“Number five—here you are, sir,” said the porter, as I followed him into the Pullman of the Oriental Express at Victoria. I nodded in approval, pleased to see that the seat allotted to me commanded a window, for the day was warm and oppressive to a degree unusual in an English April. There would be thunder before long, I imagined, and hoped that any disturbance of the atmosphere would be postponed until after our arrival on French soil. The present conditions promised an ideal Channel crossing.
Outside, a pall of fog hung heavily in the air mixed with the more grimy murk of train smoke, and the groups on the platform seemed to take on an air of added pathos from the drabness of the atmosphere. There was no one to see me off and for once, as I watched the tragi-comedy of leave-taking going on around me, I thanked the Fates who had marked out for me the furrow of a lonely but, I hope, philosophic ploughman. Perhaps it is the loneliness of this furrow that has made the study of my fellow-beings become with me not only a habit but also something of a hobby. Anyway, I found ample occupation and amusement in perusing the living pages before me while I waited for the train to start, for there are few occasions which reveal the rather pathetic humanity lying buried under our husk of blasé civilisation more completely than the departure of an Oriental Express. Close by my window stood a couple whose short, rather commonplace story was only too easily read. The man was tall, good-looking and almost excessively well groomed, with the unmistakable hallmark of the cavalry officer—Indian Cavalry, I surmised, though I could not have quite told why. The girl was undoubtedly pretty and there was about her that touch of finished smartness which counts for so much more than looks. She was emphatically the kind of girl a man of that type likes to be seen about with, and in that lay, possibly, the whole secret of the story. Just at the moment her eyes held a strangely bewildered look, as though she could not quite understand the incredible fact which was slowly dawning upon her, and once or twice I caught in them a gleam of something not far from despair. She did not speak much, but he, on the other hand, was talking incessantly with the obvious preoccupation of avoiding anything approaching a scene. I felt extraordinarily sorry for her—the more so that I knew it would be useless to explain (even had the conventions permitted, which they did not) that she was well out of the adventure. Useless to tell her that though not in the least vicious he was utterly shallow; that though he would not compromise a girl’s reputation he would make havoc of her affections; that though he could make love delightfully, and even, maybe, sincerely, marriage was a thing which would never loom upon his sport-bounded, wholly egotistical horizon. Well, well—no doubt time would explain it all to her. . . .
Close by them a woman was standing surrounded by a bevy of friends. She had her back to me and for some reason that I could not have explained I was beset with curiosity to see her face. I think it was something vaguely, and irritatingly, familiar about the set of her shoulders or the poise of her head which was responsible for it, but as she remained obdurately absorbed in her numerous friends I tired of contemplating the back-view of her trim, rather severely-cut coat and skirt, and turned to look at a group further down the platform. These were of a somewhat different type. The girl was undeniably pretty in the doll-and-chocolate-box-style, but she had spoilt herself by unnecessary makeup. Her lips had been treated with vermilion, her cheeks were smeared with the strange orange hue decreed by fashion, and her rather luxuriant lashes had been needlessly darkened. She was expensively but showily dressed, and the handsome rings which loaded her hands were completely unsuitable, if not for her dress, at least for her years. She could not have been more than twenty-five at the outside. The man, obviously her husband, who stood near her, had his back to me and I could not see his face at first. When I did, it gave me a shock to discover that he was an Indian—a Hindu I judged, though in these days of clean-shaven Mahommedans and even Sikhs it is sometimes difficult to tell. The people round them in the group were unexpectedly ordinary in appearance, and the girl in her vivid clothes gleamed among them like a gaudy bird-of-paradise among sparrows.
I fell to wondering if all these people were to be my fellow-passengers on the Kistna. The odds seemed in favour of it, but there were, after all, other ships sailing from Marseilles. I had already tried to decipher the name of my vis-à-vis from the card above the empty seat opposite, but it was quite illegible. Indeed, had I not known that my own name was Grant I should never have suspected it from the hieroglyphics adorning the card above my head.
At last the guard’s whistle blew and amid the usual babel of final leave-takings and messages, the usual scramble for seats, the train glided out of the station. Handkerchiefs were waving frenziedly from every window and even I thrust my head and shoulders out into the air. I had no one to wave to but I wanted just one last glimpse of the grimy old city which is the busybeating heart of our empire. For many months to come I should not see it, though to be sure I should be made aware of its throbbings in the smaller pulse-beat of India. But the Indian pulse is a little irregular just at present.
I did not draw in my head until the train had lumbered heavily across the bridge, and London lay like a great, smoke-grey silhouette in the distance, with the Thames, a band of clouded opal, gleaming beneath it. We were clear of the fog-pall now and racing southwards under skies of fragile blue. As I drew in my head I realised that the trim, severely-cut blue coat and skirt was in front of me once again. Its wearer was evidently to be my vis-à-vis, and at the moment her face was still invisible for she was standing up, endeavouring to coax a dispatch-case to remain in the rack. I looked up, wondering if I could help, and at that moment she turned towards me. Our eyes met.
It was my wife.
We neither of us spoke for quite a minute, then I seem to remember stammering “good-morning” or something equally banal. Perhaps it was “how-do-you-do?” She smiled faintly as she sat down and answered quite naturally, but I noticed that she had gone a little white.
“Going East?” she asked, rather unnecessarily.
“Yes—by the Kistna. And you?”
I concluded that the affirmative was intended to reply to both my statements, which meant that we were fated to be fairly close companions for the next fortnight. The situation was awkward, and there were elements in it calculated to make it even more trying. I wondered if she knew of those elements, but you cannot bawl out questions fringing on intimate subjects when the train is roaring like the nether world uncovered. We screamed our way into a tunnel while I still hesitated as to how to frame the question, and when we came out of it I saw that Mary had pulled a book out of her bag and had somewhat pointedly set herself to read it. I fell to recalling the story of our brief married life while I absently watched the flying Kentish orchards, and saw the serried ranks of hoppoles fling themselves past like delirious acrobats.
Twenty years—could it really be so much?—yes, twenty years ago I had met and married Mary Stanbrook more or less straight from the schoolroom. She had been seventeen and I twenty-six. Ours had been no jazz-born, moon-matured romance, but a thing of high ideals and purpose, yet looking back it seemed to me that things had gone wrong from the outset. There had been searing quarrels, bitter upbraidings, the continual strife and clash of wills, interspersed, it is true, with reconciliations and periods of calm, I do not know what my own attitude of mind was in those days. I think I was bewildered, disappointed, and, through it all, blindly hopeful. More than once, after a reconciliation, Mary had said ruefully:
“It just can’t be helped, Alan. Shut two people with Celtic tempers and headstrong wills up together and there are bound to be fireworks. It’s a chemical combination.”
For five years I went on hoping against hope that she might be right, then Evelyn Laxwood came into my life and I realised how utterly nebulous and impossible were the faint hopes and ideals which had sustained me. Mary and I could never be happy together for we were absolutely incompatible. Though, doubtless, indeed certainly, a good woman, Mary was rigid, unbending, hidebound by conventions, and incapable of life in any fuller or deeper sense. Evelyn by contrast seemed a thing all fire and passion and impulse, and not many months had passed before the inevitable had occurred and we realised our love for one another. There was not then nor at any time anything wrong between us, but perhaps in the months that followed we were a little indiscreet in our behaviour. Mary went home the following spring and I saw her off at Bombay, wholly unsuspecting that anything was wrong, nor do I think I have ever in my life had a more paralysing shock than the letter which reached me some weeks after her arrival in England. It stated simply that she was quite aware of all that had been going on, and that unless I was prepared to break with Evelyn completely she considered it better to make our temporary separation a permanent one, as she had no intention of living in a state of continual humiliation in her own house. I can remember still the feeling of numbness which descended on me as I read the terse sentences. A thunderbolt in the compound would have seemed a mild disturbance by contrast. I rushed, I remember, to Evelyn, and it was she who gently restored me to something of my usual balance and grip on facts. After all, she pointed out, it was only necessary to write and explain things to Mary. She had no real grounds for complaint for I had been, and always would be, faithful to her. It was simply that we were all three victims of circumstances. Evelyn and I were affinities, soulmates; nothing could alter that, but there was no reason why we should not all three contrive to live on amicable terms. Doubtless in the end even Mary herself might expand a little in the warmth of our affection and learn something of the meaning of love. In the meantime she could rest assured of my complete integrity and fidelity whatever might happen. I wrote the letter with a feeling of relief that matters had come to a head, but I received no answer, nor had I heard from Mary from that day to this. Moreover, the rather extra-generous allowance that I sent home to her was never touched. She had something under a hundred a year of her own and the thought of that untouched money used sometimes to worry me, but I could do nothing. What would eventually have happened between Evelyn and me I cannot say. In those prewar days divorce was not the commonplace that it is now, and, moreover, Mary was Irish and a Catholic, and would not have countenanced it in any case.
Doubtless if I had badgered her, I could have forced her to give me my liberty, but I had no intention of behaving like a blackguard. Youth can be very idealistic, and the thought of a life poured out at the shrine of a hopeless passion did not then loom as quite the unsatisfactory thing it might have done in later years. Still, as I say, I do not know what would have happened if the war had not swept down upon us like an earthquake, shaking the foundations of life to pieces. I got home in September, 1914, joined up in one of the units of K.I. and, after a brief nightmare of mud and slush on Salisbury Plain found myself in France. Then followed, not a short nightmare, but the long hell of reality. . . . I was wounded and taken prisoner towards the end of ’17 and by some mischance remained reported among the “missing” for over six months. When I got home, after the Armistice, Evelyn was married.
I did not see her herself (it was the sight of her portrait in the papers above a caption beginning “Lady Cogghill, the wife of the well known philanthropist . . .” which gave me the news); nor did I strive to do so. The war had changed my perspective somewhat, and to go back into her life seemed to me merely wanton cruelty. I went back to my old job (I was in the Forest Department), and by degrees that role of lonely, but philosophic, ploughman grew upon me. Life, after all, is many-sided, and with work, sport, and books (especially the great human book of the world) a man can fill his days very pleasantly. Moreover, each hobby brings its own friendships, and in that way I was far from being lonely. Gradually the past had sunk to sleep and it was only a few weeks ago that it had opened a drowsy eye and looked at me from the pages of The Times. I had been reading the account of the maiden voyage of the S.S. Kistna, the first ship of the new Indropean Navigation Co. to take the seas, and at the foot of the column I had come upon a paragraph which stated than on her return voyage the Kistna would number Sir Aubrey and Lady Cogghill among her passengers. Sir Aubrey, who, The Times added, was one of the largest shareholders in the Indropean Co., had not been in good health lately, and the doctors had advised his not returning to England from the Riviera where he had been wintering, but had proposed a voyage round the world. India was, I gathered, to be merely the first lap of the journey.
I think it had been a, perhaps, sentimental curiosity which had prompted my taking my passage in the same ship. It was many years since Evelyn and I had met, and the old passion was not only dead, but sufficiently buried by time for its details to have become blurred. There would be no pain or danger in our meeting now and it would, on the other hand, be interesting to pick up the old threads, not of love but of friendship. So I had schemed—and now, Mary, my wife, was sitting opposite me, bound also for the Kistna! The question on my mind—the question which I could not ask—was : Did she know that Evelyn was to be our fellow-traveller? And what was likely to be her attitude?
We had thundered over the tiny bridge beyond Shorncliffe before I realised that the short preliminary lap of our long journey was nearly at an end, and I had arrived at no answer to my question.
I caught Mary’s eye as we both reached for our belongings in the rack, and it seemed to me that I detected a slight glint of humour, as though she had divined the subject of my thoughts, but we neither of us spoke, and in the scrimmage on the platform I lost sight of her.
As usual, the crowd on the boat seemed out of all proportion to the number brought down by the train. I saw my luggage stacked in a spot where it would be easy of access when we disembarked, then took up my position at the rails, and watched England fade slowly into the mist as we swung out to sea. I never bother about a chair for the short crossing. When the massive houses along the Leas were no more than a grey silhouette on the horizon, I went below and patiently waited in the crowd until a weary official should insult me by identifying me with a libellous photograph and stamp me a fitting person to be allowed across France. It was while we waited in the scrum round the passport-office door that I heard a plaintive voice behind me.
“If I have to stay here one more minute,” it declared, “I shall be sick. I know I shall.”
There was urgency in the voice and I turned hastily, to discover that the speaker was the Bird-of-Paradise Girl I had noticed at Victoria. I had already seen her husband pass into the passport sanctum ahead of me and wondered whether I should offer to assist the lady to a seat. But while I hesitated a young man beside me made up his mind. With extraordinary efficiency he shouldered a way through the crowd, grasped the girl by her gaudy arm, gently lowered her into a seat and stood talking to her while she recovered. Her recovery seemed rapid; the sea was as smooth as a jar of cream and the young man was personable; I am afraid I wondered rather cynically while I handed my passport to the official whether she had seen him standing near her in the crowd before she decided to turn giddy. Doubtless I was inexcusably uncharitable, but for some reason the sight of an English girl married to an Indian never tends to heighten one’s opinion of either party. I wondered whether we were in for any complications, racial and social, on board the S.S. Kistna.
As I reached the head of the companion on my way back to the deck I encountered Mary. She wore an air of questant expectancy and, more to cover a momentary embarrassment than for any other reason, I asked her if she was in search of anyone.
“Yes, a friend of mine is on board somewhere,” she answered, but as she did not specify the sex, nor give any description of her friend, I did not feel called upon to take any action.
Almost mechanically we turned and strolled towards the bows together; there are few places where it is more difficult to avoid a person than on a crowded, cross-channel steamer. Boulogne was close now, looking, as it loomed out of the faint mist, very ordinary and homely, yet for all that, even at this distance, imbued with the unmistakable atmosphere of a foreign town. We watched it for some minutes in silence, then, abruptly, Mary spoke:
“Alan—we’d better decide—what we are to do.”
I turned and looked at her enquiringly.
“On the voyage, I mean,” she explained, while a faint tinge of colour appeared in her cheeks. “It seems we are to be travelling companions for over two weeks. We must decide how we are to behave to one another.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “I was thinking of that in the train coming down.”
“I know, but I don’t think you arrived at any solution.”
“I did not,” I assured her, a trifle testily; Mary had always possessed this irritating habit of thought-reading. Then, abruptly, as I caught sight of the ring on the hand that was grasping the rail, I added a question:
“What name are you travelling under?”
“My own,” she answered promptly, “though I call myself ‘Mrs.’ You’ll find me in the passenger list as ‘Mrs. Stanbrook.’”
She paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on the houses of Boulogne, now drawing very close. Then she turned to me with a little gesture which I remembered well, and which, at the moment, told me that she had understood the purport of my question.
“Oh, it would be easy enough, Alan. We could meet as just old acquaintances. We are both capable of that much politeness, surely, after fifteen years. It would be perfectly simple but for—Lady Cogghill!”
She had returned her gaze to the approaching houses, and did not look at me as she brought out the last word slowly. I followed her example, gazing straight ahead of me without speaking. So after all she had known all the time. I wondered if something of the same curiosity—without the sentiment—which had inspired me to take my passage on the Kistna was responsible for her presence. Then it occurred to me to wonder for the first time why she was travelling East at all. I could think of no reason for her wishing to visit India, but perhaps she had been invited by friends. I knew nothing of her life during the past fifteen years and could hazard no guess as to the kind of circle in which she had moved. I think I had had a vague picture of her living in a provincial town, getting up church bazaars and attending lectures. Evelyn had sketched this milieu once when I had spoken rather anxiously on the subject, adding: “And, Alan, that, after all, is the life she wants. She’s a good, woman—far better than we are no doubt—but she just doesn’t know what life or love mean. . . .”
But people of that kind don’t go to India as a rule, except, maybe, as missionaries, and I believe Catholics don’t run to female missionaries of a detached kind. Besides, in spite of her severely-cut coat and skirt, Mary did not look in the least like a missionary.
My meditations—rather irrelevant to the point at issue I’m afraid—lasted so long that it was Mary who broke the silence as we drew in to the quay.
“Well?” she demanded tersely.
I pulled myself together.
“If you are really willing to act as simply old acquaintances,” I said, “it can be easily arranged. I have only to speak to Lady Cogghill. There is certainly no danger of her talking.”
“Perhaps,” conceded Mary with rather silky sweetness, “she may have learnt to hold her tongue in fifteen years.”
The remark struck me as peculiarly unjust. In all the time, and through all the difficulties of Evelyn’s and my friendship, I had never heard her say a word against Mary. She was not that kind of woman, but perhaps Mary, like many of us, judged others by herself. I had no time to voice the remonstrance which rose to my lips for we were already alongside the quay, and I hurried off to collect my belongings. I lost sight of Mary but found myself standing near her again in the inferno of the Douane. She was talking to the young man whom I had seen befriending the Gaudy Girl, and I surmised that he must be the friend of whom she had been in search. In accordance with our agreement to behave like old acquaintances she introduced him when she discovered my proximity.
“This is an old friend of mine—Mr. Stevenson. Mr. Grant, John.”
I wondered while I acknowledged the introduction just what length of acquaintance Mary meant to indicate. From his years he could not have been a very “old friend” of anyone’s. He was certainly a good-looking youngster, and his build, I noticed on closer inspection, was attractively athletic, though he bore the unmistakable stamp of the city-man—a rich one, I surmised, though I could hardly have said why.
I saw the Gaudy Girl herself not far off, engaged in opening her boxes for inspection, and her eyes held a look of bewilderment which almost amounted to terror. Evidently she was not an experienced traveller—possibly she did not know French. Mary noticed her plight too, for I heard her say as I moved away in the wake of my porter:
“She looks terrified, John. Can’t you help her?” I did not trouble to look round; I had every confidence in “John’s” efficiency in rendering help to distressed damsels.
On the platform near the train I passed the girl’s Hindu husband. I had seen the name Rama Rao on his suitcase so knew that I had placed him correctly. He was looking rather anxiously towards the Customs’ shed and as I passed I volunteered the information that his wife would not be long—I had seen her closing her last box.
He took off his hat in courteous acknowledgment.
“Thank you so much. I was beginning to be anxious, for she speaks no French. But she wished to see for herself that they did not crush her frocks.”
“It is absurd that we should have had to go through the Customs at all,” I said, as I pulled myself up the high steps into the carriage. “We should have been exempted on our Bombay tickets.”
“We should indeed,” he agreed, “I have been wondering what is the reason.”
He spoke in a pleasant voice with no accent, though a slightly foreign turn of phrase, and I found myself strangely attracted by him. That mysterious force we call personality peeped through the banality of the remarks we had exchanged. I found myself revising the hasty estimate I had formed of him on seeing his wife, and I hoped most sincerely that the Bird-of-Paradise would not prove too true to type.
It was stiflingly hot in the carriage, which had stood in the sun all the afternoon, and I breathed a sigh of relief when at last, after what seemed an interminable wait, we glided out of the station. Usually I enjoy the journey across France, but today, as I sat in the tiny, compact compartment, on the chair that an ingenious designer had contrived to wedge between the bunk-end and the window, I felt disgruntled and irritable. Against my will, it seemed, the past was to be resurrected and I was to be plunged once more into the strife of jarring temperaments. I sat gazing out over the wide plains of Northern France—those plains fraught for most of us with such stupendous significance. The fields were green and fertile today and the trim lines of poplars bowed their heads without agitation as the wind of our passing smote them; the roads, white, unsophisticated things, devoid of asphalt, wound like twisted ribbons round the peaceful villages that flashed past, each clustered round a quaint humpbacked church wearing its spire amidships like the funnel of a steamer. But not so many years ago I had seen other roads and other villages. . .
Try as I would I could not put myself into my own prewar shoes nor recapture the mental attitude of those days, and I was glad when the summons to dinner sounded. I felt hungry, in spite of the heat—travelling always increases my appetite—and did justice to the train chef’s efforts. Mary and “John” were on the opposite side of the saloon to me, talking animatedly yet with the familiarity of old friends who do not need to stand on ceremony. Mary looked tired and there were dark rings round her eyes. I guessed that she had one of the headaches with which thunder in the air always affected her. But her spirits did not seem to have suffered. I essayed a few remarks to the man at my table but was disconcerted by the fact that some queer freak in the acoustics of the saloon made me into an unintentional ventriloquist. Every time I addressed him he turned and gazed expectantly over his left shoulder, then started with surprise on discovering that it was his vis-à-vis who had spoken.
After the third attempt I gave it up, and a sudden gurgle of laughter from the table opposite told me that Mary and John had noted my unintentional exhibition. As I passed near them on the way out Mary asked:
“Is it a paying line, ventriloquism, Alan?”
I made some suitable response and hurried on to my own compartment. I still felt disgruntled and upset, jolted rudely out of the comfortable rut into which I had slipped. Mary’s sense of humour was a thing which came back to me with a shock of familiarity. I could remember her laughter well, now that I heard it again, yet, somehow, it did not tally with that picture of her that I had held all these years—the picture of a good but rather grim woman who had no sympathy with life, nor love, nor laughter. Where was the hitch?
The train had drawn up outside Paris and I thrust my head and shoulders out of the window, remaining for a long time watching the glow of the western sky and the grey silhouette of the gay city, while the lamps came out like bewildered stars strayed from their appointed places. I heard Mary’s voice as she and John returned from dinner, and glancing backward I thought I caught a glimpse of the latter as he passed on to his own compartment. Presently Mary’s head appeared a few inches from mine and I realised for the first time that she was my next-door neighbour. She withdrew rather hurriedly as she, too, realised my proximity and I was left in undisputed possession of the view. It was stiflingly hot and I did not draw in my head until the train at last came to life and glided rather groaningly on its journey once more. It was just at the moment that I decided to withdraw into the heat of the carriage once more that I heard the voice that startled me.
“No! No, I did not, I tell you! Why will you never believe me? Oh, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
There was an intensity of misery, almost of terror in the last two sentences that lifted them to the height of tragedy. But that was not the real reason for my mental preoccupation. The voice, clanging metallically through the hubbub of the train, was unrecognisable but its source was unmistakable.
It had come from Mary's compartment.
I woke among the vineyards and cypress trees of the south, dressing under the usual difficulties while Hermitages flashed by and the train rocked and roared, shrieked and shook, swerved and swayed like a drunken hurricane upon its way. I breakfasted with the feeling of indescribable filth which a night in a French train alone can engender, my only companion in the dining-car being the ultra-smart cavalry officer whose name, I had discovered, was Major Lawrence. He looked considerably less immaculate than he had done at Victoria, and his temper seemed to have suffered even more than his appearance judging from the acerbity of his manner to the waiters.
The skies were grey and weeping, for all that we were now in the sunny south, and a squall which met us as we came down the heights above Marseilles boded ill for our passage in the Gulf. I looked for Mary in the scrum on the quay when we arrived at our destination but I could see nothing of her until I caught sight of a trim, austere back-view disappearing up the gangway. Evidently John’s efficiency in extricating her baggage as well as his own had out-distanced mine, for I still had two boxes to account for. Mary turned as she reached the head of the gangway, calling back some laughing remark to John, and I wondered, as I had in fact wondered some fifty times already, if I had not been mistaken in what I had overheard the night before. Surely the agony which seemed to breathe through those last reiterated words, “Oh, what shall I do?” must have been only in my imagination? Yet, even if that were so, the mystery remained unsolved, for there was still the question to be answered whatever the words meant, to whom could they have been addressed? Well, anyway, it was no affair of mine. . . .
In the course of my search for my missing boxes I encountered Rama Rao. He was again alone, for his wife, he explained, had gone up into Marseilles town to buy clothes in French money while she had the chance. She seemed of a strangely independent turn of mind, particularly when one considered that she knew no French and remembered her look of bewilderment at the Customs’ shed the day before. But doubtless for one whose ruling passion is clothes the lure of a French model purchased at bargain price owing to the rate of exchange is one which cannot be gainsaid. The Hindu and I went on board together when I had at last succeeded in locating my missing baggage, but we separated at the head of the companion, he diving downwards to where the more luxurious cabins were situated while my guiding steward shepherded me for’ard. I was very pleased with my cabin, a single berth one with two portholes, one facing up ship and the other to port. It was one of a block of seven small cabins, there being two behind it facing to port, two alongside facing up-ship and two on the opposite side facing to starboard. The fourth side of the square thus formed was open, and led to the lounge, while the centre was occupied by bathrooms, leaving only a narrow alleyway between them and the seven cabin doors. I had already seen Mary’s belongings being put into the cabin next door but one to mine, and luggage bearing the names of Stevenson and Lawrence being brought to this same part of the ship. As I came out of my own small compartment, having settled my baggage, I saw a parson emerge from the first cabin on the starboard side, the one corresponding to Mary’s, so that only two of my immediate neighbours—the occupants, that is to say, of the two cabins facing up-ship—were left unaccounted for. I breathed a sigh of relief. I am an old traveller and as such should, according to popular ideas, be indifferent to the minor comforts of travel, but for myself I think that is a fallacy. It is we to whom voyages and journeyings are a normal part of life who have learnt the value of such seeming trifles, and for myself I have a rather exaggerated horror of cabin neighbours who play gramophones to unearthly hours, sing, shout, and generally turn night into day. I decided that in this case fate had been kind to me and that I was likely to have a peaceful time among such companions. I passed the time of day with the parson, learning that he had come round on the ship from London, and we fell into conversation concerning the weather, the number of passengers, the comfort of the ship, and such matters as form the usual subjects of minor interest on a voyage. He seemed a very human, likeable man, and, though I seldom have much in common with any of his cloth, the talk ran easily and naturally. He had a round, cherubic face, which looked unusually pink in contrast to the whiteness of the Roman collar, and light eyes behind rimless pince-nez. He was dressed in the conventional dark garb, and crowned haloesquely by a round clerical hat. Rama Rao came up the companion as we stood talking and on the spur of the moment I proposed an aperitif. It was perhaps rash with a Hindu of the party, for one cannot tell their feelings on many such points with any accuracy, but Rama accepted quite naturally, merely suggesting that we should have it in the lounge in preference to the smoking-room as he was watching the gangway for his wife’s return. The parson (I had learnt that his name was Mathers) did not join us but wandered away seeming a little ill at ease. It was not, I gathered, any views on temperance which were worrying him but rather a slight embarrassment caused by the presence of the Hindu. When I had introduced them there had come into Mathers’ manner just that touch of official “parsondom,” the absence of which when I had first spoken to him had made me think of him as genuine and human—the sort of man one could go to in trouble with the fair certainty of being understood. His “good-morning” to Rama Rao had rung with a rather nervous and hollow heartiness which made me wonder whether he was wishing that he might consult some private book of reference laying down the correct comportment of the Anglican clergyman when confronted with the heathen.
Left to ourselves, Rama and I inevitably drifted to talking of India, ranging from the partial failure of last year’s monsoon to a possible rise in the jute market. I avoided politics, being naturally ignorant of my companion’s views, but he himself introduced an even more delicate subject by the mention of a certain book which had lately, as I knew, raised a storm in the Vernacular Press.
“You have read it, sir?” he demanded.
I nodded without speaking. I had indeed read the book in question and I think it hurt me as much as it had hurt many Indians. It was not that I disputed its facts—for the most part they were indisputable. But there is a certain distortion of perspective, a blackening of motives, which comes inevitably from the pen of a stranger, and it was this which had, as I said, hurt me in the book. We who spend our best years in India perhaps come to know her as others cannot, and, though we may not understand her, at least we grope our way dimly into the mental atmosphere in which she moves. It is this that makes the difference. And sometimes I am tempted to believe that it is only those of us who wander in the wilds who find the strangely simple heart which lies beneath all her tawdry, wrongheaded complexities.
“Yes, I have read the book,” I said at last as my companion seemed waiting for me to speak. “And I think . . .”
For a moment or two I floundered badly in a bog of words, striving to dig out a phrase that would clothe my thought in such language as one can offer to a stranger.
“But it is all true!” he interrupted me suddenly, almost fiercely. “The facts are true. Oh, I know what you would say, sir—it is exaggerated, distorted. You are of those who understand. Yet the facts are true, and we who understand must not forget that. It is on us the burden is laid—we must help. . .”
He changed his position, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees and I was impressed by his extraordinary earnestness. His chief characteristic, ordinarily, seemed to be an intense quietness, both of manner and appearance. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered and athletic of build, dressed faultlessly in European clothes, and wearing horn-rimmed spectacles which went oddly with the dark skin beneath them. But at the moment the eyes behind the glasses were alight with a strange driving enthusiasm, and his voice though it remained quiet and level held a vibrant note.
“The weight of ignorance,” he said, “of heredity, of atmosphere—-does anyone without experience know what they mean? We are in chains—-yes, even those of us who know—and what of those others? Oh, I can tell you of things I have seen. There was a woman once . . .”
He plunged into story after story of his experiences, telling them with an artless, almost childish choice of words, making no effort to tone down the dark patches of cruelty, wanton callousness, and blinded stupidity which ran through them. They were stories of the real India with whom few come in contact, and many of them were worse than those of the book we had been discussing, but they were told with an understanding which somehow altered their focus. I glimpsed, too, something of Rama Rao’s own story while he spoke. Of good caste and standing, the son of rich parents, he had, I gathered, studied medicine early in life and since then his efforts had been devoted mainly to alleviating the lot of the peasantry and the poorer Hindus in the crowded, reeking bazaars of the cities. He was an enthusiast and an idealist—so much was obvious in everything he said—but I divined, too, a depth of religious feeling showing through his words. He was afire with faith in the philosophy and the fundamental dogmas of his creed, and it seemed that most of his efforts were directed to—most of his failures came from—trying to sift the chaff from the wheat; to separate the teaching from the mass of convention and custom which overlaid it. I could understand and sympathise with his trials, for Hinduism is not the only creed in which convention becomes mingled with, and for many outweighs, commandment. Again and again came the exclamation: “We are in chains—yes, even we who know!” and once when he had been describing his efforts to found a children’s hospital he made a gesture almost of despair. “We need money,” he exclaimed. “I have a little—but of what use is that?”
I do not know when I have been more attracted by a personality. The man’s transparent sincerity, the driving force of his enthusiasm, carried me with them, and it gave me something of a shock when I caught sight of the Gaudy Girl—as I had christened her—coming up the gangway. Somehow she did not seem to fit into the picture, but perhaps the explanation of the marriage lay in Rama’s almost passionate revolt from caste and custom. He saw her as soon as I did and got to his feet.
“Ah, here is Ruth,” he exclaimed, and somehow the name did not seem to fit my conception of her either.
I, too, rose and made my way towards the deck. I had been subconsciously aware of a stir taking place though I had paid it little attention. Stewards were dashing about deferentially and a string of overladen porters filed obsequiously by. As I reached the door of the lounge a woman passed me, moving towards the stairs. Her face was away from me and for a moment I received only an impression of a sable coat and diamond earrings, but as she reached the head of the stairs she turned her profile towards me and I caught my breath in recognition.
It was Evelyn.
I don’t know what I did, but I have an idea I remained stock-still, gaping. I was aware that Mary had just entered the deck by the opposite door and was standing watching curiously, and I think my chief emotion was one of self-consciousness. Evelyn did not see me but began to descend the stairs, and whether I should have conquered my embarrassment sufficiently to speak I cannot say for at that moment a diversion occurred. Rama had met his wife at the top of the gangway and they both entered, “Ruth” looking strangely flustered and anxious. Her arms were fully laden, and, as she reached the head of the stairs, Mathers coming abruptly out of his cabin collided with her violently, sending the parcels flying. One burst and a cascade of flesh-coloured somethings, snaky and shimmering, fell on to the steps. The padre’s cherubic countenance became several shades pinker, and he appeared to perspire mildly as he looked down at the silky mass. Ruth murmured: “It’s only stockings,” as she stooped to gather them up, and the remark seemed to reassure Mathers, for he, too, stooped, taking up one pair in his hands. Then murmuring something about “a bag to put them in” vanished into his cabin. Apparently his search was fruitless for he returned almost immediately, his hands empty save for the silk stockings which he still held. Ruth meantime had bundled her belongings together and vanished down the companionway, and from the deck there had entered an invalid—partially paralysed I gathered—in a wheeled chair pushed by a younger woman whom I took to be her daughter. The latter struck me as a pathetic personality. She was tall and what is generally termed “well set up,” her features were good and her hair abundant and wavy. But it was scratched up anyhow at the back and her face was white and patient. There was an air of deadness and drabness over her whole personality, and her clothes, though good, had the hallmark of the country dressmaker. It did not need much knowledge of life to read the reason for it all, to read indeed her whole story in the chair she was pushing and in its occupant. . . .
