The Murderer

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The Murderer

BY PERCEVAL GIBBON


FROM the open door of the galley, where the cross, sleepy cook was coaxing his stove to burn, a path of light lay across the deck, showing a slice of steel bulwark with ropes coiled on the pins, and above it the arched foot of the mainsail. In the darkness forward, where the port watch of the Villingen was beginning the sea day by washing down decks, the brooms swished briskly and the head-pump clacked like a great, clumsy clock.

The men worked in silence, though the mate was aft on the poop, and nothing prevented them from talking as they passed the buckets to and from the tub under the pump and drove their brooms along the planks. They labored with the haste of men accustomed to be driven hard, with the shuffling, involuntary speed that has nothing in it of free strength or good-will. The big German four-master had gathered from the boarding-houses of Philadelphia a crew representing all the nationalities which breed sailors, and carried officers skilled in the crude arts of getting the utmost out it. And since the lingua franca of the sea, the tongue which has meaning for Swedish carpenters, Finn sail-makers, and Greek fo'c's'le hands alike, is not German, orders aboard the Villingen were given and understood in English.

"A hand come aft here!"

It was the mate's voice from the poop, robust and peremptory. Conroy, one of the two Englishmen in the port watch, laid down the bucket he was carrying and moved aft in obedience to the summons. As he trod into the slip of light by the galley door he was visible as a fair youth, long-limbed and slender, clad in a serge shirt, with dungaree trousers rolled up to the knees and girt with a belt which carried the usual sheath-knife. His pleasant face had a hint of uncertainty; it was conciliatory and amiable; he was an able seaman of the kind which is manufactured by a boarding-master short of men out of a runaway apprentice. The others, glancing after him while they continued their work, saw him suddenly clear by the galley door, then dim again as he stepped beyond it. He passed out of sight toward the lee poop ladder.

The silent, hurried sailors pressed on with their work, while the big bark purred through the water to the drone of wind thrusting in the canvas. The brooms were abaft of the galley when the outcry began which caused them to look apprehensively toward the poop without ceasing their business of washing down. First it was an oath in explosive German, the tongue which puts a cutting-edge on profanity; then the mate's roar:

"Is dat vat I tell you, you verfluchter fool? Vat? Vat? You don't understand ven I speak? I show you vat—"

The men who looked up were on the wrong side of the deck to make out what was happening, for the chart-house screened the drama from them. But they knew too well the meaning of that instantaneous silence which cut the words off. It was the mate biting in his breath as he struck. They heard the smack of the fist's impact and Conroy's faint, angry cry as he failed to guard it; then the mate again, bull-mouthed, lustful for cruelty: "Vat—you lift up your arm to me? You dog!" More blows, a rain of them, and then a noise as though Conroy had fallen or been knocked down. And after that a thud and a scream.

The men looked at one another, and nods passed among them. "He kicked him when he was down on the deck," the whisper went. The other Englishman in the watch swore in a low grunt and dropped his broom, meeting the wondering eyes of the "Dutchmen" and "Dagoes" with a scowl. He was white-haired and red-faced, a veteran among the nomads of the sea, the oldest man aboard, and the only one in port watch who had not felt the weight of the mate's fist. Scowling still, as though in deep thought, he moved toward the ladder. The forlorn hope was going on a desperate enterprise of rescue.

It might have been an ugly business; there was a sense in the minds of his fellows of something sickening about to happen; but the mate had finished with Conroy. The youth came staggering and crying down the ladder, with tears and blood befouling his face, and stumbled as his foot touched the deck. The older man, Slade, saved him from falling, and held him by the upper arm with one gnarled, toil-roughened hand, peering at him through the early morning gloom.

"Kicked you when you was down, didn't he?" he demanded, abruptly.

"Yes," blubbered Conroy, shivering and dabbing at his face. "With his sea- boots, too, the—the—"

Slade shook him. "Don't make that noise or he might kick you some more," he advised, grimly. "You better go now an' swab that blood off your face."

"Yes," agreed Conroy, tremulously, and Slade let him go.

The elder man watched him move forward on shambling and uncertain feet, with one hand pressed to his flank, where the mate's kick was still an agony. Slade was frowning heavily, with a tincture of thought in his manner, as though he halted on the brink of some purpose.

"Conroy," he breathed, and started after the other.

The younger man turned. Slade again put his hand on Conroy's arm.

"Say," he said, breathing short, "is that a knife in your belt?"

