The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter V. A Terrible Night
With the disappearance of Schwartz, the Ella was short-handed: I believe Captain Richardson made an attempt to secure me to take the place of Burns, now moved up into Schwartz's position. But the attempt met with a surly refusal from Turner.
The crew was plainly nervous and irritable. Sailors are simple-minded men, as a rule; their mental processes are elemental. They began to mutter that the devil-ship of the Turner line was at her tricks again.
That afternoon, going into the forecastle for some of my clothing, I found a curious group. Gathered about the table were Tom, the mulatto cook, a Swede named Oleson, Adams, and Burns of the crew. At the head of the table Charlie Jones was reading the service for the burial of the dead at sea. The men were standing, bareheaded. I took off my cap and stood, just inside the door, until the simple service was over. I was strongly moved.
Schwartz disappeared in the early morning of August 9. And now I come, not without misgiving, to the night of August 12. I am wondering if, after all, I have made clear the picture that is before my eyes: the languid cruise, the slight relaxation of discipline, due to the leisure of a pleasure voyage, the Ella again rolling gently, with hardly a dash of spray to show that she was moving, the sun beating down on her white decks and white canvas, on the three women in summer attire, on unending-bridge, with its accompaniment of tall glasses filled with ice, on Turner's morose face and Vail's watchful one. In the forecastle, much gossip and not a little fear, and in the forward house, where Captain Richardson and Singleton had their quarters, veiled hostility and sullen silence.
August 11 was Tuesday, a hot August day, with only enough air going to keep our sails filled. At five o'clock I served afternoon tea, and shortly after I went to Williams's cabin in the forward house to dress the wound in his head, a long cut, which was now healing. I passed the captain's cabin, and heard him quarreling with the first mate, who was replying, now and then, sullenly. Only the tones of their voices reached me.
When I had finished with Williams, and was returning, the quarrel was still going on. Their voices ceased as I passed the door, and there was a crash, as of a chair violently overturned. The next bit I heard.
"Put that down!" the captain roared.
I listened, uncertain whether to break in or not. The next moment, Singleton opened the door and saw me. I went on as if I had heard nothing.
Beyond that, the day was much as other days. Turner ate no dinner that night. He was pale, and twitching; even with my small experience, I knew he was on the verge of delirium tremens. He did not play cards, and spent much of the evening wandering restlessly about on deck. Mrs. Turner retired early. Mrs. Johns played accompaniments for Vail to sing to, in the chart-room, until something after eleven, when they, too, went to their rooms.
It being impracticable for me to go to my quarters in the storeroom until the after house was settled, I went up on deck. Miss Lee had her arm through Turner's and was talking to him. He seemed to be listening to her; but at last he stopped and freed his arm, not ungently.
"That all sounds very well, Elsa," he said, "but you don't know what you are talking about."
"I know this."
"I'm not a fool - or blind."
He lurched down the companionway and into the cabin. I heard her draw a long breath; then she turned and saw me.
"Is that you, Leslie?"
"Yes, Miss Lee."
She came toward me, the train of her soft white gown over her arm, and the light from a lantern setting some jewels on her neck to glittering.
"Mrs. Johns has told me where you are sleeping. You are very good to do it, although I think she is rather absurd."
"I am glad to do anything I can."
"I am sure of that. You are certain you are comfortable there?"
"Then - good-night. And thank you."
Unexpectedly she put out her hand, and I took it. It was the first time I had touched her, and it went to my head. I bent over her slim cold fingers and kissed them. She drew her breath in sharply in surprise, but as I dropped her hand our eyes met.
"You should not have done that," she said coolly. "I am sorry."
She left me utterly wretched. What a boor she must have thought me, to misconstrue her simple act of kindness! I loathed myself with a hatred that sent me groveling to my blanket in the pantry, and that kept me, once there, awake through all the early part of the summer night.
I wakened with a sense of oppression, of smothering heat. I had struggled slowly back to consciousness, to realize that the door of the pantry was closed, and that I was stewing in the moist heat of the August night. I got up, clad in my shirt and trousers, and felt my way to the door.
The storeroom and pantry of the after house had been built in during the rehabilitation of the boat, and consisted of a short passageway, with drawers for linens on either side, and beyond, lighted by a porthole, the small supply room in which I had been sleeping.
Along this passageway; then, I groped my way to the door at the end, opening into the main cabin near the chart-room door and across from Mrs. Turner's room. This door I had been in the habit of leaving open, for two purposes - ventilation, and in case I might be, as Mrs. Johns had feared, required in the night.
The door was locked on the outside.
I was a moment or two in grasping the fact. I shook it carefully to see if it had merely caught, and then, incredulous, I put my weight to it. It refused to yield. The silence outside was absolute.
I felt my way back to the window. It was open, but was barred with iron, and, even without that, too small for my shoulders. I listened for the mate. It was still dark, and so not yet time for the watch to change. Singleton would be on duty, and he rarely came aft. There was no sound of footsteps.
I lit a match and examined the lock. It was a simple one, and as my idea now was to free myself without raising an alarm, I decided to unscrew it with my pocket-knife. I was still confused, but inclined to consider my imprisonment a jest, perhaps on the part of Charlie Jones, who tempered his religious fervor with a fondness for practical joking.
I accordingly knelt in front of the lock and opened my knife. I was in darkness and working by touch. I had extracted one screw, and, with a growing sense of satisfaction, was putting it in my pocket before loosening a second, when a board on which I knelt moved under my knee, lifted, as if the other end, beyond the door, had been stepped on. There was no sound, no creak. Merely that ominous lifting under my knee. There was some one just beyond the door.
A moment later the pressure was released. With a growing horror of I know not what, I set to work at the second screw, trying to be noiseless, but with hands shaking with excitement. The screw fell out into my palm. In my haste I dropped my knife, and had to grope for it on the floor. It was then that a woman screamed - a low, sobbing cry, broken o$ almost before it began. I had got my knife by that time, and in desperation I threw myself against the door. It gave way, and I fell full length on the main cabin floor. I was still in darkness. The silence in the cabin was absolute. I could hear the steersman beyond the chart-room scratching a match.
As I got up, six bells struck. It was three o'clock.
Vail's room was next to the pantry, and forward. I felt my way to it, and rapped.
"Vail," I called. "Vail!"
His door was open an inch of so. I went in and felt my way to his bunk. I could hear him breathing, a stertorous respiration like that of sleep, and yet unlike. The moment I touched him, the sound ceased, and did not commence again. I struck a match and bent over him.
He had been almost cut to pieces with an axe.