The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter VIII. The Stewardess's Story
But, after all, the story of Henrietta Sloane only added to the mystery. She told it to me, sitting propped in a chair in Mrs. Johns's room, her face white, her lips dry and twitching. The crew were making such breakfast as they could on deck, and Mr. Turner was still in a stupor in his room across the main cabin. The four women, drawn together in their distress, were huddled in the center of the room, touching hands now and then, as if finding comfort in contact, and reassurance.
"I went to bed early," said the stewardess; "about ten o'clock, I think. Karen had not come down; I wakened when the watch changed. It was hot, and the window from our room to the deck was open. There is a curtain over it, to keep the helmsman from looking in - it is close to the wheel. The bell, striking every half-hour, does not waken me any more, although it did at first. It is just outside the window. But I heard the watch change. I heard eight bells struck, and the lookout man on the forecastle head call, 'All's well.'
"I sat up and turned on the lights. Karen had not come down, and I was alarmed. She had been - had been flirting a little with one of the sailors, and I had warned her that it would not do. She'd be found out and get into trouble.
"The only way to reach our cabin was through the chart-room, and when I opened the door an inch or two, I saw why Karen had not come down. Mr. Turner and Mr. Singleton were sitting there. They were -" She hesitated.
"Please go on," said Mrs. Turner. "They were drinking?"
"Yes, Mrs. Turner. And Mr. Vail was there, too. He was saying that the captain would come down and there would be more trouble. I shut the door and stood just inside, listening. Mr. Singleton said he hoped the captain would come - that he and Mr. Turner only wanted a chance to get at him."
Miss Lee leaned forward and searched the stewardess's face with strained eyes.
"You are sure that he mentioned Mr. Turner in that?"
"That was exactly what he said, Miss Lee. The captain came down just then, and ordered Mr. Singleton on deck. I think he went, for I did not hear his voice again. I thought, from the sounds, that Mr. Vail and the captain were trying to get Mr. Turner to his room."
Mrs. Johns had been sitting back, her eyes shut, holding a bottle of salts to her nose. Now she looked up.
"My dear woman," she said, "are you trying to tell us that we slept through all that?"
"If you did not hear it, you must have slept," the stewardess persisted obstinately. "The door into the main cabin was closed. Karen came down just after. She was frightened. She said the first mate was on deck, in a terrible humor; and that Charlie Jones, who was at the wheel, had appealed to Burns not to leave him there - that trouble was coming. That must have been at half-past twelve. The bell struck as she put out the light. We both went to sleep then, until Mrs. Turner's ringing for Karen roused us."
"But I did not ring for Karen."
The woman stared at Mrs. Turner.
"But the bell rang, Mrs. Turner. Karen got up at once and, turning on the light, looked at the clock. 'What do you think of that?' she said. 'Ten minutes to three, and I'd just got to sleep!' I growled about the light, and she put it out, after she had thrown on a wrapper. The room was dark when she opened the door. There was a little light in the chart-room, from the binnacle lantern. The door at the top of the companionway was always closed at night; the light came through the window near the wheel."
She had kept up very well to this point, telling her story calmly and keeping her voice down. But when she reached the actual killing of the Danish maid, she went to pieces. She took to shivering violently, and her pulse, under my fingers, was small and rapid. I mixed some aromatic spirits with water and gave it to her, and we waited until she could go on.
For the first time, then, I realized that I was clad only in shirt and trousers, with a handkerchief around my head where the accident in the hold had left me with a nasty cut. My bare feet were thrust into down-at-the-heel slippers. I saw Miss Lee's eyes on me, and colored.
"I had forgotten," I said uncomfortably. "I'll have time to find my coat while she is recovering. I have been so occupied -"
"Don't be a fool," Mrs. Johns said brusquely. "No one cares how you look. We only thank Heaven you are alive to look after us. Do you know what we have been doing, locked in down here? We have been -"
"Please, Adele!" said Elsa Lee. And Mrs. Johns, shrugging her shoulders, went back to her salts.
The rest of the story we got slowly. Briefly, it was this. Karen, having made her protest at being called at such an hour, had put on a wrapper and pinned up her hair. The light was on. The stewardess said she heard a curious chopping sound in the main cabin, followed by a fall, and called Karen's attention to it. The maid, impatient and drowsy, had said it was probably Mr. Turner falling over something, and that she hoped she would not meet him. Once or twice, when he had been drinking, he had made overtures to her, and she detested him.
The sound outside ceased. It was about five minutes since the bell had rung, and Karen yawned and sat down on the bed. "I'll let her ring again," she said. "If she gets in the habit of this sort of thing, I'm going to leave." The stewardess asked her to put out the light and let her sleep, and Karen did so. The two women were in darkness, and the stewardess dozed, for a minute only. She was awakened by Karen touching her on the shoulder and whispering close to her ear.