Mathers stepped forward as he caught sight of them.
“Ah, Mrs. Crandon,’’ he exclaimed, addressing the invalid, “and how are we today? Been enjoying the sights of Marseilles? And what do you think of the boasted climate of the sunny south? It hardly comes up to expectations, I think. It never does. I have often endeavoured to disillusion such people as seem to think the English climate not fit for them in the winter. ‘You will find it is the same down south,’ I have told them, ‘the warmth and sunshine are a myth.’ But they seldom believe me.”
In view of the fact that, as Mathers had previously told me, this was his first visit abroad, it was perhaps understandable. Mrs. Crandon did not answer a syllable. Her eyes were fixed in fascinated horror on the stockings which, oblivious of their nature, he held in his hand in something the manner he might have held a stole he was about to don. It was only when Rama Rao, who had come up the stairs again and stood waiting for a pause in the talk, stepped forward with a courteous: “My wife’s, I think,” that Mathers awoke to the realisation of their nature. For a moment he stared confusedly, his face becoming even more cherubic in his embarrassment, then the very human and genuine streak which underlay his parsonical manner came uppermost and he burst out laughing. I don’t think Mrs. Crandon joined in, but I saw a gentle smile come into the eyes of the girl behind her chair. For myself, I did not wait to see the end of the incident, but made for the deck. I could not have said what had become of Evelyn, though I had an impression that she had lingered long enough to see what had happened, then gone on down the stairs. There were odd groups of people standing near the doorway and they were all laughing. I caught sight of Mary leaning against the rail helpless with mirth, and I was grateful that her attention, and somewhat intrusive sense of humour, had been diverted from my unworthy self. But perhaps if I had known the significance that farcical incident was to assume in our minds during the next few days my sentiments might have been different. . . .
The deck had the forlorn and dirty appearance it invariably assumes in port. I moved forward and stood beside Mary at the rail. I think I was a little curious to see whether Evelyn’s advent had made any difference to her, but she held, apparently without any effort, to our contract, greeting me as she would have greeted any old but casual acquaintance. The well-deck for’ard was thronged, somewhat unexpectedly, by Indians—Mahommedans—and their wives. They had been in France, so Mary informed me, for some sort of industrial exhibition, and were returning to their own country now as deck-passengers. They presented a forlorn picture as they sat about waiting to be shown their quarters, which were, I gathered, on the boat-deck above us. The women especially aroused my indignation. In India, somehow, one becomes inured to the smothering burqas and invisible faces, but here, as I looked at them sitting like depressed ghosts, looking through the pinpoint, embroidered eyeholes at the bustling world of the West, the barbarity of the idea struck me with full force, and I gave vent to an impatient exclamation.
“When will civilisation go far enough to eliminate that in the East, I wonder?”
Mary turned and looked at me and I thought I detected a glint of malice in her eyes.
“The burqa, do you mean?” she asked. “But, my dear Alan, civilisation has not eliminated it in the West yet. It has only made it invisible.”
I did not understand and I said so.
“I don’t remember you’re being a Suffragette,” I added as she did not speak.
“I wasn’t,” she said at last. “I’m not speaking in terms of votes. I mean something less concrete—less easy to explain.”
She turned and looked at the women again.
“If a man owed another money,” she said reflectively, “he’d never expect to settle the debt by offering, in lieu of cash, kindness and goodwill. Yet—they don’t see it.”
Whoever “they” might be, I certainly did not see the connection. Mary had always had this irritating and elliptic style of carrying on a conversation. She would work out a train of thought—on lines peculiarly her own—then present you with a cryptic utterance regarding her conclusions.
“I’m afraid I don’t quite follow,” I remarked drily.
She turned and looked at me and once again I thought I detected a spice of malice in her smile.
“You wouldn’t, Alan. I’m talking of that feminine and inconsequent abstraction—an attitude of mind. Whatever our legal status may be—it differs in different countries—that is the final court of appeal for practical purposes. Most men have, fundamentally, the same idea as the purda, though they hide it away under legal rights and equalities. Most men in their heart of hearts regard their wives—even though they may not know that they do—as some sort of superior possession, framed to minister to their own comfort, and imagine that they can pay with money and material things for love, loyalty, self-sacrifice. That is the crux of the matter—a kind of secular simony. So long as it exists the purda is only invisible—equality is only legal.”
I did not answer. Truth to tell I had suspected a personal application in Mary’s remarks—-there seemed otherwise no reason for her rather detailed, almost pedantic exposition of her views, nor for a certain bitterness which had come into her voice. What, precisely, the application might be I could not quite say, but a memory of that untouched, extra-generous allowance came across my mind, making me momentarily uncomfortable. It was a relief to hear the luncheon bugle, and I turned with suspicious alacrity towards the saloon. On the way we passed a quaint figure of a man whom I turned to look at interestedly. He was an Indian—a Mahommedan obviously by his tarboosh and flaming red beard—dressed in an ill-fitting European coat from beneath which flowed white draperies in place of trousers. A green scarf was thrown over his shoulder, and was meant, I surmised, to take the place of the green turban which marks the Hajji—the man who has made pilgrimage to Mecca. The tarboosh has come to have something of a political significance these days and I supposed that the man intended to show both his political and spiritual standing by his headdress and his scarf. I soon discovered I was right in my supposition. In person he was short and stocky, and in India one would have passed him a hundred times without noticing him—it was only his present surroundings which made him conspicuous.
“I wonder who that is?” I remarked to Mary as we reached the stairs.
“Don’t you know?” she answered, seeming surprised. “That is Hajji Mahmud Buksh. You’ve heard of him, I expect.”
I had indeed and was both startled and interested. Mahmud Buksh was a figure of interest politically in India. A middle-aged man of poor standing he had spent most of his life in complete obscurity, until, from some source—I think it was the demise of a distant relative—wealth had come to him. He had made the pilgrimage to Mecca at once, for piety was his main characteristic, and it was on his return that he began to figure in politics. But though his activities were political, the mainspring of his influence lay in his rigid orthodoxy and fanatical zeal for the faith of Islam. Through this he had acquired a following which differed in temper from that of other leaders and his career had begun to arouse mild interest among the powers that be. I wondered how he had come to be away so long from his native land, and how he had faced the difficulties which his rigid orthodoxy must have encountered in a visit to Europe. But Mary, who appeared to be a mine of information, told me that his visit had been to an Englishman who had recently embraced the Mahommedan faith, and that on his journey both to and fro the most elaborate preparations had been made to ensure that his meat should have been killed in the prescribed fashion.
“And he’s got a special purda suite for his wife,” she added.
It struck me that his presence would add a distinct spice of interest to the voyage.
The lunch was the usual kind of meal one eats the first day of a voyage and after it I went to my cabin to finish unpacking and arranging my things. We did not sail till late. The sun was setting when at last the tugs had drawn us free of the quay and we slipped silently down the great harbour with its forest of tapering masts and darker, stumpier funnels, sweeping out in a majestic curve to the open sea. Almost all the passengers were on deck but I could not see Evelyn, though some one pointed out Sir Aubrey Cogghill to me—a short, rather rotund and insignificant-looking little man with a fur-lined coat and a pair of super-field-glasses which he was focussing on the town as it faded into obscurity over our stem. There was a wistfulness on many faces as they gazed at the last spot of old Europe that we were to touch; but for myself, whatever my circumstances or feelings, the first moment of putting to sea never fails to bring with it a thrill. The moment when the gusty, fitful breeze of the land swells into a steady gale, the swish and ripple of the sea against the ship’s sides, changes to a more boisterous chant and a quivering, vibrant buoyancy through the whole vessel’s length tells, even in calm weather, that she is caught in the heave and surge of deeper waters.
Up in the fo’c’sle I saw the Hajji struggling manfully to spread a prayer-rug in the growing gale, and from overhead I heard faintly the notes of a deep sonorous chant which told me that his coreligionists had already begun their evening orisons. It seemed a strange sight and sound taken in conjunction with the keen salt tang of the air, and the delicate, silver silhouette of the French port fading to northward against a rose-leaf sky.
The breeze continued to freshen and a squall came up with the characteristic suddenness of the Gulf. There were few people at dinner and fewer in the smoking-room afterwards, though I saw John Stevenson there, immersed in a pile of important-looking papers. For myself I thought I would try a leg-stretch on the deserted deck. It was cold, and the ship was moving considerably now. One could just see the leaden seas through the darkness, tossing angry white foam-crests beneath a wrack of low scudding clouds.
I thought at first that I had the deck to myself, but, coming at a run, impelled by the gale and the roll, round the for’ard corner on the port side I cannoned violently into some one, sending the book in her hands flying. It was Mary. I guessed as much before I heard her laugh, for she had been one of the few brave ones at dinner, and I remembered that she had always been an invincible sailor.
“I’m sorry,” I said, though apologies seemed rather superfluous when the ship was really to blame.
“It’s all right,” she answered, “but can you find my book?”
It took some doing, for it was dark, and just as I picked it up a wave slopped over the well-deck sending a shower of spray into our faces. The ship heaved up higher than usual and we both turned and ran laughing to a more sheltered spot. I stopped under a fight to wipe the book which had suffered somewhat from its salt baptism. It was the Mystery of something or other and I deduced that it was a detective story.
“Do you like that kind of yarn?” I asked, as we fell into step together round the deck—it would obviously have been absurd for us each to continue our solitary constitutional.
She admitted that she did, and, as I pleaded guilty to a similar taste, the talk ran naturally on the authors who specialise in tales of mystery.
“Of course,” I said, as we completed our fourth circuit of the deck, “they are all unreal, and the odds are too heavily in favour of the author. He can tell what incidents he pleases, and conceal what he pleases. Moreover he can weave in any extraneous and irrelevant thread he likes just to make it more muddling. In real life it would be quite different—and much less exciting.”
“I wonder,” said Mary.
“You surely don’t think real murders have much romance or excitement about them?”
“I don’t know—I wonder, that’s all. Of course I admit that the tales are unreal. The most usual construction is to start with the murder, after which sundry odd incidents of the past are brought gradually to light, all gaining their significance from the known fact of the murder. Moreover, as you say, the long arm of coincidence is employed to ensure at least one, if not two, stout red herrings. But—life is full of coincidence anyway, and I wonder if in real life we should succeed in extricating the significant incidents from the mass of irrelevant ones, even if the red herrings were not very spectacular ones. We are so full of unconscious prejudices—of subconscious and conscious interests. The most likely thing would be for us to miss the important incidents because they were not conspicuous enough—or because we were looking in another direction.”
“I wonder,” I echoed.
“Well, I don’t suppose we shall be called upon to test our theories!” she exclaimed. “Oh, look I—I believe it is going to clear.”
She paused in her walk and leant with her elbows on the for’ard rail. It was true—the storm was abating as suddenly as it had arisen. A watery half-moon was showing pallidly through a blur of cloud. Beneath, the seas were still broken and angry, but there were fewer white crests. Ahead, to starboard, the mast-lights of an advancing steamer glimmered intermittently through the murk, and on our right, in the west, where the cloud-rack had rifted, a planet shone through with a bright unwinking stare. We fell silent for a while, gazing out at the night, then, very softly, I heard Mary quoting Flecker’s wonderful lines of the “Blind Man’s Vision”:
“Out on the sea of Time and far away
The Empires sail like ships and many years
Scatter before them in a mist of spray:”
I was startled for, strangely, the very words were running through my own head at the moment, and I could not see the connection which had suggested them till Mary began to speak.
“It’s an odd thing, a voyage. Don’t you think so, Alan? A piece cut out from life—or, rather, like a tiny life in itself. Interests, friendships, events which have nothing to do with the world outside—and which come to an end when we reach port. And, after all, what’s a planet but a kind of super-ship? Look”—she turned and pointed up at the western sky—“a sister-ship is hailing us as we pass.”
I was caught by her metaphor, not because it was strikingly original, but more because its application appealed to me. Later, as I lay in my bunk feeling already that eons had passed since I left London, I wooed sleep by working out the analogy. Yes, every ship at sea is a tiny world in itself—with its own lives and interests; its own laws and customs; its own mental atmosphere and perspective. There is Authority vested in one supreme ruler; there is the machinery of executive officialdom; down below are the toiling masses, oiling wheels and ministering to common needs; lastly there are the idle, butterfly lives spent mainly in an effort to kill time until the journey’s end. I fell to wondering what pattern Fate would weave from the threads ready to her hand. Mary and myself with our irrevocably linked yet inexorably divided destinies; Evelyn with her ardent, impulsive temperament that I knew so well, and her homely, insignificant husband; Ruth with her strange, flustered, half-furtive ways and frightened eyes; Rama, her husband, the tolerant, enlightened Hindu; Mahmud Buksh, the Moslem fanatic, Mathers with his conscious, conscientious parsondom lying like an irritating veneer over his sincerity and humanity; Lawrence with his good looks, his shallowness and conceit; the women on the boat-deck with their smothering garments and cramped lives; the men who had chanted their prayers; the British crew got together from almost every port in the Empire—strange threads truly out of which to weave a design. But not in my most fantastic dreams did I foresee the strangeness of the pattern into which they would be woven.
On the third day out, a Sunday, we awoke to sunshine. The Saturday had passed uneventfully. It had been rough, and of the twenty-odd saloon passengers (it was the beginning of the dead season and the ship emptier than was usual even for that time) scarcely any had appeared on deck. We had passed through the Straits of Bonifacio at dawn. Rising to cope with a drizzle, either of mist or spray, which was beating in on me, I had seen Corsica sliding past in a smother of dirty grey rain, but I don’t think any of the others had bothered about it. Later during the morning I saw Mary playing quoits with John Stevenson on the deck, both laughing at their futile efforts to outwit the roll. She greeted me with a friendly nod, but we didn’t speak, and later she and John went into the lounge where they sat reading, I was reduced to talking to Miss Crandon, whom I found sitting rather forlornly on the leeward side. Her invalid, I gathered, though not ill had decided to remain in bed, so she had a short time off duty. She herself felt no ill effects from the weather, though it was the roughest they had encountered since leaving London she told me.
I was glad to think that she was released, even though only temporarily, from her chains, and did my best to be entertaining. I felt an extraordinary admiration and sympathy for this girl with her patient air and rather drab personality. All the same, conversation was difficult for we had little in common. I learnt that they came from Mathers’ parish, and further, that Mathers himself was travelling to avert a threatened breakdown. Mrs. Crandon had been recommended a sea voyage about the same time, which was the reason they were all travelling together. The girl had a nervous, jerky manner of speaking, which made it at times difficult to catch the exact nuance of her meaning, and for myself, I am afraid I gave up the struggle of trying to follow the welter of parochial politics into which she plunged. It seemed a jumbled epic of blood-feuds and heart-burning: of High Church and Low Church: of whist-drives and incense: school treats and harvest decorations. I gathered it was actually the story of the events which had led up to Mathers’ threatened breakdown, and through it all I saw his figure emerging adorned with an ever-growing halo. This girl’s days might be drab, her outlook cramped, but in the centre of her life there was enthroned a demigod. And, after all, that is more than most of us can boast. . . .
I was ashamed of the feeling of relief which came to me when a voice called: “Meta,” and my companion got up abruptly and vanished in the direction of the for’ard cabins. (I had already discovered that she and her mother were my neighbours in the cabins facing up-ship.) Life is strange, but the strangest thing about it is its size. The very smallest of its ruts will form a groove large enough to engulf all our energies and interests, our whole mental outlook, and it is perhaps a commentary on our own smallness that we each think our neighbour’s groove narrow and impossible. Meta Crandon’s talk had affected me with a feeling of suffocation, but had I responded with the kind of “shop” into which two or more Forest Officers gathered together invariably drift she would probably have thought me some strange species of lunatic.
I spent the rest of the day reading in a snug corner of the smoking-room. Towards evening it grew calmer and one or two of the more timid ventured up on deck, looking white and tired. Coming round the corner of a narrow alleyway amidships, I all but fell over an elaborate deckchair placed with its back to the sea. It was empty, but as I came round again—I had embarked on one of the patient “constitutionals” one forces oneself to take daily on voyages—it was occupied. I could see nothing of the woman lying in it except the top of her head, but Sir Aubrey Cogghill was in attendance, and, guessing the patient to be Evelyn, I put an abrupt end to my constitutional. I did not want, somehow, to loom on her consciousness as a figure drifting past while she lay languid and seasick wishing only that the ship would keep still. I should have liked our first meeting after all these years to have been bright and auspicious, under warm, sunny skies and among friendly blue seas. But in this Fate was against me. The comparative calm proved to have been only a temporary respite, and a squall rose once more, sending the less hardy sailors hurrying below. Coming into the lounge with the idea of getting another book from the library I met Evelyn face to face. She was standing at the head of the stairs, apparently collecting herself before the effort of descending, and her husband, I guessed from a remark I heard her call over her shoulder, was behind, gathering together rugs and cushions. For a moment she did not see me, then she turned and our eyes met. I don’t know what I must have looked like, but I hope my mouth was not gaping. For perhaps two seconds she stared unrecognisingly, then, in spite of her seasickness, a faint tinge of colour ran up into her cheeks and her eyes looked startled.
“Alan!” she exclaimed incredulously, and then again, “Alan!—what—I mean how—I didn’t know you were on board.”
“I knew you were,” I retorted rather inanely. “Can’t I carry something for you?”
It was a silly question, for she had nothing in her hands but a small vanity-bag and a bottle of smelling-salts, but I could think of no suitable remark. She made a quick, impatient gesture which seemed to dismiss all such trifles.
“Aubrey’ll bring everything,” she claimed. “But Alan, why have you never . . .?”
What she was going to say I have no idea, for at that moment Sir Aubrey himself entered from the deck, laden with rugs and cushions.
“That’s the lot!” he exclaimed. “I couldn’t find a steward. But, darling, you ought to be in the bunk by now. You know it makes you worse standing about.”
In spite of his many burdens he contrived to take her by the arm and urge her downwards. She gave one glance up at me, then, apparently, a qualm of seasickness overcame her, for she went white again, and leaning rather heavily on his arm drooped languidly downstairs.
It was an indefinite, unsatisfactory encounter—or would have been anywhere but aboard-ship, where one had the certainty of being in close daily contact for the next fortnight. I carried away a vaguely disturbing memory of her obvious confusion and embarrassment. I did not want her to think that I cherished any feelings of thwarted romance. The past was dead—and I wanted to take up the threads of what could now be a pleasant friendship. But somehow it seemed as if the past had not been quite so dead to Evelyn. . . .
That night I dreamed of the avalanche and awoke even more perturbed. It is a strange dream and had visited me only twice before. The origin of it had been an actual incident which had occurred at the end of my first year in India. I had been given spring leave, following a bad bout of fever, and had gone far up into the hills, shooting. It had been a severe winter that year and the snows lingered late, with the result that spring came in with a rush, forced on by an over-powerful sun. I had been out one day at dawn after ibex, of which there were a good number to be had that year—they had come lower on account of the snow. But on that day I had seen only one, which had eluded me, and by noon I decided to rest beneath a clump of deodars on a hill opposite until evening, when it seemed certain my quarry would come down to drink. I lay idle on the hot, soft pine-needles, lulled by the drowsy drone of the cicadas and the smell of the sunbaked cedar-wood into a doze. From time to time I would rouse myself, and rather perfunctorily rake the hillside opposite with a pair of strong field-glasses in the hope of sighting the game. It was a fine hill, that rocky mass over which I had toiled so painstakingly in the earlier hours of the day. From the shaded ledge where I now lay its size and proportions were apparent. There were huge, rugged peaks and pinnacles of rock upon it, each one of which, set in a level plain, would have made a respectable hill: there were wooded slopes of giant deodars which looked from where I lay no more than dark patches of coarse grass, and far down on the left—a good ten miles away by winding, breakneck goat-tracks, had one wished to reach it—I could make out a tiny village which seemed in size and importance something like a small dolls’ tea-set poised on a tall cliff-edge. Ordinarily at this time of the year the high rocky summit of the mountain would have been bare of snow but this year a quantity still lingered, covering the pointed apex in a cap of pearl and running snaky white fingers downwards along fissures and cracks where the sun did not penetrate. It seemed extraordinary indeed that the high white crest had survived so long, for the sun was very powerful now. I could feel it, as a lozenge of light filtered through the deodars on to my shoulder, pouring its heat through the thin mountain air till it felt like a tangible weight pressing down upon me. It must have been about two o’clock in the afternoon—that hottest hour of the day—that, looking through the glasses at the white cap opposite, a movement caught my eye. A stone—probably a giant boulder, though from my distance it looked not larger than a pebble—had loosened under that weight of heat, and was bounding down the slope in the direction of the village. A suffocating feeling of impending disaster seized upon me. I did not consciously know what would happen—I had no time to think—but some part of me, some instinct, knew, and I remember that I shouted out loud in futile warning as I watched the avalanche sweep onward with its ever-growing mass of snow, stone, rock and rubble. A few seconds later, where that tiny village had stood there was only a mound of dirty, heaped-up snow, and, as I sat, the perspiration dripping from my forehead, my heart pounding as though I had been running, the rumbling thunder of the avalanche rose up to me. . . .
It was a long time before the horror of the incident faded, but never once did I dream of it until one night, some seven years later, when, without reason or warning, it visited me so vividly that when I woke it seemed that I could still smell the sun-hot cedar-wood about me, though at that time we were far in the south away from pine and deodar forests and from snowcapped peaks. It was the night of the day on which I had first met Evelyn. At the time I attached no importance to the dream except to wonder what could have inspired it so vividly after all those years, but the second time that I dreamt it was in July 1914, just after hearing of the assassination of the Austrian Archduke. Even then I thought little of it, but later, on looking back, I saw how Evelyn’s entry into my life and that murder in Serbia had both been analogous to the first stone which had eventually swept down an avalanche of destruction. I am not superstitious, nor do I believe in dreams. I simply believed that, in this case, the same hypersensitive part of me had been aware of the disastrous possibilities contained in the events, had inspired me with the same feeling which had assailed me on seeing the stone fall, and so quite naturally had provoked the dream.
It was this aspect of the case which was worrying me on the morning after my third experience of the dream. Try as I would, I could find nothing in the trivial happenings of the day before to account for it, yet I was aware that the feeling of impending disaster was heavy upon me—had been before I went to sleep. Yet what could possibly happen now?
The sense of oppression remained with me while I dressed, but once on deck the sunshine dissipated it. It was a true Mediterranean day. The air, in spite of the warmth, held still a crisp tang: there were piles of painted clouds moving across the deep turquoise dome overhead: the sea was buoyant and its waters of that incredible gentian colour which our old school dames (who presumably could have seen nothing but the English Channel) strove to make us believe was only the reflection of the sky. By ten o’clock the deck had a pleasingly populous appearance as one by one the seasick victims of the day before struggled up into the open air.
The padre held a service in the lounge which I am afraid that I did not attend—the lure of the blue and gold day on deck was too strong—but I looked in through the windows as I passed and caught snatches of his address. I had already gathered from Miss Crandon’s discourse that Mathers was of those who steer a careful course between the whirlpools of Modern Thought and the ancient but siren seductions of the Scarlet Woman, and I admired the dexterity with which he trimmed his sails to reassure even the most timid of his congregation. Turning away from my innocent eavesdropping, I collided violently with the Hajji who seemed to have been following the same occupation. I apologised humbly—the abruptness of our encounter had nearly unseated his tarboosh and was relieved when he smiled affably. He made a gracious though faintly patronising reference to the weather, and not unwillingly I fell into talk with him. It struck me that his conversation might be amusing if not instructive.
“Yes, sir,” he said, as we leant on the rail gazing out to sea in the attitude one invariably adopts for conversations on board ship; “it is not surprising that the mosques will gain when the churches are so empty.”
I gathered that he referred to the service proceeding in the lounge, and it was certainly true to say that it was empty—Meta Crandon and her mother were there and two or three—half a dozen perhaps—other passengers, but for the rest the congregation consisted chiefly of stewards. I made a hasty reference to seasickness and the weather, but the Hajji was not to be deflected. He plunged into an account of a mosque in England which he had been visiting, seeming to think that the Moslem conversion of Britain was now but a matter of a few years. His statistics did not strike me as particularly alarming, but he continued to discourse, blissfully unaware that the world was a little larger than the few tiny patches of it which he had seen.
“But it was prophesied, sir,” he said at last. “You know the Bible?”
I admitted that I did.
“Then you will remember,” he continued, “how the Lord Christ said . . .”
I am afraid that I cannot give an accurate rendering of the argument which followed. It appeared to be a jumble of strange mystic numbers, with the names of the Lord David, the Lord Abraham, the Lord Mahommed inextricably interwoven. Certainly the passage he based his remarks on (I think it was, “Blessed is he who shall be alive in the year 305,” but I’ve probably got the number wrong and may be doing the Hajji an injustice by misquoting altogether) was not one I had encountered in any known version or translation, but Mahommedan Biblical learning is generally derived from legendary sources. So far as I could gather, the Hajji deduced a Mahommedan conquest and conversion of the whole world to take place about five years hence, and by way of proof thereof informed me it was well known that the Holy Book of the Sikhs was in fact an edition of the Quran, though the Sikhs themselves did not know this. As a fact I doubted it: as a proof of the fulfilment of the prophecy it struck me as inadequate, but I am afraid that my mind wandered into bypaths, reflecting on the strange traits of human nature which the Hajji’s talk revealed. Always and everywhere you will find men ready to dive into the mysteries of numbers and of vague prophecies. Only toss them the suggestion that any text, any well-known combination of figures, is capable of some mystic meaning totally at variance to the apparent one, and they will delve away happily for half a hundred years. I suppose it is this which accounts, among other things, for the popularity of crossword puzzles, treasure-hunts and detective stories, as well as of stunt religions. But I began to feel thirsty.
“Can’t I offer you a—some soda-water?” I asked, remembering in time that I could offer nothing stronger to a Son of the Prophet.
“I thank you, no,” he replied graciously: “I am sustained mainly on cow.”
For a moment I wondered whether this preference for the sacred animal of the Hindus was intended to mark his disapproval of the idolaters. Then light broke on me.
“A glass of milk?” I suggested, and he assented with alacrity.
It took some little time to procure the drink, but once it was to hand we settled ourselves comfortably in a corner of the smoking-lounge. The Hajji tucked one plump brown leg and foot (he wore neither shoes nor stockings) under him, and proceeded to discourse of politics.
“No, sir,” he said, à propos of nothing we had mentioned so far, “we do not wish for swaraj of the idolaters. Shall we bend before people we have ruled nine hundred years?”
Historically this struck me as open to question, but I made no comment. The Hajji drank his milk gustily.
“Excuse me, sir, making noises like a farmer,” he remarked as he set down the empty glass. I was not certain of the correct answer, but none was needed, for he launched straightway into a lecture on the subject of bribery and corruption, which revealed not so much any prevalence of the evil as the warped Indian mentality which looked for it everywhere.
“But at least,” he added graciously, after some ten minutes. “England has maintained always her philatelic purity.”
“Her what?” I exclaimed startled.
He smiled complacently.
“I am philatelist, sir. Many years ago it was my profession. Now it is my hobby. I can show you, sir. . . .”
I saw that I was in for a lecture on the subtleties of stamp-collecting, and my heart sank, but mercifully at that moment the luncheon bugle blew.
The meal was the most cheerful which we had had since leaving Marseilles, but I sat through it rather silently. Evelyn was one of few absentees still. I saw Mary at her table, the other side of the saloon, talking and laughing animatedly with John Stevenson, and I gathered from various remarks around me that a “Sports Committee” had already been formed. Evidently, in spite of the emptiness of the boat, we were to have the usual tournaments and competitions. For myself my thoughts were centred mainly on the Hajji, and I felt again vaguely perturbed. I think I can claim to know India moderately well, and I have many Indian friends, both Hindu and Mahommedan—chiefly the latter, for my fate has led me more frequently into Moslem provinces. With some I am in agreement—with some rather violently in disagreement; but, whichever is the case, there are none whom I do not like and respect as courteous, kindly, intelligent and, for the most part, enlightened gentlefolk. The Hajji, however, was a new type altogether. It was impossible to dislike the little man—one might as well have disliked an impertinent and obtrusive sparrow. But he was emphatically just the man who would leave behind him a trail of ignorant, innocent victims. When, later, I saw him coming down from the boat-deck, where the deck-passengers were lodged, and learnt that he had already been up there twice before, haranguing his coreligionists on the subject of Islam and the coming world conversion, I felt still more perturbed.
We passed Stromboli that afternoon about three o’clock. The sea had lost something of its earlier buoyancy and lay now like a sheet of undulating glass. On its surface was a skein of opalescent lozenges, rose and mauve, jade and grey and gold, but below one could see the same deep gentian blue, like melted sapphires. Scarcely less blue, the volcano itself rose sheer out of the water, clouds of white steam streaming from its summit like a giant’s teakettle on the boil. This simile was Mary’s, not mine. I found myself standing near her and John in among the crowd who pressed against the railings staring through their field-glasses at the island. Mathers was among them and I noticed that the voyage seemed already to have brought that real and human streak in him to the forefront for he was chatting quite naturally, to Rama Rao. The Hajji was also among the crowd but I was not near enough to hear his comments on Stromboli.
The captain ran us in close to the island—so close indeed that for a time we appeared to be preparing to ram it, then the ship swung to starboard, and we passed within a quarter of a mile of the precipitous hillside. The water beneath us did not undulate any longer but lay still and oily as a dark mirror, tinted olive green and grey and smokey-blue. We could see the vineyards running up almost to the summit on the western side, where they seemed to peep over the shoulder of the hill at the steaming lava sliding perpetually down the steeper northern slope. Down below we could make out two tiny figures walking up the winding road which climbed from the cluster of white houses near the water’s edge.
“I wonder what it would feel like to live there,” said John Stevenson, “and hear the old kettle boiling away night and day.”
“I shouldn’t like it,” exclaimed Mathers emphatically. “There would always be the unpleasant possibility of its over-boiling.”
“And think of the dullness,” added John feelingly, “What on earth would there be to do?”
Mary shook her head.
“There’s always enough to fill our horizon—we’re so much smaller than life,” she said, unconsciously echoing my thought of the day before.
I turned to comment on her remark, but Meta Crandon drifted up at that moment, pushing her invalid’s chair, and I made room for them beside me.
“Would you like to live on a volcanic island, Miss Crandon?” I asked, as I passed her my field-glasses.
“No,” she said swiftly and briefly, but with an almost aggressive emphasis which made me wonder if it was the thought of the volcano which she disliked, or whether she had momentarily glimpsed an environment even more cramped than her own.
“You are right, of course,” said Mathers turning to her, and once again there was that indefinable film of parsondom over his manner. He launched forth into an impromptu lecture which I am afraid I did not follow but I gathered that it related to the “decadent,” “superstitious” lives of the island peasantry; for I caught those words fairly frequently.
Then Mrs. Crandon expressed a regret that they could not see the lava better and he shepherded them both aft where glimpses of it could still be caught. John Stevenson turned to Mary with a wry face.
