Chapter IX. Prisoners
 

MY first thought had been for the women, and, unluckily, to save them a shock I had all evidences of the crime cleared away as quickly as possible. Stains that might have been of invaluable service in determining the murderer were washed away almost before they were dry. I realized this now, too late. But the axe remained, and I felt that its handle probably contained a record for more skillful eyes than mine to read, prints that under the microscope would reveal the murderer's identity as clearly as a photograph.

I sent for Burns, who reported that he had locked the axe in the captain's cabin. He gave me the key, which I fastened to a string and hung around my neck under my shirt. He also reported that, as I had suggested, the crew had gone, two at a time, into the forecastle, and had brought up what they needed to stay on deck. The forecastle had been closed and locked in the presence of the crew, and the key given to Burns, who fastened it to his watch-chain. The two hatchways leading to the hold had been fastened down also, and Oleson, who was ship's carpenter, had nailed them fast.

The crew had been instructed to stay aft of the wheel, except when on watch. Thus the helmsman need not be alone. As I have said, the door at the top of the companion steps, near the wheel, was closed and locked, and entrance to the after house was to be gained only by the forward companion. It was the intention of Burns and myself to keep watch here, amidships.

Burns had probably suffered more than any of us. Whatever his relation to the Hansen woman had been, he had been with her only three hours before her death, and she was wearing a ring of his, a silver rope tied in a sailor's knot, when she died. And Burns had been fond of Captain Richardson, in a crew where respect rather than affection toward the chief officer was the rule.

When Burns gave me the key to the captain's room Charlie Jones had reached the other end of the long cabin, and was staring through into the chartroom. It was a time to trust no one, and I assured myself that Jones was not looking before I thrust it into my shirt.

"They're - all ready, Leslie," Burns said, his face working. "What are we going to do with them?"

"We'll have to take them back."

"But we can't do that. It's a two weeks' matter, and in this weather -"

"We will take them back, Burns," I said shortly, and he assented mechanically: -

"Aye, aye, sir."

Just how it was to be done was a difficult thing to decide. Miss Lee had not appeared yet, and the three of us, Jones, Burns, and I, talked it over. Jones suggested that we put them in one of the life boats, and nail over it a canvas and tarpaulin cover.

"It ain't my own idea," he said modestly. "I seen it done once, on the Argentina. It worked all right for a while, and after a week or so we lowered the jolly-boat and towed it astern."

I shuddered; but the idea was a good one, and I asked Burns to go up and get the boat ready.

"We must let the women up this afternoon," I said, "and, if it is possible, try to keep them from learning where the bodies are. We can rope off a part of the deck for them, and ask them not to leave it."

Miss Lee came out then, and Burns went on deck.

The girl was looking better. The exertion of dressing had brought back her color, and her lips, although firmly set, were not drawn. She stood just outside the door and drew a deep breath.

"You must not keep us prisoners any longer, Leslie," she said. "Put a guard over us, if you must, but let us up in the air."

"This afternoon, Miss Lee," I said. "This morning you are better below."

She understood me, but she had no conception of the brutality of the crime, even then.

"I am not a child. I wish to see them. I shall have to testify -"

"You will not see them, Miss Lee."

She stood twisting her handkerchief in her hands. She saw Charlie Jones pacing the length of the cabin, revolver in hand. From the chartroom came the sound of hammering, where the after companion door, already locked, was being additionally secured with strips of wood nailed across.

"I understand," she said finally. "Will you take me to Karen's room?"

I could see no reason for objecting; but so thorough was the panic that had infected us all that I would not allow her in until I had preceded her, and had searched in the clothes closet and under the two bunks. Williams had not reached this room yet, and there was a pool of blood on the floor.

She had a great deal of courage. She glanced at the stain, and looked away again quickly.

"I - think I shall not come in. Will you look at the bell register for me? What bell is registered?"

"Three."

"Three!" she said. "Are you sure?"

I looked again. "It is three."

"Then it was not my sister's bell that rang. It was Mr. Vail's!"

"It must be a mistake. Perhaps the wires -"

"Mrs. Turner's room is number one. Please go back and ask her to ring her bell, while I see how it registers."

But I would not leave her there alone. I went with her to her sister's door, and together we returned to the maids' cabin. Mrs. Turner had rung as we requested, and her bell had registered "One."

"He rang for help!" she cried, and broke down utterly. She dropped into a chair in the chart-room and cried softly, helplessly, while I stood by, unable to think of anything to do or say. I think now that it was the best thing she could have done, though at the time I was alarmed. I ventured, finally, to put my hand on her shoulder.

"Please!" I said.

Charlie Jones came to the door of the chartroom, and retreated with instinctive good taste. She stopped crying after a time, and I knew the exact instant when she realized my touch. I felt her stiffen; without looking up, she drew away from my hand; and I stepped back, hurt and angry - the hurt for her, the anger that I could not remember that I was her hired servant.

When she got up, she did not look at me, nor I at her - at least not consciously. But when, in those days, was I not looking at her, seeing her, even when my eyes were averted, feeling her presence before any ordinary sense told me she was near? The sound of her voice in the early mornings, when I was washing down the deck, had been enough to set my blood pounding in my ears. The last thing I saw at night, when I took myself to the storeroom to sleep, was her door across the main cabin; and in the morning, stumbling out with my pillow and blanket, I gave it a foolish little sign of greeting.

What she would not see the men had seen, and, in their need, they had made me their leader. To her I was Leslie, the common sailor. I registered a vow, that morning, that I would be the common sailor until the end of the voyage.

"Mr. Turner is awake, I believe," I said stiffly.

"Very well."

She turned back into the main cabin; but she paused at the storeroom door.

"It is curious that you heard nothing," she said slowly. "You slept with this door open, didn't you?"

"I was locked in."

She stooped quickly and looked at the lock.

"You broke it open?"

"Partly, at the last. I heard -" I stopped. I did not want to tell her what I had heard. But she knew.

"You heard - Karen, when she screamed?"

"Yes. I was aroused before that, - I do not know how, -and found I was locked in. I thought it might be a joke - forecastle hands are fond of joking, and they resented my being brought here to sleep. I took out some of the screws with my knife, and - then I broke the door."

"You saw no one?"

"It was dark; I saw and heard no one."

"But, surely - the man at the wheel -"

"Hush," I warned her; "he is there. He heard something, but the helmsman cannot leave the wheel."

She was stooping to the lock again.

"You are sure it was locked?"

"The bolt is still shot." I showed her.

"Then - where is the key?"

"The key!"

"Certainly. Find the key, and you will find the man who locked you in."

"Unless," I reminded her, "it flew out when I broke the lock."

"In that case, it will be on the floor."

But an exhaustive search of the cabin floor discovered no key. Jones, seeing us searching, helped, his revolver in one hand and a lighted match in the other, handling both with an abandon of ease that threatened us alternately with fire and a bullet. But there was no key.

"It stands to reason, miss," he said, when we had given up, "that, since the key isn't here, it isn't on the ship. That there key is a sort of red-hot give-away. No one is going to carry a thing like that around. Either it's here in this cabin - which it isn't - or it's overboard."

"Very likely, Jones. But I shall ask Mr. Turner to search the men."

She went toward Turner's door, and Jones leaned over me, putting a hand on my arm.

"She's right, boy," he said quickly. "Don't let 'em know what you're after, but go through their pockets. And their shoes!" he called after me. "A key slips into a shoe mighty easy."

But, after all, it was not necessary. The key was to be found, and very soon.