Conroy felt behind him, uncomprehending, for the sheath-knife which he wore, sailor fashion, in the middle of his back.

"What d'you mean?" he asked, vacantly. "Here's my knife."

He drew it and showed it to Slade, the flat blade displayed in his palm.

The white-haired seaman thrust his keen old face toward Conroy's, so that the other could see the flash of the white of his eyes.

"And he kicked you, didn't he?" said, Slade, tensely. "You fool!"

He struck the knife to the deck, where it rattled and slid toward the scupper.

"Eh?" Conroy gaped, not understanding. "I don't see what—"

"Pick it up!" said Slade, with a gesture toward the knife. He spoke as though he strangled an impulse to brandish his fists and scream in a nasal whisper. "It's safe to kick you," he said. "A woman could do it."

"But—" Conroy flustered, vaguely.

Slade drove him off with a wave of his arm and turned away with the abruptness of a man disgusted beyond hearing. Conroy stared after him and saw him pick up his broom where he had dropped it and join the others. His intelligence limped; his thrashing had stunned him, and he could not think—he could only feel, like fire in his mind, the passion of the feeble soul resenting injustice and pain which it cannot resist or avenge. He stooped to pick up his knife and went forward to the tub under the head-pump, to wash his cuts in cold sea-water, the cheap balm for so many wrongs of cheap humanity.

It was an accident such as might serve to dedicate the day to the service of the owners of the Villingen. It was early and sudden; but, save in these respects, it had no character of the unusual. The men who plied the brooms and carried the buckets were not shocked or startled by it so much as stimulated; it thrust under their noses the always imminent danger of failing to satisfy the mate's ideal of seaman-like efficiency. They woke to a fresher energy, a more desperate haste, under its suggestion.

It was after the coffee interval, which mitigates the sourness of the morning watch, when daylight had brought its chill, gray light to the wide, wet decks, that the mate came forward to superintend the "pull all round" which is the ritual sequel to washing down.

"Lee fore-brace, dere!" his flat, voluminous voice ordered, heavy with the man's potent and dreaded personality. They flocked to obey, scurrying like scared rats, glancing at him in timid hate. He came striding along the weather side of the deck from the remote, august poop; he was like a dreadful god making a dreadful visitation upon his faithful. Short-legged, tending to bigness in the belly, bearded, vibrant with animal force and personal power, his mere presence cowed them. His gross face, the happy face of an egoist with a sound digestion, sent its lofty and sure regard over them; it had a kind of unconsciousness of their sense of humility, of their wrong and resentment—the innocence of an aloof and distant tyrant, who has not dreamed how hurt flesh quivers and seared minds rankle. He was bland and terrible; and they hated him after their several manners, some with dull fear, one or two—and Slade among them—with a ferocity that moved them like physical nausea.

He had left his coat on the wheel-box to go to his work, and was manifestly unarmed. The belief which had currency in the forecastle, that he came on watch with a revolver in his coat-pocket, did not apply to him now; they could have seized him, smitten him on his blaspheming mouth, and hove him over the side without peril. It is a thing that has happened to a hated officer more than once or ten times, and a lie, solemnly sworn to by every man of the watch on deck, has been entered in the log, and closed the matter for all hands. He was barer of defense than they, for they had their sheath-knives; and he stood by the weather-braces, arrogant, tyrannical, overbearing, and commanded them. He seemed invulnerable, a thing too great to strike or defy, like the white squalls that swooped from the horizon and made of the vast Villingen a victim and a play-thing. His full, boastful eye traveled over them absently, and they cringed like slaves.

"Belay, dere!" came his orders, over-loud and galling to men surging with cowardly and insufferable hate. "Lower tobsail—haul! Belay! Ubber tobsail—haul, you sons of dogs! Haul, dere, blast you! You vant me to come over and show you?"

Abjectly, desperately, they obeyed him, spending their utmost strength to placate him, while the naked spirit of murder moved in every heart among them. At the tail of the brace, Conroy, with his cuts stanched, pulled with them. His abject eyes, showing the white in sidelong glances, watched the great, squat figure of the mate with a fearful fascination.

Eight bells came at last, signaling the release of the poor watch from the deck and the tension of the officer's presence. The forecastle received them, the stronghold of their brief and limited leisure. The unkempt, weather-stained men, to whom the shifting seas were the sole arena of their lives, sat about on chests and on the edges of the lower bunks, at their breakfast, while the pale sunlight traveled to and fro on the deck as the Villingen lurched in her gait. Conroy, haggard and drawn, let the coffee slop over the brim of his hook-pot as he found himself a seat.

