The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter VII. We Find the Axe
I went to the after companionway and called up to the men to send the first mate down; but Burns came instead.
"Singleton's sick," he explained. "He's up there in a corner, with Oleson and McNamara holding him."
"Burns," I said cautiously - "I've found another!"
"God, not one of the women!"
"One of the maids - Karen."
Burns was a young fellow about my own age, and to this point he had stood up well. But he had been having a sort of flirtation with the girl, and I saw him go sick with horror. He wanted to see her, when he had got command of himself; but I would not let him enter the room. He stood outside, while I went in and carried out the stewardess, who was coming to and moaning. I took her forward, and told the three women there what I had found.
Mrs. Johns was better, and I found them all huddled in her room. I put the stewardess on the bed, and locked the door into the next room. Then, after examining the window, I gave Elsa Lee my revolver.
"Don't let any one in," I said. "I'll put a guard at the two companionways, and we'll let no one down. But keep the door locked also."
She took the revolver from me, and examined it with the air of one familiar with firearms. Then she looked up at me, her lips as white as her face.
"We are relying on you, Leslie," she said.
And, at her words, the storm of self-contempt and bitterness that I had been holding in abeyance for the last half hour swept over me like a flood. I could have wept for fury.
"Why should you trust me?" I demanded. "I slept through the time when I was needed. And when I wakened and found myself locked in the storeroom, I waited to take the lock off instead of breaking down the door! I ought to jump overboard."
"We are relying on you," she said again, simply; and I heard her fasten the door behind me as I went out.
Dawn was coming as I joined the crew, huddled around the wheel. There were nine men, counting Singleton. But Singleton hardly counted. He was in a state of profound mental and physical collapse. The Ella was without an accredited officer, and, for lack of orders to the contrary, the helmsman - McNamara now - was holding her to her course. Burns had taken Schwartz's place as second mate, but the situation was clearly beyond him. Turner's condition was known and frankly discussed. It was clear that, for a time at least, we would have to get along without him.
Charlie Jones, always an influence among the men, voiced the situation as we all stood together in the chill morning air:
"What we want to do, boys," he said, "is to make for the nearest port. This here is a police matter."
"And a hanging matter," someone else put in.
"We've got to remember, boys, that this ain't like a crime on land. We've got the fellow that did it. He's on the boat all right."
There was a stirring among the men, and some of them looked aft to where, guarded by the Swede Oleson, Singleton was sitting, his head in his hands.
"And, what's more," Charlie Jones went on, "I'm for putting Leslie here in charge -for now, anyhow. That's agreeable to you, is it, Burns?"
"But I don't know anything about a ship," I objected. "I'm willing enough, but I'm not competent."
I believe the thing had been discussed before I went up, for McNamara spoke up from the wheel.
"We'll manage that somehow or other, Leslie," he said. "We want somebody to take charge, somebody with a head, that's all. And since you ain't, in a manner of speaking, been one of us, nobody's feelings can't be hurt. Ain't that it, boys?"
"That, and a matter of brains," said Burns.
"But Singleton?" I glanced aft.
"Singleton is going in irons," was the reply I got.
The light was stronger now, and I could see their faces. It was clear that the crew, or a majority of the crew, believed him guilty, and that, as far as Singleton was concerned, my authority did not exist.
"All right," I said. "I'll do the best I can. First of all, I want every man to give up his weapons. Burns!"
"Go over each man. Leave them their pocket-knives; take everything else."
The men lined up. The situation was tense, horrible, so that the miscellaneous articles from their pockets - knives, keys, plugs of chewing tobacco, and here and there, among the foreign ones, small combs for beard and mustache unexpectedly brought to light, caused a smile of pure reaction. Two revolvers from Oleson and McNamara and one nicked razor from Adams completed the list of weapons we found. The crew submitted willingly. They seemed relieved to have some one to direct them, and the alacrity with which they obeyed my orders showed how they were suffering under the strain of inaction.
I went over to Singleton and put my hand on his shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Singleton," I said, "but I'll have to ask you for your revolver."
Without looking at me, he drew it from his hip pocket and held it out. I took it: It was loaded.
"It's out of order," he said briefly. "If it had been working right, I wouldn't be here."
I reached down and touched his wrist. His pulse was slow and rather faint, his hands cold.
"Is there anything I can do for you?"
"Yes," he snarled. "You can get me a belaying-pin and let me at those fools over there. Turner did this, and you know it as well as I do!"
I slid his revolver into my pocket, and went back to the men. Counting Williams and the cook and myself, there were nine of us. The cook I counted out, ordering him to go to the galley and prepare breakfast. The eight that were left I divided into two watches, Burns taking one and I the other. On Burns's watch were Clarke, McNamara, and Williams; on mine, Oleson, Adams, and Charlie Jones.