“How hardly shall a parson enter the Kingdom of Heaven!” he exclaimed. “Just think of the deadly fumes of adulation which are served up to them daily! Did you notice the difference in him directly two of his flock turned up? He daren’t be anything but an oracle and talk like an Oxford pulpit. Think of it—they’re walking along there now and her sole idea of Heaven is to walk on for all eternity over golden decks with him beside her—his hat turned into a halo.”
I decided that I did not like John. Up till then I had not made up my mind but now I did so, and I was glad when a girl standing near me, Cecilia Marshall, turned and made a little face at him.
“I think you’re horribly cynical, Mr. Stevenson,” she said, “and unkind as well. Miss Crandon is a very nice girl.”
“But I never doubted it,” he protested.
“Are you speaking of Mr. Mathers?” enquired Mrs. Marshall, Celia’s mother, breaking into the conversation. The good lady belonged to the vague type of female who seem to drift through life catching only dimly the meaning of all that goes on around them. I had noticed her on the deck on the first day, when I came out of the lounge after the incident of the silk stockings, and had wondered at the time how anything so piqued and peevish and futile had succeeded in producing the strapping girl beside her—Celia stood five feet ten in her stockings. Perhaps this is why the poor lady wore something of the air of an aggrieved hen who has unwittingly hatched out an ostrich’s egg. At the moment she proceeded to confuse the issue by delivering a solemn condemnation of what she termed Mathers’ popish ways. Evidently his careful trimming of the sails had not been skillful enough to satisfy such an expert. From that she passed to the recital of the even more grievous case of a clergyman who, I gathered, had appeared vested in a chasuble and a cope. The combination seemed unlikely, but I may be doing the lady an injustice for my attention to her discourse was only intermittent. I could not help wondering what Mary—who, so far as I had ever been able to make out, cared for all such things only as a mother will care for the cradle in which her child is laid—thought of the conversation.
“I reported the matter, of course,” concluded Mrs. Marshall, as she prepared to move away, “but no notice was taken.”
John sighed as he saw her go.
“And yet,” he exclaimed, “if the man had worn pyjamas and a bowler hat she’d have been almost equally shocked, and he’d have looked less dignified. I withdraw my remark about parsons. Their lot is truly a difficult one.”
I felt my dislike for him grow more definite. It is true that he had really only expressed my own thoughts, but it is astonishing how different one’s own thoughts can seem when repeated by some people. Celia dealt with the matter masterfully.
“I think,” she said, severely, “you had better come and play me at quoits. You’re getting cynical again.”
She carried him off with the complete unselfconscious assurance of the modern girl, and Mary and I were left alone. Stromboli was by now far astern.
“Shall we walk?” I asked, turning to her.
She nodded without replying. Her eyes were following the other two along the deck and I wondered a little what was the subject of the speculation that I read in them. We walked briskly but rather silently until tea time—so far as I remember the day’s marconigrams were the sole topics of conversations. Evelyn had come up and was lying, still rather white and languid, in her elaborate deckchair. She looked up as we passed, and I caught the startled glance of her eyes as they fell on my companion. Probably she had not known that Mary was on board. It was awkward, of course—I should have preferred to explain the situation to Evelyn before she saw us together, but I had not known that she was on deck when I proposed the walk to Mary, and I could not, under the circumstances, stop and explain at the time. But later that evening, about six o’clock, I found Evelyn still in her deckchair alone, and I dropped into the one beside her. Sir Aubrey was up for’ard, busy with his super field-glasses, for we were approaching the Straits of Messina.
“A perfect evening,” I said, as I lowered myself into the chair. It was, I am afraid, a rather banal way of opening the conversation.
She started, as though out of a reverie.
“Alan!” she exclaimed, and I saw the colour mounting in her cheeks. It seemed a strange thing that even after all these years, Evelyn, who had married and made her own life and interests, should not be able to meet me without confusion, whilst Mary, who after all, had lived as my wife for five years, who was still bound to me legally and irrevocably, could take up the attitude of a casual acquaintance without a second’s hesitation or constraint. But then, as Evelyn and I had realised, Mary had never known real depth of feeling—perhaps that was the explanation. I wondered, rather uncomfortably while Evelyn and I exchanged the usual polite platitudes, whether I was right in thinking that the old passion was dead—whether after all it was wise to renew our friendship . . . .
We fell silent after a little, the stock of platitudes having given out. Then, abruptly, Evelyn asked a question.
“Alan—you and Mary—you are living together again?”
I had not expected the question so soon, nor put so directly, but it was a relief for it cleared the ground for what I had to say. Very briefly I explained the situation as regards Mary and myself, ending up with the unnecessary injunction that we did not wish our real relationship revealed. Evelyn nodded thoughtfully, her eyes fixed on the sea.
“Of course,” she agreed, “no one need know about it.” Then suddenly she turned to me again, and her eyes were alight with animation.
“Oh, Alan—I’m so relieved. Do you know, I was afraid, when I saw you together, that you had been sacrificed. That a mistaken sense of duty had made you go back to her. And she would accept it—she would not even realise the sacrifice. Soul-liberty, the freedom to express your personality, mean nothing to her. All she would care about would be that she was legally your wife! Oh, Alan, I am so glad. It had upset me so, to think of you in bonds again. I am so terribly, terribly glad.”
I was startled and a little embarrassed. For the moment I did not seem able to adjust myself to the focus of her remarks and it was a relief that a diversion lay ready to hand. We were approaching close to the Straits now and people were crowding to the sides with their glasses.
“Oh, look!” I exclaimed. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
I have always thought the Straits of Messina about the most beautiful spot that I know and I have many times contemplated spending a leave somewhere along their shores, but I daresay it would be a disappointing experience—no land could ever be quite so lovely as it appears when viewed from the sea. I have seen even the most arid, burnt-up rock take on the hues and atmosphere of the Never-Never-Land as one sailed serenely past it in the shimmering heat of a blue and gold afternoon. At the moment even the Never-Never-Land was an inadequate description of the scene around us. I shall not attempt to describe it in detail—for one reason because it has nothing to do with my story, and for another and more important one, because I can think of no suitable words. If one resorts to “amethyst,” “amber,” “jade” and “pearl” one is instantly accused of being affected, or hackneyed, or half a dozen other things, whereas in fact they are simply the only words which give even a faint conception of the scene, more especially when one approaches it at twilight. It was just that moment almost immediately after sunset, when colour becomes intensified and the whole world seems to glow with tints more like an artist’s dream than sober reality. Above, the peaks were still golden, but for us the sun had set. We could see the white houses of Messina climbing in their many terraces up the hill, the lights beginning to show here and there like bright stars, and ahead, across our bows, a ferryboat was crossing, a dark shadow ablaze with lamps of ruby and emerald and topaz. The water had changed its colour abruptly, and now lay deep green beneath us, its surface fretted a little by the breeze.
Almost brusquely I piloted Evelyn forward and we stood watching in silence. I have always had a mild grudge against Providence that I was not made an artist, for beauty, more especially beauty of colour, fills me with a veritable ache of longing, either for possession or expression. I have never been able to decide which. Whichever it is, it invariably has the effect of rendering me dumb, and so far as I remember we did not speak at all as we stood watching the slow-passing pageant of colour for perhaps the space of half an hour.
We saw Mount Etna before we had quite left the Straits, an unusual honour for the evening, for as a rule it is only at dawn that she will unveil her face. The glow had faded a little now, and in any case the sheltering ring of clouds would have shielded the peak from its warmth. All we could see was a white crest very remote and cold, showing above a dark blue hill. I shivered suddenly, I could not have said why, and Evelyn misinterpreted me.
“Yes,” she said, “it is cold now.”
I caught Mary’s eyes fixed on us rather curiously as we moved away. She was standing talking to Rama Rao, and John, near them, was entertaining Ruth, who had struggled up on deck for the first time, looking white and shaken. When I left a few minutes later, deciding to change early for dinner, John had shepherded the girl into a long chair and was standing talking to her while Mary and Rama strolled round the deck.
Once in my cabin I did not start changing but sat instead for a minute or two on my bunk, striving to get things sorted in my mind. Somewhere I was conscious of a hitch—of something wrong, but I could not locate it. The setting for what was really Evelyn’s and my first genuine contact had been ideal, and her attitude had been warm and friendly, yet at the moment I was conscious of nothing but a feeling of bad temper. Where was the hitch? And why—again my mind reverted to its former subject of perturbation—why had I dreamt of the avalanche last night?
It was while I was tying my tie that I heard the conversation outside which intrigued me. As I have already explained, I had one porthole looking up-ship—giving, that is to say, on the narrow strip of deck which runs the breadth of the ship between the cabins and the for’ard rail. It was rather an embarrassing spot to command for it was the one invariably chosen for mild flirtations. At the moment the shutters of both that and the other porthole were half-up to shield my ablutions from the vulgar gaze, and it was through the open, upper half of the for’ard porthole that the sound of voices drifted, while the speakers were invisible to me. Evidently a couple had paused outside for conversation, or, as seemed more likely, had met there by appointment.
A woman’s voice spoke first.
“Of course,” it said, “I knew it must be you that day at Marseilles, but it would not have been wise to speak then and there has been no opportunity since.”
I did not catch the man’s reply—his face must have been turned away from me. But I heard the woman speak again.
“You got my note?”
This time I heard his answer.
“And destroyed it,” he said.
“You think me unwise to have written?”
Again I did not hear his reply which seemed to be a more lengthy one. Then her voice came again.
“One must always be careful—” I heard him say, then I missed the next few sentences. Only a few words at the end of his reply floated through to me. They were, I think “—with you here?”
“No,” she answered, and it seemed as though she had lowered her voice almost to a whisper. I again only caught a fragment.
“—at Port Said.”
It was at this point that I began to realise just how I was behaving—standing, hidden in my cabin, with my ears strained to catch the details of a private conversation! Really, this role of philosophic ploughman leads one into strange ways. A little more and I should only need a pair of lorgnettes to complete my equipment for scandalmongering. Fortunately for my self-respect the voices had been unrecognisable. They had seemed to acquire a wooden quality from the shutter through which they had been blown.
I finished my dressing noisily, but I realised that the people outside could not hear me. The headwind which was screaming through the shutters would effectually prevent any sound reaching them from the inside of the cabin. It was this, of course, which accounted for the ease with which I had eavesdropped and for the apparent lack of caution on the part of the couple outside. Doubtless they had spoken in subdued voices, unaware that the wind had turned my porthole into a megaphone.
The deck was deserted when I came out. There was no longer any land in sight, though far astern one could see the intermittent flash of a lighthouse on the Italian shore. Daylight still lingered in a rim of rose around the horizon, but overhead a few stars were beginning to show. The sea had recovered something of its buoyancy and tossed like a vast chalice of blue wine agitated by a giant hand, the great ship no more than a speck afloat within its huge circle. I took a turn or two about the deck, but it began to grow chilly and I went into the lounge where the lights were lit and hors d’œuvres had been laid out temptingly on a small table. There I discovered Evelyn, sitting rather droopingly in a chair behind one of the ornamental pillars.
“Tired?” I asked.
“Exhausted,” she said, “it is all that beauty in the Straits. Beauty always wears me out—it is too much for me.”
I suggested a mild stimulant, but she shook her head. She hated all such poisons she explained. They were part of the artificialities of this civilisation which had such terribly damaging effects on the ego. In the old days I remembered that Evelyn had always been interested in Theosophy and kindred cults, had always had leanings to simplicity and asceticism, and I had followed in her footsteps for a little, but I am afraid it is many years since I outgrew all interest in such matters.
“And don’t try those,” she advised finally, as she saw my hand hovering over the tray of hors d’œuvres. “The black stuff is meant to be caviare, but it’s more like fish-glue—as you can imagine it would be on this ship.”
“For a seasick subject you seem to have made good use of your time,” I said. I had always loved teasing Evelyn.
She did not answer immediately, and I saw the colour run up into her cheeks once again. Her eyes were rather unusually bright as she looked up at me.
“Do you know, Alan,” she said after a pause, “you’ve changed a lot.”
“I’ve grown older,” I said. “I suppose that is it.”
She shook her head.
“I didn’t mean that only,” she said. “We’ve all done that. But—you’ve hardened, I think. It isn’t to be wondered at. . . .”
“Life is a strange thing,” I said, rather sententiously. I felt, for some reason, embarrassed and anxious to switch the conversation on to impersonal grounds. “It’s like a ship, don’t you think. . . ?”
I detailed the analogy Mary had suggested to me at some length, and felt annoyed when Evelyn exclaimed:
“So you read Faith Manners’ poems. Oh, Alan, how wonderful! I love them, too.”
I knew Faith Manners’ books, chiefly her novels, well, and liked them because they were kindly, tolerant and whimsical. Also because they avoided sex and sensation. But for some reason it irritated me that Mary’s idea had not been her own, though why it should have done I cannot say, seeing that I had myself borrowed it for Evelyn’s edification. There is seldom any accounting for our feelings.
I went to my cabin early that night. In spite of the triviality of its round the day had seemed full of incidents and I felt tired. I intended writing up my diary—a task I do daily with religious regularity—then going to bed. As I opened the door of my cabin I saw a letter lying face downwards on the floor and stared at it in surprise. Letters in sealed envelopes are not usual in mid-ocean. I picked it up and stared still more as I read the address—”Mr. Grant” written in a sprawling handwriting. Inside there were only a few sentences :
Ruth Rama Rao is no better than a—(I do not give the words for they were not pretty ones). Does her nigger husband, know the kind of muck he’s married, or what that parson thing was doing with her silk stockings?
I stood staring stupidly at the vulgar, straggling characters, not knowing whether to laugh or be angry. I ended by doing the former. The thing was absurd, farcical. It was obviously intended as a joke, though one in the worst possible taste. I was on the point of destroying it, but, there being no porthole giving out on to the open sea in my cabin, I locked it up in my dispatch-case. Then I wrote up my diary and got into bed.
Waking next morning, I did not feel quite so inclined to dismiss the matter of the letter as of no account. I took it out of my dispatch-case and reread it. In the clearer and colder light of the morning, its wording hardly lent itself to the idea of a joke—it was too painfully like the generality of such productions. Yet, who on earth, or, rather, on the ship, could intend such a thing as a serious imputation? In spite of the blatant, sordid absurdity of the thing I felt a sudden premonition of disaster weighing down upon me as I stood with the letter in my hand. It was not that I was unaccustomed to such things. Indian officialdom is most prolific in anonymous letters, and I suppose there are few officials in any position of responsibility who have not experienced times when their wastepaper basket has been well loaded with such garbage. I was not likely to exaggerate the importance of the epistle, but the spleen of a baffled babu, for which one can generally assign a concrete cause without much difficulty, is a different thing to a document which descends upon one without rhyme or reason, in mid-ocean, among a few chance-met acquaintances. What possible motive could have prompted it? Moreover—and it was this I think which worried me most—the mentality which had produced it was in our midst—could not, from the nature of the case, leave us—and I am almost superstitious in my belief that such people bring ill luck. There are a lot of not very pretty traits in human nature traits of uncharity, spite, self-interest, self-defence which lie buried in the least expected subjects, and it is my experience that it needs only the proximity and activity of some such mentality to set them burgeoning into rank growth. For a long time I stood pondering rather gloomily, then, cursing myself for a fool, I locked the letter into my dispatch-case once more, and went down to breakfast, dismissing the matter from my mind. But I was not fated to escape from it so easily.
The engine-rooms were open for the inspection of passengers that morning, and I decided to join the party which was being conducted over. For all the number of voyages I have done I had never seen the engine-rooms of an oil boat before. The last time I visited the inner workings of a ship was in the bad old days of coal, when we came out feeling that a Turkish bath was the only possible road to cleanliness. It was a welcome change to walk over the comparatively clean, albeit greasy plates, on which the crêpe soles of my shoes slipped precariously. But, for my part, all machinery on a large scale fills me with a feeling of positive horror. As I followed with the party in the wake of our guide, and looked at the giant pistons which roared and pounded around us, rising like monsters out of black nothingness, and looked down into the huge glowing oil furnaces, I felt that I had reached a very good imitation of the popular conception of hell. It seemed strange to think that our own comfortable quarters of the ship, the wide decks, the daintily furnished lounges and saloon, were in fact only the outer shell over this raging inferno where the real work of the vessel—the driving of us forward—was carried out. I heard Mary shout—one had to shout to make oneself heard at all—into John Stevenson’s ear:
“Do you think it’s like this in the middle of the earth, with busy little demons oiling and stoking, just to get us on through space?”
He nodded, and I caught the last words of his reply.
“—we passed one of the funnels yesterday.”
They seemed on very easy terms of companionship I reflected as I saw him take her by the arm and draw her across a narrow alley to look at some oil engines.
Somewhat to my surprise, Evelyn, as well as her husband, were of the party. Sir Aubrey seemed genuinely interested in the machinery, firing a string of intelligent questions, generally as to cost, at our guide from time to time. Like most successful businessmen, he seemed obsessed with the notion that no one else knew even the rudiments of arithmetic. Evelyn, I noticed, was not particularly interested in the engines. She seemed tired and rather languid, and the alternating heat and cold through which we passed seemed to upset her. She had always been delicate, but this languor which I noticed each time I saw her was something new.
When we reached a comparatively quiet spot—somewhere right for’ard, I think it was—Mary turned to me abruptly:
“Alan, I want to speak to you—when we get up on deck. Do you mind?”
I was startled, though quite pleasantly so. I had had a vague impression that Mary had been avoiding me whenever possible the last two days, and I daresay I had been right, for at the moment she seemed rather ill at ease and her manner was almost brusque.
“Why, of course, I shall be delighted—anywhere and any time,” I answered.
“In the lounge, then—when we get back on deck?” she said. Evelyn and Sir Aubrey joined us at that moment, and she turned away quickly, only just acknowledging my nod of assent. I wondered what it was she wanted to talk to me about, though I had an idea that I knew. I am afraid that my interest in the machinery waned from that moment. I can only remember noticing one other thing before we came out of the inferno and that was the face of a man who stood aside to let us pass. I had noticed, him before on the quarter-deck, a great hulking, heavy-jowled, sullen-looking fellow—a typical agitator, with a perpetual grievance. The scowl with which he regarded us as we passed was anything but pretty, and it set me thinking. Civilisation is really an extraordinary thing. In these days of oil, steam, electricity and Marconi, the idea of mutiny at sea seems melodramatic, and absurd—yet, after all, human nature is much as it was a hundred years ago, and generally speaking there are always temperaments which only need a match to set them into a blaze. I felt glad that the matter of the letter which had perturbed me that morning was not one which would affect such people as the man we had just passed. He would be an ugly customer if once he was roused.
We emerged from the enginerooms by a lower door which brought us out rather unexpectedly into an alleyway near the saloon. I have no bump of locality, and felt completely bewildered when I tried to think how we had got there. Though I had naturally realised that the enginerooms were the core of the ship, I could not visualise the fact—we might have been in a different planet altogether from the ordinary ship with which I was familiar.
I found Mary, somewhat to my annoyance, with John Stevenson when I reached the lounge, and, as I had already halfguessed, it was about the matter of the anonymous letter she wished to speak to me. Both she and John had had one, so also, the latter had discovered, had Major Lawrence, and we agreed, after some little discussion, that it was highly likely that Mathers himself had had one concerning his own reputation—that seemed only in keeping with the type of mentality which produces such documents. In fact it seemed probable that every occupant of a deckcabin had received a letter, and the reason was obvious. At a time when the deck was deserted, it would be easy for anyone to throw the letters through the portholes as he or she passed.
“Where was yours lying when you found it?” asked Mary.
“Face downwards on the floor about a foot from the bunk,” I answered. I have an accurate memory in such things, and could visualise the exact spot. She nodded.
“That’s just about where mine was,” she said.
“And yours, John?”
“About the same place, I think,” he answered, after a moment’s thought, “but it was face upwards.”
Mary nodded again.
“It doesn’t matter which way up it was,” she said. “It all fits in. If the letters were each thrown through the window, they would tend to fall roughly in the same place. Yes, we must be on the right tack, and that is important because it probably means no one else except us deck cabinites have had letters.”
“But when could they have been thrown through?” exclaimed John. “There may be lots of times when the deck is deserted, but how did the person know that the occupants were not in their cabins then?”
“During a meal time would be the safest, I suppose,” said Mary thoughtfully.
“Then there’d probably be a steward or stewardess on the scene.”
“They weren’t delivered during dinner last night,” I said, “I know, because I went to my cabin afterwards to get a fresh supply of cigarettes.”
“Then it was probably immediately afterwards,” said Mary, “while we were all having coffee in the lounge.”
This seemed, certainly, to be the only possible time, and neither John nor myself had any further suggestion to offer. The whole discussion struck me as rather futile, for how could we hope to find out the culprit in that way? The most baffling thing in the whole affair was, to my mind, the apparent lack of motive. In a general way, I was prepared to accept the theory that there are mentalities sufficiently warped to do these things from a morbid craving for sensation, but in the present case I could not reconcile myself to that idea. There must, there surely must, be some motive hidden somewhere behind the action, yet what conceivable one could there be among people who had known each other a bare three days, and the majority of whom had been seasick for the greater part of that period?
Mary broke in on my meditations.
“The important point at the moment is to find out if the Crandons also got the letters,” she said.
“But does it really matter very much?”
“We don’t want them to talk about them if they did. The only possible way to take these things is to ignore them.”
John made a sudden impatient movement.
“Let them talk!” he exclaimed. “And let us talk. The writer of these precious documents is amongst us—then let’s tell the world, and incidentally the culprit, what we think of such carrion.”
I was half inclined to agree with him, but Mary shook her head.
“It’s no good, John,” she said. “That way might do if we could rely on everybody—but one never can. There’ll always be a certain number of people who whisper and shrug, shake their heads and insinuate; pretend to believe the thing——”
“Believe it! Good Lord! Believe an absurd insinuation like that about old Mathers? One might as well associate dissipation with a sponge cake!” exclaimed John, rather violently. But Mary still shook her head.
“I’m not thinking of the padre,” she said. “He’s not the chief person implicated.”
I saw a dull flush run up John’s face, and he did not speak for a minute. When he did it was to express a forcible opinion on the general beastliness of people’s minds. Mary watched him rather keenly, and I could not quite fathom the expression on her face, but she spoke quietly and reasonably enough.
“Believe me, John, the only way is to hold our tongues. It’s just an unhealthy craving for sensation which has prompted this and if it succeeds—if there is any sensation—the thing will go on. There will be more letters. And we want to avoid that.”
It struck me that there was a slight emphasis on the last words, but if there was I could not understand what it signified. I left them presently, and went in search of Meta Crandon, the task of sounding her on the subject of the missives having been deputed to me since I had at least spoken to the girl, whilst neither Mary nor John had so far said as much as good-morning to her.
I found my quarry sitting on the deck in sufficiently close proximity to her mother’s chair to be at hand if needed. Near them, sitting uncomfortably on one of the wooden seats let into the deck, was the Hajji’s wife, enveloped in her smothering black cotton burqa. Mrs. Crandon appeared to be initiating her into the mysteries of knitting, and since the Indian lady knew I surmised about half a dozen words of English, and Mrs. Crandon none of Hindustani, I wondered how it was done. But they seemed to be getting on fairly well. I heard the little Indian woman laugh as I passed, and the sound startled me, for it was a young girl’s laugh. Coming from out of the ageless, sexless bundle of voluminous cotton it had something horrible about it. Was the face behind those grotesque eyeholes and gatherings of material youthful and beautiful, I wondered? Probably, for the Hajji, after all, was a wealthy and influential man. Well, anyway, perhaps she was not so badly off. He had money and could give her luxury and most probably was, on the whole, kind. She might have fared worse with a man more of her own years. . . .
I lowered myself into a chair next to Meta and opened negotiations with a comment on the weather. It was a dead calm day, with a thin unbroken film of silver over the sky and a sea as smooth as polished marble. Close down below, in the shadow of the ship, one could still see the deep sapphire blue of the water, but on the surface it was a sheet of grey-white iridescence. There was scarcely any sound of wash against the sides, and we slipped silently forward with only the throbbing of the engines sounding like a mighty heart beating through the stillness.
For a moment or two we talked platitudes whilst I strove to find a method of leading tactfully up to the subject in my mind. Her shy, jerky manner did not make things easy, and after a minute or two, abandoning the effort to be tactful, I decided to come straight to the point.
“Miss Crandon—there was something I wanted to speak to you about . . .”
I saw a fleeting change of expression pass over her face, and it emboldened me to go on; after all, it seemed a practical certainty that both she and her mother had been treated to a letter. All the same, it was not an easy task, for I had not forgotten that glimpse I had had of Mathers enthroned as the demigod in her life. She put out her hand in an involuntary gesture, as though to stop me, before I had quite finished.
“Oh, please “ she murmured unhappily. “I don’t want to talk about it. You see, Mr. Mathers is a friend of mine. I know him—nothing could make me believe—oh, it’s too dreadful. . . .”
It was some minutes before I realised that she thought it necessary to defend her idol against the allegations. When I did, I burst out laughing.
“My dear young lady, don’t trouble yourself on that score. No one in their senses is going to believe the insinuations. That’s not the point . . .”
I did not repeat Stevenson’s rather pithy comment, though I had to confess, in spite of my dislike of that young man, that he had a knack of hitting the nail on the head. Meta Crandon seemed surprised at my attitude.
“It wouldn’t be like that in Rivendown,” she murmured, and with a jerk I remembered her parochial mentality and strove to adjust myself to it. She went on speaking in much the same strain as she had spoken before, and this time I got a glimpse of Mathers as the hero holding the fort of Christianity against the rage of hell. Meta Crandon did not trouble much about human motives or agents; it seemed only natural to her that all such machinations against her demigod should have a superhuman inspiration. The explanation might be the true one—it certainly solved the vexed question of motive—but I thought I would continue my investigations a little further.
I interrupted her presently to ask whether she had kept the letter. She nodded and went to her cabin to fetch it. It was the twin of the one which had been thrown through my window, and I did not gain any information by studying it.
“I wonder when it was thrown in?” I said, as I returned it to her.
“Just after dinner—while you were all at coffee,” she answered instantly, to my surprise. “I was in my cabin at the time and saw it come through the porthole. But I did not see who threw it. They passed from right to left and were out of sight round the corner before I looked up. My other port was closed. I had my back to the window and was pouring out mother’s medicine into a glass. It was the rustle of the letter falling which made me look round. I thought it was a mistake or a joke at first when I saw it lying on the bunk. It was only after I read it that I realised what it was. By then it was too late to find out who had thrown it in.”
“You got no glimpse of them at all?”
“No, none—you see they were in the dark . . .”
It seemed to me that she hesitated slightly.
“You are quite sure?” I persisted.
Again she hesitated for a moment, then shook her head.
“No, I only got the impression of a shadow. Only, I think it was some one tall. I can’t say more than that.”
It was not extraordinarily helpful; but as I got up to go she made another observation, the shrewdness of which surprised me.
“There’s one other point,” she said. “There was no letter thrown through mother’s window. That looks as though whoever it was knew our habits. Mother goes to bed at that time—or, rather, a little before it. Generally I am in her cabin then. It was only accident that I was in my own last night—I had left the medicine bottle there.”
I felt happier in my mind after I had left her. The discussion of the matter had seemed to clear the air and restore my sanity of perspective. I could place the incident more in its rightful place. Moreover, a theory had begun to form in my mind which Meta Crandon’s last words served to strengthen. The culprit was most probably some disgruntled steward who had a grudge against Ruth, or, more likely, against Rama Rao. That would supply the motive; there were many Indian stewards on board and as I said, there is a form of Oriental mentality which seems to turn kindly to such kinds of revenge.
I was feeling quite cheerful and had dismissed the matter from my mind when I was hailed by Mathers. I knew well enough what he wanted to speak to me about—it is the penalty of grey hair and an air of discretion that people always fix on one as a confidant. I repaired with the padre to a corner of the smoking-lounge, and, as I had expected, he asked me if I had had a letter.
He was very human and natural about it all, treating the whole affair from a sane and levelheaded standpoint, and seeming to take my own attitude more or less for granted.
“Of course in an atmosphere like this,” he said at last; “it is all so different. One can treat these matters as insignificant. At home, perhaps in some tiny place where everyone has lived for years in a rather narrow groove, they are apt to assume mountainous proportions.”
I sincerely hoped that he was right, but my experience of life on board ship had led me to the opinion that there is no spot where molehills can so easily play the rôle of the Himalayas. Luckily voyages do not last long.
I outlined the theory which had formed in my mind, but, rather to my surprise, he did not seem to agree with it.
“I hope that may be it,” he said. “You know the Indian, of course, and you may well be right. I hope so—these people have different views, and it doesn’t seem so bad if it is one of them. There are many motives doubtless which might account for it—racial or religious motives which I know nothing about. Still . . .”
I saw he was far from convinced.
“It is the only possible theory!” I exclaimed. “Think of it—there is no one among the passengers whom we could suspect—we know practically everyone on the ship already.”
He shook his head rather dubiously.
“I wish I could agree with you, Grant. But unfortunately I’ve had experience in these matters . . .”
He told me then of what had happened some years ago when he first went to Rivendown parish. I am afraid I did not follow the details of the story very closely, but it was the usual style of thing of which one reads occasionally in the papers. A mysterious crop of letters, vilifying every girl in the parish—even Meta Crandon, I gathered, had come in for her fair share of it, though one might have supposed she was harmless enough to escape notice—had begun and continued for several months until they were finally traced to a young and seemingly charming girl, the daughter of Mathers’ former rector.
“You mean you actually brought it home to her?” I exclaimed horrified.
Mathers shrugged his shoulders.
“The hellish—I use the word literally and without apology—the hellish part of these things,” he said, “is that, short of an admission by the culprit, one has no power of bringing it home to them whatever one’s own moral certainty may be. In this case the evidence was very strong—conclusive in fact. And, moreover, the cessation of the letters synchronised with the girl’s departure from the village.”
I sat pondering things for some time after he had gone. I felt worried and ill at ease again. It was not that I had abandoned my own theory of the matter, but I hated this atmosphere of suspicion which inevitably hung about, and it was clear from Mathers’ remarks that while he suspected no one in particular, he was equally prepared to suspect anyone.
Lawrence came in presently, and suggested a drink. His view of the matter, which we discussed presently, differed somewhat.
“Silly rot, dragging in the parson, but as regards the girl—well, there’s no smoke without fire. Obviously a bit of fluff. Nice little thing, of course, and damned pretty . . .”
I felt thoroughly irritated and disgusted with the whole affair. It was like a fly continually buzzing round me—a thing trivial in itself, yet claiming constant attention; preventing me from enjoying myself or thinking out a variety of personal problems which I could feel hammering at my head for solution.
That evening after tea, deliberately avoiding anyone who might broach the subject of the letters, I walked, or, rather, strolled round the deck with the Hajji. He discoursed of snakes, and I learnt some surprising facts of natural history. There was, it appeared, a peculiarly venomous form of serpent in his native country which, contrary to the usual habit of such reptiles, did not poison its victims by its fangs, but by the more subtle method of exhaling noxious breath beside them whilst they slept. Moreover, the snake appeared to be possessed of an unusual degree of intelligence since before beginning its work it took the precaution to remove all weapons, such as stick or shoe, to a safe distance, and when its nefarious task was accomplished it lashed the victim with its tail to awake it and thereby expedite the action of the poison. Such victims, Hajji assured me, had always proved incurable. There was only one effective defence against the reptile and that was to surround the bed with onions, the odour of which it appeared to dislike. I listened with growing amusement, but not without inward alarm. It was this mentality which had power to sway millions! What my comments on the facts would have been I cannot say, but as usual with the Hajji none were needed. We passed Ruth and Rama in the course of our peregrinations and without so much as pausing to take breath he changed the subject of his lecture from snakes to women.
