The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter IV. I Receive a Warning
The odor of formaldehyde in the forecastle having abated, permission for the crew to sleep on deck had been withdrawn. But the weather as we turned south had grown insufferably hot. The reek of the forecastle sickened me - the odor of fresh paint, hardly dry, of musty clothing and sweaty bodies.
I asked Singleton, the first mate, for permission to sleep on deck, and was refused. I went down, obediently enough, to be driven back with nausea. And so, watching my chance, I waited until the first mate, on watch, disappeared into the forward cabin to eat the night lunch always prepared by the cook and left there. Then, with a blanket and pillow, I crawled into the starboard lifeboat, and settled myself for the night. The lookout saw me, but gave no sign.
It was not a bad berth. As the ship listed, the stars seemed to sway above me, and my last recollection was of the Great Dipper, performing dignified gyrations in the sky.
I was aroused by one of the two lookouts, a young fellow named Burns. He was standing below, rapping on the side of the boat with his knuckles. I sat up and peered over at him, and was conscious for the first time that the weather had changed. A fine rain was falling; my hair and shirt were wet.
"Something doing in the chart-room," he said cautiously. "Thought you might not want to miss it."
He was in his bare feet, as was I. Together we hurried to the after house. The steersman, in oilskins, was at his post, but was peering through the barred window into the chart room, which was brilliantly lighted. He stepped aside somewhat to let us look in. The loud and furious voices which had guided us had quieted, but the situation had not relaxed.
Singleton, the first mate, and Turner were sitting at a table littered with bottles and glasses, and standing over them, white with fury, was Captain Richardson. In the doorway to the main cabin, dressed in pajamas and a bathrobe, Vail was watching the scene.
"I told you last night, Mr. Turner," the captain said, banging the table with his fist, "I won't have you interfering with my officers, or with my ship. That man's on duty, and he's drunk."
"Your ship!" Turner sneered thickly. "It's my ship, and I - I discharge you."
He got to his feet, holding to the table. "Mr. Singleton -hic - from now on you're captain. Captain Singleton! How - how d'ye like it?"
Mr. Vail came forward, the only cool one of the four.
"Don't be a fool, Marsh," he protested. "Come to bed. The captain's right."
Turner turned his pale-blue eyes on Vail, and they were as full of danger as a snake's. "You go to hell!" he said. "Singleton, you're the captain, d'ye hear? If Rich - if Richardson gets funny, put him - in irons."
Singleton stood up, with a sort of swagger. He 'teas less intoxicated than Turner, but ugly enough. He faced the captain with a leer.
"Sorry, old fellow," he said, "but you heard what Turner said!"
The captain drew a deep breath. Then, without any warning, he leaned across the table and shot out his clenched fist. It took the mate on the point of the chin, and he folded up in a heap on the floor.
"Good old boy!" muttered Burns, beside me. "Good old boy!"
Turner picked up a bottle from the table, and made the same incoordinate pass with it at the captain as he had at me the morning before with his magazine. The captain did not move. He was a big man, and he folded his arms with their hairy wrists across his chest.
"Mr. Turner," he said, "while we are on the sea I am in command here. You know that well enough. You are drunk to-night; in the morning you will be sober; and I want you to remember what I am going to say. If you interfere again - with - me - or - my officers - I - shall - put - you - in - irons."
He started for the after companionway, and Burns and I hurried forward out of his way, Burns to the lookout, I to make the round of the after house and bring up, safe from detection, by the wheel again. The mate was in a chair, looking sick and dazed, and Turner and Vail were confronting each other.
"You know that is a lie," Vail was saying. "She is faithful to you, as far as I know, although I'm damned if I know why." He turned to the mate roughly: "Better get out in the air."
Once again I left my window to avoid discovery. The mate, walking slowly, made his way up the companionway to the rail. The man at the wheel reported in the forecastle, when he came down at the end of his watch, that Singleton had seemed dazed, and had stood leaning against the rail for some time, occasionally cursing to himself; that the second mate had come on deck, and had sent him to bed; and that the captain was shut in his cabin with the light going.
There was much discussion of the incident among the crew. Sympathy was with the captain, and there was a general feeling that the end had not come. Charlie Jones, reading his Bible on the edge of his bunk, voiced the general belief.