It was two bells, or five o'clock. Burns struck the gong sharply as an indication that order, of a sort, had been restored. The rising sun was gleaming on the sails; the gray surface of the sea was ruffling under the morning breeze. From the galley a thin stream of smoke was rising. Some of the horror of the night went with the darkness, but the thought of what waited in the cabin below was on us all.
I suggested another attempt to rouse Mr. Turner, and Burns and Clarke went below. They came back in ten minutes, reporting no change in Turner's condition. There was open grumbling among the men at the situation, but we were helpless. Burns and I decided to go on as if Turner were not on board, until he was in condition to take hold.
We thought it best to bring up the bodies while all the crew was on duty, and then to take up the watches. I arranged to have one man constantly on guard in the after house - a difficult matter where all were under suspicion. Burns suggested Charlie Jones as probably the most reliable, and I gave him the revolver I had taken from Singleton. It was useless, but it made at least a show of authority. The rest of the crew, except Oleson, on guard over the mate, was detailed to assist in carrying up the three bodies. Williams was taken along to get sheets from the linen room.
We brought the captain up first, laying him on a sheet on the deck and folding the edges over him. It was terrible work. Even I, fresh from a medical college, grew nauseated over it. He was heavy. It was slow work, getting him up. Vail we brought up in the sheets from his bunk. Of the three, he was the most mutilated. The maid Karen showed only one injury, a smashing blow on the head, probably from the head of the axe. For axe it had been, beyond a doubt. I put Williams to work below to clear away every evidence of what had happened. He went down, ashy-faced, only to rush up again, refusing to stay alone. I sent Clarke with him, and instructed Charlie Jones to keep them there until the cabin was in order.
At three bells the cook brought coffee, and some of the men took it. I tried to swallow, but it choked me.
Burns had served as second mate on a sailing vessel, and thought he could take us back, at least into more traveled waters. We decided to head back to New York. I got the code book from the captain's cabin, and we agreed to run up the flag, union down, if any other vessel came in sight. I got the code word for "Mutiny - need assistance," and I asked the mate if he would signal if a vessel came near enough. But he turned sullen and refused to answer.
I find it hard to recap calmly the events of that morning: the three still and shrouded figures, prone on deck; the crew, bareheaded, standing around, eyeing each other stealthily, with panic ready to leap free and grip each of them by the throat; the grim determination, the reason for which I did not yet know, to put the first mate in irons; and, over all, the clear sunrise of an August morning on the ocean, rails and decks gleaming, an odor of coffee in the air, the joyous lift and splash of the bowsprit as the Ella, headed back on her course, seemed to make for home like a nag for the stable.
Surely none of these men, some weeping, all grieving, could be the fiend who had committed the crimes. One by one, I looked in their faces - at Burns, youngest member of the crew, a blue-eyed, sandy-haired Scot; at Clarke and Adams and Charlie Jones, old in the service of the Turner line; at McNamara, a shrewd little Irishman; at Oleson the Swede. And, in spite of myself, I could not help comparing them with the heavy-shouldered, sodden-faced man below in his cabin, the owner of the ship.
One explanation came to me, and I leaped at it -- the possibility of a stowaway hidden in the hold, some maniacal fugitive who had found in the little cargo boat's empty hull ample room to hide. The men, too, seized at the idea. One and all volunteered for what might prove to be a dangerous service.
I chose Charlie Jones and Clarke as being most familiar with the ship, and we went down into the hold. Clarke carried a lantern. Charlie Jones held Singleton's broken revolver. I carried a belaying pin. But, although we searched every foot of space, we found nothing. The formaldehyde with which Turner had fumigated the ship clung here tenaciously, and, mixed with the odors of bilge water and the indescribable heavy smells left by tropical cargoes, made me dizzy and ill.
We were stumbling along, Clarke with the lantern, I next, and Charlie Jones behind, on our way to the ladder again, when I received a stunning blow on the back of the head. I turned dizzy, expecting nothing less than sudden death, when it developed that Jones, having stumbled over a loose plank, had fallen forward, the revolver in his outstretched hand striking my head.
He picked himself up sheepishly, and we went on. But so unnerved was I by this fresh shock that it was a moment or two before I could essay the ladder.
Burns was waiting at the hatchway, peering down. Beside him on the deck lay a bloodstained axe.
Elsa Lee, on hearing the story of Henrietta Sloane, had gone to the maids' cabin, and had found it where it had been flung into the berth of the stewardess.