"Well, an' what did he punch ye for this time?"

It was old Slade who put the question, seated on a chest with his back against the bulkhead. His pot was balanced on his knee, and his venerable, sardonic face, with the scanty white hair clinging about the temples, addressed Conroy with slow mockery.

Conroy hesitated. "It was all over coilin' away some gear," he said. Slade waited, and he had to go on. He had misunderstood the mate's order to coil the ropes on the pins, where they would be out of the way of the deck-washing, and he had flemished them down on the poop instead. It was the mistake of a fool, and he knew it.

Slade nodded. "Ye-es," he drawled. "You earned a punch an' you got it. But he kicked you, too, didn't he?"

"Kicked me!" cried Conroy. "Why, I thought he was goin' to kill me! Look here—look at this, will you?"

With fumbling hands he cast loose his belt and flung it on the floor, and plucked his shirt up so as to leave his side bare. He stood up, with one arm raised above his head, showing his naked flank to the slow eyes of his shipmates. His body had still a boyish delicacy and slenderness; the labor of his trade had not yet built it and thickened it to a full masculinity of proportion. Measured by any of the other men in the watch, it was frail, immature, and tender. The moving sunlight that flowed around the door touched the fair skin and showed the great, puffed bruises that stood on it, swollen and horrid, like some vampire fungus growing on the clean flesh.

A great Greek, all black hair and eyeball, clicked softly between his teeth.

"It looks like a hell!" he said, softly, in his purring voice.

"Dem is kicks, all right—ja!" said some one else, and yet another added the comment of a heavy oath.

Old Slade made no comment, but sat, balancing his hook-pot of coffee and watching the scene under his heavy white brows. Conroy lowered his arm and let the shirt fall to cover the bruises.

"You see?" he said, to Slade.

"I see," answered the other, with a bitter twist of his old, malicious lips. Setting down the pot which he held, he stooped and lifted the belt which Conroy had thrown down. It seemed to interest him, for he looked at it for some moments.

"And here's yer knife," he said, reaching it to the youth, still with his manner of mockery. "There's some men it wouldn't be safe to kick, with a knife in their belts."

He and Conroy were the only Englishmen there; the rest were of the races which do not fight bare-handed. The big Greek flashed a smile through the black, shining curls of his beard, and continued to smile without speaking. Through the tangle of incomprehensible conventions, he had arrived at last at a familiar principle.

Conroy flushed hotly, the blood rising hectic on his bruised and broken face.

"If he thinks it's safe with me," he cried, "he'll learn different. I didn't have a chance aft there; he came on me too quick, before I was expecting him, and it was dark, besides. Or else—"

"It 'll be dark again," said Slade, with intent, significant eyes fixed on him, "and he needn't be expecting you. But—it don't do to talk too much. Talk's easy—talk is."

"I'll do more than talk," responded Conroy. "You'll see!"

Slade nodded. "Right, then; we'll see," he said, and returned to his breakfast.

His bunk was an upper one, lighted and aired by a brass-framed port-hole. Here, when his meal was at an end, he lay, his pipe in his mouth, his hands behind his head, smoking with slow relish, with his wry old face upturned, and the leathery, muscular forearms showing below the rolled shirt-sleeves. His years had ground him to an edge; he had an effect, as he lay, of fineness, of subtlety, of keen and fastidious temper. Forty years of subjection to arbitrary masters had left him shrewd and secret, a Machiavelli of the forecastle.

Once Conroy, after seeming to sleep for an hour, rose on his elbow and stared across at him, craning his neck from his bunk to see the still mask of his face.

"Slade?" he said, uncertainly.

"What?" demanded the other, unmoving.

Conroy hesitated. The forecastle was hushed; the seamen about them slumbered; the only noises were the soothing of the water overside, the stress of the sails and gear, and the irregular tap of a hammer aft. It was safe to speak, but he did not speak.

"Oh, nothing," he said, and lay down again. Slade smiled slowly, almost paternally.