"That beast is out there," she said. "I peered out, and I think he is sitting on the companion steps. You listen, and if he tries to stop me I'll call you."
The stewardess was wide awake by that time. She thought perhaps the bell, instead of coming from Mrs. Turner's room, had come from the room adjoining Turner's, where Vail slept, and which had been originally designed for Mrs. Turner. She suggested turning on the light again and looking at the bell register; but Karen objected.
The stewardess sat up in her bed, which was the one under the small window opening on the deck aft. She could not see through the door directly, but a faint light came through the doorway as Karen opened the door.
The girl stood there, looking out. Then suddenly she threw up her hands and screamed, and the next moment there was a blow struck. She staggered back a step or two, and fell into the room. The stewardess saw a white figure in the doorway as the girl fell. Almost instantly something whizzed by her, striking the end of a pillow and bruising her arm. She must have fainted. When she recovered, faint daylight was coming into the room, and the body of the Danish girl was lying as it had fallen.
She tried to get up, and fainted again.
That was her story, and it did not tell us much that we needed to know. She showed me her right arm, which was badly bruised and discolored at the shoulder.
"What do you mean by a white figure?"
"It looked white: it seemed to shine,"
"When I went to call you, Mrs. Sloane, the door to your room was closed."
"I saw it closed!" she said positively. "I had forgotten that, but now I remember. The axe fell beside me, and I tried to scream, but I could not. I saw the door closed, very slowly and without a sound. Then I fainted."
The thing was quite possible. Owing to the small size of the cabin, and to the fact that it must accommodate two bunks, the door opened out into the chart-room. Probably the woman had fainted before I broke the lock of my door and fell into the main cabin. But a white figure!
"Karen exclaimed," Miss Lee said slowly, "that some one was sitting on the companion steps?"
"And she thought that it was Mr. Turner?"
"Yes." The stewardess looked quickly at Mrs. Turner, and averted her eyes. "It may have been all talk, miss, about his - about his bothering her. She was a great one to fancy that men were following her about."
Miss Lee got up and came to the door where I was standing.
"Surely we need not be prisoners any longer!" she said in an undertone. "It is daylight. If I stay here I shall go crazy."
"The murderer is still on the ship," I protested. "And just now the deck is - hardly a place for women. Wait until this afternoon, Miss Lee. By that time I shall have arranged for a guard for you. Although God knows, with every man under suspicion, where we will find any to trust."
"You will arrange a guard!"
"The men have asked me to take charge."
"But - I don't understand. The first mate -"
" - is a prisoner of the crew."
"They accuse him!"
"They have to accuse some one. There's a sort of hysteria among the men, and they've fixed on Singleton. They won't hurt him, I'll see to that, - and it makes for order."
She considered for a moment. I had time then to see the havoc the night had wrought in Tier. She was pale, with deep hollows around her eyes. Her hands shook and her mouth drooped wearily. But, although her face was lined with grief, it was not the passionate sorrow of a loving girl. She had not loved Vail, I said to myself. She had not loved Vail! My heart beat faster.
"Will you allow me to leave this room for five minutes?"
"If I may go with you, and if you will come back without protest."
"You are arbitrary!" she said resentfully. "I only wish to speak to Mr. Turner."
"Then - if I may wait at the door."
"I shall not go, under those conditions."
"Miss Lee," I said desperately, "surely you must realize the state of affairs. We must trust no one - no one. Every shadowy corner, every closed door, may hold death in its most terrible form."
"You are right, of course. Will you wait outside? I can dress and be ready in five minutes."
I went into the main cabin, now bright with the morning sun, which streamed down the forward companionway. The door to Vail's room across was open, and Williams, working in nervous haste, was putting it in order. Walking up and down, his shrewd eyes keenly alert, Charlie Jones was on guard, revolver in hand. He came over to me at once.
"Turner is moving, in there," he said, jerking his thumb toward the forward cabin. "What are you going to do? Let a drunken sot like that give us orders, and bang us with a belaying pin when we don't please him?"
"He is the owner. But one thing we can do, Jones. We can keep him from more liquor. Williams!"
He came out, more dead than alive.
"Williams," I said sternly, "I give you an hour to get rid of every ounce of liquor on the Ella. Remember, not a bottle is to be saved."
"But Mistah Turner -"
"I'll answer to Mr. Turner. Get it overboard before he gets around. And, Williams!"
"Well?" - sullenly.
"I'm going around after you, and if I find so much as a pint, I'll put you in that room you have just left, and lock you in."
He turned even grayer, and went into the storeroom.
A day later, and the crew would probably have resented what they saw that morning. But that day they only looked up apathetically from their gruesome work of sewing into bags of canvas the sheeted bodies on the deck, while a gray-faced Negro in a white coat flung over the rail cases of fine wines, baskets and boxes full of bottles, dozen after dozen of brandies and liquors, all sinking beyond salvage in the blue Atlantic.