“She is the half-soul, sir, incomplete in herself. The sole purpose of her creation is marriage. For a man there are many interests. He will need her companionship only in the intervals of his other pursuits. But for her there is no interest, no life save her husband. As then for these naked-faced harlots . . .” his language became more picturesque than printable.
“You perceive that man, sir,” he said, indicating Rama Rao. “The jackals are gnawing his vitals; he is consumed with the red fever of jealousy. For why? He is an Eastern. Shall the frail dyke of a B.A. education hold back the raging tide of heredity? No! He cannot endure to see his wife thus flaunt her charms before other men. It is but natural.”
Once again I did not really know whether I was more angry or amused, but when finally I left him to go and change for dinner the amusement came uppermost. I should have liked to have had the Hajji voice his opinions to some of our leading women politicians and taken a closeup slow-motion of their facial expression.
As I went to shut my porthole against prying eyes, I unluckily surprised Lawrence kissing Ruth as they paused in that convenient strip of deck shielded from prying eyes. Evidently he had acted up to the impression the letter had given him. I did not see whether she responded to his advances or not.
And as I turned back into my cabin I saw something which had escaped my attention before. It was another letter lying face upwards on the bunk.
By next day the fun had obviously begun. Though I had no direct evidence of the fact, I was quite certain, almost as soon as I came up on deck, that last night’s crop of letters had not been confined to the occupants of the seven deck cabins. I deduced the fact from the way in which groups of women sat whispering together, their eyes following Ruth as she walked round the deck with Mary. Incidentally, the friendship, almost intimacy, which I had noticed the day before growing up between Ruth and Mary rather puzzled me. I had always regarded Mary as erring on the side of narrowness in her outlook and in her acquaintances, and Ruth was the last type I should have expected her to choose as a friend. But that was beside the present point.
I saw Mrs. Marshall rising from beside Evelyn’s elaborate chair after what had evidently been an earnest confab, but I did not take the place which she had vacated, though I rather gathered that Evelyn expected me to do so. As a matter of fact I had had another letter that morning. It was not anonymous, for it was signed: “Lal Mahommad,” nor had it anything to do with the matter under discussion. I remembered the writer well. His name had been Lal Chandra when I knew him and I gathered from the rather swaggering sprawl of the Mahommad that he was a recent convert to Islamism. He had been a forest guard in the old days, and I had had, reluctantly, to dismiss him from the service. He was not a bad lad, but his high-water mark for drink was well below the knees—particularly when the drink was methylated spirit. He was now, the letter informed me, on board among the deck passengers, having passed through many vicissitudes since the happy days of yore. The epistle was of a floweriness which pointed to the presence of a professional letter-writer on the boat-deck. It began by recalling the writer’s past association with me in somewhat flamboyant language, and went on to describe his present bereft condition.
Forsaken by friends, nears and dears, I am actually crying helpless like a pigeon in the wilderness. A ray of hopefulness, however, breathed through the gloom when I heard the name of your Honour, which is as the sun to warm my vitals, the fire to cook my vittles.
The gist of the matter, I gathered, was a request that I should find him a job when we reached India. I thought I would go up and have a talk with the helpless pigeon in the wilderness of the boat-deck. It was just possible that I might be able to do something for him in Bombay, and at the moment I welcomed any diversion from the general atmosphere of agitation and suspicion around me.
I mounted aloft and made my way aft along the deck until I came to the portion assigned to the Indians. It was like a bazaar, and I could not for the moment believe that I was at sea and still under European skies. Men sat, stood and lay about in various attitudes, gossiping and smoking their long-stemmed huqas. Women peeped at me from behind doorways; children squirmed from under my feet and the air was heavy with the smell of ghee, curry and huqa smoke.
I found Lal Mahommad without much difficulty and, though it was probably not wholly disinterested, his almost childish delight at seeing me again touched me.
“Nahin, Sahib, but I have put away the uncleanliness of all idolaters,” he said, as we finished our chat. “Am I not a Mussulman?”
“Since how long?” I enquired.
“Since seven months ago—when I heard of this work in Ferrence,” he answered ingenuously.
“And what does this contain?” I asked, pointing to a large, drum-shaped tin.
Lal looked a shade confused.
“It is but ghee for the household,” he replied, with unnecessary emphasis.
I strongly suspected that it contained methylated spirit, but to suggest as much to such a fervent convert to Islam seemed ungracious.
“Well, come to me in Bombay—and I’ll see what can be done,” I said, as I moved away.
He salaamed profoundly, then with a sudden simplicity and happy choice of words which the Indian can often achieve, sent his humble respects to the Memsahib. It took me quite some moments to realise that it was Mary he referred to. He had seen her once in the old days when she was touring with me, and doubtless had seen and recognised her on deck.
After lunch I pulled my chair into the narrow strip of deck which ran below my porthole. The weather had warmed up considerably, and I had every intention of enjoying a nap in the mild breeze which could be felt in that spot. But in this I was disappointed. First Lawrence, approving of my choice of locality, dragged his own chair alongside mine, settling himself in it with much fidgeting and creaking. Then Hajji, strolling majestically round the deck, came to a sudden halt in front of him, leaning with his back against the rail.
“For this cocaine traffic, sir,” he announced, “it is a pestilential putrescence.”
Hajji has a pretty turn for originality in his conversational openings.
I had as yet heard nothing of any cocaine traffic, and I followed the talk which ensued with considerable interest. Through it all Lawrence was obviously reticent and embarrassed, reluctant to discuss things, but there was no escaping from the Hajji. I gathered the gist of the matter pretty well. Lawrence, as I already knew, held some official post—something to do with Imperial Troops, I think—in an Indian, Mahommedan State. It was a fairly primitive State, and the people simple, hardworking folk who aspired to no more than moderate means and comfort without luxury. Save for a certain amount of opium smoking, they had been singularly free from the vices of civilisation until lately, when cocaine had been introduced by some means into the State. It had spread with the rapidity of a fungoid growth and threatened to bring ruin in its train. Even the very poorest families were being drained of their resources, and yet the efforts of the authorities to stop the traffic and throttle it had proved abortive. As fast as one method of distribution was discovered and stopped, another, more ingenious, would be found. It seemed as though there was some persistent and powerful organisation behind it—one, moreover, which was thoroughly conversant with the ways of the country. Hajji very obviously blamed, even if he did not actually suspect, the Government itself. I could well understand the difficulty of stifling such a thing in a country where palm-oiling has the power which it has in India, but I wondered why some efforts were not taken to detect the cocaine before it reached the East. However, it appeared that this had been attempted to a certain extent, for I heard Hajji explaining how the drug was, so it was thought, smuggled in by women in among their dresses.
“As for them, they will boldly use their charms to seduce the Customs officials, and afterwards they will boast: ‘These men were our slaves. Our boxes were not searched.’”
Hajji’s perspective of the affair struck me as not without humour, but the matter interested me. I think I found it a welcome change from the petty sordidness of the matter of the letters. I remembered suddenly that our own boxes had been searched with unusual rigour at Marseilles, and wondered if it had any connection with the affair.
“Queer they can’t get to the bottom of the affair, now they are on the alert,” I remarked to Lawrence, when Hajji, having said his say, had padded away on his bare feet.
He growled out something which sounded anything but amiable, then, with an instinctive glance round pulled his chair a shade nearer mine.
“The fellow is a confounded nuisance, talking about the affair now,” he said. “Only today I had a cable, in code, telling me that it is believed one of the ringleaders in the whole affair is on this very ship.”
I was thrilled. This was far better than scurrilous letters left on one’s bunk. Unfortunately, Lawrence appeared to repent of his outburst of confidence and I could get no more out of him.
After tea, coming unwarily round a comer, I fell into the clutches of Mrs. Marshall, and was led away to a sheltered couch in the lounge. As I had expected, it was about the letters she wished to speak to me. Last night’s crop had, as I had supposed, been more widespread, having reached many cabins on the lower deck, though seemingly only on the starboard side. In gist they had been very much like the ones of the night before, though a trifle more circumstantial and explicit.
I told Mrs. Marshall that the great point was not to talk of the affair, but was quite aware that my words were as wind upon the waste. She spoke darkly of the instability of the Celtic temperament, the pro-German proclivities of Ireland during the war, the serpentine machinations of Rome, and I was left completely bewildered, until some time later when I was buttonholed by Evelyn and began to see which way things were tending. She, too, had had a letter—left on the floor of her stateroom the night before—but the prosaic details as to how it had been delivered, and why the starboard side alone had been honoured with the missives, did not seem to interest her. She answered absently.
“It’s so absurd dragging in poor Mr. Mathers!” she exclaimed at last. “Such an obvious red herring—don’t you think so, Alan?”
The idea had not occurred to me in that light.
“The whole thing is absurd,” I said. “As well Mathers as anyone, I suppose.”
“Well, but why not the person who really is—well you know what I mean—with Mrs. Rao.”
“Who’s that?” I asked. Remembering the scene I had surprised last night I supposed that she meant Lawrence, but I was not going to be betrayed into giving anything away. Her answer startled me.
“Well, Alan, you must guess who I mean. That queer friend of Mary’s. I don’t know who or what he is. Stevens is his name?”
“Stevenson,” I answered without, I hope, any change of expression.
“Well, isn’t it rather queer that the letters don’t fix on him instead of Mr. Mathers?”
Evelyn spread out her hands in a rather helpless gesture—a habit I have noticed with many women when they are confronted with the unreasonable obtuseness of the male sex.
“There are so many things that are queer,” she said. “Alan, where does she get her money from?”
“No. No—don’t be silly. Mary, of course.”
“What’s that got to do with the point?”
Evelyn moved her shoulders rather helplessly.
“Oh, please don’t be so legal and stern, Alan!” she exclaimed, plaintively. “It muddles me so, and makes me nervous. You must see what I mean. What—what are Mary’s relations with Mr. Stevenson?”
I got to my feet. It seemed fated that my talks with Evelyn should leave me feeling disgruntled and annoyed, but I cannot remember ever in my life feeling so angry as I did at that moment.
“Have you and Mrs. Marshall been deciding between you that Mary wrote the letters?” I demanded.
Evelyn’s cry of protest was almost a scream.
“Alan! How can you be so—so unkind! What made you think I could do that? Of course I should never dream of saying such a thing. I would not even think of it, myself. I was only saying what I did for your sake, Alan. I want to warn you—I think you need it. Oh, I know you so well, and your idealistic nature. You are so easily misled. And she will get you into her clutches again—deceive you, make you think that she needs you. I daresay she is tired of the kind of life she has to lead. She would like to be back in the safety and respectability of married life. . . .”
I didn’t wait to hear any more. I cannot remember what I said, but I have a recollection of barking out a few by no means polite sentences before I swung off down the deck. I was furious and miserable. As I passed Mrs. Marshall, who was standing talking to Mathers, I heard her murmuring something about the “Scarlet Woman,” and my perturbation, if possible, increased, though, to be sure, before I got out of earshot I heard his vigorous protest:
“The thing is monstrous. I fear I must be going to change for dinner. I really cannot listen to such an absurdity.”
My estimation of Mathers went up, and the liking I already had for him increased, but, unfortunately, my own irritation did not diminish. I sat on my bunk, thinking the matter over. The sheer irrationality of the whole thing filled me with a kind of impotent rage. So far as I could follow, Evelyn’s line of reasoning had been something as follows:
John Stevenson has been Mary’s lover.
He is attracted by Ruth.
Mary is jealous.
Ergo—Mary is writing anonymous letters about Ruth and dragging in the parson as a clumsy red herring.
Certainly I had a vague impression that I had noticed John being attentive to Ruth, but beyond that the reasoning was only one degree less absurd than Mrs. Marshall’s, who appeared to see some subtle connection between the letters and the wartime pro-Germanism of a few Irish hotheads.
Yet, in spite of myself, questions went on hammering at my brain. Who was John Stevenson? And where had Mary met him? Where did she get her money from? Why was she going to India? And finally—a question which I had stamped rigorously underfoot—what was the meaning of those words I had heard Mary cry out in the train?
I rose at last to change for dinner and looked out of my porthole as I drew the curtain across. There were two people up in the fo’c’sle and even in the momentary glance I got of them I recognised John and Mary. It seemed to me that as I jerked the curtain across the window I saw John raise Mary’s hand to his lips.
We dropped anchor at Port Said before the dawn, and I think I was probably the first of the passengers to go on shore.
I had not slept well; though, in spite of my apprehensions on the subject, there had been no letter the night before. The shops were only just beginning to open and the familiar streets looked deserted and cheerless as I wandered through them. I almost regretted the impulse which had made me come ashore alone, though I did not feel much inclined for company. I think I had passed the greater part of the night cursing the folly which had made me take passage in the Kistna, and I could think of no one among my fellow passengers with whom I had any desire to view the sights of Port Said.
An Egyptian in flowing white nightdress-like garment and red fez was putting out the tables outside the café which stands at the corner of the street leading to the Post Office, and I came to rest beside one already placed in position. The surroundings were sordid, but it seemed preferable to walking the streets. I demanded coffee, and drank it while I watched the entire ship’s company go past in groups and pairs. Mathers, I noticed, was escorting Meta and her mother, lecturing to them on the subject of Port Said and the East, which he was visiting for the first time. He appeared somewhat disconcerted when accosted at the corner of the street as “Mr. Mackintosh” by a man in flowing garments, who further added to his embarrassment by producing a chicken from the brim of his haloesque hat and suggesting that Mrs. Cornwallis-West would like to see gully-gully. I came to the rescue of the party and explained that the man was not a lunatic, but a conjurer, employing the usual jargon of his kind in Port Said. Having further assured them that they would not be poisoned if they partook of coffee, I vacated my table and left them to enjoy the humour of the gully-gully man, while I wandered along the streets once more. They had come to life now, for the news of our arrival had brought the shopkeepers hurriedly from their beds. Doors were opening on all sides, and already the street corners were decorated with men selling the usual strings of beads from Birmingham at fancy prices. The atmosphere was moist and warm—the kind of day that one calls delightfully fresh on one’s way home, and horribly muggy on one’s way out. Port Said always interests me in spite of its sordidness, because of its mingling of East and West. The white flat-topped, heavily-shuttered houses, the dusty palm trees, the strings of black-draped, veiled women are of the East; but the flaring advertisements, the plate-glass shop windows, the garb of the majority of the people are of the West. One can see the same combination in any Eastern port, but here, for some reason, the two extremes seem to stand further apart—to meet without mixing. Perhaps it is that we unconsciously keep our first impression of Port Said when the East was unknown to us and the mixture seemed unfamiliar and incongruous.
I saw Evelyn and her husband bargaining for a shawl in one of the smaller shops. They had had the entire stock spread out for their approval, but there was obviously only one which found favour. I saw it from my corner, where I was endeavouring to choose cards that would fulfil escritorial obligations without the fatigue of letter-writing. It was a beautiful shawl—unique of its kind—and I admired the unerring taste with which Evelyn had singled it out from the rest. It was of a soft grey colour, embroidered in a design of wisteria and spring flowers in colours of pale gold, mauve and green.
“It really is wonderful,” said Evelyn. She spoke in French, apparently under the impression that the shopman would not understand. Usually they speak it better than English. “But it is probably not genuine,” she added in the latter language.
“Made in London, I expect,” said Sir Aubrey. “You’d get a better one in Bond Street.” Then in execrable French! “Offer him half.”
The bargaining continued. Incidentally, the shawl was priced considerably lower than anything of its kind in Bond Street, and, whether “genuine”—whatever that might mean—or not, was worthy of purchase as a work of art. I have done a good deal of bargaining myself in my time, and rather pride myself on getting full value for my money, but I dislike seeing a fellow-countryman—particularly when I know he is a millionaire—haggling over a price which is obviously not out of proportion to the worth of an article merely because he wishes to boast of his own astuteness afterwards. Sir Aubrey’s methods, too, did not appeal to me.
“Come, we’ll go away,” he said at last, in his painful French. “These Dagoes can never resist that. He’ll come running after us. In any case, we’d better see what other shawls there are before buying.”
I don’t really know why I bought the shawl after they had left. The price did not worry me much, for, after all, I have few calls on my purse, but it is silly to buy a thing like that when you have no one to give it to. I am afraid it must have been a nasty determination not to let Sir Aubrey have it.
I hired a small boy to carry the parcel and went along to Simon Artz, where, as one invariably does, I found the entire shipload assembled, buying topis, bathing costumes, fancy dresses, cigarettes and the usual variety of things which seem to become necessities on a voyage.
Ruth and Rama Rao were there, also Mary and John, and Mathers and Co. followed me in, having apparently finished with the gully-gully man.
Mary was trying on topis in front of a glass, and greeted me cheerfully and naturally. There were times when the ease with which she filled the role of casual acquaintance piqued me, but today I was glad of it. We stood chatting for a few minutes, discussing the relative merits and becomingness of Hawkes and Ellwood shapes, and John moved away.
“I never,” said Mary, as she fitted a white helmet-like dome on to her head, “appreciated the full joys of the shingle until I came back to a topi. In the old days they were a torture; now they feel gloriously comfortable.”
“They’re becoming, too,” I said. For indeed Mary’s rather quaint little face looked very attractive under the severe white helmet. It is a tiny face, very oval in contour, with a small, very sweet red mouth, a tip-tilted nose, and a rose-leaf complexion, which a fine dusting of gold freckles seems somehow to enhance. Her eyes are a genuine grey, and the hair above them blue-black, and naturally wavy. I noticed with a start as she removed the hat that there were threads of grey over the temples.
“I think I’ll have that one,” she said to the shopman. “How . . .” She did not finish the sentence, and turning to look at her in surprise I saw that a half-startled look had come into her eyes. It was perhaps not so much startled as concentrated and speculative. I turned and glanced roughly in the direction she was looking, and saw John talking to Ruth. There did not seem anything very marked in their attitude to have caught her attention, but women are proverbially quicker in such matters than men. Turning to look at Mary again, it seemed to me that she had gone rather white. Yet she spoke naturally enough to the shopman as she paid for the hat.
“Are you at a loose end?” she asked, as she prepared to leave. “John seems occupied, and I’ve got to go to the Post Office for a parcel.”
I was extremely glad to accompany her there, for I was very tired of promenading the streets by myself. As we walked along the dusty road she referred, quite naturally, to the letters, and I told her of all I had heard—with one obvious omission—and said on the subject since the morning she and John and I had had our conference.
“It’s a beastly affair, and I’m sick to death of it!” I exclaimed savagely. “If people would only hold their tongues the letters wouldn’t matter, but it’s this infernal atmosphere of suspicion that gets on my nerves. Even Mathers is prepared to suspect anyone—and I suppose after his experience one can hardly blame him.”
Mary nodded without speaking. Her eyes were fixed rather absently on the road before her, and there was a slight frown of preoccupation between her brows.
“It’s the psychological element which always seems most important to me,” she said at last. “The putting of oneself into other people’s shoes—trying to see things through their eyes. Looked at that way—once one has found some one who seems temperamentally capable of such a thing—and I don’t think many are—then the smallest detail that fits into place becomes important. Don’t you think so?”
“Yes,” I said, though I did not, truth to tell, quite see where her argument was leading. Mary still kept her eyes on the roadway. “Oh,” she exclaimed suddenly, and it seemed she spoke rather to herself than to me, “it’s so trivial—trivial—yet it all fits in! That is what worries me so.”
I had not the least idea what she meant, nor could I find out, for at that moment we reached the Post Office and she left me to go and claim her parcel which had been sent after her, I gathered, by Air Post. It took some little time to retrieve it, and as we walked back to the ship together we did not again touch on the subject of the letters. It seemed to me that Mary purposely avoided it.
Most of the passengers were already on board, for time was getting on. I saw Mathers pushing Mrs. Crandon’s chair over the long, rather unstable gangway which nowadays replaces the old-time boats that used to ply between the ship and the shore, and Meta caught us up as we reached the water’s edge. She had evidently stayed behind to shop, for she was heavily weighted with parcels.
“Even you seem to have been buying up half Port Said,” said Mary to me as I payed off my small coolie. “I’ll carry my parcel.”
“As a matter of fact,” I answered, “they both belong to you.”
I don’t know whether I spoke only on the impulse of the moment, or whether I had intended the shawl for Mary all along. Probably I had. After all, she is my wife, and it was some time since I had given her anything.
She hesitated, and I saw the colour fly into her cheeks. It was almost the first sign of confusion she had shown since we met.
“For me, Alan? How—sweet of you. But—what is it?”
“You’ll see when you open it,” I answered. Then in a sudden panic that she might refuse it, as I saw her still hesitate, I added: “Please take it Mary—it will suit you.”
I saw the colour deepen in her cheeks, and she held out her hand for the parcel without speaking. We had reached her cabin door by now, and I gave her both packages.
“Yours is heavy for its size,” I said, with rather feeble facetiousness, designed to relieve the embarrassment which seemed to have descended on us both.
“It is rather,” she answered.
She opened the door and threw both parcels on to her bunk, then with a sudden impulse she turned to me as I made to move on and gave my hand a friendly little squeeze.
“Thank you, Alan—thank you very much. It was sweet of you.”
The words were spoken in her usual tone of frank friendliness, but it took me some time to get over the shock of realising that there had been tears in her eyes.
We got away down the Canal about noon, and the rest of the day passed peacefully. It was hot. The punka-louvres kept up a sort of mild roar, but beyond that there was a silence which seemed almost ghostly after the continual sound of the sea to which we had become accustomed. The sandbanks and date palms glided eerily by, and the whole atmosphere on board seemed changed. In one night we had passed, as through an invisible gateway, from West to East, from Europe to Asia. People lay about rather languidly in their deckchairs, for the sudden heat was trying, and there was the continual chink of ice on glass as the stewards, looking very immaculate in their newly-donned white suits, carried trays of cooling drinks along the deck. To me the day was a blessed oasis. There had been no more letters and I devoutly hoped that we had heard the last of them. The very fact of the break made by getting into port seemed to have lifted us all out of the rut, and the subject was no longer the overwhelming tiling it had begun to seem a day ago. Maybe with the change to the Eastern atmosphere, and the general thaw which I knew from experience always sets in socially at this point of a voyage, we should have no more of the trouble. Only once did the matter come up at all during the whole day and that was after tea when Lawrence joined me as I stood watching the approach of the sunset.
“Fine girl, Celia Marshall,” he remarked, as that young lady passed us in the course of an energetic constitutional, accompanied by one of the young men who seemed to have attached themselves to her skirts. “Damn good figure. Do you think she had anything to do with those letters?”
“They say the parson chap was keen on her between Tilbury and Gib. . . . Doesn’t seem to be anything doing in that line now, and I wondered. Think there’s anything in it?”
“No,” I retorted. “Nor have I as yet suspected the Hajji’s wife of being concerned in the cocaine traffic.”
It was intended for sarcasm but the edge was turned against his hide.
“Queer you should have said that,” he answered. “I believe I’ve got an idea. . . .”
“Look, we’re passing a ship,” I interrupted, and made my way to the other side of the deck. Usually I am too lazy to take a thorough dislike to anyone, but Lawrence was the exception which proves the rule. If his idea on the cocaine traffic was on a par with his theory concerning the letters, I had no desire to hear it.
I stayed a long while watching the sunset, for it is a thing which always fascinates me—the glamour that evening can throw over the most desolate scene. All day we had been gliding through grey, dusty desert, but now in a twinkling of an eye it had been transformed into a wonderland of colour—rose, carnation and apricot, with spiky silhouetted hills, startlingly violet beneath an opal sky, while down below us the water, though it lay in the shadow of the bank, showed deep jade-green. And there was more in it than the mere magic of colour. A man, in the flowing garments of these regions, was standing on the bank looking westward across the desert. In the daytime he would have been no more than a dark man in a blue dress standing on a mud bank, but at the moment he seemed to take on a strange dignity, to become almost a symbolic figure—to become not merely a man, but Man looking out over the desert of time. All the world seems touched with an almost mystic significance at the time of the day’s death.
Mary came to dinner wearing her shawl that night, and I saw Evelyn’s eyes following her down the room. It certainly suited her—the grey was almost the exact colour of her eyes. After dinner there was a dance on deck but I did not join in. I did not feel in the mood for jazz, and, moreover, I saw Evelyn among the merrymakers and I had carefully avoided speaking to her all day. I did not really know what our relations were at the moment, but I imagined they were probably strained.
Strolling round the deck, I came across Mary lying in her chair, far for'ard, and I subsided into one beside her. We talked then for a long time, drifting easily from one subject to another—modern youth, marriage, romance. Perhaps they were odd subjects for us to discuss, but we did not think of that. It was a night of romance. A full moon had turned the desert into a glamorous land of ebony and silver; about us was only the warm soft silence, with no breath stirring except the faint one of the ship's passage, and ahead of us, the lights of Suez lay like a chain of stars, drawing slowly nearer and nearer.
Yes, a night of romance; but romance, when one is in the middle seas of one's fifth decade, has to mean something more than an eternal jazzing and swaying in the moonlight to the curdled whine of a saxophone. To me it was rather the romance of life itself, the whole wide, wonderful range of it—of adventure and discovery; of endurance and achievement; of friendship and love and faith. . . .
I had got so far in my rather stammering effort at expression, when Mary slid in a quotation from Lady Margaret Sackville's poem—“Romance”:
“Come, come to me!
I am the Sea.
I am all that can never be;
“I am every ship that sails
Trackless waters, knowing not
Where she steers.”
“Yes,” I agreed, for I knew the poem well, “that is what I mean. But modern youth”—I nodded towards the dancers who were still busily gyrating—“has narrowed romance down to the limits of the sex question.”
Mary shook her head. She had been playing champion for modern youth all through our conversation.
“All youth is narrow, Alan. It’s simply lack of experience.”
I wondered. But I went to my cabin that night feeling strangely soothed. Life after all was a sane and rational thing, and there was a lot that was very lovely in it. All the pother of the last few days, and even my own mental preoccupations seemed unreal and fantastic. I remember that I passed the Hajji’s wife as I came in from the deck, and she struck me as being a strange, incongruous and fantastic figure also—it seemed incredible that such smothered lives could really exist in a sane and normal world. I think I must, unconsciously, have looked at her more intently than was usual as I passed, for she shrank back in a startled way and I had an impression that her eyes were staring fixedly at me through the eyeholes.
On the floor of my cabin there was another letter. I very nearly slit it across without opening it, then, remembering the variety of insinuations which were going about, I decided that it was necessary to know exactly what was happening. It was of a piece with the others, only this time it concerned itself with the cocaine traffic, and asked pointedly what ladies had had parcels forwarded to them in Port Said because they thought that the Customs would be slacker there.
I sat thinking over it for a long time. It was clear that something must be done—-we must set a trap and endeavour to catch the writer of the letters in the act of delivering them. It was perhaps strange that we had not done so before, but it is not an easy thing to bring oneself to do on a ship when there seems to be a moral certainty that the culprit is some one with whom one is in friendly contact—it would be so much pleasanter to remain in ignorance. Moreover, as long as the scribe had confined him- or herself to farcical insinuations about Ruth’s silk stockings it was possible to regard the whole matter as an abominable joke. But now things were rather different. Apparently the anonymous one was intending to extend activities.
It was as I got into bed that I remembered the rather heavy parcel that Mary had collected at the Post Office, and that night I dreamed of the avalanche again.
All the incidents of the following day are graven indelibly on my mind. I got up with a feeling I always describe to myself as “mental headache.” It isn’t a good name, but I have never found another for this curious feeling which comes to me at times—a feeling of mental oppression akin to that physical sensation some of us have before thunder. Some part of me knew that a storm was brewing. Yet there seemed nothing to account for it. Everything was quiet and peaceful, and even the latest crop of letters did not seem to have caused quite the same stir as before.
Perhaps the most vivid impression of the morning was a talk I had with Rama Rao. I had scarcely spoken to him since that day at Marseilles and was glad to find him strolling, apparently at a loose end, on deck. I fell into step beside him and we talked of the usual indifferent subjects for a short while. It seemed to me that he was strangely nervous and overwrought. His manner was jerky and abrupt. Insensibly our conversation drifted to Indian matters, and, as on that former day, he spoke of the spiritual bondage of the people in general and of each human soul in particular.
“We are in chains, every one of us. Chains of heredity, of caste and of custom. We cannot break loose. And, as if that were not enough, we add the chain of Karma and struggle in the bonds of past and future lives.”
“Do you believe in reincarnation?” I asked.
He flung out his arms in a sudden, almost violent gesture. We had paused in our walk and were resting with our backs to the rails.
“I do not know whether I believe it!” he exclaimed. “No—I do not think that I do. But it is a habit of thought—it is in the very atmosphere that we breathe. We cannot escape from it. That is the burden we carry, the burden not of one life, but of a hundred. The burden which drove Gautama to preach his gospel of pessimism. There is no escape.”
I was oddly impressed, almost shaken by his words, and still more I think by his manner. I watched him as he moved away from me down the deck, passing close to the Hajji’s wife, who was struggling with her knitting. Her ball of wool escaped from her grasp and rolled across the deck, close to Rama. Almost mechanically, he started in pursuit, but stopped as the Hajji himself came up, swelling like a turkey-cock. He appeared to suspect the Hindu of regarding his “household” with too modern an eye. Rama swerved aside as though the ball of wool had been something unclean and covered his confusion by dropping into a chair beside Meta Crandon, while the Hajji, with a lordly gesture, graciously intimated that his wife might pick up her own belongings. It seemed to me that the whole of India was depicted in the tiny incident.
Strolling rather aimlessly away I heard my name called and turned to find Evelyn behind me. She was in an appealing almost penitent mood and she certainly looked remarkably attractive. I am no judge of women’s clothes, but even my inexpert eye could tell that the dress she had on probably worked out at about a guinea an inch. It was white with touches of jade-green, which seemed to bring out the gold lights in her chestnut hair. Her complexion retained its pale delicacy, despite the heat, and the fine texture of her skin was as expensive as her dress. She laid one hand gently on my coat sleeve.
“Alan, I want to talk to you. I feel I annoyed you by what I said the other day. But it was all a mistake—a dreadful mistake. You misunderstood me. . . .”
I wondered just how I had managed to do that, but she did not explain. She had piloted me towards her chair and I sank into one placed beside it after assisting her to curl herself in the luxurious depths of her own.
She said she thought we had better not speak about the letters, and I agreed with alacrity. There was no subject I wished to discuss less.
“They are disturbing things and upset the vibrations. And, after all, we have so much to talk about. It has been so wonderful our meeting again like this. It was intended of course—these things always are. . . .”
I agreed. After all I had quite intended it when I took my passage.
Evelyn talked on about the great friendships of history, about our own friendship and about reincarnation. I gathered that we had been either Anthony and Cleopatra or Dante and Beatrice in our former fives—I was not sure which. I reflected on the curious fact that while all the noted people of the past seem to walk the earth again in often surprisingly humble guise, I have never encountered the reincarnation of a dentist or a grocer, a dressmaker or a cook. I also thought of Rama’s words and mused on the difference between the amateur dabbling prettily in the shallows of a philosophy and the man born and bred in its atmosphere, struggling to escape from its cruelty.
“Where do you live now in England?” I asked, more I am afraid to change the subject than from any very great curiosity on the point.
I gathered in reply that they had bought an old castle in Dorset and settled down as the county family. She described it to me in detail—each room was furnished completely and correctly in a different period.
“It’s all old, Alan. I won’t have anything new in it—nothing of the soulless twentieth century anywhere.”
I felt suddenly rather sorry for Sir Aubrey, with his fussy ways, kindly heart and rather vulgar soul. The thought of him in a Tudor dining-hall was somehow pathetic. I should hate to be always the one anachronism in my own home.
Evelyn turned to the subject of the Old and the New and the Old that is always New because of the Inbreathing and the Outbreathing, and the Future of England as Foretold in the Bible.
What do you think, Alan?” she asked at last.