It took less than eight hours for Conroy's rancor to wear dull, and he could easily have forgotten his threat against the mate in twelve, if only he had been allowed to. He was genuinely shocked when he found that his vaporings were taken as the utterance of a serious determination. Just before eight bells in the afternoon watch he went forward beneath the forecastle head in search of some rope-yarns, and was cutting an end off a bit of waste-line when the Greek, he of the curly beard and extravagant eyeballs, rose like a demon of pantomime from the forepeak. Conroy had his knife in his hand to cut the rope, and the Greek's sudden smile seemed to rest on that and nothing else.

"Sharp, eh?" asked the Greek, in a whisper that filled the place with dark drama.

Conroy paused, apprehending his meaning with a start.

"Oh, it's all right," he growled, and began to saw at the rope in his hand, while the Greek watched him with his fixed, bony smile.

"No," said the latter, suddenly. "Data-a not sharp—no! Look-a 'ere; you see dis?"

He drew his own knife, and showed it pointing toward Conroy in a damp, swarthy hand, whose knuckles bulged above the haft. His rough, spatulate thumb rasped along it, drawing from it the crepitation that proves an acute edge.

"Carve him like-a da pork," he said, in his stage-conspirator's whisper. "And da point—now, see!"

He glanced over his shoulder to be sure that none overlooked them; then, with no more than a jerk of his hand beside his hip, threw the keen blade toward the wooden door of the bo'sun's locker. It traveled through the air swiftly and stuck, quivering on its thin point, in the stout teak. The Greek turned his smile again for a moment on Conroy before he strode across and recovered it.

"You take? im," he whispered. "Better dan your little knife—yais."

By the mere urgency of his proffering it, the exchange was made, and Conroy found himself with a knife in his hand that fell through the strands of the manila line as though they had been butter, an instrument made and perfected for a murder.

"Yes, but look here," he began, in alarm.

The broad, mirthless smile was turned on him.

"Just like-a da pork," purred the Greek, and nodded assuringly before he turned to go aft.

The bull-roar of the mate, who was awaiting his return with the rope-yarns, roused Conroy from a scared reverie over the knife. He started; the mate was hustling furiously forward in search of him, full of uproar and anger.

"Dam' lazy Svhwein, you goin' to schleep dere? You vant me to come an' fetch you? You vant anodder schmack on de Maul to keep you avake—yes?"

He stamped into view round the forward house, while Conroy stood, convicted of idleness by the rope in his hand only half cut through. At the same moment a population of faces came into being behind him. A man who had been aloft shuffled down to the rail; a couple of others came into view on the deck; on top of the house, old Slade kneeled to see under the break of the forecastle head. It seemed as though a skeptical audience had suddenly been created out of his boast of the morning, every face threatening him with that shame which vanity will die rather than endure. In a panic of his faculties he took one step toward the mate.

"Hey?" The mate halted in his stride, with sheer amazement written on his face. "You vant yer head knocked off—yes?"

"No, I don't," said Conroy, out of a dry mouth.

According to the usage of ships, even that was defiance and a challenge.

He had forgotten the revolver with which the mate was credited; he had forgotten everything but the fact that eyes were on him. Even the knife in his hand passed from his mind; he was a mere tingling pretense at fortitude, expending every force to maintain his pose.

"Put dat knife avay!" ordered the mate, suddenly.

He arrested an automatic movement to obey, fighting down a growing fear of his opponent.

"I've not finished with it yet," he answered.

The mate measured him with a practised eye. Though he had the crazy courage of a bulldog, he was too much an expert in warlike emergencies to overlook the risk of trying to rush a desperate man armed with a knife; the chances of the grapple were too ugly. There was something lunatic and strange in the youth's glare also; and it will sometimes happen that an oppressed and cowed man in his extremity will shrug his meekness from him and become, in a breath, a desperado. This had its place in the mate's considerations.

"Finish, den!" he rasped, with no weakening of his tone or manner. "You don't t'ink I'm goin' to vait all night for dem rope-yarns—hey?"

He turned his back at once lest Conroy should venture another retort and make an immediate fight unavoidable. Before his eye the silent audience melted as swiftly as it had appeared, and Conroy was alone with his sick sense of having ventured too far, which stood him in place of the thrill of victory.

The thrill came later, in the forecastle, where he swelled to the adulation of his mates. They, at any rate, had been deceived by his attitude; they praised him by word and look; the big Greek infused a certain geniality into his smile. Only Slade said the wrong thing.

"I was ready for him as soon as he moved," Conroy was asserting. "And he knew it. You should ha' seen how he gaped when I wouldn't put the knife away."