"Knowin' the Turners, hull and mast," he said, "and having sailed with Captain Richardson off and on for ten years, the chances is good of our having a hell of a time. It ain't natural, anyhow, this voyage with no rats in the hold, and all the insects killed with this here formaldehyde, and ice-cream sent to the fo'c'sle on Sundays!"
But at first the thing seemed smoothed over. It is true that the captain did not, speak to the first mate except when compelled to, and that Turner and the captain ignored each other elaborately. The cruise went on without event. There was no attempt on Turner's part to carry out his threat of the night before; nor did he, as the crew had prophesied, order the Ella into the nearest port. He kept much to himself, spending whole days below, with Williams carrying him highballs, always appearing at dinner, however, sodden of face but immaculately dressed, and eating little or nothing.
A week went by in this fashion, luring us all to security. I was still lean but fairly strong again. Vail, left to himself or to the women of the party, took to talking with me now and then. I thought he was uneasy. More than once he expressed a regret that he had taken the cruise, laying his discontent to the long inaction. But the real reason was Turner's jealousy of him, the obsession of the dipsomaniac. I knew it, and Vail knew that I knew.
On the 8th we encountered bad weather, the first wind of the cruise. All hands were required for tacking, and I was stationed on the forecastle-head with one other man. Williams, the butler, succumbed to the weather, and at five o'clock Miss Lee made her way forward through the driving rain, and asked me if I could take his place.
"If the captain needs you, we can manage," she said. "We have Henrietta and Karen, the two maids. But Mr. Turner prefers a man to serve."
I said that I was probably not so useful that I could not be spared, and that I would try. Vail's suggestion had come back to me, and this was my chance to get Williams's keys. Miss Lee having spoken to the captain, I was relieved from duty, and went aft with her. What with the plunging of the vessel and the slippery decks, she almost fell twice, and each time I caught her.
The second time, she wrenched her ankle, and stood for a moment holding to the rail, while I waited beside her. She wore a heavy ulster of some rough material, and a small soft hat of the same material, pulled over her ears. Her soft hair lay wet across her forehead.
"How are you liking the sea, Leslie?" she said, after she had tested her ankle and found the damage inconsiderable.
"Very much, Miss Lee."
"Do you intend to remain a - a sailor?"
"I am not a sailor. I am a deck steward, and I am about to become a butler."
"That was our agreement," she flashed at me.
"Certainly. And to know that I intend to fulfill it to the letter, I have only to show this."
It had been one of McWhirter's inspirations, on learning how I had been engaged, the small book called "The Perfect Butler." I took it from the pocket of my flannel shirt, under my oilskins, and held it out to her.
"I have not got very far," I said humbly. "It's not inspiring reading. I've got the wine glasses straightened out, but it seems a lot of fuss about nothing. Wine is wine, is n't it? What difference, after all, does a hollow stem or green glass make - "
The rain was beating down on us. The "Perfect Butler" was weeping tears; as its chart of choice vintages was mixed with water. Miss Lee looked up, smiling, from the book.
"You prefer 'a jug of wine,"' she said.
"Old Omar had the right idea; only I imagine, literally, it was a skin of wine. They didn't have jugs, did they?"
"You know the 'Rubaiyat'?" she asked slowly.
"I know the jug of wine and loaf of bread part," I admitted, irritated at the slip. "In my home city they're using it to advertise a particular sort of bread. You know -- 'A book of verses underneath the bough, a loaf of Wiggin's home-made bread, and thou."'
In spite of myself, in spite of the absurd verse, of the pouring rain, of the fact that I was shortly to place her dinner before her in the capacity of upper servant, I thrilled to the last two words.
"'And thou,;" I repeated.
She looked up at me, startled, and for a second our glances held. The next moment she was gone, and I was alone on a rain swept deck, cursing my folly.
That night, in a white linen coat, I served dinner in the after house. The meal was unusually gay, rendered so by the pitching of the boat and the uncertainty of the dishes. In the general hilarity, my awkwardness went unnoticed. Miss Lee, sitting beside Vail, devoted herself to him. Mrs. Johns, young and blonde, tried to interest Turner, and, failing in that, took to watching me, to my discomfiture. Mrs. Turner, with apprehensive eyes on her husband, ate little and drank nothing.