I said I feared there was grave danger of losing our philatelic purity. It seemed as good an answer as any and I was pleased to see that it puzzled her.
Her husband arrived at that moment and I carried him off for a drink. I think he was surprised at my sudden geniality, but he would have been more so had he known that I lifted my glass to the kindly fate which had thrown him across Evelyn’s path ten years ago.
Perhaps it was not very nice of me—in fact I know it was not. But I was experiencing an exhilarating sense of liberty and lightness. Rather like a chicken which has suddenly awoken to the realisation that it is held in bondage by nothing but a line of chalk. In the old days Evelyn had talked vaguely of “affinities,” of “karma,” of “soul mates” and with the torch of passion burning it had sounded like deep wisdom. It was only when worked out to more concrete conclusions and considered in the light of common sense that its appeal to humour became a shade too pronounced. Moreover, in the old days, she had been rather a pathetic figure condemned to earn her living by dancing attendance on a crotchety old lady while her whole being was avid for life, love and pleasure. But now it seemed to me that the burning flame of what I had taken to be aspiration, had been first satisfied, then quenched by very gilded baubles. Strangely enough, that one talk, when we were purposely avoiding all subjects of difference, had done more to break the spell under which I had moved for so long than anything. The feeling of lightness and liberty remained with me all day, though in spite of it that sensation of “mental headache” still persisted. I carefully avoided speaking of the letters to anyone, though I could see that the storm was still blowing. People whispered together in corners and there seemed to be a kind of blight over the social life of the ship. In spite of this, some energetic spirits were getting up the usual sports and there was to be a treasure hunt that night after dinner. Mary had entered for all the items of the sports and after tea I watched her playing energetic deck-tennis, in spite of the sticky heat. Later as I went in to change I encountered Ruth at the head of the companion. She was looking terrified, and as she caught sight of me, she stammered:
“Is Mary—Mrs. Stanbrook on deck?”
I really did not know. It was about a quarter of an hour since Mary had finished her tennis, and I had not seen her since. I went to see if I could find her, but she was nowhere on the deck. When I came back Ruth had vanished. She had not gone into Mary’s cabin as I thought she might have done, for the door was wide open as I passed. As I came out after changing I saw John peering out of his cabin door. There seemed something a little queer, almost furtive, in his manner, but as he caught sight of me he smiled.
“Will you come in, sir?” he said. “I’ve a new record I’m just going to try.” John’s gramophone had been rather a mixed blessing, in my opinion, throughout the voyage.
Just at that moment Mary appeared and he roped her in also. I listened to the record without enthusiasm I’m afraid—it was not much in my line. Moreover, I was intrigued throughout by something oddly constrained in John’s manner. Just as the syncopated tune was hiccoughing to its close Rama put his head in at the window.
“Have any of you seen my wife?” he asked.
John looked up in surprise.
“Isn’t she on deck?” he asked; adding, as he stopped the gramophone: “I’ve been in here for some time.”
I explained where and when I had seen her, and suggested that she had gone downstairs to look for Mary.
“I was in Celia Marshall’s cabin,” Mary explained, and as she spoke she sat down on the bunk rather abruptly. “But I didn’t see Ruth,” she added.
Rama nodded and passed on, and as he moved away Mary stood up with the same abruptness as she had sat down.
“Come on, Alan! “ she exclaimed. “We’re keeping this young man from dressing.”
She took me by the arm and almost, or so it seemed to me, hustled me out of the cabin. Once outside she darted into her own, and as I came out on to the deck I heard her whistle two clear notes. It was at that point that I discovered I had no handkerchief. I turned back to go to my cabin for one and as I did so I saw Ruth slip out of John’s cabin and go down the stairs with the speed of a rocket.
I forgot about the handkerchief and went out on to the deck once more to think things over. So, after all, she had been there the whole time—in John’s cabin, under the bunk. But why? And why in thunder had John called me in? Still more, what was Mary’s part in the drama? Obviously she had known of Ruth’s presence, otherwise why had she whistled “all clear” from her cabin porthole? I recalled, too, the way she had sat down on the bunk as she answered Rama Rao. She was wearing a loose wrap which she had donned after her strenuous tennis and it would have served to hide anyone under the bunk. The questions went on hammering in my head, but I could find no answer to them. Neither Ruth nor Rama came to dinner that night, but that did not seem a very illuminating fact. Later, when we came up on deck, I was annoyed to find I had drawn Meta Crandon as a partner in the treasure hunt. I had hoped to draw a blank and not be forced to take part in it. I did not feel the least in the mood for deciphering clues and racing madly round the ship in pursuit of “treasure” which I did not want. For a moment or two I am afraid I looked glum, then I pulled myself together as I remembered that for Meta the hunt was probably a thrilling event. I wished for her sake that she had drawn some one younger than an old fogey like myself, but as it was I must do my best to win her a prize, or at least let her feel that we had had a good run.
She was indeed in a rather pathetic state of excitement, which she was obviously trying to conceal under a show of indifference. She irritated me considerably by firing out a string of quite wild and unnecessary suggestions and questions whilst I was endeavouring to solve the first clue which read “noolas.” I always feel hustled and, I am afraid, rather bad-tempered in a treasure hunt—the thought that other people are solving the clue and getting ahead fusses me.
Do you think it means boat-deck?” exclaimed Meta. Or well-deck? Shall we go to the smoking-lounge?” And finally, as a sudden inspiration: “Do you think it is an Indian word?”
She so confused me that my mind refused to work and I merely followed with the general rush towards the saloon. Fortunately, as we reached the head of the stairs, she heard her mother call her and with a muttered excuse turned and hurried away to the cabin. Relieved of her presence, it dawned on me that “noolas” was simply saloon spelt backwards and I bounded on down the stairs. I am afraid I was guilty of hoping that Mrs. Crandon would require her daughter’s services for some considerable time, but I was doomed to disappointment for she met me as I came up the stairs again.
“Was it an Indian word?” she asked. “Did you find the next clue? What does it mean?”
It is perhaps unnecessary to say that we got left badly behind in the hunt, but as it happened it did not matter for the treasure had been so skilfully concealed in the lounge—where the last clue led us—that people were still searching fruitlessly when we arrived hot and panting, a good ten minutes behind the rest of the hunters.
Meta flung herself energetically into the search at once and I left her to it, merely keeping up an appearance of zeal myself. I was rather unnerved whilst I did so by the Hajji’s wife, who was seated in one corner watching us through the ghostly eyeholes embroidered in her shapeless black garment. Her absolute immobility was almost uncanny and gave me the uncomfortable sensation that her invisible eyes were rivetted on my every action. Everyone seemed somewhat shy of searching in the corner where she was sitting and, characteristically, perhaps it was John Stevenson who was the first to do it with any thoroughness.
“I believe the old girl is sitting on it,” he muttered as he passed me on his way over to her corner.
He began a drastic search, turning up the cushions of the seats, shaking the curtains, peering under the table. It was while he stooped to do this last that his foot inadvertently caught in the black draperies of the immobile watcher. He turned to apologise and in so doing gave them a jerk. Then he stood stock-still in horror, for the figure in the smothering black burqa pitched slowly forward and fell with a crash on the floor.
A hush came over the room. There was something indescribably eerie in the incident and in the immobility of the prone, shapeless figure. For a moment no one did anything. Then abruptly John bent down and with a sudden jerky gesture stripped off the black folds of cotton. A woman near by—Meta Crandon I think it was—gave a cry, then the silence in the room became intensified.
It was Rama Rao who lay on the floor and he was dead, quite dead, his head smashed in by some heavy weapon.
Just exactly what we all did after the discovery I cannot remember with any accuracy. For the most part I think people remained petrified, staring with white set faces at the sight before them. I started to go for the doctor, but John was before me. He had darted out of the lounge, seized hold of a steward, given some rapid orders, and started back again before I had got as far as the door. As we met, almost colliding, he ejaculated:
“The doctor’s coming. So’s the Captain . . .” Then, in words that seemed to be wrung from him: “My God, it’s too awful, and where is she, do you know?”
His face was deadly white, and there was a look almost of terror in his eyes.
“Who?” I asked foolishly.
“Ruth, of course,” he answered. “I haven’t seen her since . . .”
At that moment a hand was laid on his sleeve, and I realised with a start that Mary, white-lipped, but quiet and controlled had come up to us.
“She’s downstairs, probably, John,” she said.
“I’ll go and see. You stay here.”
She went quickly, and at almost the same moment the Captain and doctor entered simultaneously by the other door. After that things moved briskly. The doctor’s verdict was soon given—the man was dead and had been for some time. The Captain took charge of the situation with that effortless efficiency and authority which seems to be the prerogative of sea-going men. Almost before we realised that anything had happened, the body had been removed, a rope run round the place where it had been found, to guard it from too much prying, and the Captain was addressing the assembled passengers.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s late, and I’m asking you as a favour to retire to your cabins for the night. Moreover, I’d be very obliged if you would all regard it as a point of honour not to talk of this among yourselves. Don’t even think about it more than you can help. Tomorrow there will be investigations and there’s nothing like gossip and talk and theorising to muddle things up. Put it out of your minds so far as is humanly possible, and trust the authorities to do their best.”
It was only after I had reached my own cabin that the significance of his conduct struck me. At the time it had seemed to me a little casual, though my mind had been too benumbed to think very clearly. But I had felt that something more ought to be done—some precautions taken. Now for the first time I realised why none were necessary. The murderer was amongst us, and, short of committing suicide by jumping overboard, he would remain amongst us. There was no escape. It is strange how at times a perfectly self-evident fact can strike one with the force of a revelation. The present one, blatantly obvious though it was, brought me a sudden cold shiver. It is one thing to talk of the psychology of crime, to read of murder mysteries in the papers or in the more thrilling guise of detective novels, but it is quite another to realise that any one of the faces around one—the faces of friends at table, of stewards waiting on one, of ship’s officers walking the deck—may conceal the dread secret of murder behind their smiling features. I shivered as I sat on my bunk, then with sudden resolution decided to follow the Captain’s advice in spirit as well as in letter and put the whole affair out of my mind. I can only remember one further incident that night. My water carafe was missing and I rang the bell for the steward rather irritably. It was answered after a considerable pause by a strange man whom I took to be the night steward. He received my request sullenly and departed muttering to himself. A sense of familiarity haunted me, but it was only after he had been gone several minutes that I realised that he resembled the heavy-jowled stoker whom I had noticed in the engine-rooms. He was gone an unconscionable time, and when at last he returned with the water the sweetness of his temper did not appear to have been augmented.
“Haven’t you a brother in the engine-room?” I asked on impulse as he turned to go. The words struck me as harmless enough, but their effect was surprising.
“Well, and wot if I ‘ave?” he demanded truculently. “Wot business is it of yourn?”
He took a step nearer and thrust his ugly, heavy-jowled face into mine.
“See here, Mister, it ain’t no business of yourn if I’m a twin or a triplet. Nor not if I’m a whole blooming octave—see?”
I had an idea that he meant octet, but he gave me no time to speak.
“Fair fedup, that’s wot I am,” he continued, his voice taking on an ugly note. “Just because a nigger cops it, every perishin’ blighter must come arsking after me brother. I won’t stand it, I tell straight. I——”
“That’s enough, my good man,” I interrupted, recovering from the surprise into which his sudden aggressiveness had thrown me. “I’m not interested in your brother nor in any of your family. You can go. You’re the night steward, I take it?” I added, as he moved off.
“Ho, no!” he retorted with heavy sarcasm. “I’m the little——mornin’ star, I am.”
Decidedly not an agreeable person. I sat for a long time on my bunk after he had gone, and in spite of my determination not to think of the murder my mind revolved round a few facts that I had noted. Firstly, despite the Captain’s precautions, it seemed that the news of the murder had spread through the ship. Perhaps, though, this was only natural. Secondly, why had my friend been so quick to resent any enquiry regarding his amiable brother? Thirdly,—but at the thought of the third point I rose from the bunk and looked almost reverently at the carafe which he had placed in its appointed place. I did not touch it, for in my mind was one beautiful thought—fingerprints!
I had a disturbed night, but managed to get some sleep towards dawn, from which I woke refreshed. With my early tea came a note from the Captain requesting my presence in his cabin at ten o’clock for the purposes of an inquiry, and as I dressed I tried to set my thoughts in order. The Holmes-Thorndike mood of the night before had left me, and the thought that there might be any help from fingerprints on the carafe seemed merely fantastic, for, after all, surely the direction in which we must look for the culprit was fairly clearly indicated. Here was a Hindu idealist, one, moreover, whose theories were not likely to find favour with his fellow-countrymen, done to death on a ship which not only carried an unusual number of Mahommedan deck passengers, but actually numbered a firebrand leader of ultra-Moslem orthodoxy among its saloon passengers—one, moreover, who, we knew, had been making inflammatory speeches to his co-religionists. When one added the fact that the corpse had been hidden in a garment which could only have been owned by a Mahommedan woman, the case, as Holmes would have expressed it, seemed complete. In fact, it was only the extreme simplicity of it which worried me. I could not imagine anyone, Indian or otherwise, being so inconceivably stupid. One other tiny, discomforting fact lurked, too, at the bottom of my consciousness—the memory of the terror in John’s face and of the words he had used. Why had he said: “It’s too awful, and where is she. . .?” Somehow I did not like that “and.” It might be only a tiny straw, but it seemed to indicate that his mind was blowing in an uncomfortable direction. . . .
Breakfast was a ghastly meal. We made, as far as I can remember, bright conversation about the weather and the chances of an early monsoon. Mary did not come to the saloon at all and I learnt later that she was with Ruth. It was a relief when the repast was over, and still more when ten o’clock brought the time for action, even though only of a mild nature.
It was a small party assembled in the cabin—the Captain, the First Officer, the ship’s doctor, Mathers, John and myself comprising the whole of it. The Captain opened the proceedings with characteristic directness.
“I’ve asked you gentlemen to come up here because I want you to be so good as to help me in my enquiries. We shall be into Aden the day after tomorrow, and I shall inform the authorities as to what has occurred; in fact, I shall, of course, wireless before we are in. Just how long they’ll keep us hanging about there I can’t say, but the clearer and more cut-and=dried we can get things before we arrive the sooner we’ll be through. Also it’s up to us, obviously, not to let any important clue slip by unnoticed. Now, Mr. Stevenson, I understand that you found the body—or, rather, that you were the first to realise that it was not what it seemed. Perhaps you will describe the incident to us.”
John gave a very clear and concise account of what had happened, cutting out all unnecessary details, and at the same time omitting nothing essential. He was looking white and tired, and I judged that he had not slept much, but there seemed nothing wrong with the working of his brain.
Thank you,” said the Captain, when he had finished. “Then I understand that the body was placed sitting in the corner nearest the door on the starboard side, and that during the whole time of the search you noticed nothing odd. Was the figure in an absolutely natural position?”
John shook his head.
“I couldn’t say,” he said. “My mind was on the search. I just knew that the old girl—as I thought—was there, and I felt a bit diffident of searching near her at first. That’s all.”
“And you, Mr. Grant?” said the Captain, turning to me.
“That’s about all I noticed,” I answered. “I remember that the absolute stillness of the figure began to get on my nerves, but I noticed nothing else that seemed unnatural. For the matter of that the Hajji’s wife never looks very much at her ease sitting on a seat. She would probably be more at home on the floor.”
The Captain nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s a small point,” he said, “and not very important. I only wondered if whoever dumped it there had had time to arrange it or not. And now for your story, Doctor.”
The doctor’s evidence was alarmingly technical. He was a large, pale, pompous, and, I surmised, not too competent man who seemed to enjoy talking above our lay heads. I was glad to see that the Captain was as lost as I was.
“That’s all Greek to me, of course,” he said, when at last the other had finished, “though I’ll take your word for it, Doctor. It’s the time question that is the most important, and I gather from what you say that ordinarily you would have judged the body to have been dead under two hours, but taking climate and some other considerations into the reckoning you would say probably two hours or over—is that so?
The doctor admitted that it was.
“H’m,” said the Captain, “well, we’ll come back to that presently. And as to the probable nature of the weapon you think that the man was killed by something large, blunt and heavy?”
“And smooth,” said the doctor.
“Smooth? Why smooth—Did you speak, Mr. Stevenson?”
“No,” said John. His voice sounded normal, but glancing at him it seemed to me that his face looked whiter than it had done. Mathers looked at him rather searchingly, I thought, then repeated the Captain’s question.
“Why smooth, Doctor?”
The doctor explained at length just why he thought the weapon had been smooth, and this time I was able to follow his reasoning.
“But,” said Mathers, when he had finished, “there was a cut, surely. I agree that anything the least bit rough or jagged would have made a different impression on the skin, but surely there was a cut?”
The doctor nodded.
“There was,” he agreed, “but it was rather separate from the main injury—more round to the front. It might have been inflicted before the blow which killed him.”
“By a different weapon?” said Mathers.
The other shrugged his shoulders.
“I am not a detective,” he said, a trifle huffily. “I can only say that if anything rough or jagged had been used I should have found traces of it, and that the cut might have been inflicted at a different time to the blow which killed the man.”
“That blow, I take it,” said the Captain, “was struck from behind?”
“From the front,” said the doctor. He spoke with assurance, and it was obvious, despite his disclaimer, that he fancied himself as an unrecognised Sherlock. For my part I was quite prepared to believe that he was a better detective than doctor.
“From the front,” he repeated, and pulling notebook and pencil from his pocket proceeded to draw diagrams illustrating his reasons for holding that opinion.
“But they must have been very close,” I objected, looking over his shoulder.
“They might have been struggling,” suggested Mathers, quietly.
For some reason the words filled me with a sense of discomfort. I had formed a vague shadowy picture of the murder in my mind—a picture of Rama Rao strolling slowly and unconsciously along the deck, of a crouching, stealthy figure lurking in the shadows; of a swift leap and blow. Certainly there was no reason why the fact of a struggle should alter this entirely. Rama might well have become aware of his danger in time to turn and grapple with his assailant. But in that case, why did he not cry out?
The doctor was pleased with Mathers’ suggestion, and the two of them were at the moment standing up, locked in a curious kind of embrace which endeavoured to reproduce their opinion of the position of murderer and victim at the moment of the fatal blow. I did not take in the technicalities of it in very much detail, for as I turned to look I had caught sight of John’s face and was startled by the look of frozen terror that seemed the only word—written upon it. I do not think either the Captain or First Officer saw it—they were both looking at the mimic struggle which Mathers and the doctor were reproducing, and in a moment the Captain called us back to the discussion.
“Yes, that seems feasible enough,” he said to Mathers and the doctor. “I’m even prepared to say I think it’s how it must have happened, but we’ve got to remember that we’re amateurs at the best—an expert would probably find a whole lot of things which turn everything round the opposite way. Now let’s get back to where we were. We think that Rama Rao was killed by a smashing blow from some large, heavy and smooth object, and that the blow was most probably delivered when he was struggling with his assailant. As regards time we have a margin. It was just ten minutes past nine when the doctor examined the body, so as near as we can get with safety is to say that the man was killed somewhere in the vicinity of seven o’clock. It may be before or it may be after.”
“More probably before,” said the doctor.
The Captain looked at him dubiously.
“You are sure of that?” he asked. “We accept your reasons, of course, but circumstances seem to point towards its being after seven rather than before. Seven o’clock, as we know, is the dinner hour. At that time both the lounge and the deck are the more likely to be deserted. And this brings us to the second important factor—that of place. Where was Rama Rao killed? In the lounge? And if not, where? And, further, if he was killed elsewhere than in the lounge, how was the body conveyed there and at what time?”
We were all silent for a minute as he stopped speaking. Put like that the difficulties seemed insuperable. How could a mere handful of amateurs hope to solve them? Then the First Officer spoke for the first time since our conference began.
“I’ve made the enquiries you asked me to make, sir,” he said, “and I find that as far as the deck was concerned, it was by no means deserted until at least half-past seven. On the port side, from five minutes to seven until about a quarter-past, the lascars were busy taking down the cricket nets and furling the screens. The deck steward was busy tidying away cushions and putting the chairs straight on the starboard side during the same period, and he went on to the port side to carry on the same work there as soon as the lascars had finished—that is to say, at about a quarter-past seven. At five-and-twenty past seven the lounge steward came out, on the starboard side, and began to lay out the coffee-cups—coffee was served on deck and not in the lounge last night. That is to say, that between five minutes to seven and seven thirty at the earliest—it might quite well be seven thirty-five or forty—-the deck was under surveillance the whole time except the starboard side for the space of about five minutes. During that interval I have discovered that the steward who waits on the Second Officer came down from the boat deck with the dinner tray. (Second has his dinner served at a quarter to seven in his cabin each night.) The steward came down the for’ard companion and walked aft along the starboard deck with the tray. It would take him about two minutes or maybe a bit under, I suppose.”
“H’m,” said the Captain, thoughtfully, “that seems to dispose of any possibility of the murder having been done on deck. None of these men, I take it, saw or heard anything out of the ordinary?”
“Did any of them see Rama Rao?”
“No, no one seems to have seen him.”
“Just a moment,” I interrupted, “there is one strip of deck we have not taken into account—the strip which runs the breadth of the ship for’ard. The bit in front of my cabin.”
The Captain shook his head, smiling.
“You forget the swimming-bath, Mr. Grant. It is just below the place you mention and it was well populated last night right on till after eight by members of the crew.”
I nodded. It was true, I had forgotten the bath which had been erected on the for’ard well-deck the day before.
“Well,” said the Captain, “since the deck seems to be out of the story, let us consider the matter of the lounge.”
“The lounge steward is outside, sir, if you wish to see him,” said the Chief Officer. The Captain nodded, and a few seconds later the man came in, obviously shy and excited, but self-possessed and intelligent.
“Where were you between seven and seven-thirty last evening?” demanded the Captain, going straight to the point.
“In the lounge, sir, until seven twenty-five, when I came out to put the coffee ready.”
“All the time?”
“Did anyone come in while you where there?”
“No, sir, no one.”
“Was the Mahommedan lady sitting there?”
The man hesitated a moment.
“I don’t think so, sir. No, being a hot night she’d more likely sit on deck.”
“I’m not asking for your theories, my good man,” snapped the Captain. “I want to know what you saw. Was she there or not?”
The man scratched his head.
“It’s this way, sir,” he said, in a burst of confidence, “the old girl sits there off and on, and I’m kind of used to seeing her. If it were an ordinary person I’d be able to say, but with something that’s like a bundle of cloth, once you’re used to it, you don’t notice one way or another.”
“You mean you can’t say whether she was there or not?”
“No, sir, I couldn’t say one way or another—not for sure. I was busy in the other corner of the lounge with the library—the books were all muddled and I was putting them to rights.”
“H’m,” said the Captain once again. “And when you were on deck serving the coffee where did you stand?”
“Just level with the door, sir, leading to the lounge.”
“Would you have noticed if anyone had come into the lounge?”
“Yes, sir, but no one came.”
“Didn’t any of the passengers go in?”
“One or two may have looked in casual-like, sir, but for the most part they made for deck. There was a good breeze blowing, and they said the punka-louvres only made it hotter inside.”
“I don’t think we any of us liked to go into the lounge,” I explained, “as we thought they might be fixing up the treasure hunt, and it didn’t seem cricket.”
The Captain nodded rather absently.
“All right, my man, you can go now,” he said to the steward. “We may want you again later. And now, gentlemen,” he continued, as the man vanished through the door, “since we don’t seem to have any luck with what happened after seven, let us try what happened before that time. Does any one know when Rama Rao was last seen alive?”
“I saw him at about a quarter to seven,” said John instantly. I was rather surprised at the promptitude with which he spoke. “He put his head in at my cabin porthole.”
“What for?” asked the Captain.
“He asked us if any of us had seen his wife.”
“Us? Who was with you?”
“I was, for one,” I answered, “and Mrs. Stanbrook; we were listening to a new record.”
“Then you all three saw him at a quarter to seven?”
“Did he say anything else?”
“No, I told him I had seen his wife about a quarter of an hour before, and he went on—I suppose to look for her.”
“Did he seem at all upset?”
“It did not strike me that he did,” I answered with perfect truth. I did not think it necessary to add that a few minutes later I had been supplied with knowledge which might have led me to expect him to be perturbed. After all this was an informal enquiry. Though I might tell the truth and nothing else I made a slight mental reservation in regard to the whole truth. I would keep the account of Ruth’s hiding under John’s bunk until I was more certain that it had some bearing on the case.
“A quarter to seven,” mused the Captain. “I wonder if anyone saw him after that? Which way did he go, do you know?”
“I think he was walking aft,” I answered. “I came out a very few moments afterwards, but I saw no sign of him then.”
“Did you remain on deck till dinner time?”
“Yes, but I did not see him.”
“Were any of you others there?”
“I was,” said the doctor, “talking to the purser on the starboard deck. I have an impression that someone passed us, walking for’ard, but I do not know who it was. We were leaning on the rail, looking out to sea, and I didn’t look round.”
“It seems as though it had been he. I wonder where he went?” said the Captain.
“Probably to his own cabin,” suggested Mathers.
The Captain nodded.
“We’ll have in the steward in charge of it and examine him,” he said.
I felt a sudden sick feeling of dread as the man came in. I seemed to see Ruth again as I had seen her the evening before, slipping out of John’s cabin and flying down the stairs. If Rama had walked once round the deck and then down to the cabin he would have found her there before him, and since I had come out on the port deck I should not have seen him. What precisely had happened? And why had Ruth been hiding in John’s cabin?
“Well, my man, you’re the steward in charge of cabin number fifty-five?” asked the Captain.
“When did you last see Mr. Rama Rao?”
“I saw him last evening, sir, coming out of his cabin about—well, about twenty minutes to seven it would be, I should think.”
“You didn’t see him return to his cabin about ten minutes later, or it might be a quarter of an hour later?”
“No, sir, I didn’t see him, but he might have come for all that, because his nibs—begging your pardon, sir, Sir Aubrey’s valet, had just asked me to help him find a stud that his master had lost. It had rolled right under one of the bunks, and we were a good twenty minutes grubbing about looking for it. I remember the bugle went just as we found it. And it weren’t di’monds nor anything of the sort,” he added disgustedly.
“I see,” said the Captain, “and when you went along to the other cabin, Mr. Rama Rao was gone.”
“I don’t know, sir—the door was locked.”
“Yes, sir. I went along at maybe five past seven and knocked just in case they was there. I was going to tidy up the cabin. There wasn’t any answer, so I tried the door. It was locked. I tried it two or three times just to make sure. Then I knocked again, but there was no answer, so I gave it up and come away.”
“Did you hear any sounds?”
“No, sir—not from inside the cabin, that is to say.”
“What do you mean?”
“I thought I heard a splash as though some one had thrown something heavy out of the port, sir. It were heavy, because it went plop as well as splash. But maybe it was thrown from above.”
“Maybe,” said the Captain. “Who has the cabin next door to Mr. and Mrs. Rao?”
“It’s empty sir. Number fifty-five is the only occupied cabin of the block.”
“And where did you go when you gave up knocking at the door?”
“Along and tidied up Sir Aubrey’s suite-de-luxe, sir.”
“Did you try Mr. Rao’s door again?”
“Yes, sir—about half-past seven or thereabouts, but it was still locked, so I gave it up for good.”
“I see,” said the Captain yet again.
“Well, gentlemen,” he continued, when he had dismissed the man, “we may not seem to be making much progress, but we have established some important facts. First—Rama Rao was seen on deck by three people at a quarter to seven, and that, if our estimate of the time is correct, may have been within ten minutes or so of his death. He was not seen later, so far as we know, by anybody. Second—the murder could not have been committed anywhere on deck or in the lounge. Third—Rama Rao’s cabin door was locked at seven, and presumably remained locked until half-past seven. We know nothing to the contrary.”
I felt a cold shiver run down my spine. What had happened behind that locked door? And who had locked it? Ruth—or Rama?
Mathers’ voice suddenly interrupted my thoughts.
“Aren’t we rather neglecting the most important clue, Captain?” he asked quietly. I mean the garment in which the body was found? For my part I feel convinced there is something racial at the bottom of this.”
The Captain nodded.
“I’m coming to that,” he said. “First of all, I’ll send my respects to Mr. Hajji Mahmud Buksh, and request the honour of his presence.”
Hajji took some time to find, but in about a quarter of an hour he arrived, smiling, bland and unperturbed.
“The steward has informed to me, sir, that you wish to speak with me. I am here,” he announced graciously as he entered.
The Captain regarded him for a moment, as though slightly nonplussed.
“Please sit down, Mr. Mahmud Buksh,” he said, after a second’s hesitation. “As the steward told you, I do wish to see you. We are investigating the death of Mr. Rama Rao, and we wished——”
“The death of whom?”
We all stared in amazement. Hajji’s voice had been interested, puzzled, mildly startled, perhaps, but no more. If the man was acting he was doing it with the most consummate skill, yet was it possible that anyone on board the Kistna could be ignorant of what had happened?
“Of whom?” he repeated, seeming to sense from our attitude that his words had been unexpected.
“Of Mr. Rama Rao,” repeated the Captain.
“But—is he dead?”
Once again, if the man was acting he was a past-master of the art. It was impossible to believe the inquiry was not sincere.
“He—died last night,” said the Captain.
Hajji’s eyes opened wider in startled surprise.
“But from what cause, sir?” he exclaimed. “He was a healthy man. Was it, then, an accident?”
“It might be described as one,” I answered, as the Captain seemed momentarily at a loss for words. “It made rather a stir, and we are surprised, Hajji Sahib, that you had not heard of it.”
I watched him closely as I spoke, but no flicker of discomfort showed on his face. Could the man possibly be acting? Surely one clever enough to do so so perfectly would have been just too clever to attempt it—to put himself in the unlikely position of being ignorant of the murder. I was curious to hear his answer, yet it was simple enough.
“Last night, sir; the ship has moved somewhat, and my household was unwell——”
“His wife,” I whispered in hasty explanation to the Captain, who seemed puzzled by this indirect reference.
“I have remained below to see that she had required attention. This morning, though, I have walked the decks, no one has informed to me ‘that Hindu is dead.’ “
The explanation, as I said, was simple enough. More than that, it had the ring of truth. That Hajji had not been present the night before I was already aware, and, when one came to think of it, even without the Captain’s special injunction, no one was likely to go out of his way to tell him of Rama’s death. The Captain created a diversion at this point by producing the burqa in which the corpse had been found.
“This was—found in the lounge last night,” he said. “Perhaps you can tell us, Mr. Buksh, if it belongs to your wife?”
Hajji gave the black folds a mildly surprised but only cursory glance.
“No, sir, that is not of my household,” he said.
“How do you know? You’ve barely looked at it.”
Hajji smiled blandly.
“To you, sir, doubtless all are alike, but to me how much difference! This”—he flicked the garment contemptuously with his fingers—“is from the looms of abomination.”
Abandoning his English, he suddenly turned to me and poured out a flood of vernacular, interspersed copiously with gestures.
“He says,” I translated to the Captain when he had finished, “that this is a machine-made garment, of a kind that is being turned out in Europe and shipped to India in large quantities. Owing to his political ideals and tenets, no such garments are ever allowed in his house. His wife, and, indeed, all the women of his family, always wear hand-sewn clothes made by themselves in the old-fashioned way.”
I pointed out the various technical differences that Hajji had indicated to me, and the Captain nodded.
“Females may search my cabin, sir,” said Hajji benignly. “They may examine all the clothes of my household, but they will find no such garment.”
“Thank you,” said the Captain. “We accept your explanation, of course, Mr. Buksh, but in your own interests as well as those of all concerned we will take advantage of your permission. I will give orders that the search is to be carried out by the stewardess, and perhaps Mrs. Stanbrook or one of the other lady passengers would help. We shall have to see if we cannot carry out the same search among the people on the boat deck. You think, I gather, that this garment must belong to one of them?”