The men were listening, crediting him. Old Slade, in the background, took his pipe from his lips.

"An' now I suppose you're satisfied," he inquired, harshly.

"How d'you mean, satisfied?" demanded Conroy, coloring. "You saw what happened, didn't you?"

"You made him gape," said Slade. "That was because he made you howl, eh? Well, ain't you calling it quits, then—till the next time he kicks you?"

Some one laughed; Conroy raised his voice.

"He'll never kick me again," he cried. "His kicking days are over. He's kicked me once too often, he has. Quits—I guess not!"

Slade let a mouthful of smoke trickle between his lips; it swam in front of his face in a tenuous film of pale vapor.

"Well, talkin' won't do it, anyhow," he said.

"No," retorted Conroy, and collected all eyes to his gesture. "But this will!"

He showed them the thin-bladed knife which the Greek had given him, holding it before them by the hilt. He let a dramatic moment elapse.

"Like that!" he said, and stabbed at the air. "Like that—see? Like that!"

They came upon bad weather gradually, drawing into a belt of half-gales, with squalls that roared up from the horizon and made them for the time into whole gales. The Villingen, designed and built primarily for cargo capacity, was a wet ship, and upon any point of sailing had a way of scooping in water by the many tons. In nearly every watch came the roar, "Stand by yer to'gallant halliards!" Then the wait for ten seconds or ten minutes while the wind grew and the big four-masted bark lay over and bumped her bluff bows through racing seas, till the next order, shriller and more urgent, "Lower avay!" and the stiff canvas fought and slatted as the yards came down. Sea-boots and oilskins were the wear for every watch; wet decks and the crash of water coming inboard over the rail, dull cold and the rasp of heavy, sodden canvas on numb fingers, became again familiar to the men, and at last there arrived the evening, graved with tempest, on which all hands reefed topsails.

The mate had the middle watch, from midnight till four o'clock in the morning, and for the first two hours it was Conroy's turn on the lookout. The rest, in oilskins and sea-boots, were standing by under the break of the poop; save for the sleeping men in the shut forecastle, he had the fore part of the ship to himself. He leaned against the after rail of the forecastle head, where a ventilator somewhat screened him from the bitter wind that blew out of the dark, and gazed ahead at the murk. Now and again the big bark slid forward with a curtseying motion, and dipped up a sea that flowed aft over the anchors and cascaded down the ladders to the main-deck; spray that spouted aloft and drove across on the wind, sparkled red and green in the glare of the sidelights like brief fireworks.

The splash and drum of waters, the heavy drone of the wind in the sails, the clatter of gear aloft, were in his ears; he did not hear one bell strike from the poop, which he should have answered with a stroke on the big bell behind him and a shouted report on the lights.

"Hoy! You schleepin' up dere—hey?"

It was the mate, who had come forward in person to see why he had not answered. He was by the fore fire-rail, a mere black shape in the dark.

"Sleepin'—no, sir!"

"Don't you hear von bell shtrike?" cried the mate, slithering on the wet deck toward the foot of the ladder.

"No, sir," said Conroy, and stooped to strike the bell.

The mate came up the ladder, hauling himself by the hand-rails, for he was swollen beyond the ordinary with extra clothes under his long oilskin coat. A plume of spray whipped him in the face as he got to the top, and he swore shortly, wiping his eyes with his hands. At the same moment Conroy, still stooping to the bell-lanyard, felt the Villingen lower her nose and slide down in one of her disconcerting curtseys; he caught at the rail to steady himself. The dark water, marbled with white foam, rode in over the deck, slid across the anchors and about the capstan, and came aft toward the ladder and the mate. The ship rolled at the same moment.

Conroy saw what happened as a grotesque trick of circumstance. The mate, as the deck slanted, slipped and reached for the hand-rail with an ejaculation. The water flowed about his knees; he fell back against the hand-rail, which was just high enough for him to sit on. It was what, for one ridiculous moment, he seemed to be doing. The next, his booted feet swayed up and he fell over backward, amid the confusion of splashing water that leaped down the main-deck. Conroy heard him strike something below with a queer, smacking noise.

"Pity he didn't go overboard while he was about it," he said to himself, acting out his rôle. Really, he was rather startled and dismayed.

He found the mate coiled in the scupper, very wet and still. He took hold of him to draw him under the fore-castle head, where he would have shelter, and was alarmed at the inertness of the body under his hands.

"Sir!" he cried, "sir!—sir!"