Dinner over in the main cabin, they lounged into the chart-room - except Mrs. Johns, who, following them to the door, closed it behind them and came back. She held a lighted cigarette, and she stood just outside the zone of candlelight, watching me through narrowed eyes.
"You got along very well to-night," she observed. "Are you quite strong again"
"Quite strong, Mrs. Johns."
"You have never done this sort of thing before, have you?"
"Butler's work? No - but it is rather simple."
"I thought perhaps you had," sloe said. "I seem to recall you, vaguely - that is, I seem to remember a crowd of people, and a noise - I dare say I did see you in a crowd where. You know, you are rather an unforgettable type."
I was nonplused as to how a butler would reply to such a statement, and took refuge in no reply at all. As it happened, none was needed. The ship gave a terrific roll at that moment, and I just saved the Chartreuse as it was leaving the table. Mrs. Johns was holding to a chair.
"Well caught," she smiled, and, taking a fresh cigarette, she bent over a table-lamp and lighted it herself. All the time her eyes, were on me, I felt that she was studying one over her cigarette, with something in view.
"Is it still raining?"
"Yes, Mrs. Johns."
"Will you get a wrap from Karen and bring it to me on deck? I - I want air to-night."
The forward companionway led down into the main cabin. She moved toward it, her pale green gown fading into the shadow. At the foot of the steps she turned and looked back at me. I had been stupid enough, but I knew then that she had something to say to me, something that she would not trust to the cabin walls. I got the wrap.
She was sitting in a dock-chair when I found her, on the lee side of the after house, a position carefully chosen, with only the storeroom windows behind. I gave her the wrap, and she flung it over her without rising.
"Sit down, Leslie," she said, pointing to the chair beside her. And, as I hesitated, "Don't be silly, boy. Else Lee and her sister may be as blind as they like. You are not a sailor, or a butler, either. I don't care what you are: I'm not going to ask any questions. Sit down; I have to talk to some one."
I sat on the edge of the chair, somewhat uneasy, to tell the truth. The crew were about on a night like that, and at any moment Elsa Lee might avail herself of the dummy hand, as she sometimes did, and run up for a breath of air or a glimpse of the sea.
"Just now, Mrs. Johns;" I said, "I am one of the crew of the Ella, and if I am seen here -"
"Oh, fudge!" she retorted impatiently. "My reputation isn't going to be hurt, and the man's never is. Leslie, I am frightened - you know what I mean."
"You mean - with the captain?"
"With any one who happens to be near. He is dangerous. It is Vail now. He thinks Mr. Vail is in love with his wife. The fact is that Vail - well, never mind about that. The point is this: this afternoon he had a dispute with Williams, and knocked him down. The other women don't know it. Vail told me. We have given out that Williams is seasick. It will be Vail next, and, if he puts a hand on him, Vail will kill him; I know him."
"We could stop this drinking."
"And have him shoot up the ship! I have been thinking all evening, and only one thing occurs to me. We are five women and two men, and Vail refuses to be alarmed. I want you to sleep in the after house. Isn't there a storeroom where you could put a cot?"
"Yes," I agreed, "and I'll do it, of course, if you are uneasy, but I really think -"
"Never mind what you really think. I haven't slept for three nights, and I'm showing it." She made a motion to rise, and I helped her up. She was a tall woman, and before I knew it she had put both her hands on my shoulders.
"You are a poor butler, and an indifferent sailor, I believe," she said, "but you arc rather a dear. Thank you."
She left me, alternately uplifted and sheepish. But that night I took a blanket and a pillow into the storeroom, and spread my six feet of length along the greatest diameter of a four-by-seven pantry.
And that night, also, between six and seven bells, with the storm subsided and only a moderate sea, Schwartz, the second maze, went overboard - went without a cry, without a sound.
Singleton, relieving him at four o'clock, found his cap lying near starboard, just forward of the after house. The helmsman and the two men in the lookout reported no sound of a struggle. The lookout had seen the light of his cigar on the forecastle-head at six bells (three o'clock). At seven bells he had walked back to the helmsman and commented cheerfully on the break in the weather. That was the last seen of him.
The alarm was raised when Singleton went on watch at four o'clock. The Ella was heaved to and the lee boat lowered. At the same time life-buoys were thrown out, and patent lights. But the early summer dawn revealed a calm ocean; and no sign of the missing mate.
At ten o'clock the order was reluctantly given to go on.