“It would seem so, sir, though I think that they wear mainly white. I have not seen any in black.”
“Nor have I, to my knowledge,” said the Captain, “yet there seems to be no other source for the garment to have come from. Do you think that Mr. Rama Rao had an enemy among the deck passengers?”
Hajji shook his head.
“Who can say?” he exclaimed. “But I think not. They are Sons of the Prophet—why should they have any contact with him? Had it been his own people it would be different.”
“You mean he was unpopular with his own people?”
“Idolaters, sir, have many superstitious customs and practices which he has contravened. Well may he have had enemies among the unenlightened.”
“But might not his political opinions make him enemies in more—er—enlightened circles?”
Hajji gestured lightly with his shoulders, dismissing the matter.
“He was dreamer, not politician, sir,” he said. “He did not cross the path of patriotism. But he was a good man—I am very sorry that he is dead. Had he but been converted from idolatry he would have risen high.”
Once again the words sounded perfectly sincere, and there seemed nothing more to say.
“Well, gentlemen,” said the Captain, looking at us rather helplessly when Hajji had departed, “we don’t seem to make very much progress. Now I think we had better speak to Mrs. Rao.”
John got to his feet quickly.
“I’ll go and fetch her,” he said, but the Captain held up his hand.
“No, please stay here, Mr. Stevenson,” he said, “the Chief Officer will see to that.”
John sat down again, rather reluctantly it seemed, and there ensued a period of waiting which pressed heavily on all our nerves. Mathers fidgeted with some papers on the table, and it struck me that his hand was not quite steady. John took out a cigarette from his case and began a search for matches. I held a box out to him, and as he took it from me I became aware that he was tense and rigid with some strange nervous excitement. For myself, I turned faintly sick with a feeling of dread as I heard the footsteps approaching outside.
Ruth came in very pale, nervous and bewildered. She cast a frightened, half surreptitious glance at John and seemed glad to sink into the chair he had pulled forward for her. She seemed somehow changed, but it took me some minutes to realise that the difference arose from a total absence of cosmetics, and from the fact that she was wearing a plain, dark frock relieved only by a little white at the neck. It was impossible to describe the extraordinary change it made in her whole personality.
The Captain seemed momentarily at a loss how to open the proceedings, and Mathers took the initiative, speaking just a few very well chosen words of sympathy in which we all endeavoured to show our concurrence. Then the Captain asked a question.
“Have you any idea, Mrs. Rao, of what could have led to your husband’s death?”
The word came out nervously but emphatically—in fact it seemed to me just a shade too emphatically.
“He had never said anything which would lead you to suppose that he had enemies on board—say among the deck passengers?”
“No—he had never spoken of enemies on the ship.”
“Had he spoken of them elsewhere?”
The girl looked down at her hands as they lay folded in her lap without replying for a moment. Her brow was puckered in a puzzled frown.
“Not of enemies exactly,” she said at last slowly. “But he had spoken of people who were opposed to him and to his ideals. I do not understand it all—he told me that I could not do so without knowing the country, but though his work was good, it was not popular. Most especially among his own relations and friends, I think he said.”
“What was his work exactly?”
Ruth made a rather helpless little gesture with her hands.
“I don’t really know—I never quite understood—but he wanted to—to uplift his people, he used to say——”
“Rama Rao was a fully qualified doctor,” I interposed as she came to a halt, evidently at a loss for words, “though he did not call himself one. It was his aim to carry out an uplift campaign throughout India, not only in the realms of medicine and hygiene, but perhaps even more in matters of mental and moral progress. It was in these last as well as in the others that he had run counter to prejudice. He himself had broken away rather violently from custom and convention, and it was inevitable that he should encounter opposition, and it would be strongest, as Mrs. Rao has inferred, from those of his own caste. His political opinions were not likely to be popular, but I believe that it is true to say that they were not sufficiently definite to provoke serious opposition. He was not really a politician. He spoke to me of his work, but it was chiefly the lack of money, and what seemed to me an exaggerated idea of his own incapacity, which seemed to worry him. He did not lay great stress on the opposition he encountered, except the kind which came from blindness, stupidity and ignorance on the part of those he hoped to help.”
“I see,” said the Captain, though, since he did not know India, I very much doubted whether he did.
“And you do not think he had any enemy on board, Mrs. Rao?”
“He never spoke of one,” said Ruth. Whether the answer was intentionally evasive or not it was impossible to say.
“And—forgive me if it is a painful question—when did you last see your husband alive?”
A queer little spasm passed over the girl’s face. Once again she looked down, and her hands twisted together in her lap. It seemed to me that she had gone even more deathly pale than before, but she answered steadily, though so low that it was difficult to catch the words.
“At about half-past six, I think it would be.”
“In our cabin. He had been changing for dinner.”
“And he left then?”
“No, I left the cabin. I ran up on to deck . . .”
“And he remained to finish changing, I presume?”
“Yes—no—I mean, I think he had changed already.”
“And you did not see him again?”
There was a perceptible pause. Then the answer came again.
“No, I did not see him after that.”
“You are quite sure, Mrs. Rao?”
John made a sudden impatient movement with his feet. All through the cross-examination I had been aware of his taut-strung nerves. Now he interrupted almost violently.
“Good Lord, she’s not likely to forget, is she, the last time she saw her husband alive?”
The Captain took no notice of the interruption. He leant forward over the table.
“Mrs. Rao,” he said, “believe me, I fully realise how painful this must be to you—we all realise it and we all sympathise. You are not bound, of course, to answer any of the questions, but I ask you to do so in the interests of justice, in your own interests, and in the interests of all concerned. Moreover, I beg of you to answer them as frankly and as fully as possible. When you last saw your husband—that time you ran up on deck—did he seem at all upset?”
“How do you mean—upset?”
“Well, at all unusual in his manner—afraid, perhaps?”
“He was certainly not at all afraid.”
There was, involuntarily it seemed to me, a rather peculiar emphasis on the words.
“You mean he was quite normal and calm in his manner? You noticed nothing unusual?”
For a second the girl hesitated, then she spread out her hands in an odd little gesture—it was as though she accepted the inevitable.
“No, he was not at all calm,” she said. “He was angry. We had been quarrelling.”
“Oh, then when you ran out of the cabin it was to finish the quarrel?”
Ruth shook her head.
“I ran out because I was afraid,” she said. “I thought that he was going to hit me. He had the deva in his hand—”
“That is what he called it. It was some sort of an—an idol, I think. But he didn’t pray to it—I don’t mean that. He didn’t do anything of that kind. The thing had been a kind of household god he told me. He valued it because it was a family thing and was very old. He thought it was beautiful in some way—but I hated it. It was hideous, and smiling and smooth . . .”
She broke off, shuddering, while the strangely unexpected word she had used quivered through the room like an electric shock.
The doctor broke in on the duologue in a voice which he tried to make sound only normally interested.
“You say you were afraid of his hitting you with it, Mrs. Rao. Was it a heavy thing?”
“Very heavy,” she said. “It was made of brass. He threw it at me once, some time ago. It missed me and fell against the skirting-board. It broke and dented the wood with its weight.”
“He threw it at you?” exclaimed Mathers in horror, while the rest of us tried to sort our thoughts.
The girl’s words, spoken in the unemotional, jerky manner she had employed throughout, seemed to show the affair from an unexpected, almost incredible angle. “But, my dear Mrs. Rao, your married life had been unhappy then? There had been other quarrels?”
Ruth did not answer immediately.
“Yes, it was unhappy,” she said at last, slowly. “He was very fond of me—too fond, I think. He did not mean to be unkind—I am sure he did not mean it—but he could not control himself when he was angry. He was so madly jealous . . .”
Once again the word was like an electric shock, and for a moment we none of us could think of anything to say. Then the doctor spoke again.
“If you have the idol in your cabin, Mrs. Rao, perhaps you would let us see it?”
Ruth turned and looked at him. It was the first time almost that she had looked directly at any of us, except in fleeting glances. Her eyes for the most part had been lowered, looking at her hands.
“I can’t show it to you,” she said. “I—I threw it away.”
“Threw it away—where?” It was the Captain who took up the questioning once more.
“Out of the porthole.”
It seemed to me that the words came defiantly.
“When did you throw it out of the porthole?”
“Last night—when he—-I mean after—afterwards.”
“After what, Mrs. Rao?”
Ruth turned towards him, but she was not given the chance to answer the question, for at that moment John pushed his chair back violently and got to his feet.
“There’s been enough of this!” he exclaimed. “I can tell you who killed Rama Rao—and I can’t stand any more of this sifting and raking.”
Every pair of eyes in the room riveted itself on him. I was aware of a sudden tension in Ruth.
“You say you know who killed Rama Rao, Mr. Stevenson!” exclaimed the Captain. “Who?”
“I killed him,” said John.
There was a moment of stunned silence, broken only by a queer little choking cry from Ruth. For myself I was conscious of a sudden insane desire to laugh. At moments of crisis one’s mind goes off at strange tangents, and I could only think how hopelessly inadequate our behaviour seemed. Surely, when a man confesses to murder, there is some recognised, prescribed line of conduct to be adopted? Instead of which we were all sitting gaping. The Captain was the first to recover.
“You—you realise the seriousness of what you have said, Mr. Stevenson?” he asked. ‘‘You actually admit that you killed Rama Rao?”
“I tell you I killed him,” repeated John loudly.
“But why?” interposed Mathers mildly.
“Because he made his wife unhappy. Because he beat her up and made her life a hell.”
“And when did you kill him?”
For some reason the question seemed to annoy John.
“That’s your business to find out,” he answered. “You’re all so damned clever. But, since you want to know, the doctor is all wrong. It must have been close on eight when I killed him. It was before the treasure hunt. I went to my cabin to get some cigarettes. Rama Rao followed me in. We had a row and I killed him.”
“How do you mean—then?”
“Where did you get the garment in which you wrapped the corpse?”
“From one of the deck passengers. Told them it was for fancy dress.”
“And the weapon? Mrs. Rao has told us she threw away the idol.”
Mathers came to a sudden halt. He had been conducting the examination whilst the Captain sat silent, listening, apparently a little puzzled as to where the questions were leading. Now there came a sudden crash and the doctor leapt up from his chair.
Ruth had fainted.
We carried her out of the cabin, into the breeze, and Mary, who had come up to the boat deck to help with the search among the Indian women’s clothes, took charge of the situation, staying with Ruth until she recovered. The Captain adjourned our inquiry, for he had, as he said, other things which must be attended to. John was detained in a cabin on the boat-deck, and a guard posted outside his door. I tried to say a word to him as he was taken in, but I don’t think he heard me. He had relapsed into a brooding, rather sullen silence, and seemed working out some train of thought.
A little later, when I was down on our own deck once more, Mary came up to me.
“Ruth wants to talk to you,” she said. “She’s in my cabin, lying down.”
“But is she sufficiently recovered?”
“Yes—but she’s scared, poor kid. Be gentle with her, Alan.”
I had no intention of being anything else, but I went to the cabin with reluctance. I could not see what possible good could be done by my having a conference with Ruth, nor indeed why she should have asked for one.
It was stiflingly hot in the tiny compartment, in spite of the two air-coolers roaring overhead, and for a moment I thought of suggesting that we should go out on deck. Then I remembered that there was nowhere we could go with any hope of privacy. Ruth was lying down, but she sat up on the bunk as I entered, curling her legs under her. Once again I was amazed at the extraordinary change which seemed to have come over her whole personality. It was almost impossible to believe that this girl—little more than a child—with the rumpled hair, dark-ringed eyes and white, scared face, was the “Gaudy Girl” about whom my thoughts had been, I fear, the reverse of charitable.
She did not speak, and on a sudden impulse I sat down on the bunk near her.
“Ruth,” I said gently, “I want you to tell me all about it—everything right from the beginning.”
I took the hands she put out—as simply and unconsciously as a child, it seemed—in both of mine, and she let them lie there confidingly while she talked. Heaven knows what sort of story I expected to hear, yet the one she told was simple enough. Moreover, like Hajji’s explanation, it bore, or so it seemed to me, the stamp of truth.
The child of good, solid, middle-class folk, she had been brought up to earn her living and had developed in the more romantic years of her teens the craving for a stage career. Strangely enough, perhaps, seeing their upbringing and prejudices, her parents had not opposed her, but had confined themselves to the more sensible course of endeavouring to see that she fell into good hands. She had undoubted talent for the work and got on well, but was unhappy.
I couldn’t get on with the other girls, and I was lonely. They thought I had swelled head, but it wasn’t that. I wanted to be like them—to go about with boys and have a good time. I hated being thought goody-goody and stuck-up. But I couldn’t do the things they did.”
It had been whilst on a tour in the West of England that she had met John.
“At first I was scared of him. I pretended to be fast and flippant—I thought he’d expect it. And he was doing just the same. It took us a week to find each other out, then we laughed! We used to go out a lot together. I used to make up stories of what we did to tell the girls—they’d have laughed if they’d known we went to the Zoo, or out sketching. I couldn’t sketch, of course, but John was mad on it in those days. But we were never anything but friends—nothing more.”
I could well believe that. To the girl with her craving for romance, an unemotional, companionable friendship probably never presented itself as a possible road to Love, spelt with a capital letter. A sudden call to London had necessitated her leaving Bristol whilst John was absent for the day. She had left a note to be given to him, which, she had since found out, he had never received. They had lost trace of each other, and each had been hurt at the other’s silence, though Ruth perhaps only mildly so. Then, in London, she had met Rama Rao, and with him it seemed the glamorous, and quite impossible, romance for which she longed. The wooing had been short, rapturous, and lyrical, the honeymoon delirious. But even before it had ended there were signs of clouds on the horizon. It was as she floundered and stammered over this part of her story that I seemed to hear an echo of Rama’s words to me, “We are in chains”; seemed to see a new and more tragic picture of him taking shape before my eyes.
“He never meant to be unkind. He was terribly in love with me. But he didn’t seem able to trust me—and he couldn’t understand, somehow, the life I wanted to live; the liberty of it, I mean. I didn’t want anything out of the ordinary—but he seemed to think it meant I cared less for him. And he was so terribly jealous—he couldn’t believe that I could speak to a man just—just ordinarily! He didn’t see how it—his attitude, I mean—degraded me.”
The picture grew clearer. I seemed to see Rama with his ardent, impulsive nature, his soaring ideals breaking violently away from every shackle of caste and tradition, rushing into a “western” marriage, only to find himself held inexorably in chains, not only of heredity, but of the limitations imposed by his earlier upbringing. He could not, himself, regard a woman except in one light, and from his own attitude sprang the torturing jealousy which must have driven him to the point of madness, judging from the scenes the girl was now describing. I did not wonder that her eyes had held the strange hunted look that I had noticed.
“I grew so nervous, it was like living on a volcano—I was always expecting an eruption. Yet he was very good to me in his own way. He gave me loads and loads of jewels—and dresses. I couldn’t wear them all, but if I didn’t he was hurt. And the makeup. I used to put it on when I was on the stage—the girls would have thought me queer if I hadn’t. Afterwards I wanted to leave it off—it used to upset my mother seeing me all painted up. But Rama was hurt; he seemed to think it meant I didn’t care to—to attract him any more. He never talked to me of his work—he thought I couldn’t understand, I think. Oh—it was degrading, but he didn’t mean to be unkind.”
“And when did you meet John again?”
“On the channel boat coming over. I turned giddy whilst we were waiting for our passports to be stamped—I’m an awful sailor. Some one pulled me out of the crowd and pushed me down on to a seat. It was John. We were so surprised, we stayed a long time talking together, and Rama found us there. I told him that John was an old friend, and that we had met unexpectedly, but I felt he did not believe us. That was the awful part—he never believed what I said: he seemed to expect me to tell lies. Later, at the Customs, Rama made me go alone to pass my luggage through. He said it would be better. I could not understand why, because I don’t know French, and I’ve never travelled before. But I think it was a kind of trap he was setting for me. And unluckily John saw me in difficulties and came to help me. Afterwards, in the train, Rama was furious. He said he could not turn his back on me for a moment but I must run off to meet my—my lover. That I was not to be trusted. I was frightened, he was so worked up. And I could not make him believe me. I told him it was only accident, but he wouldn’t believe me—I didn’t know what to do——”
“Just a moment,” I interrupted, for a sudden inspiration had come to me. “What was the number of your compartment?”
She looked surprised at the question, and her brow furrowed for a moment in the effort to remember.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Oh yes, I do, though. I remember. We were in Number One.”
Number one—and mine had been number two, and Mary’s presumably number three. So it had been Ruth that I had heard that night crying: “Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?” But what had made me think that the sound had come from the other side—from Mary’s compartment? I pondered the point for a moment fruitlessly, then a sudden recollection of my own involuntary exhibition of ventriloquism at dinner gave me the explanation. Evidently there had been something in the construction of those carriages—something which acted as a sounding-board, perhaps—which had the effect of transferring sound. The discovery gave me a pleasing sense of having unearthed a clue. Up till then, though I had sympathised with Ruth and believed her story, there had been a shade of reservation in my mind. Now I felt myself definitely enrolled on her side.
“I heard you,” I told her, and gave a short explanation of the circumstances. “What happened after that?”
Things had been better apparently after the voyage started, but only for a short while. Ruth had managed to explain things to John, who had avoided talking to her over much. He had also introduced her to Mary, who had become the girl’s confidant. Rama had been ashamed of his outburst and anxious to make amends, but his rather exaggerated and Oriental attitude of mind towards the matter had worried the girl.
“He seemed to think that he could not help himself that he was compelled by some power. It seemed silly to me. And he took the deva out of the trunk it was packed in and put it up where he could see it. ‘That is my enemy,’ he used to say. ‘That’s who I’m fighting. Which of us will win?’ It used to frighten me to hear him talk like that. And I was frightened of the deva. Once, as I told you, he had thrown it at me. I used to hate to see it sitting, smiling there. And hate the way he used to look at it . . .”
She broke off with a shudder. For myself I felt I had the key to Rama’s attitude when I thought of the words he had used more than once to me. “We are in chains—even those of us who know.” The deva—some household god most likely—had typified for him all that he had striven to crush in himself, to break away from, and had found, or so he feared, stronger than himself. It was characteristic of the man, I thought, to personify the enemy he had to fight, but it was perhaps not to be expected that Ruth should understand it.
“And what happened last night?” I asked, gently, as she remained silent.
She made a little helpless gesture.
“I don’t know what was wrong,” she said, “or why it all happened. Everything was going all right—at least I thought it was, though once or twice during the day I felt perhaps he was blowing up for a storm. You know, I think he used to try and fight these suspicions and jealousies. Often I used to feel the storm coming for days before it broke, but it always came in the end. Yesterday I felt once or twice that things were not quite right, but I hoped it was just fancy. Then in the evening, when I went down to change for dinner, I found him worked up into a furious rage. I don’t know even now what it was about, but he seemed beside himself. He shouted at me that I was the talk of the ship, that my behaviour was a cause of public scandal, that he could bear it no longer. Oh, it was horrible—but I could not make out what he thought I had been doing. Then he caught up the deva, and I was so terrified that I ran out and up the stairs. I wanted to find Mary.”
It flashed through my mind that perhaps Rama had been treated to an anonymous letter regarding Ruth and Mathers—it was the first time I had given a thought to the letters since the murder—but I had no time to follow out the theory, for Ruth was continuing her story.
Having failed to find Mary, still overstrung with fright, and thinking that she heard Rama coming, she had rushed into John’s cabin.
“Of course it was a terribly silly thing to do, but I was too frightened to think. It took some time to explain to John what had happened. When he understood, he saw that I must get away without being seen, if I could. But we thought we heard Rama coming—it only surprises me that he had not come before to look for me in the cabin. He must have stayed in our cabin for some minutes, then walked round the deck looking for me. John opened the door and looked out, after telling me to hide, just to be on the safe side. He thought he saw Rama on the opposite side, just going out on to the deck, but he wasn’t certain. Then he saw you, and Mary, and he thought it would be a good way to bluff Rama if you were all in the cabin, so he asked you in. You know the rest. Mary saw me under the bunk almost at once and she sat down to try and hide me. When we heard the whistle ‘all clear,’ I ran out of the cabin and down the stairs to our own.”
“And you locked the door?”
“Yes, I was still terrified. Then I lay down on my bunk. The ship had begun to roll and I felt ill. I’m an awful sailor. I lay for a long time with my eyes half closed, and I could just see the deva grinning at me from the top of Rama’s chest of drawers. I hated it and I was frightened of it. It seemed to me that it had a bad influence on Rama—he was really superstitious about it. Once he had said to me, pointing at it: ‘That is the power that holds me. You do not understand. There is nothing like that in your life.’ It seemed to me that it would be better if only he could bring himself to throw it away and believe that he was just like everybody else. I lay for a long time—I don’t know how long, but I was nearly asleep, I think, when he knocked at the door. Then he tried it, and I remembered that I had locked it. I was going to get up and open it when an idea came to me. It seemed to me that by the way he knocked he was perhaps sorry, and had come to make it up, and I thought I would do something that would show him how I felt—I would throw the deva out of the porthole and then I would tell him it was gone, his enemy, and that it could not influence him any more. I got up and took it down. It was very heavy—much heavier than I had expected, but I got it to the porthole and managed to throw it out. I heard it splash into the water. I meant to open the door then, but the ship was rolling horribly, and I turned giddy. Everything went black for a minute, and I had to flop back on to the bed. I think I must have fainted for a moment or two. Everything seemed quiet when next I was conscious of anything, and Rama seemed to have gone. I felt too ill to get up and go and look for him, and I dozed, I think, until Mary came to me with the news . . .”
She paused, and suddenly her face puckered uncontrollably.
“I did not see him!” she cried. “I could not open the door—but he had come to say he was sorry. I shall always believe that . . .”
She drew away from me and flung herself down on the pillow, weeping with the abandonment of a child. I did not speak for I could not have told her that it had been the steward she heard and that at that time, so far as we could tell, Rama had probably been dead. I judged it better to let her have her cry out, whilst I strove to sort my thoughts a little, but in a few moments she turned to me.
“But, John!” she exclaimed. “I was forgetting. That was why I wanted to speak to you. Don’t you see? His story is nonsense. I don’t know why he made up that crazy tale—perhaps he wanted to stop you questioning me. But he couldn’t have—have killed Rama with the deva, because I had thrown it out of the porthole. And he did say that, didn’t he? Or Mr. Mathers? I wasn’t quite sure—everything was going round, and I knew I was going to faint, but I am sure I heard some one say that . . .”
I soothed her as best I could. Fortunately she was still too bewildered to think clearly, and the significance of John’s lie—if lie it was—escaped her. I left her in a few moments, and went in search of Mary.
“Yes, I’ll go to her,” she said, when I had found her resting in the lounge under an air cooler, “and, by the way, John wants to see you. He sent down a message, and apparently the Captain has no objection to your going to him. You’ll probably find him obstinate in sticking to his ridiculous story, the blessed idiot.”
I felt a trifle nettled. Neither term, in my opinion, applied to John. Moreover, though, if Ruth’s story were true, there was a bad gap in his account of the murder, and though I myself was more than a little inclined to disbelieve him, I could not see why everyone should so readily assume his innocence. Neither could I see why I should be thrust into the position of general consultant and unofficial detective, but, all the same, I decided that I would go and see him. First, though, I must clarify my own ideas and get them duly sorted.
I wandered into the smoking-lounge and, having obtained something long and cool in the way of drinks, sat down to think. Undoubtedly my ideas wanted readjusting. Ruth’s story bore, or so it seemed to me, the stamp of truth. Moreover, it was simple and straightforward—it made no great demands on one’s credulity. Yet the fact remained that, simple though it was, it had completely reversed my mental picture of all the persons concerned in it. Instead of the calm, detached, and completely Westernised idealist that Rama had seemed, there emerged something of an Othello, bound in the chains of environment and heredity, hag-driven by his own passions: instead of the Gaudy-Girl, avid for pleasure, money and less laudable allurements, there had come out something resembling the heroine of a Victorian novel: instead of the bored, blasé, rather cynical modern youth, I had been shown a pencilled portrait of a movie hero. Now was all this likely, or had I been fooled by a clever actress? Which of the two pictures was the true one? So far as Rama was concerned, I did not find the second picture unlikely. To hold ideals is always quite a different thing to living them, and this would be especially true, I felt, when it was a case of an Oriental’s views on women. Rama had revolted, even violently, against, among other things, the position and treatment of women in his own country, but, whilst he raged at some of its manifestations, perhaps he had missed the true inwardness of its source. Some words of Mary’s recurred to my mind: “Civilisation has not abolished the purda, it has merely made it invisible.” So far as civilisation went, I did not agree with her, yet I recognised that it was the invisible purda—the purda which existed only in the mere mental attitude of man towards a woman—which had darkened Ruth’s life. No, there was nothing incredible in the changed picture of Rama—it could exist easily side by side with the original one. But, when all was said and done, didn’t it on the whole strengthen the case against John? Or, failing him, against Ruth? The two were bracketed together in my mind, for it was obvious that if John were lying he was only doing so because he believed Ruth to be guilty. Now what had her story told me? Firstly—that she and John were indeed old friends and that there had been something of a feeling rather warmer than friendship between them, anyway, on his side. Secondly—that her life with Rama had been unhappy. In other words, she had simply told me that she had rather stronger motives than I had hitherto guessed for wishing herself free. The end part of her story might well be a fabrication. True, the part about the deva, being thrown out of the porthole had the steward’s corroboration—strong corroboration, too, for Ruth could not have known that he had told us of hearing a splash whilst he stood outside the door. But did it necessarily prove anything vital? Certainly it seemed to exonerate John if the weapon which killed Rama had indeed been the deva, but might it not have been something else which she had thrown out of the porthole? But what? And why? And was she really clever enough to have made up the story so quickly, especially in her overwrought, bewildered condition? But was she really overwrought and bewildered, or merely acting?
For the first time, as I floundered hopelessly in a sea of futile questions, it came home to me how amazingly each individual soul is isolated in its journey. What do we know, when all is said and done, of what passes within the closed doors of our neighbour’s mind? We are enclosed, each one of us, inexorably enclosed by the Power that made us, within a sealed fort from which we have no means of egress. We may call and we may signal to other forts, we may tell them of what is passing within our own, but we cannot make them see it for themselves. Nor can we see into theirs. Our whole intercourse is founded on faith—faith in the truth of what they tell us and faith in our own ability to interpret the code, for after all language is but a code. I had never before realised the subtle and all-pervading power of the lie. Perhaps this is one of the reasons for the popularity of detective stories—they are but a specialised form of what is our lifelong occupation—-spying into our neighbour’s fort.
I took out a piece of paper and endeavoured to sort my thoughts by putting them in writing. First point—if the deva was the weapon which killed Rama, and if Ruth s story was true, then John could not be the murderer, but there were the two “if’s,” and I decided to take them in turn :
(a) If the deva was not the weapon, then Ruth’s story did not affect the question at all, and
(b) If she was lying, we could not tell how far it affected it, because we did not know in what particulars she had lied.
Second point—if John had been lying in his confession, then it could only be because he believed Ruth to be guilty, and if she was guilty, then she obviously had lied in her story. But if she had lied, then we could not tell whether her motive was to shield herself or clear John, and if they had both lied——
At this point I gave it up and decided that I would go and interview John. Quiet cogitation did not seem likely to prove very beneficial in setting my thoughts in order. I finished my drink and rose from my seat, but at that moment Mathers entered from the deck.
“Ah, Grant,” he exclaimed. “I have been looking for you everywhere. I wanted to see you about this ridiculous story of Stevenson’s . . .”
I sighed as I sat down again and signalled to a steward.
“I suppose it really is ridiculous,” I said. “I thought so myself at the time, but since I have been wondering . . .”
Mathers shook his head decisively.
“I might wonder,” he said, “but I don’t need to—I know.”
The steward brought him a lemon squash, and he pulled luxuriously at the straws for a moment or two before continuing.
“Last night,” he went on, at last, “I was reading a book by Christina Agnew—you may know her work. It was a detective story—an extremely clever one I consider, though you may not care for that style of thing. I had reached the point when it became absolutely imperative that I should discover the villain and after drinking my coffee I slipped in here and settled down to a quiet read. There was no one here but in about five minutes young Stevenson came in. He seemed upset—that I admit. He ordered a drink and sat down in that corner. He seemed to want to think, for he remained quite quiet with his head resting on his hands. I don’t think he saw me. He must have stayed there until it was almost time for the treasure hunt.”
“You mean that he was in here all the time that, according to his own account, he was committing the murder?” I asked. The discovery that Mathers was sufficiently human to read detective yarns had momentarily distracted me and my mind was not working as quickly as usual.
“I’ve been working it out,” he said, “with people who saw him drinking his coffee and with others who saw him come out to the hunt, and I make out that he had about four minutes in which to go to his cabin, have a row with Rama Rao, kill him, go up to the boat-deck, explain his needs, procure the—burqa (do you call it?), come down with it unperceived, dress the corpse up in it, and carry it, still unperceived, into the lounge and arrange it there. I think you will agree that, setting aside the question of his being able to do it all without being seen, the mere matter of time puts it out of the realms of possibility.”
“It certainly seems to,” I agreed. “Of course, when first he told us the story I was inclined to be sceptical, and besides, I thought I saw his motive clearly enough, but one can never be sure . . .”
Mathers nodded slowly.
“Yes, certainly one saw what was in his mind,” he said.
“And what do you think as regards that?”
He did not answer immediately.
“As you say, one can never be sure,” he answered at last, evasively. “It would seem that she had had provocation, and of course the fact that young Stevenson seems to have assumed her guilt doesn’t look well, but as you will see at once there are enormous difficulties in the way, and for myself I stick to the idea that there is something racial at the bottom of this. I cannot see why we waste our time on other theories.”
“Well, we had an alleged confession to deal with,” I said. “It was necessary to investigate things from that point of view.”
I told him something of my interview with Ruth, and at the close of my recital he repeated his opinion that the whole matter was “something racial.” He appeared to like the phrase, and I admitted myself that it had a comforting ring. It seemed to lift the sordid matter of the murder into the realms of politics, and even history. And, of course, I reflected, as, having left Mathers, I made my way up to the boat-deck to interview John, when one considered the facts of a Hindu’s body being found murdered inside the garment peculiar to Mohammedans, the idea of something, if not racial, at least political or religious, did seem to be the most likely solution. There were only two things against it to my mind. The first, as I had already noted, that it was too easy, and the second—a more important one to my way of thinking—was the coincidence of Ruth’s and Rama’s quarrel on the previous evening. I am quite aware that in all the best detective stories it is always on the very day that the Stern Father has quarrelled irrevocably with his Only Son that the Stranger from Australia arrives to revenge the wrong which the Stern Father has done his—the Stranger’s—mother thirty years before. The matter is generally further complicated by the fact that the crime is committed with the Only Son’s only revolver which the Stranger has found handily lying on the hall table. But for myself, though I do not deny the long arm of coincidence, I am averse from stretching it unduly to fit tiresome facts, and, in the present case, I felt in my bones that the true explanation would have to include the quarrel as one of the factors.
John was sitting rather disconsolately on the bunk when I reached the cabin in which he was confined. He looked up nervously as I entered.
“You’re a ruddy young fool,” I greeted him genially, paraphrasing Mary rather freely, “and a nice sort of mess you’ve got things into. Why, if you want to be hanged, can’t you think out a more plausible story, and not provide yourself with such a watertight alibi?”
He stared up at me, uncertain how to take my remarks.
“I——” he began as though in protest. But I cut him short.
“Mr. Mathers was in the smokingroom last night when you went in there, and he saw you the whole time. And I may add,” I went on after a pause, as he still continued to stare at me without speaking, “that such a clumsy attempt at defence doesn’t make things look any better for Ruth.”
He still looked at me without speaking, then a sheepish grin spread over his face.