He shook the great shoulders, but quickly desisted; there was something horrible, something that touched his nerves, in its irresponsiveness. He remembered that he might probably find matches in the lamp-locker, and staggered there to search. He had to grope in gross darkness about the place, touching brass and the uncanny smoothness of glass, before his hand fell on what he sought. At last he was on one knee by the mate's side, and a match shed its little illumination. The mate's face was odd in its quietude, and the sou'wester of oilskin was still on his head, held there by the strings under the chin. From under its edge blood flowed steadily, thickly, appallingly.

"But—" cried Conroy. The match-flame stung his fingers and he dropped it. "O Lord!" he said. It occurred to him then, for the first time, that the mate was dead.

The men aft, bunched up under the break of the poop, were aware of him as a figure that came sliding and tottering toward them and fell sprawling at the foot of the poop ladder. He floundered up and clutched the nearest of them, the Greek.

"The mate's dead," he broke out, in a kind of breathless squeal. "Somebody call the captain; the mate's dead."

There was a moment of silence; then a cackle of words from several of them together. The Greek's hands on his shoulders tightened. He heard the man's purring voice in his ear.

"How did you do it?"

Conroy thrust himself loose; the skies of his mind were split by a frightful lightning flash of understanding. He had been alone with the mate; he had seen him die; he was sworn to kill him. He could see the livid smile of the Greek bent upon him.

"I didn't do it," he choked, passionately, and struck with a wild, feeble hand at the smile. "You liar—I didn't do it."

"Hush!" The Greek caught him again and held him.

Some of the men had started forward; others had slipped into the alleyway to rouse the second mate and captain. The Greek had him clutched to his bosom in a strong embrace and was hushing him as one might hush a scared child. Slade was at his side.

"He slipped, I tell you; he slipped at the top of the ladder! She'd shipped a dollop of water and then rolled, and over he went. I heard his head go smack and went down to him. I never touched him. I swear it—I never touched him."

"Hush!" It was Slade this time. "And yer sure he's dead?"

"Yes, he's dead."

"Well—" the old man exchanged nods with the Greek. "All right. Only—don't tell the captain that tale; it ain't good enough."

"But—" began Conroy. A hug that crushed his face against the Greek's oilskin breast silenced him.

"Vat is all dis?"

It was the captain, tall, august, come full-dressed from his cabin. At his back the second mate, with his oilskin coat over his pajamas, thrust forward his red, cheerful face.

Slade told the matter briefly. "And it's scared young Conroy all to bits, sir," he concluded.

"Come for'ard," bade the captain. "Get a lamp, some vun!"

They followed him along the wet, slippery deck, slowly, letting him pass ahead out of ear-shot.

"It was a belayin'-pin, ye-es?" queried the Greek, softly, of Conroy.

"He might have hit his head against a pin," replied Conroy.

"Eh?" The Greek stopped. "Might 'ave—might 'ave 'it 'is 'ead! Ah, dat is fine! 'E might 'ave 'it 'is 'ead, Slade! You 'ear dat?"

"Yes, it ain't bad!" replied Slade, and Conroy, staring in a wild attempt to see their faces clearly, realized that they were laughing, laughing silently and heartily. With a gesture of despair he left them.

A globe-lamp under the forecastle head lighted the captain's investigations, gleaming on wet oilskins, shadow-pitted faces, and the curious, remote thing that had been the mate of the Villingen. Its ampler light revealed much that the match-flame had missed from its field—the manner in which the sou'wester and the head it covered were caved in at one side, the cut in the sou'wester through which clotted hair protruded, the whole ghastliness of death that comes by violence. With all that under his eyes, Conroy had to give his account of the affair, while the ring of silent, hard-breathing men watched him and marveled at the clumsiness of his story.

"It is strange," said the captain. "Fell ofer backvards, you said. It is very strange! And vere did you find de body?"

The scupper and deck had been washed clean by successive seas; there was no trace there of blood, and none on the rail. Even while they searched, water spouted down on them. But what Conroy noted was that no pin stood in the rail where the mate had fallen, and the hole that might have held one was empty.

"Ah, vell!" said the captain at last. "De poor fellow is dead. I do not understand, quite, how he should, fall like dat, but he is dead. Four of you get de body aft."

"Please, sir," accosted Conroy, and the tall captain turned.

"Vell, vat is it?"

"Can I go below, sir? It was me that found him, sir. I feel rather—rather bad."

