The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter III. I Unclench My Hands
>From the first the captain disclaimed responsibility for me. I was housed in the forecastle, and ate with the men. There, however, my connection with the crew and the navigation of the ship ended. Perhaps it was as well, although I resented it at first. I was weaker than I had thought, and dizzy at the mere thought of going aloft.
As a matter of fact, I found myself a sort of deck-steward, given the responsibility of looking after the shuffle-board and other deck games, the steamer-rugs, the cards, - for they played bridge steadily, - and answerable to George Williams, the colored butler, for the various liquors served on deck.
The work was easy, and the situation rather amused me. After an effort or two to bully me, one of which resulted in my holding him over the rail until he turned gray with fright, Williams treated me as an equal, which was gratifying.
The weather was good, the food fair. I had no reason to repent my bargain. Of the sailing qualities of the Ella there could be no question. The crew, selected by Captain Richardson from the best men of the Turner line, knew their business, and, especially after the Williams incident, made me one of themselves. Barring the odor of formaldehyde in the forecastle, which drove me to sleeping on deck for a night or two, everything was going smoothly, at least on the surface.
Smoothly as far as the crew was concerned. I was not so sure about the after house.
As I have said, owing to the small size, of the vessel, and the fact that considerable of the space had been used for baths, there were, besides the family, only two guests, a Mrs. Johns, a divorcee, and a Mr. Vail. Mrs. Turner and Miss Lee shared the services of a maid, Karen Hansen, who, with a stewardess, Henrietta Sloane, occupied a double cabin. Vail had a small room, as had Turner, with a bath between which they used in common. Mrs. Turner's room was a large one, with its own bath, into which Elsa Lee's room also opened. Mrs. Johns had a room and bath. Roughly, and not drawn to scale, the living quarters of the family were arranged like the diagram in chapter XIX.
I have said that things were not going smoothly in the after house. I felt it rather than, saw it. The women rose late - except Miss Lee, who was frequently about when I washed the deck. They chatted and laughed together, read, played bridge when the men were so inclined, and now and then, when their attention was drawn to it, looked at the sea. They were always exquisitely and carefully dressed, and I looked at them as I would at any other masterpieces of creative art, with nothing of covetousness in my admiration.
The men were violently opposed types Turner, tall, heavy-shouldered, morose by habit, with a prominent nose and rapidly thinning hair, and with strong, pale blue eyes, congested from hard drinking; Vail, shorter by three inches, dark, good-looking, with that dusky flush under the skin which shows good red blood, and as temperate as Turner was dissipated.
Vail was strong, too. After I had held Williams over the rail I turned to find him looking on, amused. And when the frightened darky had taken himself, muttering threats, to the galley, Vail came over to me and ran his hand down my arm.
"Where did you get it?" he asked.
"Oh, I've always had some muscle," I said. "I'm in bad shape now; just getting over fever."
"Fever, eh? I thought it was jail. Look here."
He threw out his biceps for me to feel. It was a ball of iron under my fingers. The man was as strong as an ox. He smiled at my surprise, and, after looking to see that no one was in sight, offered to mix me a highball from a decanter and siphon on a table.
It was his turn to be surprised.
"I gave it up when I was in train- in the hospital," I corrected myself. "I find I don't miss it."
He eyed me with some curiosity over his glass, and, sauntering away, left me to my work of folding rugs. But when I had finished, and was chalking the deck for shuffle-board, he joined me again, dropping his voice, for the women had come up by that time and were breakfasting on the lee side of the after house.
"Have you any idea, Leslie, how much whiskey there is on board?"
"Williams has considerable, I believe. I don't think there is any in the forward house. The captain is a teetotaler."
"I see. When these decanters go back, Williams takes charge of them?"
"Yes. He locks them away."
He dropped his voice still lower.
"Empty them, Leslie," he said. "Do you understand? Throw what is left overboard. And, if you get a chance at Williams's key, pitch a dozen or two quarts overboard."
"And be put in irons!"
"Not necessarily. I think you understand me. I don't trust Williams. In a week we could have this boat fairly dry."
"There is a great deal of wine."
He scowled. "Damn Williams, anyhow! His instructions were - but never mind about that. Get rid of the whiskey."
Turner coming up the companionway at that moment, Vail left me. I had understood him perfectly. It was common talk in the forecastle that Turner was drinking hard, and that, in fact, the cruise had been arranged by his family in the hope that, away from his clubs; he would alter his habits - a fallacy, of course. Taken away from his customary daily round, given idle days on a summer sea, and aided by Williams, the butler, he was drinking his head off.
Early as it was, he was somewhat the worse for it that morning. He made directly for me. It was the first time he had noticed me, although it was the third day out. He stood in front of me, his red eyes flaming, and, although I am a tall man, he had an inch perhaps the advantage of me.
"What's this about Williams?" he demanded furiously. "What do you mean by a thing like that?"
"He was bullying me. I didn't intend to drop him."
The ship was rolling gently; he made a pass at me with a magazine he carried, and almost lost his balance. The women had risen, and were watching from the corner of the after house. I caught him and steadied him until he could clutch a chair.
"You try any tricks like that again, and you'll go overboard," he stormed. "Who are you, anyhow? Not one of our men?"
I saw the quick look between Vail and Mrs. Turner, and saw her come forward. Mrs. Johns followed her, smiling.
"Marsh!" Mrs. Turner protested. "I told you about him - the man who had been ill."
"Oh, another of your friends!" he sneered, and looked from me to Vail with his ugly smile.
