The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XXIV. The Thing
I deserve no credit for the solution of the Ella's mystery. I have a certain quality of force, perhaps, and I am not lacking in physical courage; but I have no finesse of intellect. McWhirter, a foot shorter than I, round of face, jovial and stocky, has as much subtlety in his little finger as I have in my six feet and a fraction of body.
All the way to the river, therefore, he was poring over the drawing. He named the paper at once.
"Ought to know it," he said, in reply to my surprise. "Sold enough paper at the drugstore to qualify as a stationery engineer." He writhed as was his habit over his jokes, and then fell to work at the drawing again. "A book," he said, "and an axe, and a gibbet or gallows. B-a-g - that makes 'bag.' Doesn't go far, does it? Humorous duck, isn't he? Any one who can write 'ha! ha!' under a gallows has real humor. G-a-b, b-a-g!"
The Ella still lay in the Delaware, half a mile or so from her original moorings. She carried the usual riding-lights - a white one in the bow, another at the stern, and the two vertical red lights which showed her not under command. In reply to repeated signals, we were unable to rouse the watchman. I had brought an electric flash with me, and by its aid we found a rope ladder over the side, with a small boat at its foot.
Although the boat indicated the presence of the watchman on board, we made our way to the deck without challenge. Here McWhirter suggested that the situation might be disagreeable, were the man to waken and get at us with a gun.
We stood by the top of the ladder, therefore, and made another effort to rouse him. "Hey, watchman!" I called. And McWhirter, in a deep bass, sang lustily: "Watchman, what of the night?" Neither of us made, any perceptible impression on the silence and gloom of the Ella.
McWhirter grew less gay. The deserted decks of the ship, her tragic history, her isolation, the darkness, which my small flash seemed only to intensify, all had their effect on him.
"It's got my goat," he admitted. "It smells like a tomb."
"Don't be an ass."
"Turn the light over the side, and see if we fastened that boat. We don't want to be left here indefinitely."
"That's folly, Mac," I said, but I obeyed him. "The watchman's boat is there, so we -"
But he caught me suddenly by the arm and shook me.
"My God!" he said. "What is that over there?"
It was a moment before my eyes, after the flashlight, could discern anything in the darkness. Mac was pointing forward. When I could see, Mac was ready to laugh at himself.
"I told you the place had my goat!" he said sheepishly. "I thought I saw something duck around the corner of that building; but I think it was a ray from a searchlight on one of those boats."
"The watchman, probably," I said quietly. But my heart beat a little faster. "The watchman taking a look at us and gone for his gun."
I thought rapidly. If Mac had seen anything, I did not believe it was the watchman. But there should be a watchman on board - in the forward house, probably. I gave Mac my revolver and put the light in my pocket. I might want both hands that night. I saw better without the flash, and, guided partly by the bow light, partly by my knowledge of the yacht, I led the way across the deck. The forward house was closed and locked, and no knocking produced any indication of life. The after house we found not only locked, but barred across with strips of wood nailed into place. The forecastle was likewise closed. It was a dead ship.
No figure reappearing to alarm him, Mac took the drawing out of his pocket and focused the flashlight on it.
"This cross by the mainmast," he said "that would be where?"
"Right behind you, there."
He walked to the mast, and examined carefully around its base. There was nothing there, and even now I do not know to what that cross alluded, unless poor Schwartz -!
"Then this other one - forward, you call it, don't you? Suppose we locate that."
All expectation of the watchman having now died, we went forward on the port side to the approximate location of the cross. This being in the neighborhood where Mac had thought he saw something move, we approached with extreme caution. But nothing more ominous was discovered than the port lifeboat, nothing more ghostly heard than the occasional creak with which it rocked in its davits.
The lifeboat seemed to be indicated by the cross. It swung almost shoulder-high on McWhirter. We looked under and around it, with a growing feeling that we had misread the significance of the crosses, or that the sinister record extended to a time before the "she devil" of the Turner line was dressed in white and turned into a lady.
I was feeling underneath the boat, with a sense of absurdity that McWhirter put into words. "I only hope," he said, "that the watchman does not wake up now and see us. He'd be justified in filling us with lead, or putting us in straitjackets."
But I had discovered something.
"Mac," I said, "some one has been at this boat within the last few minutes."
"Take your revolver and watch the deck. One of the barecas - "
"One of the water-barrels has been upset, and the plug is out. It is leaking into the boat. It is leaking fast, and there's only a gallon or so in the bottom! Give me the light."