"So!" The tall captain considered him inscrutably, he, the final arbiter of fates. "You feel bad—yes? Vell, you can go below!"

The little group that bore the mate's body shuffled aft, with the others following like a funeral procession. A man looked shivering out of the door of the starboard forecastle, and inquired in loud whispers: "Was ist los? Sag' mal—was ist denn los?" He put his inquiry to Conroy, who waved him off and passed to the port forecastle on the other side of the deck-house.

The place was somehow strange, with its double row of empty bunks like vacant coffin-shelves in a vault, but solitude was what he desired. The slush-lamp swung and stank and made the shadows wander. From the other side of the bulkhead he could hear stirrings and a murmur of voices as the starboard watch grew aware that something had happened on deck. Conroy, with his oilskin coat half off, paused to listen for comprehensible words. The opening of the door behind him startled him, and he spun round to see Slade making a cautious entry. He recoiled.

"Leave me alone," he said, in a strangled voice, before the other could speak. "What are you following me for? You want to make me out a murderer. I tell you I never touched him."

The other stood just within the door, the upper half of his face shadowed by his sou'wester, his thin lips curved in a faint smile. "No?" he said, mockingly. "You didn't touch him? An' I make no doubts you'd take yer oath of it. But you shouldn't have put the pin back in the rail when you was through with it, all the same."

"There wasn't any pin there," said Conroy, quickly. He had backed as far from Slade as he could, and was staring at him with horrified eyes.

"But there would ha' been if I hadn't took a look round while you were spinnin' your yarn to the old man," said Slade. "I knew you was a fool."

With a manner as of mild glee he passed his hand into the bosom of his coat, still keeping his sardonic gaze fixed on Conroy.

"Good thing you've got me to look after you," he went on. "Thinks I, 'He might easy make a mistake that 'ud cost him dear'; so I took a look round. An' I found this." From within his coat he brought forth an iron belaying-pin, and held it out to Conroy.

"See?" His finger pointed to it. "That's blood, that is—and that's hair. Look for yourself! Now I suppose you'll tell me you never touched him!"

"He hit his head against it when he fell," protested the younger man. "He did! Oh, God, I can't stand this!"

He sank to a seat on one of the chests and leaned his face against the steel plate of the wall.

"Hit his head!" snorted old Slade. "Couldn't you ha' fixed up a better yarn than that? What are you snivelin' at? D'ye think yer the only man as ever stove in a mate's head—an' him a murderin' man-driver? Keep them tales for the Old Man; he believes 'em, seemingly; but don't you come them on me."

Conroy was moaning. "I never touched him; I never touched him!"

"Never touched him! Here, take the pin; it's yours!"

He shrank from it. "No, no!"

Slade pitched it to his bunk, where it lay on the blanket. "It's yours," he repeated. "If yer don't want it, heave it overboard yerself or stick it back in the rail. Never touched him—you make me sick with yer 'never touched him'!"

The door slammed on his scornful retreat; Conroy shuddered and sat up. The iron belaying-pin lay where it had fallen, on his bed, and even in that meager light it carried the traces of its part in the mate's death. It had the look of a weapon rather than of a humble ship-fitting. It rolled a couple of inches where it lay as the ship leaned to a gust, and he saw that it left a mark where it had been, a stain.

He seized it in a panic and started for the door to be rid of it at once.

As if a malicious fate made him its toy, he ran full into the Greek outside.

"Ah!" The man's smile flashed forth, wise and livid. "An' so you 'ad it in your pocket all de time, den!"

Conroy answered nothing. It was beyond striving against. He walked to the rail and flung the thing forth with hysterical violence to the sea.

The watch going below at four o'clock found him apparently asleep, with his face turned to the wall. They spoke in undertones, as though they feared to disturb him, but none of them mentioned the only matter which all had in mind. They climbed heavily to their bunks, there to smoke the brief pipe, and then to slumber. Only Slade, who slept little, would from time to time lean up on one elbow to look down and across to the still figure which hid its face throughout the night.

Conroy woke when the watch was called for breakfast by a man who thrust his head in and shouted. He had slept at last, and now as he sat up it needed an effort of mind to recall his trouble. He looked out at his mates, who stood about the place pulling on their clothes, with sleep still heavy on them. They seemed as usual. It was his turn to fetch the coffee from the galley, he remembered, and he slipped out of his bunk to dress and attend to it.