Vail went rather pale and threw up his head quickly. The next moment Mrs. Johns had saved the situation with an irrelevant remark, and the incident was over. They were playing bridge, not without dispute, but at least without insult. But I had hard a glimpse beneath the surface of that luxurious cruise, one of many such in the next few days.
That was on Monday, the third day out. Up to that time Miss Lee had not noticed me, except once, when she found me scrubbing the deck, to comment on a corner that she thought might be cleaner, and another time in the evening, when she and Vail sat in chairs until late, when she had sent me below for a wrap. She looked past me rather than at me, gave me her orders quietly but briefly, and did not even take the trouble to ignore me. And yet, once or twice, I had found her eyes fixed on me with a cool, half-amused expression, as if she found something in my struggles to carry trays as if I had been accustomed to them, or to handle a mop as a mop should be handled and not like a hockey stick - something infinitely entertaining and not a little absurd.
But that morning, after they had settled to bridge, she followed me to the rail, out of earshot I straightened and took off my cap, and she stood looking at me, unsmiling.
"Unclench your hands!" she said.
"I beg your pardon!" I straightened out my fingers, conscious for the first time of my clenched fists, and even opened and closed them once or twice to prove their relaxation.
"That's better. Now - won't you try to remember that I am responsible for your being here, and be careful?"
"Then take me away from here and put me with the crew. I am stronger now. Ask the captain to give me a man's work. This - this is a housemaid's occupation."
"We prefer to have you here," she said coldly; and then, evidently repenting her manner: "We need a man here, Leslie. Better stay. Are you comfortable in the forecastle?"
"Yes, Miss Lee."
"And the food is all right?"
"The cook says I am eating two men's rations."
She turned to leave, smiling. It was the first time she had thrown even a fleeting smile my way, and it went to my head.
"And Williams? I am to submit to his insolence?"
She stopped and turned, and the smile faded.
"The next time," she said, "you are to drop him!"
But during the remainder of the day she neither spoke to me nor looked, as far as I could tell, in my direction. She flirted openly with Vail, rather, I thought, to the discomfort of Mrs. Johns, who had appropriated him to herself - sang to him in the cabin, and in the long hour before dinner, when the others were dressing, walked the deck with him, talking earnestly. They looked well together, and I believe he was in love with her. Poor Vail!
Turner had gone below, grimly good-humored, to dress for dinner; and I went aft to chat, as I often did, with the steersman. On this occasion it happened to be Charlie Jones. Jones was not his name, so far as I know. It was some inordinately long and different German inheritance, and so, with the facility of the average crew, he had been called Jones. He was a benevolent little man, highly religious, and something of a philosopher. And because I could understand German, and even essay it in a limited way, he was fond of me.
"Seta du dick," he said, and moved over so that I could sit on the grating on which he stood. "The sky is fine to-night. Wunderschon!"
"It always looks good to me," I observed, filling my pipe and passing my tobacco-bag to him. "I may have my doubts now and then on land, Charlie; but here, between the sky and the sea, I'm a believer, right enough."
"'In the beginning He created the heaven and the earth,'" said Charlie reverently.
We were silent for a time. The ship rolled easily; now and then she dipped her bowsprit with a soft swish of spray; a school of dolphins played astern, and the last of the land birds that had followed us out flew in circles around the masts.
"Sometimes," said Charlie Jones, "I think the Good Man should have left it the way it was after the flood just sky and water. What's the land, anyhow? Noise and confusion, wickedness and crime, robbing the widow and the orphan, eat or be et."
"Well," I argued, "the sea's that way. What are those fish out there flying for, but to get out of the way of bigger fish?"
Charlie Jones surveyed me over his pipe.
"True enough, youngster," he said; "but the Lord's given 'em wings to fly with. He ain't been so careful with the widow and the orphan."
This statement being incontrovertible, I let the argument lapse, and sat quiet, luxuriating in the warmth, in the fresh breeze, in the feeling of bodily well-being that came with my returning strength. I got up and stretched, and my eyes fell on the small window of the chart-room.
The door into the main cabin beyond was open. It was dark with the summer twilight, except for the four rose-shaded candles on the table, now laid for dinner. A curious effect it had - the white cloth and gleaming pink an island of cheer in a twilight sea; and to and from this rosy island, making short excursions, advancing, retreating, disappearing at times, the oval white ship that was Williams's shirt bosom.
Charlie Jones, bending to the right and raised to my own height by the grating on which he stood, looked over my shoulder. Dinner was about to be served. The women had come out. The table-lamps threw their rosy glow over white necks and uncovered arms, and revealed, higher in the shadows, the faces of the men, smug, clean-shaven, assured, rather heavy.
I had been the guest of honor on a steam-yacht a year or two before, after a game. There had been pink lights on the table, I remembered, and the place-cards at dinner the first night out had been caricatures of me in fighting trim. There had been a girl, too. For the three days of that week-end cruise I had been mad about her; before that first dinner, when I had known her two hours, I had kissed her hand and told her I loved her!
Vail and Miss Lee had left the others and come into the chart-room. As Charlie Jones and I looked, he bent over and kissed her hand.
The sun had gone down. My pipe was empty, and from the galley, forward, came the odor of the forecastle supper. Charlie was coughing, a racking paroxysm that shook his wiry body. He leaned over and caught my shoulder as I was moving away.
"New paint and new canvas don't make a new ship," he said, choking back the cough. "She's still the old Ella, the she-devil of the Turner line. Pink lights below, and not a rat in the hold! They left her before we sailed, boy. Every rope was crawling with 'em."
"The very rats Instinctively had left it," -
I quoted. But Charlie, clutching the wheel, was coughing again, and cursing breathlessly as he coughed.