The contents of the boat revealed the truth of what I had said. The boat was in confusion. Its cover had been thrown back, and tins of biscuit, bailers, boathooks and extra rowlocks were jumbled together in confusion. The barecas lay on its side, and its plug had been either knocked or drawn out.
McWhirter was for turning to inspect the boat; but I ordered him sternly to watch the deck. He was inclined to laugh at my caution, which he claimed was a quality in me he had not suspected. He lounged against the rail near me, and, in spite of his chaff, kept a keen enough lookout.
The barecas of water were lashed amidships. In the bow and stern were small air-tight compartments, and in the stern was also a small locker from which the biscuit tins had been taken. I was about to abandon my search, when I saw something gleaming in the locker, and reached in and drew it out. It appeared to be an ordinary white sheet, but its presence there was curious. I turned the light on it. It was covered with dark-brown stains.
Even now the memory of that sheet turns me ill. I shook it out, and Mac, at my exclamation, came to me. It was not a sheet at all, that is, not a whole one. It was a circular piece of white cloth, on which, in black, were curious marks - a six-pointed star predominating. There were others - a crescent, a crude attempt to draw what might be either a dog or a lamb, and a cross. From edge to edge it was smeared with blood.
Of what followed just after, both McWhirter and I are vague. There seemed to be, simultaneously, a yell of fury from the rigging overhead, and the crash of a falling body on the deck near us. Then we were closing with a kicking, biting, screaming thing, that bore me to the ground, extinguishing the little electric flash, and that, rising suddenly from under me, had McWhirter in the air, and almost overboard before I caught him. So dazed were we by the onslaught that the thing - whatever it was - could have escaped, and left us none the wiser. But, although it eluded us in the darkness, it did not leave. It was there, whimpering to itself, searching for something - the sheet. As I steadied Mac, it passed me. I caught at it. Immediately the struggle began all over again. But this time we had the advantage, and kept it. After a battle that seemed to last all night, and that was actually fought all over that part of the deck, we held the creature subdued, and Mac, getting a hand free, struck a match.
It was Charlie Jones.
That, after all, is the story. Jones was a madman, a homicidal maniac of the worst type. Always a madman, the homicidal element of his disease was recurrent and of a curious nature.
He thought himself a priest of heaven, appointed to make ghastly sacrifices at certain signals from on high. The signals I am not sure of; he turned taciturn after his capture and would not talk. I am inclined to think that a shooting star, perhaps in a particular quarter of the heavens, was his signal. This is distinctly possible, and is made probable by the stars which he had painted with tar on his sacrificial robe.
The story of the early morning of August 12 will never be fully known; but much of it, in view of our knowledge, we were able to reconstruct. Thus - Jones ate his supper that night, a mild and well-disposed individual. During the afternoon before, he had read prayers for the soul of Schwartz, in whose departure he may or may not have had a part I am inclined to think not, Jones construing his mission as being one to remove the wicked and the oppressor, and Schwartz hardly coming under either classification.
He was at the wheel from midnight until four in the morning on the night of the murders. At certain hours we believe that he went forward to the forecastle-head, and performed, clad in his priestly robe, such devotions as his disordered mind dictated. It is my idea that he looked, at these times, for a heavenly signal, either a meteor or some strange appearance of the heavens. It was known that he was a poor sleeper, and spent much time at night wandering around.
On the night of the crimes it is probable that he performed his devotions early, and then got the signal. This is evidenced by Singleton's finding the axe against the captain's door before midnight. He had evidently been disturbed. We believe that he intended to kill the captain and Mr. Turner, but made a mistake in the rooms. He clearly intended to kill the Danish girl. Several passages in his Bible, marked with a red cross, showed his inflamed hatred of loose women; and he believed Karen Hansen to be of that type.
He locked me in, slipping down from the wheel to do so, and pocketing the key. The night was fairly quiet. He could lash the wheel safely, and he had in his favor the fact that Oleson, the lookout, was a slow-thinking Swede who notoriously slept on his watch. He found the axe, not where he had left it, but back in the case. But the case was only closed, not locked - Singleton's error.
Armed with the axe, Jones slipped back to the wheel and waited. He had plenty of time. He had taken his robe from its hiding-place in the boat, and had it concealed near him with the axe. He was ready, but he was waiting for another signal. He got it at half-past two. He admitted the signal and the time, but concealed its nature - I think it was a shooting star. He killed Vail first, believing it to be Turner, and making with his axe, the four signs of the cross. Then he went to the Hansen girl's door. He did not know about the bell, and probably rang it by accident as he leaned over to listen if Vail still breathed.