"I won't be a minute," he said to the others, as he dragged on his trousers.

A shaggy young Swede near the door was already dressed.

"I vill go," he said. "You don't bother," and forthwith slipped out.

The others were looking at him now, glancing with a queer, sharp interest and turning away when they met his eyes. It was as though he were a stranger.

"That was a queer thing last night," he said to the nearest.

"Yes," the other agreed, with a kind of haste.

They sat about at their meal, when the coffee had been brought by the volunteer, under the same constraint. He could not keep silent; he had to speak and make them answer.

"Where is he?" he asked, abruptly.

"On de gratings," he was told. And the Swede who fetched the coffee added, "Sails is sowin' him up now already."

"We'll see the last of him to-day," said Slade. "He won't kick nobody again!"

There was a mutter of agreement, and eyes turned on Conroy again. Slade smiled slowly.

"Yes, he keeck once too many times," said the Greek.

The shaggy young Swede wagged his head. "He t'ink it was safe to kick Conroy, but it aindt," he observed, profoundly. "No, it aindt safe."

"He got vat he ask for. ... Didn't know vat he go up againdst. . . . No, it aindt—it aindt safe. ... Maybe vish he aindt so handy mit his feet now."

They were all talking; their mixed words came to Conroy in broken sentences. He stared at them a little wildly, realizing the fact that they were admiring him, praising him, and afraid of him. The blood rose in his face hotly.

"You fellers talk," he began, and was disconcerted at the manner in which they all fell silent to hear him—"you talk as if I'd killed him."

"Well! ... Ach was!"

He faced their smiles, their conciliatory gestures, with a frown.

"You better stop it," he said. "He fell—see? He fell an' caved his head in. An' any feller that says he didn't—"

His regard traveled from face to face, giving force to his challenge.

"Ve aindt goin' to say nodings!" they assured him, mildly. "You don't need to be scared of us, Conroy."

"I'm not scared," he said, with meaning. "But—look out, that's all."

When breakfast was over, it was his turn to sweep up. But there was almost a struggle for the broom and the privilege of saving him that trouble. It comforted him and restored him; it would have been even better but for the presence of Slade, sitting aloft in his bunk, smiling over his pipe with malicious understanding.

The Villingen was still under reefed upper topsails, walking into the seas on a taut bowline, with water a-coming aboard freely. There was little for the watch to do save those trivial jobs which never fail on a ship. Conroy and some of the others were set to scrubbing teak on the poop, and he had a view of the sail-maker at his work on the gratings under the break of the poop, stitching on his knees to make the mate presentable for his last passage. The sail-maker was a bearded Finn, with a heavy, darkling face and the secret eyes of a faun. He bent over his task, and in his attitude and the slow rhythm of his moving hand there was a suggestion of ceremonial, of an act mysterious and ritual.

Half-way through the morning Conroy was sent for to the cabin, there to tell his tale anew, to see it taken down, and to sign it. The captain even asked him if he felt better.

"Thank you, sir," replied Conroy. "It was a shock, findin' him dead like that."

"Yes, yes," agreed the captain. "I can understand—a great shock. Yes!"

He was bending over his papers at the table; Conroy smiled over his bowed head. Returning on deck, he winked to the man at the wheel, who smiled uncomfortably in return. Later he borrowed a knife to scrape some spots of paint off the deck; he did not want to spoil the edge of his own.

They buried the mate at eight bells; the weather was thickening, and it might be well to have the thing done. The hands stood around, bareheaded, with the grating in the middle of them, one edge resting on the rail, the other supported by two men. There was a dark smudge on the sky up to windward, and several times the captain glanced up from his book toward it. He read in German, slowly, with a dwelling upon the sonorous passages, and toward the end he closed the book and finished without its aid.

Conroy was at the foot of the ladder; the captain was above him, reading mournfully, solemnly, without looking at the men. They were rigid, only their eyes moving. Conroy collected their glances irresistibly. When the captain had finished his reading he sighed and made a sign, lifting his hand like a man who resigns himself. The men holding the grating tilted it; the mate of the Villingen, with a little jerk, went over the side.

"Shtand by der tobs'l halliards!" roared the second mate.

Conroy, in the flurry, found himself next to a man of his watch. He jerked a thumb in the direction of the second, mate, who was still vociferating orders.

"Hark at him!" he said. "Before we're through I'll teach him manners, too."

And he patted his knife.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1926, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.