat, and then - you had said -"

"Anything in all the world that I can do to help you, I will do," I said, looking at her. And the thing that I could not keep out of my eyes made her drop hers.

"Sweet little document!" said McWhirter, looking over my shoulder. "Sent by some one with a nice disposition. What do the crosses mark?"

"The location of the bodies when found," .I explained - "these three. This looks like the place where Burns lay unconscious. That one near the rail I don't know about, nor this by the mainmast."

"We thought they might mark places, clues, perhaps, that had been overlooked. The whole - the whole document is a taunt, isn't it? The scaffold, and the axe, and 'not yet'; a piece of bravado!"

"Right you are," said McWhirter admiringly. "A little escape of glee from somebody who's laughing too soon. One-thirty - it will soon be the proper hour for something to happen on the Ella, won't it? If that was sent by some member of the crew -and it looks like it; they are loose to-day - the quicker we follow it up, the better, if there's anything to follow."

"We thought if you would go early in the morning, before any of them make an excuse to go back on board -"

"We will go right away; but, please - don't build too much on this. It's a good possibility, that's all. Will the watchman let us on board?"

"We thought of that. Here is a note to him from Marshall, and - will you do us one more kindness?"

"I will."

"Then - if you should find anything, bring it to us; to the police; later, if you must, but to us first."

"When?"

"In the morning. We will not leave until we hear from you."

She held out her hand, first to McWhirter, then to me. I kept it a little longer than I should have, perhaps, and she did not take it away.

"It is such a comfort," she said, "to have you with us and not against us! For Marshall didn't do it, Leslie - I mean - it is hard for me to think of you as Dr. Leslie! He didn't do it. At first, we thought he might have, and he was delirious and could not reassure us. He swears he did not. I think, just at first, he was afraid he had done it; but he did not. I believe that, and you must."

I believed her - I believed anything she said. I think that if she had chosen to say that I had wielded the murderer's axe on the Ella, I should have gone to the gallows rather than gainsay her. From that night, I was the devil's advocate, if you like. I was determined to save Marshall Turner.

She wished us to take her taxicab, dropping her at her hotel; and, reckless now of everything but being with her, I would have done so. But McWhirter's discreet cough reminded me of the street-car level of our finances, and I made the excuse of putting on more suitable clothing.

I stood in the street, bareheaded, watching her taxicab as it rattled down the street. McWhirter touched me on the arm.

"Wake up!" he said. "We have work to do, my friend."

We went upstairs together, cautiously, not to rouse the house. At the top, Mac turned and patted me on the elbow, my shoulder being a foot or so above him.

"Good boy!" he said. "And if that shirtfront and tie didn't knock into eternal oblivion the deck-washing on the Ella, I'll eat them!"