“I’ve made a mess of things,” he said. “I realised that, and that was why I wanted to see you. But honestly, sir, just for the moment I thought she had done it—it seemed so like it coming on top of that row. I mean I thought she had done it without meaning to—without realising what she was doing. He might have been threatening her with that beastly idol thing, and she might have somehow got it from him and thrown it at him, though I doubt if she would have had the strength—it must have been frightfully heavy.”
“I doubt it too,” I answered, for I had been struck with Ruth’s description of how she “managed” to get it out of the porthole. It did indeed seem as though the deva must have been unusually heavy. “Neither do I think,” I added, “that she would be strong enough to walk upstairs carrying the corpse dressed in the burqa and arrange it in the lounge whilst no one was looking.”
He grinned again, more easily this time.
“It seems absurd, but I’ve only just thought of that,” he said. “I was obsessed with the idea of her running down to her cabin and of him following her and threatening her. When you come to think of it, one has to pass just above the saloon going from those cabins up to the deck, and anyone doing it would have been seen by some one dining below. But there was another point I wanted to speak about that was why I asked you to come. Do you remember what the doctor and the parson said and illustrated about the position of the two people at the time the blow was struck? It was something like this, wasn’t it?”
He got to his feet and taking hold of me proceeded to reproduce the curious embrace which the other two had shown us.
“How tall are you?” he asked.
“Just six feet in my shoes—a shade under in my socks.”
“I’m five eleven and even so you can see I’m not much too tall for the position I should have to be in to strike the blow where it fell. Rama Rao must have been just over six feet—and Ruth is only five foot two without her shoes.”
“H’m, she’d be in her shoes at the time most probably, but even that only gives her another inch. I see what you mean—five foot three and six feet are not a good combination to have produced the blow in that particular spot. But he might have been bending down.”
“Then it would have come further back almost certainly—try and see.”
I bent my head downwards and sideways in a variety of ways, but it certainly seemed as though no position would bring the blow into the exact position that it was on the corpse. I laid my hand on John’s shoulder when we had finished our demonstration.
“Cheer up, lad,” I said, “we’ll get the matter straightened out, never fear. There isn’t any evidence to convict her.”
He smiled rather ruefully.
“It’s all my rotten fault—at least mostly, the mess we’re in, I mean,” he said. “But you’ll get us out, I’m sure, sir. Mary’s always saying how clever you are.”
“The deuce she is,” I exclaimed. I wondered as I made my way down the stairs just how much John knew of Mary’s and my relationship. So far as the mystery was concerned, I felt happier since I had seen John. It seemed obvious that my haunting suspicions against Ruth were untenable—the quarrel must have been only a coincidence after all. It had simply happened to take place on the very night that Rama’s other enemies—either political, religious or “racial”—had carried out their fell designs. Ruth was too short and too frail to have done it, even setting aside the difficulties presented by the problem of getting the body upstairs, and the extreme unlikelihood of her possessing a burqa which is a specifically Mahommedan garment.
As I reached the lower deck I encountered the First Officer.
“Ah, Mr. Grant,” he exclaimed, “I’ve been looking for you.”
It occurred to me that the murder seemed to have made me very popular. This was the fourth person in a few hours who had sought my company.
“I thought,” he went on, “that we might go through Mr. Rama Rao’s things in his cabin, and that perhaps you would help? Of course we’ll have to get Mrs. Rao’s consent and she ought to be present.”
It took some little time to get Ruth and Mary down to the cabin, though Ruth showed no reluctance. I think she was glad of the distraction which the work promised. The door was locked when we got there, and the First Officer sent for the steward with the key.
“Has it been locked ever since the tragedy?” I asked. I wondered for the first time where Ruth had passed the night after hearing the news. She nodded.
“More or less, I think,” she answered. “I could not sleep there last night, somehow, and they put me into a vacant cabin and Mary kept me company. I had to come in this morning, though, to get out some things, and it was locked then, because I had to get the steward to open it for me.”
The man arrived at that moment with the key, and we all filed in to the tiny compartment. Ruth suddenly gave a cry.
“But who has been upsetting it like this?” she exclaimed. “It was in order more or less when I left it.”
The cabin certainly looked as though some one had been in it, conducting a hurried search through its contents. Clothes were tumbled on the floor, drawers were open, and a half-empty box gaped untidily on the bunk under the window. The steward looked at Ruth in surprise.
“Wasn’t this how you left it, ma’am?” he asked. “It’s how I found it when I came back to lock up.”
Ruth shook her head.
“I left it quite tidy,” she said. “And I only opened my own box. These are all my husband’s things which are tumbled about.”
“But weren’t you here to lock up when Mrs. Rao left?” demanded the First Officer.
“No, sir, I’d been called away. The lady was gone by the time I got back?”
“How long were you gone?”
“About a quarter of an hour, sir. It was the chief steward that wanted me.”
The officer turned to Ruth.
“And how long were you in here, Mrs. Rao?” he asked.
“Oh, only a few minutes. I only needed to get this dress I am wearing out of my box and I knew exactly where it was. I—I didn’t want to stay longer than was necessary.”
He nodded sympathetically, but his brow furrowed thoughtfully.
“It’s queer,” he said. “Only ten minutes open, and unobserved, and in that ten minutes some one gets in and searches it. Now who could it have been?”
“And what could they have wanted?” said Mary. The First Officer shook his head.
“That’s what we’d like to know,” he said. “Well—it may seem strange to you, but I think we’ll leave these things just as we found them. Since some one seems to think that there’s something of interest here, we’d better wait until competent authorities can have a look round.”
He marshalled us all out of the cabin. I was behind the others and they did not see me stoop as we came out and pick something off the ground. Since it was not inside the cabin I did not feel it incumbent on me to leave it lying where I saw it—that would only mean that it would be swept away. I waited until I was on deck once more before examining my booty. When I did I gave vent to a short whistle. It was a stamp—but not an ordinary stamp which one would put on a letter. It was of the kind that one would expect to find [in a philatelist’s collection.
I began to feel the genuine thrill of the sleuth. Up till now I had not relished the tasks which had been thrust upon me and had wished that I could keep free of the affair, but now the excitement of the chase began to grip me. Moreover I was pleased with the clue I had managed to find. It fitted in so beautifully with the way my thoughts had begun to swing. From the first it had seemed obvious that there were only two alternative directions for our suspicions to flow—Ruth and John, prompted by the motive that apparently causes the greater number of crimes; or Hajji prompted by the motive that Mathers expressed as “something racial.” Investigations seemed to have proved that John had an alibi in spite of himself and that Ruth had neither the physical strength nor the requisite height for the task and that, further, circumstances would have rendered it impossible for her to have placed the body in the lounge hidden in the burqa. By a process of elimination then, we had arrived back at Hajji. For myself I had only been put off from suspecting him all through, firstly by the blatant stupidity of his having dressed the corpse in a burqa, if he was in any way implicated; secondly by the apparent sincerity of his astonishment on hearing of the death of Rama—and thirdly by the coincidence of Ruth and Rama’s quarrel. But these were, after all, unimportant objections—they could be very easily disposed of, and at the very moment when my suspicions were swinging back to Hajji once more, there came this clue of the stamp found near Rama’s cabin which had been so mysteriously searched. The stamp was obviously from the collection of a philatelist, and philatelists, though commoner than is often supposed, are on the whole a rare species. I do not pretend to be conversant with their habits but I conclude that they possibly carry their treasures in some such receptacle as a pocketbook or wallet like ordinary folk, from which in moments of great agitation a stamp might escape unperceived. Hajji had told me that he was a philatelist. I felt the Fates were being kind to me.
There is one great advantage in having a murder committed on a ship—everything and everyone is so handy. It did not take me more than three minutes to run Hajji to earth in a corner of the deck, aft. I decided to open negotiations without preamble.
“Ah, Hajji Sahib,” I exclaimed, “I have been looking for you. I picked this up on deck and I think it must belong to you.”
I watched him carefully as I held out the stamp, but there was no flicker of embarrassment in his face. Either, I decided, he had not as yet realised the loss of the stamp, or, deceived by my rather mendacious reference to the “deck” he saw no reason for suspecting me of any ulterior motive. But his answer when it came dashed all my late excitement to the ground.
“No, sir,” he said, having examined the small square of gummed paper with that peculiar intensity of which only a true philatelist is capable, “this is not mine. It will belong, I think, to Major Lawrence. I have sold it to him some days ago.”
“You sold it to Major Lawrence?” I repeated dumbfounded.
“Yes, sir, it is an honourable trade,” he said, apparently misinterpreting my surprise. “Though I do not now pursue it for gain I dispose of my duplicates at legitimate rates—via., one third catalogue value.”
“I see,” I said. The word duplicate had given me an idea. “But how can you be so sure this is the one you sold if it was a duplicate? It might be your own copy.”
“Mine is more perfect specimen, sir. You will see there is here one small blemish. It was by that I recognised it. Moreover, mine is with my collection which is enclosed in one watertight box. How shall I then let it fall on the deck?”
The logic seemed unanswerable and I got away as soon as I could without seeming abrupt. I daresay I could without much difficulty have persuaded Hajji to dig out his collection from the watertight trunk and so have satisfied myself that the perfect specimen was in its rightful place. But it seemed easier to test the matter by going to Lawrence.
I could not find him on deck and I learnt from a steward that he had gone down to the baggage-room to examine one of his trunks which was reported as being damaged. I wandered round the deck aimlessly, trying to put my thoughts in order, then, catching sight of Meta Crandon, an idea suddenly occurred to me.
“Well, Miss Crandon,” I exclaimed, as I lowered myself into a chair beside her, “I hope you are none the worse for the shock of last night.”
She looked pale and tired, but on the whole there seemed to be more animation in her face. Perhaps even a murder can be a welcome excitement.
“It was terrible,” she said. “I—I’ve scarcely realised it even yet. I can’t believe that he has really been killed. It is too awful. Don’t you think it might have been an accident?”
“Hardly,” I replied. “You remember he was found under rather unusual circumstances.”
The idea that Rama might have dressed himself up in the burqa by way of joke, fallen over and hurt himself fatally, then realising what had happened, have made straight for the lounge and there sat down to die, struck me as rather original, but Meta was too obsessed with the horror of a murder to see it.
“It is too terrible,” she repeated, “but I’m glad it was an Indian—it makes it less real.”
One is perpetually reminded that we are an island race.
“Come, come, Miss Crandon,” I said, “you mustn’t let it upset you. What is done is done—and we have to pull ourselves together and try to ensure that the truth is discovered and that no one suffers unjustly. It is fairly obvious, I think, that the affair has either a political or religious origin but we have to get the details clarified. It was just on one point that I thought you might be able to help us. You remember at the beginning of the treasure hunt last night your mother called you? Well, I was wondering if by any chance as you came back from her cabin you looked into the lounge, and whether you noticed if the—figure in the black burqa was there then or not?”
She did not answer at once but sat staring out to sea with her brows knit in thought. Then she shook her head.
“I can’t say,” she said. “I was too much taken up with the idea of the treasure hunt to notice anything. But then it must have been there, mustn’t it? It couldn’t have moved, unless, of course, it really was the Hajji’s wife the time before “
“What do you mean by the time before, Miss Crandon?”
She looked at me in surprise.
“When I went down to dinner,” she said. “I was late as usual because I’d been getting mother to bed—- I am sure I saw just a corner of the Indian woman’s dress in that corner where we found the body. Of course I didn’t pay any attention because I thought it really was Mrs. Mahmud Buksh and she often sat there.”
“And just exactly what time would that be, can you say?”
She shook her head again.
“No, not exactly, but it must have been about a quarter or twenty past seven. I was very late last night.”
“Thank you,” I exclaimed as I got to my feet. “What you’ve told me is very important. It ought to help us in finding the culprit.”
She looked up at me doubtfully.
“I would so much rather think that it was an accident,” she said, “but any way it was only an Indian.”
I left her to soothe her nerves with that thought and made my way for’ard. Just outside our block of cabins I met Mary.
“Hullo, are you off duty?” I demanded. “You’re the very person I wanted to see.”
“Ruth is asleep and I’m in search of a breeze,” she said.
“Then we’d better repair to the fo’c’sle. There isn’t one to be had nearer. You go up whilst I procure a drink that’s long and cooling. You’re looking done in.”
She seemed rather surprised but made no demur and we carried out the programme in detail.
“And now,” I said, as we settled ourselves comfortably—I had added cushions to my burden of drinks—“let us exchange information and theories.”
I told her of my interview with John and she listened interestedly.
“I’m glad you called his bluff,” she said when I had finished. “I was afraid he’d be obstinate—he generally is.”
“You seem to know him pretty well,” I answered. “How long have you been friends.”
“I’ve known him—let me see—about twelve years,” she said.
“But, dash it all, he doesn’t look more than twenty-five.”
“He isn’t,” she said. “I’ve known him since he was thirteen. He is the son of some great friends of mine. They married rather late in life and he was their only son. He didn’t have much of a time as a boy—his mother was too afraid of half a hundred ills to let him do the things that other boys did, and they were both a bit too old to enter into his feelings. He adopted me as a kind of aunt and used to tell me all his woes. He’s a nice lad.”
“Oh,” I said. I could not think of anything else to say, and there was silence for a minute or two. Then I asked a question.
“And did he tell you about Ruth?”
“Yes,” answered Mary, “I heard all about it at the time they first met. To tell you the truth I was rather alarmed when I saw her and realised that Fate seemed to have brought them together again. I knew that John had got it badly—love, I mean. He’s the kind that would, and my first glimpse of Ruth puzzled me—she didn’t look the type of girl John would fall for. After I got to know her of course I understood. But then I got even more alarmed. I didn’t want any complications with a married woman, yet John was plainly getting more and more in love every day. Her unhappiness too appealed to him. I took him up into the fo’c’sle one night and talked to him seriously. I was somewhat reassured by what he said—but not entirely. He was very idealistic—he is really, though you might not think it—but that sort of thing doesn’t always stand very much strain, does it? Anyway, I could only promise to stand by Ruth and do what I could for her—I liked the girl for her own sake and I was deadly sorry for her. John was very grateful, but for myself I was worried. Last night when I saw Ruth hiding under his bunk I guessed that there had been a row and I did what I could, but I was still more worried. John told me all about it at dinner, and I would have gone to Ruth immediately afterwards, but not seeing Rama anywhere about I thought he must be down in the cabin with her. I don’t think I ever got a more ghastly turn in my life than when John stripped off that burqa last night, but I was reassured when I went down to Ruth. She was genuinely asleep—she couldn’t have been acting. Besides—she obviously could not have done it.”
I did not wholly agree with the last remark though certainly my own feelings told me that Ruth was no murderess and could not have acted sufficiently well and with enough sangfroid afterwards to have taken in not only me but Mary who knew her better than I did.
“And how about John?” I asked. “Didn’t you have any qualms about him? After all, he is in love with Ruth you say.”
Mary smiled slightly as she shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I had no qualms. I can’t explain why—but I know him so well. I just knew it was impossible. Besides, in any case, I don’t see when he would have had the time or opportunity to do it.”
“That’s true,” I admitted. “Except for the time he himself gave he seems to have been pretty well in the public eye. I suppose that that was why he fixed on that time. He hadn’t seen Mathers. And now, of course, the whole thing is changed. . .”
I told her of what Meta Crandon had told me.
“I see,” she said thoughtfully when I had finished.
“Yes—that would have put John out of it anyway, even if Mr. Mathers hadn’t already cleared him. It was about a quarter to seven when we all left his cabin and he was down in the saloon before I was.”
“He was pretty punctual,” I said. “He went down the same time as I did.”
Mary nodded again.
“And in the meantime he had had a bath—I heard him having an argument with the bath-steward—and changed. That doesn’t leave much time for having a row, committing a murder and disposing of the corpse, even if you set aside the difficulties of doing it all unseen and unheard. I was in my cabin next door all the time and you can hear pretty distinctly what goes on through the partition.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “you haven’t the noise of the wind like I have, coming through my for’ard porthole.”
“But I thought . . .” said Mary, who seemed to be following out a train of thought of her own; “the Chief Officer told me how things were going, and I thought that you had all proved that the lounge had been occupied continuously at least from seven o’clock onwards, and that the steward said no one had come in?”
“He did,” I answered, “but he might have been mistaken. According to his own account he was busy at the other end of the lounge with the library books and consequently most probably had his back turned. Also, of course, the fact that Miss Crandon did not go downstairs until a quarter past seven does not exclude the possibility of the body having been placed there before seven.”
“It would have had to be a rather quick murder, though I suppose when you come to think of it murders don’t take much time. But in any case, even if the steward wasn’t in the lounge before seven, he’d be somewhere around, quite close—he always is. And there are generally people in there having short drinks, to say nothing of people quite certainly strolling round the deck. No, Alan, it couldn’t have been before seven.”
“It certainly doesn’t seem likely,” I agreed. “We can only fall back on the other alternative—that the corpse was introduced when the steward’s back was turned.”
“The murderer must have had a nerve!”
“He must, but there isn’t any other solution that I can see. After all, we know that the corpse was in the lounge.”
Mary laughed suddenly.
“It’s like one of those high-flown, philosophical arguments on the reason of existence,” she said. “One always feels it is so unlikely that we were ever created and has to remind oneself that after all we do exist. But to come to another point, Alan—this must alter the question of alibis.”
“It affects the question, certainly,” I said, “but it can hardly be said to alter it. As a matter of fact, except in regard to John, we haven’t gone into the matter of alibis.”
“But now,” said Mary, “it might be useful to remember who was late for dinner last night and yet came in before Meta Crandon. You see we know that their job was done by the time she came downstairs, and I should think that they would be anxious to appear in the public eye as soon as possible and not have their absence remarked on. On the other hand it seems pretty obvious that they couldn’t have been up to time.”
“That’s an idea,” I agreed. “Let s get our memories to work.”
As I have already had occasion to remark the ship was very empty. There were not many more than twenty saloon passengers and it was a “one class” ship. It would seem easy under those circumstances to remember who, or if anyone, had come in late to dinner the night before, but as a matter of fact I could think of no one except a little Mrs. Wrenton who always came late to everything, having two children to look after. She lived chiefly on the lower deck which was reserved for children and we scarcely ever saw her. I could think of no one else and said so.
“Neither can I,” said Mary. “Oh, there was Major Lawrence of course—but he’s generally late.”
“Lawrence,” I said meditatively. “H’m. . .”
Across my mind had suddenly flashed the scene which I had unintentionally surprised between him and Ruth, and close on the heels of that came the remembrance of the stamp which I had found that morning. I told Mary of the incident and of Hajji’s explanation in regard to the stamp. Just for a moment her brow furrowed speculatively, then she shook her head.
“We mustn’t be led away by details, Alan. After all, what possible motive could there be in Major Lawrence’s case?”
“You never know,” I returned. “He might be keen on Ruth.”
I recounted the incident which I had witnessed, but Mary shook her head still more decisively.
“We’re losing our perspective, Alan—murders, after all, require a fairly big motive. And as I said once before—do you remember?—in all these things it is the psychological factor which counts. You must take a person’s temperament and character into account. Now did you by any chance notice that girl he was saying goodbye to at Victoria?”
“I did—but what on earth has she got to do with it?”
“Nothing—except that she throws rather a light on his character. It was so obvious what had been happening. She was an attractive girl and they had been about together a lot—probably all the time he was on leave. He was more than half in love with her—any man would have been, and she was head over ears in it with him. But he went away without saying anything more than a few sentimental goodbyes. Why? He has no intention of tying himself down by marrying. He is shallow, conceited and selfish, but, don’t you see, just for those very reasons, he’s the last man to commit murder even if he were in love with Ruth. He hasn’t got sufficient depth of feeling. But as a matter of fact he doesn’t care two straws about her. I heard of the incident you mention—from Ruth. She was furious with him and told him off good and hard. I don’t know what made him do it unless it was the inference he drew from the anonymous letters.”
“Yes, that was it, I think,” I said. “I suppose you’re right. It is absurd to suspect him and yet——”
“My dear Alan, we really can’t suspect a man of murder just because he is late for dinner and drops a stamp. Think what the world would be like! Besides, we’ve got to remember there are people who never come to dinner at all—the Hajji, for instance, as we know, always dines in his cabin.
“Damnation!” I exclaimed in sudden exasperation. “Why am I always put off from suspecting the Hajji? By every rule he is the obvious person to suspect, but each time I start to do it something leads me away into obscure bypaths.”
“Probably it’s the psychological factor, Alan. Hajji seems a likely person circumstantially but psychologically one can’t imagine it somehow.”
I flung out my hands.
“That’s the maddening part about this affair!” I exclaimed. “Every one who appears to have a motive or opportunity is psychologically impossible, and the only person who has struck me as being capable of murder hasn’t any motive. I met him last night. My water carafe was missing and I rang for the night steward. . . .”
I proceeded to describe the person in question to Mary. Rather to my surprise she seemed curiously interested.
“You are sure it was after we found the body?” she asked when I had finished.
“It’s rather a coincidence, that’s all.”
“But what possible motive could he have?”
She looked at me rather strangely.
“No, that’s true,” she said slowly.
“You haven’t told me yet how you fared in your search for a burqa resembling the one we found on the body.”
Mary shrugged her shoulders.
“Oh, we drew blank,” she said. “There wasn’t one like it anywhere, but that doesn’t prove anything really. I don’t see why some one shouldn’t have had just that one. They aren’t things they buy in sets like handkerchiefs.”
The luncheon bugle blew as she spoke and we both got to our feet. To me it seemed incredible that we had got only halfway through the day. Years rather than hours seemed to have passed since breakfast. It felt stiflingly hot as we returned to the deck out of the mild breeze we had found in the fo’c’sle. The clammy atmosphere seemed to press upon the ship like a damp cloth, and the decks still showed dark and moist from their morning’s scrubbing. Rather to my surprise Mary seemed interested in the fact.
“It’s odd how they don’t dry,” she remarked.
“It’s always like that in these parts,” I told her.
She remained still gazing down at the wet boards for quite two minutes, I should think.
“But then, of course, there are the punka-louvres in the cabins,” she remarked at last.
I wondered what she meant.
It was as I came up from lunch that I found myself near Lawrence and sprung my mine.
“By the way—is this yours?” I asked, holding out the stamp. “I thought it might belong to the Hajji, but he tells me you are a philatelist too, and thinks this belongs to you.”
I watched him carefully, though I hadn’t any great hopes that the stamp would prove to be the valuable clue which I had at first thought it. Perhaps it was as well, for if I had had any hopes they would have been doomed to disappointment. Lawrence took the stamp and examined it carefully.
“Yes—that’s mine all right,” he said. “Where did you find it? I didn’t know I had dropped it.”
“I found it,” I said, “close down by Rama Rao’s cabin when we went to examine his things this morning.”
Lawrence did not answer immediately. He put the stamp away carefully and methodically in his pocketbook, took out his cigarette-case, selected an Egyptian from the contents and lighted it. Then he looked up at me.
“Notice anything of interest in the cabin?” he asked.
“We noticed that it had been searched.”
He gave a short but quite unembarrassed laugh.
“Yes—I’m afraid I did leave it in a bit of a mess,” he said.
He threw the match with which he had lighted his cigarette out to sea and watched it meditatively as it fell. Then as though his mind were made up, he turned to me once more.
“Look here, Grant—you’ve got your head screwed on all right and you won’t chatter. I’ll tell you about it.”
We found two chairs and subsiding into mine I resigned myself for about the sixth time that day to the role of listener.
Lawrence began abruptly.
“I told you about the drug traffic. You can imagine the sort of havoc that it’s working among the people. They’re a decent lot on the whole—the peasantry I mean. Simple, hardworking, faithful. I’ve an affection for them and it makes my blood boil to see them being ruined, financially, morally—every way, just because some swine sees his way to make money and has the brains and the lack of scruple to put it through. You may understand something of what I mean—you’ve worked among the people yourself. I wouldn’t mind the civilian population so much, but it gets my goat when they start getting at the soldiers. And I tell you the spread of the cursed thing is incredible—regiment after regiment of what was on its way to being the finest little miniature army that was made, is going to pieces. It makes me see red. We’ve done all we can in the State, of course, to prevent the importation of the stuff, but you know what the East is like. Stopping a thing like that is like trying to roll a ton of loose potatoes uphill. I’ve kept my eyes skinned to the best of my ability at home and I’ve done my best to investigate, but all to no purpose. Only one thing I learnt—and that is that women are either bribed or cajoled or hoodwinked into bringing in the stuff among their gear. After all, who is to suspect an ordinary memsahib of having anything to do with drug traffic in an obscure Indian State? Mind you, in quite a number of cases the women are probably ignorant of what they are doing—they’ve been hoodwinked by some yarn or other. But naturally they can’t always rely on that—so, as I say, there’s the other kind where they use money as the bribe. Well, when I came on board I looked round, just to see if there was any likely dupe or tool among the womenkind and it didn’t take me long to spot one. You guess whom I mean I expect. Mrs. Rama Rao. Did you see her at the Customs at Boulogne? She looked scared, and it was odd that she should be passing her own things through when she knew no French and her husband spoke it well. Then, of course, the letters—there’s no smoke without fire. It showed some one had sized her up all right and had some reason to dislike her. Besides, she’s deep—knows how to try and put a price on herself and give herself airs. Pretend she’s ‘not that sort.’ That generally means they’ll do anything for money.”
“You seem to speak from experience,” I said, not wholly without malice. It flashed through my mind to wonder whether the rebuff which, according to Mary, Lawrence had sustained, might not have had something to do with his rather venomous opinion of Ruth.
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, she tried to give herself airs. It was that that finally decided me,” he said, rather ingenuously I thought. “And then, of course, this murder made me think a bit.”
“In what way?”
“Well, it's obvious, isn't it? A chap like Rama Rao who spends his life trying to do good to his countrymen—to raise humanity—suddenly discovers that his wife has been smuggling in cocaine for the sake of making money for herself. What do you think he'd do? They'd have a row, of course. Probably he’d threaten her with exposure—or worse. In a panic she’d pick up the idol thing the doctor told me about and throw it at him. Probably didn’t mean to kill him. Then she’d pitch it out of the porthole and set about disposing of the body. Rather ingenious the way she did it.”
“Extremely,” I said dryly. “Little short of miraculous. How do you think she got the body upstairs, found a burqa and arranged it in the lounge? She’d have had to pass in front of the saloon with it in her arms, allowing that she was strong enough for the task.”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Oh, I don’t suppose she did it herself,” he said. “Might have got the steward to help her. He’d know another way up into the lounge; there’s a companionway right aft that I’ve seen them using. She’s probably been carrying on with one of the stewards, so knew who to apply to. Come to think of it, the letters rather point to that. They were probably written by a disgruntled stewardess.”
“There are only two stewardesses on board at this season,” I said, “and they both have grey hair.”
“Oh, well, you never know,” he said easily.
I did not answer. If I had done, I should probably have been rude and there was some information that I wanted out of him.
“And it was in connection with this that you searched the cabin this morning?” I asked after a slight pause.
“I think I told you,” he said, “that I had a cable saying they suspected that one of the ringleaders of the drug traffic was on board? Of course, mind you, it’s only suspicion—they haven’t any proof. I’ve tried to fix it on almost everyone in turn, I think, but no one seems to fill the bill. This morning I had an idea—though it was rather a forlorn hope. As I have told you and as you can imagine for yourself, the methods of the drug traffickers are many and varied. No one can say how they approach and get into contact with their tools and helpers. The manner varies according to the circumstances, but I have heard that, in certain cases, after an individual has signified his or her willingness for the work, they are given a photo—no name—and just an hour and place of meeting. When they arrive at the rendezvous they meet the person of the photograph who hands over or takes over the boodle. It seems a dangerous way of doing things, but it is never employed unless the helper in question is definitely committed to the traffic—too deeply committed to blow the gaff. And I suppose a photograph without any name or other means of identification is not very dangerous, and it has obvious advantages when you are apt to number among your tools people of every race—Oriental and otherwise—many of whom are illiterate.
“Well, it occurred to me as just a possibility that if Ruth was implicated in the drug traffic, and if one of the leaders of the organisation was indeed on board, she might have been given a photo by which to identify him. It was unlikely, I admit, but I thought it worth while trying, especially when I happened to come upon the cabin door standing obligingly open and no steward in sight. I had to make a hurried search, but it was, I think, thorough.”
“And—did you find what you wanted?”
He shook his head.
“No, I never really expected to—I think the photo is only employed when, as I say, they are dealing with some coolies who either cannot read or speak any useful language. They would not risk it with a European. No—I did not find the photo, but I found something else.”
“What was that?”
He looked at me with a faint, triumphant smile.
“Quite a lot of cocaine,” he said.
I was thunderstruck. Somehow it was the last thing that I had expected. It irritated me, for I could not see how to fit it in to the general scheme of things. It merely seemed to confuse an affair which was already complicated enough. As I had said to Mary, our chief difficulty was, not in finding some one with a motive for the murder, but in finding some one who had not only a motive but also an opportunity and the necessary psychological outfit. Ruth had already had one motive, or so it seemed to us. We had decided on circumstantial and psychological grounds that she was not the culprit. To supply her with another possible motive seemed lacking in orderliness and economy.
I cannot remember what I said, but I managed to get away from Lawrence and went and sat down by myself to think things over. In spite of the fact that I did not attach the least importance to his theory—in fact, I think the only impression that it had made on me was to convert me to Mary’s idea that civilisation had merely rendered the purda invisible, if anyone with such a vile mentality towards women could still exist—I felt more perturbed than I cared to admit. Whatever else Lawrence had or had not done, he had certainly suggested what seemed a remotely possible solution of the problem of getting the corpse upstairs and into the lounge. I wanted to think it out in detail. It was possible—was it probable? On the face of it it seemed not. One doesn’t ask a stray steward to help one dispose of a corpse and, of course, Lawrence’s suggestion as to Ruth’s behaviour was absurd. He appeared to think that any theory, because it explained some obscure points, must necessarily be right. But leaving Ruth out of the question, I wondered whether his suggestion of another companion would solve a problem which had puzzled me all along. That was the problem of where the murder had been committed. We had seemed to eliminate all possibility of it having been done on deck or in the lounge, and to my mind the difficulty of conveying the body upstairs had further eliminated Rama’s own cabin. Perhaps this might be the solution. I decided that I would wander aft and look for the other stairway of which Lawrence spoke, but, as I rose from my chair, I was accosted by Hajji.
“It is strange, sir,” he announced in the voice of one stating a phenomenon of Nature, “that no one will connect murder with drug traffic.”
The remark irritated me unduly. As I have said, the cocaine traffic struck me as being a further complication in an already muddling business.
“I don’t see that it would be much help if they did,” I retorted rather peevishly. “We know that we have a murderer on board; we think that we have a cocaine smuggler—but it seems as easy to locate one as the other.”
Hajji smiled benignly.
“But I have located him, sir,” he said.
I stared at him for a moment without understanding.
“Good Lord—the murderer?” I ejaculated at last.
“No, sir, the drug-smuggler.”
Again I gaped at him without speaking and his smile became even more benevolent.
“You will come down to well-deck, please?” he said, and turning, led the way.
I followed him in a kind of dream. Down on the well-deck we came upon a rather sullen-looking Lascar, and Hajji took me straight up to him.
“This is one man, sir, whom I have converted from the abomination of idolatry and devil worship. He can tell you of the drug-smuggler. Kindly interrogate.”
I took a good look at the man. He was wearing ordinary lascar kit and his face was sullen and suspicious. His skin was almost coal-black and his features pronouncedly negroid; I judged him to be a native of the West Coast, probably from the Canara district. I knew the breed well, for I had spent a certain amount of time in the hot, heavy, palm-fringed jungles of the coast and seen much of the people. A strange, stalwart, hybrid race, fishermen and sailors for the most part with the salt of the sea in their veins.