The captain, in the mean time, had been watching Singleton. He had forbidden his entering the after house; if he caught him disobeying he meant to, put him in irons. He was without shoes or coat, and he sat waiting on the after companion steps for developments.
It was the captain, probably, whom Karen Hansen mistook for Turner. Later he went back to the forward companionway, either on his way back to his cabin, or still with an eye to Singleton's movements.
To the captain there must have appeared this grisly figure in flowing white, smeared with blood and armed with an axe. The sheet was worn over Jones's head - along, narrow slit serving him to see through, and two other slits freeing his arms. The captain was a brave man, but the apparition, gleaming in the almost complete darkness, had been on him before he could do more than throw up his hands.
Jones had not finished. He went back to the chart-room and possibly even went on deck and took a look at the wheel. Then he went down again and killed the Hansen woman.
He was exceedingly cunning. He flung the axe into the room, and was up and at the wheel again, all within a few seconds. To tear off and fold up the sheet, to hide it under near-by cordage, to strike the ship's bell and light his pipe - all this was a matter of two or three minutes. I had only time to look at Vail. When I got up to the wheel, Jones was smoking quietly.
I believe he tried to get Singleton later, and failed. But he continued his devotions on the forward deck, visible when clad in his robe, invisible when he took it off. It was Jones, of course, who attacked Burns and secured the key to the captain's cabin; Jones who threw the axe overboard after hearing the crew tell that on its handle were finger-prints to identify the murderer; Jones who, while on guard in the after house below, had pushed the key to the storeroom under Turner's door; Jones who hung the marlinespike over the side, waiting perhaps for another chance at Singleton; Jones, in his devotional attire, who had frightened the crew into hysteria, and who, discovered by Mrs. Johns in the captain's cabin, had rushed by her, and out, with the axe. It is noticeable that he made no attempt to attack her. He killed only in obedience to his signal, and he had had no signal.
Perhaps the most curious thing, after the murderer was known, was the story of the people in the after house. It was months before I got that in full. The belief among the women was that Turner, maddened by drink and unreasoning jealousy, had killed Vail, and then, running amuck or discovered by the other victims, had killed them. This was borne out by Turner's condition. His hands and parts of his clothing were blood-stained.
Their condition was pitiable. Unable to speak for himself, he lay raving in his room, talking to Vail and complaining of a white figure that bothered him. The key that Elsa Lee picked up was another clue, and in their attempt to get rid of it I had foiled them. Mrs. Johns, an old friend and, as I have said, an ardent partisan, undertook to get rid of the axe, with the result that we know. Even Turner's recovery brought little courage. He could only recall that he had gone into Vail's room and tried to wake him, without result; that he did not know of the blood until the next day, or that Vail was dead; and that he had a vague recollection of something white and ghostly that night - he was not sure where he had seen it.
The failure of their attempt to get rid of the storeroom key was matched by their failure to smuggle Turner's linen off the ship. Singleton suspected Turner, and, with the skillful and not over scrupulous aid of his lawyer, had succeeded in finding in Mrs. Sloane's trunk the incriminating pieces.
As to the meaning of the keys, file, and club in Singleton's mattress, I believe the explanation is simple enough. He saw against him a strong case. He had little money and no influence, while Turner had both. I have every reason to believe that he hoped to make his escape before the ship anchored, and was frustrated by my discovery of the keys and by an extra bolt I put on his door and window.
The murders on the schooner-yacht Ella were solved.
McWhirter went back to his hospital, the day after our struggle, wearing a strip of plaster over the bridge of his nose and a new air of importance. The Turners went to New York soon after, and I was alone. I tried to put Elsa Lee out of my thoughts, as she had gone out of my life, and, receiving the hoped-for hospital appointment at that time, I tried to make up by hard work for a happiness that I had not lost because it had never been mine.
A curious thing has happened to me. I had thought this record finished, but perhaps -
Turner's health is bad. He and his wife and Miss Lee are going to Europe. He has asked me to go with him in my professional capacity!
It is more than a year since I have seen her.
The year has brought some changes. Singleton is again a member of the Turner forces, having signed a contract and a temperance pledge at the same sitting. Jones is in a hospital for the insane, where in the daytime he is a cheery old tar with twinkling eyes and a huge mustache, and where now and then, on Christmas and holidays, I send him a supply of tobacco. At night he sleeps in a room with opaque glass windows through which no heavenly signals can penetrate. He will not talk of his crimes, - not that he so regards them, - but now and then in the night he wraps the drapery of his couch about him and performs strange orisons in the little room that is his. And at such times an attendant watches outside his door.