“What is your name?” I asked, digging in my memory for the necessary Canarese words. It was a bow at a venture, for I could not be certain of his district, but it answered. The sullen look disappeared from his face and he smiled as he replied. I will not try to transcribe the curious guttural sound which he produced by way of a name.
“And now let us hear about the smuggling,” I suggested.
He told the story with a swiftness and fluency which rather taxed my rusty Canarese, but I gathered the gist of it well enough. He had known nothing of the matter, save that when he was at home his boat had been commissioned by a rich man—a landholder—to carry certain goods. The goods had seemed surprisingly small in comparison with the price paid, but he had gathered that the extra money was for secrecy. The precautions and instructions had been complicated and bewildering. He had come to sense, vaguely, a large organisation, but its purpose eluded him. On his voyages he had never been given any commission or work to do for the people who employed his boat, but on this voyage he had been given to understand there would be among the passengers one who might have work for him to do. He must be prepared.
“And who told you this?” I asked.
He mentioned a long name—obviously one of his own country—and explained that the man was a neighbour of his whom he had met in Marseilles, just off a ship.
“And did he tell you the name of the passenger?”
“No, but he gave me a picture by which I might know him.”
I felt my heart beating fast.
“You have it?” I demanded.
For answer he fished in the recesses of his clothes bringing out a small square of cardboard which he handed to me.
I stared at it for a moment in blank amazement. It was a photo of Rama Rao.
After the first shock my mind began to work and it seemed to me that I could see a few details falling into place. Hajji made a few pithy comments, but I told him that I wanted to think things out and escaped to my cabin. That seemed the only place where I could count on being free from interruption, but I regretted that it was so hot—it clogged my thinking apparatus. I sat down on the bunk and endeavoured to arrange events in their proper order.
Firstly, there was the staggering fact that Rama, the idealist, the self-sacrificing worker for the uplifting of his people, was also the drug trafficker, scheming to bring ruin and degradation into a hundred homes for the sake of gain. Now there was no doubting the man’s sincerity and enthusiasm for the cause which he had taken up—it did not rest merely on my personal impressions of him, for he was quite well-known in India. He was a genuine idealist and enthusiast, and, on the face of it, the thing seemed impossible. Yet I did not find it so. For one born and bred in the Christian civilisation of the West, it is doubtless impossible for genuine idealism to run side by side with such strange obliquity of moral vision. We may, Heaven knows, be guilty of any crime, meanness or cruelty, but we are not likely to consider it in the light of virtue. And the same is probably true of Mahommedans, for with them too, Personality reigns at the heart of things. Right and wrong are matters of “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not” imposed by a Personal Power to Whom all are accountable.
It is not a matter of faith but of atmosphere in which a man who has renounced or reversed every tenet of the creed in which he was reared, still lives and moves. But in the Eastern cults, where the impersonality of an inexorable law reigns at the core of things and the individual is accountable to no one higher than himself the atmosphere is changed. Right and wrong are but relative terms—different manifestations of the working of the same inexorable law—and over all the deadening fatalism of Karma sheds its blight. A Hindu will not kill one of his animals for fear of incurring the guilt of ancestor murder on his own soul, but that the animals are starved and ill-treated is no affair of his—it is their Karma.
And once again, as Rama himself had said, it is a matter of atmosphere from which escape is all but impossible. He himself had revolted; his imagination fired by what he saw, he flung himself passionately into the work of reform, striving to assuage the sufferings of the people. But, intellectually, his revolt had been only negative. Impersonality had still reigned at the core of his philosophy, and the atmosphere, the habit of thought, had proved too strong for him. In regions where his imagination was not touched by actual sights, it had reasserted itself. The inhabitants of an obscure Mahommedan State were no affair of his. They must work out their Karma. And the fact that side by side with his work for uplift he was scheming to bring even worse degradation into as many homes did not trouble him. He needed the money for his work.
No, odd though it might seem, I did not find the two things irreconcilable. It was all apiece with the man's complex psychology, and moreover it bore out Ruth's account of him. I felt that for the first time we had made a step forward. Up till now we had been floundering aimlessly, or so it seemed to me, with suspicion swinging from one side to another and back again, without ever establishing a definite bias in any one direction. Now surely with this new and unexpected element introduced we ought to be able to make progress in some way or another. I decided that I would try and clarify my ideas by setting down on paper all we had thought or discovered prior to hearing of the drug-smuggling development, then would introduce that element with the purpose of seeing what difference it made and how it fitted in with the other factors of the case. I took a clean sheet of paper from a writing block and at the top I wrote:
Then I drew a line neatly down the centre of the page so as to divide it into columns and after adding a further caption “Reasons for Suspicion,” I headed the two columns “For” and “Against.” I began with John, as he was, after all, still under official suspicion of having confessed to the murder, and after about ten minutes work I produced the following :
I felt rather pleased with the result of my method. John’s chart seemed to work out very satisfactorily, and the reasons against suspecting him seemed quite definitely to outweigh those for doing so. I decided that I would try Ruth next.
I looked at the document frowningly. It was not nearly so satisfactory as John’s had been. In fact, I had to admit that I did not like the look of it at all. For my own part I was fully prepared to acquit Ruth of any connection with the crime, but I was quite aware that my chief reason for doing so was a private conviction that she had told me the truth. She might be an actress, but not a good enough one to have acted so perfectly on a made-up part. She did not appear to have the brains to have invented it, even if she had the necessary talent to act it. But though I might be satisfied of her truthfulness some more concrete facts were needed if she was to be cleared of suspicion. Things did not look at all rosy, and I especially disliked the items relating to the weapon.
I decided that next I would make out Hajji’s balance-sheet.
I confess that I was surprised as I read through the document when I had put down all I considered had any bearing on the case. Mary had been right—considered from the point of view of his mentality, it was very difficult to connect Hajji with the murder.
I made out two more balance sheets, one for an Unknown from the boat-deck, which did not amount to much since it had nothing in it except a few possible motives identical with those I had ascribed to Hajji, and one for my friend the night-steward. It ran as follows :
It did not seem very helpful.
I gathered the documents together and reread them carefully, but the results seemed disappointingly indefinite. It was—as I had said to Mary—wherever there was a plausible motive there seemed to be an insuperable difficulty in the way, and one could not suspect a man who had no shadow of motive merely because one disliked his manner. It remained now to be seen how the matter of the cocaine traffic fitted into the general scheme of things.
At first sight I must confess that it was disappointing. When Lawrence had outlined his absurd theory to me a variation of it had occurred to my mind. Might not the murderer be the drug-smuggler whom Rama had unmasked and threatened with exposure? The idea had seemed promising, but it had obviously been put out of court by the discovery that Rama himself was the cocaine smuggler. There remained now, it seemed to me, two alternatives. Rama might have been killed :
It seemed to me that (a) was the most promising theory. The murderer might then be some zealot—perhaps a native of the State which was suffering through the traffic—who, having seen the havoc that was being done, had conceived a fanatical hatred of the instigator of the smuggling. There might quite well be some such person up on the boat-deck and I determined that I would shortly pay a visit there. Then I sat up suddenly struck by an idea. What if Rama had gone up to the boat-deck that night after we had seen him pass out of sight? It seemed a new and possible, even a probable solution of his movements. Yes, decidedly I must go up and make a few inquiries.
I turned to a contemplation of theory (b), intending to spend very little time on it, but there flashed into my mind a recollection of the conversation which the wind had blown through my porthole on the third evening of the voyage. For the first time it occurred to me to connect it with the cocaine smuggling. On that supposition, the man was presumably Rama Rao, who had just been identified by a new woman helper. And the woman? She might, for all I could say, be anyone on the boat with the exception of Ruth Her voice had been quite unidentifiable. I did not see that the facts advanced me very much, but at least they suggested a possible new avenue of investigation.
I had got so far in my theorising when I became aware that the engines had stopped, and I got up and went out on deck, for I knew what it portended. The passengers were grouped close to the rail. I saw Ruth standing apart in a space which had obviously been left for her. She was leaning on Mary's arm and her face was a dead-white mask. Her eyes seemed to hold something of bewilderment, in so far as they showed any expression at all. Mathers was standing near to the spot where I took my place. He too looked pale, and there was, I noticed, side by side with the genuine feeling in his face, something of embarrassment—as though he were not quite sure what his emotions should be on such an occasion. The poop-deck was crowded with Indians, stewards and Lascars for the most part.
The stopping of the engines had made a silence which was almost uncanny, and in that silence, with none of his faith or kin to wish him Godspeed, the body of Rama Rao was committed to the deep. . . .
I had never seen a burial at sea before. I had always felt that for my own part I should like to lie beneath the waves rather than in the hard, heavy earth, but I do not think that I have ever experienced a more crushing sense of coldness and loneliness than pressed upon me as I watched the small—pitifully small—package enclosed in sailcloth vanish under the waters. Flecker's lines rushed into my mind :
West of these out to seas colder than the Hebrides I must go
Where the fleet of stars is anchored and the young Star-Captains glow.
I was grateful as I turned away for the faith—that ingrained, intimate faith in a Personality—which, whatever else we may lose or throw away, seems to cleave to us who are of the West. An inexorable Law, weighing the misery of the degraded homes against the feeble happiness of those that had been helped, and recking nothing of the agonised groping of the chained and blinded spirit, might have found but little balance on the credit side.
As soon as tea was over I wandered down the alley-way past Ruth's and Rama's cabin to investigate the matter of the second stairway. I found it easily enough and measured the distance between it and the cabin with my eye, but on the way back I saw something which brought me up sharp. This was the opening, rather bigger than a good-sized door, giving on to the sea, where the gangway rested when the ship was in port. There was a chain across it to guard any unwary person from stepping overboard, but there was ample room for a body to pass above the chain, and it seemed unlikely that anyone anxious to dispose of a corpse would, even in a moment of stress, walk past the place, up the stairs, along the deck and into the lounge before laying down their burden. On the whole, I decided we might write down the idea that Rama was murdered in his own cabin as definitely out of court.
I went next to the boat-deck, and seeking out my old friend Lal Mahommed, proceeded to make conversation with him and several others on a variety of subjects for the best part of an hour. But I drew blank. At the end of the time I was satisfied that Rama Rao had not been seen on the boat-deck on the evening of his death, nor indeed at any time. Moreover, it seemed obvious that, if he had been killed there, every man, woman and child must have been party to it—there was no privacy on the boat-deck. Then the further question arose—if that were the case, why not pitch the body overboard? Why court disaster by carrying it down to the lounge? The thing simply did not make sense whichever way you looked at it.
I spent the remainder of the time until dinner writing up an enlarged and detailed edition of my diary. Mary's remarks on the importance of the psychological factor had given me the idea. I have an accurate memory, and a power of visualising and reliving any incident, however trivial, and I felt that with the pegs supplied by the diary I could produce a pretty full account of these first days of the voyage. I sedulously shut the present out of my mind and endeavoured to reproduce the past only as it had appeared to me at the time. It is this document which forms the first eight chapters of the present narrative, and I hope that this will serve as both explanation and apology for the painstaking detail in which every triviality is described. I was not out to look for significant or relevant incidents, but to recapture the atmosphere of those days, to record everything both relevant and irrelevant, in the hope that something illuminating might emerge. There is only one thing to be said in favour of the method—in the unlikely event of this story having any readers they will be placed in exactly the same position that I myself stood at the time of the murder.
After dinner that night Evelyn took me up into the fo'c'sle. It was a hot, clammy night when the faint breeze of the ship's movement seemed to hang, heavy with moisture on lips and eyelids, and the sluggish heave of the waters might have been the breathing of a vast giant, gasping for air. A dissipated-looking waning moon cast a pallid, unearthly pathway of molten silver from the ship to the horizon.
It seemed that Evelyn wished to discuss the murder. She had a theory that Rama had been a lover of the Hajji’s wife. She had lent him the burqa in order to facilitate their meetings, and the Hajji, discovering things, had taken action. It was certainly an ingenious idea, but its probability did not impress me greatly. It set me thinking though of the time when I had seen the Hajji’s wife—or some one I took to be her—and she had cowered away from me. Was it really she? I told Evelyn as much as I deemed wise of the drug traffic, and of the vague theories in my mind concerning its connection with the murder, then avoiding, I fear, an attempt to give the conversation a personal turn, suggested going back to deck. I retired early to my cabin and sat up till after one o’clock writing up the narrative from my diary.
I woke early after quite a tolerable night which had not, as I had half expected, been haunted by dreams of conflicting theories and unaccountable corpses. I switched on the light and taking the document which I had written overnight from the table I set myself to read it. I must confess that I was disappointed. I had felt whilst I wrote it that my memory was serving me well, that I had completely recaptured the perspective and atmosphere of the days before the murder and that I had been unwittingly doing good work when I had followed out my invariable habit of studying my neighbours. But as I reread the thing the devastating triviality of it appalled me.
I felt that I had overstepped the mark in my effort to shut the present out of my mind—I had lived so completely in the past whilst writing that nothing but incidents interesting to me for personal reasons had emerged, and nothing in the least bit significant had come to light. And further, I felt rather piqued at the lack of any genuine or useful observations on the characters of the people involved. Hitherto I had rather fancied myself as a shrewd judge of my fellow-beings and prided myself that little escaped me in the matter of assessing their motives and feelings. Yet what had I really noticed but a bundle of characteristics and superficialities? When it came to asking whether any one of them was capable of murder I was dumb. Moreover, the intense ordinariness of the gathering depressed me. The first night of the voyage I had been impressed with the incongruity of the threads which Fate had assembled together, but that had been before the glamour of strangeness had worn off.
Looking at them now it seemed to me that no more commonplace gathering of people for a voyage in the dead season could be imagined. There were a few men returning like myself from leave whom I had had no occasion to mention in the document; there were one or two like Mrs. Marshall whom one could meet by the dozen in any Indian station; there was Celia Marshall, surely an average, typical girl straight from school if ever there was one, and there was Mathers and Co., a parson travelling for his health, accompanied by an invalid lady and her daughter, both from his parish. Could there be a more ordinary, and, if the truth be told, dull gathering? Certainly there was Hajji—he could not be called ordinary; neither for the matter of that could Ruth and Rama, but I had already thrashed out, or so I believed, all there was to be said about them—I had hoped to find illumination in some new direction. Even more than the ordinariness of the cast, the commonplace nature of the incidents in the drama depressed me. Save for the matter of the drug traffic and the anonymous letters, I could not imagine anything more like the average daily happenings of an average voyage. True, I reminded myself, the farcical incident of the silk stockings had proved important enough to give us some unpleasant times over the letters, and the almost equally absurd incident of my unintentional ventriloquism could have saved me many anxious speculations if only I had seen its implications. One could not wash out any incident merely because it seemed trivial. But what possible clue could one hope to extract from accounts of Evelyn’s Theosophical leanings, or Mrs. Marshall’s religious prejudices? Church politics may lead to many strange and bitter things, but hardly to the murder of a stray Hindu. I wished that I could show the document to Mary, but this, I realised, was just what I could not do. The personal element had crept in to too great an extent.
We were due for another pow-wow in the Captain’s cabin at ten o’clock, and going up on deck after breakfast I encountered Sir Aubrey, very red in the face and apparently seething with some fierce inward emotion. It took me some minutes to diagnose the cause of his unrest, but then I tumbled to it. It had just dawned on him that there had been conferences and investigations in connection with the murder at which his advice had not been solicited, nor his presence requested, and he was the largest shareholder in the Indropean Company. In fact, I gathered that he was the Indropean Company—anyway, in his own opinion. I felt rather sorry for the kindly, vulgar little man who probably for the first time in his life had come up against values not based on £ s. d. There is, I suppose, hardly any authority more absolute, hardly any discipline more ancient than that of sea-going men. On shore, Sir Aubrey might be the Largest Shareholder and the Captain but a servant of the Company. But at sea Sir Aubrey was a passenger and the Captain commanded the ship. It must have been a trying experience.
I went up and saw the Captain on the matter and he shrugged his shoulders resignedly.
“I suppose he’ll have to come, but it’s a darned nuisance,” he said. “He’s no good except for money-making—probably he’ll suggest trying to find the murderer by cutting everybody’s pay. Anyway, it’s goodbye to making any progress at the conference.”
His prophecy proved only too true. I had several matters in my mind which I had hoped to get thrashed out, but from the first Sir Aubrey took fussy command of the show and my brain refused to function. His line appeared to be that murders do not take place on “efficiently run” ships; the Company had made a special point of their ships being run “efficiently,” yet a murder had taken place. Therefore the Company’s wishes had not been carried out, and Sir Aubrey wanted to know who was responsible. Further, he wished to know what account the Captain could give of his crew—were they all the best men obtainable?
The Captain’s reply was patient, but perhaps not quite what was expected.
“We have a most efficient crew, Sir Aubrey, and a darned efficient murderer, too, by the look of it.”
At this point I did succeed in interpolating a question regarding my friend the night-steward, and after some delay got a fairly complete dossier from the First Officer.
The man’s name was Burton, and the engineer that I had noticed was his twin brother—they always shipped together. They were good men at their work and, though truculent, popular with the men. They were somewhat difficult to deal with—quick to be on the defensive and to suspect slights. This had been somewhat more pronounced since an unfortunate episode two or three years ago, when one of them—the engineer—had been tried for manslaughter. He had been acquitted, but the affair seemed to have tended to make them more aggressive and sullen. They were apt to suspect and resent allusions to the matter on very small provocation.
I began to see daylight. The steward had heard of the murder—probably from the saloon steward—and had read a sinister significance into my enquiry regarding his brother.
Sir Aubrey demanded to know why a man with a slur upon his character—for it amounted to that—had been employed. The Company wished to have only the best sailors obtainable. He spoke of them rather as he might have referred to a line in cloth or groceries. The Captain sighed slightly as he replied: “I can’t say why they have both been employed, Sir Aubrey, but they are efficient”—it seemed that the word was emphasised slightly—“men at their job. Probably if there had been less stress laid on efficiency they would not have been taken on, but there is no doubting that they are both, and especially the engineer, top-notchers at their work. If you send round to an agency for an ‘efficient’ typist, they send you one with high certificates for speed and accuracy. They don’t bother whether she is kind to her mother and keeps a home for stray cats. Perhaps it was the same here. For myself, I could have done with a shade less efficiency in their work and a few other qualities that are useful in shipboard life. There’s no denying they are difficult men to handle and they are apt to be stormy petrels among the men.”
I am afraid that I did not quite follow the long speech that Sir Aubrey made after this. So far as I could gather his idea seemed to be that the murderer must necessarily be one of the crew, and the motive robbery, and that therefore it was absolutely essential to institute a strict enquiry into the alibis of every man among the crew, and that he, Sir Aubrey, should conduct that enquiry. In the end the Captain agreed. For myself it struck me as not over wise, but I suppose that the Largest Shareholder must be allowed his say.
I came down from the conference feeling irritated and disgruntled. Except for the information regarding the Burton twins it seemed to me that we had got no forrarder. As I reached the lower deck once more I encountered Mary, and she rather surprised me by asking if I thought it would be possible for her to examine the burqa in which the corpse had been found. I could not imagine why she should want to do so, but I obtained permission to take the garment away with me and carried it down to her in her cabin. We examined it, sitting side by side on the bunk. It was the ordinary make of thing, or so I judged, though I confess that I have never before examined one closely. There seemed nothing to distinguish it, barring the fact that it was, as Hajji had pointed out, machine made, and that it was bloodstained down one side. Mary, however, did not seem interested in the stains. She had turned the voluminous garment inside out, and was examining it minutely, inch by inch.
“What on earth are you looking for?” I demanded. “You’ll see in a minute,” she retorted.
She had paused with her head bent eagerly over some white smudges she had found, and after a moment she exclaimed, excitedly “Alan—look here!”
I looked over her shoulder. At first I could see no sense in the white hieroglyphics, but as Mary’s finger traced round their design their significance burst upon me. They were the stamp of a shop, and, what was more, the name was of a well-known emporium in Port Said!
“Great Scott!” I ejaculated, feebly. My brain refused to grapple with the problem of how far this affected matters.
Mary nodded her head slowly. She seemed to be following out some private train of thought.
“Yes,” she said meditatively, “the burqa was bought in Port Said.”
“But what does that mean, exactly?” I asked.
She opened her mouth to reply, then stopped and laid her finger on her lips as a shadow passed across the porthole. I looked up quickly, but was not in time to see to whom it belonged. After all, though it was only a passer-by. I did not see why Mary should be so secretive.
“Do you think,” I asked her, still striving to grope after the significance of this new fact, “that this means that the murder was premeditated?”
She shook her head.
“It may do,” she said, slowly, “but I can’t believe that it does. Everything seems to point to it being unpremeditated. Don’t you think so?”
I agreed. I had, in fact, come to that conclusion myself.
“But then,” I objected, “if the murder was not premeditated, why should they want a burqa at all? Or perhaps the drug-smuggler . . .”
Mary made a sudden gesture.
“Alan!” she exclaimed. “Don’t waste your time over the drug-smuggling. It is a false scent, I am sure. It has nothing to do with the murder. I am certain of it—I wish I were less so. . . .”
I was surprised, not only at what she said, but at her unusual earnestness.
“I don’t see,” I began. Then a sudden thought struck me. “Mary!” I exclaimed, “when you asked me to examine the burqa, did you expect to find this?”
She did not reply at once. She was looking, I noticed, curiously white and worried.
“I think so . . .” she said, at last. “At least I thought it just possible. Oh”—on a sudden impulse, as though she could not help herself, she stood up—“it’s stifling in here—let’s get out into the breeze, Alan.”
I did not speak, either as we left the cabin or when we had taken up our stand leaning against the for’ard rail in the breeze which had freshened considerably since the day before. It seemed to me that Mary was wrought up to a nervous tension over something that I could not understand, and that if I kept quiet she might confide in me. Indeed I think that that is just what would have happened but for one of those tiny, irritating accidents which can so change the course of events.
She had remained silent a long time, then, as though her mind was made up, turned to me abruptly.
“Alan . . .” she began, but it was at that moment that the accident occurred. She had been fiddling with her handkerchief, and, as she turned, the wind jerked it out of her hand and blew it along the deck. We both started in pursuit. The handkerchief fetched up eventually by Mrs. Crandon’s chair, and Meta mechanically put out her hand and arrested its flight. Then, as she handed it back, I saw a look of surprise flit over her face.
“Is it yours, Mrs. Stanbrook?” she asked, as though involuntarily.
“Yes, it’s mine,” said Mary. Her voice sounded oddly constrained, and I looked at her in surprise. But as my eye fell on the handkerchief I saw the cause of both her embarrassment and Meta’s surprise. It was marked, as Mary’s things had always been, I remembered, with her full name, and the name was Mary Grant, not Stanbrook. I felt rather elated for the moment, but it soon passed, for I saw that the tiny incident had upset the atmosphere and that Mary’s impulse to confide in me had passed. As we turned away she excused herself saying that she must go and see Ruth.
I stayed on deck for a while chatting to Meta Crandon then I went to my cabin to replenish my stock of cigarettes. On the floor a letter was lying. I picked it up with a feeling of sick apprehension and opened it. It was of a piece with the rest of them—written in a vulgar, sprawling hand, but its contents were more explicit than usual.
If you want to kno whos smuggling cocaine, it ran, look in Mrs. Stanbrook’s cabin, furst dror left-hand corner.
I sat down on the bunk to think things over. My chief sensation was one of furious indignation, but at the back of my mind I felt numb and sick. Supposing, just supposing, that it was true? Against my will, half a hundred tiny, damning details forced their way into my mind. Mary’s obvious mental preoccupation and worry; the impression I had had that she had been about to confide in me (why in Heaven had she not done so?); her emphatic statement that the drug-smuggling had nothing to do with the murder; the mystery of her apparent affluence; the parcel which she had had sent to her by air post at Port Said; and, last of all, with a sudden stab of recollection, I remembered that when I left the deck on the evening that I heard the conversation through my porthole Mary had been strolling round with Rama Rao.
For perhaps ten minutes I sat trying miserably to quell the fear which had taken possession of me, then with sudden resolution I got up. Whatever happened, I must make sure—I would go and see for myself.
I do not intend dwelling on the next few incidents—there are some moments in life which one does not care to remember. I shall describe them as briefly as possible. Mary, I knew, was down below with Ruth, and her cabin was therefore empty. I went along, and, opening the top drawer, looked where I had been bidden. I drew out a small packet, which, on being opened, proved without doubt to contain cocaine. It was a very small package, but it might, obviously, have been contained in the parcel which I saw her retrieve at the Post Office in Port Said, with other things wrapped round it to disguise it. I do not know what my feelings were precisely, but the chief one was a desire to get rid of the thing as soon as possible. I went out of the cabin and straight up into the f’c’sle and somehow I contrived to drop it overboard, though, as I did so, I felt more guilty than any murderer. It seemed to me that every eye on the bridge, on the decks and in the saloon was fixed on me, wondering what it was that I had thrown into the waves. Well, anyway, it was gone. . . .
I still felt numb and sick, utterly unable to face anyone, and I went straight back to my cabin. As I entered it I stared in amazement, wondering if my eyes were playing me a trick, for another letter was lying on the floor. I picked it up, and slit it open wondering what this sudden renewed feverish activity on the part of the anonymous one portended. But the contents at first puzzled rather than enlightened me. The letter was exactly as the first lot of the series had been. It made the same insinuations regarding the drug-smuggling, and suggested that the parcel which Mrs. Stanbrook collected at Port Said was not as innocent as it seemed. But it did not suggest that I should look in her cabin, far less indicate any particular spot that might repay a search, and I was badly puzzled. Like everything else that had been happening lately it simply did not seem to make sense. Why should anyone—even an abnormal mentality—first write making a definite accusation, giving the exact spot in which the cocaine could be found, then, a short time later write making vague insinuations on the same subject? It seemed nonsensical, unless . . .
A thought struck me and I pulled the first letter from my pocket where I had thrust it. I spread it out beside the second one and treated both to a searching examination. The one which I had just received was written, as all the first of the series had been, I remembered, on plain white paper. The first that I had received that morning was written on the ship’s stationery, taken probably from the lounge. Another thing struck me. Though the writing and language throughout had been, like the ideas, excessively vulgar, there had been no ill-spelt words. The first letter of the morning was unique in that respect, and unique, too, that its language was on the whole ordinary. It looked to me as I perused it carefully once again as though the writer had made a clumsy attempt to make the letter appear the work of an uneducated person—clumsy, because it was obviously silly to write “kno whos” and then spell cocaine and smuggling correctly. The longer I looked, the more convinced I became that the two letters had been written by separate people. What did that mean exactly? And—another idea came to me—how many people had been treated to them? I got up and, by way of testing this, went the round of the seven deck-cabins, knocking at each door, and, on receiving no answer (the occupants were all on deck), opening the door and looking inside. There was not a letter in any one of them. I went back to my own cabin once more and sat down to think it out. It looked very much as though I were the only person favoured with a letter, for it was unlikely that all the other occupants had happened to visit their cabins within the last quarter of an hour, and so retrieve the letters.
But why had I been singled out? And why had two people both simultaneously accused Mary of being the drug-smuggler today? Why, also, had they chosen to make the accusation anonymously? A further question occurred to me and it brought with it a ray of comfort. Why had Mary, having presumably received the cocaine in a well-camouflaged parcel, taken it out of it and hidden it in a place where any stewardess or steward tidying up her cabin would be likely to find it? Was there, I wondered, a conspiracy afoot, and had the letters by some mischance reached me in inverse order? I could not make head or tail of it, but I came to one decision—I would go straight to Mary herself and see what she thought of the matter. After all, she was the person mainly concerned.
I got to my feet with the intention of going to her at once, but at that moment there was a knock at my door. It was the young Third Officer, and he looked agitated.
“Mr. Grant?” he exclaimed, and I noticed that he panted slightly as he spoke. “Will you please go up to the Captain's cabin?”
I went up hurriedly. There was something in the young man’s manner which had vaguely alarmed me. When I arrived I found the atmosphere somewhat electrical. The Captain, the First and Second Officers were all present and with them was Sir Aubrey, rather purple and apoplectic.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, as no one seemed inclined to be the first to enlighten me. As I spoke I became aware that the curious silence that I had noticed as I came into the cabin was not due solely to the fact that no one had been speaking—there was a further cause. The engines seemed to have stopped, or, at the most they were running very slowly; I could just catch the heavy, slow throb of them.
The Captain explained.
“A good deal is wrong, Mr. Grant,” he said. “There is a strike on among the European stewards and engine-room hands.”
He nodded gravely.
“A strike,” he repeated, “and, mind you, I use that word because it is a prettier one than mutiny. But I’m not trying to disguise from you that the men are in a very ugly mood.”
“But what is their grievance?”
The Captain shrugged his shoulders. It seemed to me that there was just a spice of malice in his voice as he answered:
“They have taken offence at the enquiry which Sir Aubrey insisted on my holding into their movements on the night of the murder.”
The millionaire broke in rather hectoringly.
“The thing is perfectly absurd,” he exclaimed, “and I may say, Captain, that I consider that you do not keep a firm enough hand over your men. Whenever there are strikes, or trouble of that nature, it always means that the men have been pampered. At the moment nothing is needed but to speak to them straight—make it quite clear to them that they will gain nothing by this behaviour. On the contrary, they will most certainly lose, for I shall see to it that they are dismissed and that no single man who has been on strike is ever again taken on on any of the Company’s ships. Tell them that—-it will bring them to their senses. What do they expect to gain by this conduct?”
Once again the Captain shrugged his shoulders.
“There are times when people aren’t swayed by thoughts of what they are going to get out of it, Sir Aubrey,” he said, “and this is one of them. They’ve got no grievance on the score of pay or work—and that’s just what makes it so darned difficult to deal with. They haven’t stated any terms, no doubt they will in time, but at the moment the only terms they are likely to suggest is that we find the murderer! That fellow Burton’s at the bottom of it, of course—he’s got the lot of them under his thumb, and worked them up into the mood he’s in himself, and that’s nothing very pretty, I may tell you. Ever seen a savage dog that’s been baited and goes into a corner with its teeth bared ready to spring at the first person that comes? That’s what they’re like now and that’s why I’m not taking any risks in what I say to them. Strike is a prettier word than mutiny any day.”
Sir Aubrey became a deeper shade of puce as he endeavoured to express his feelings.
“But the thing is monstrous,” he spluttered. “You actually say—you expect me to believe—that one man can have all that influence on the others? That he can get them to such an insane state of mind! What is their idea? They can’t suppose we suspect them all of murder—there’s no sense in their behaviour.”
The Captain scratched his chin thoughtfully.
“There are queer traits in human nature,” he said slowly, as though he found his thoughts rather difficult to express. “Maybe you don’t realise that fully till you’ve been at sea, and maybe nowhere but aboard-ship would this be able to happen. The atmosphere isn’t normal here—we’re a tiny world on our own and we have a different perspective. Trifles perhaps are exaggerated. Then you’ve got to remember that sailors are a superstitious lot even nowadays. This has been an ill-starred voyage right from the start and the men don’t like it. There have been things happening, letters and such like, that they couldn’t understand. They’ve got the old feeling of a Jonah somewhere on the ship. It may be that Burton was afraid they’d cast him for the part of Jonah, knowing his story, if he wasn’t careful, so he got going in good time, and now they’re under his thumb.”
Sir Aubrey seemed in danger of becoming incoherent.
“The thing is monstrous, absurd!” he fumed. “it is no good talking to me.” It struck me that we had all realised that some time ago, but perhaps not quite in the way he meant. “A thing like this never happens where the authorities are competent to do their work Why don’t you arrest both the Burtons?”
“Because that would put the lid on it,” said the Captain, drily.
“Then what do you propose doing? When are we due in Aden?”
“We were due tomorrow at dawn.”
It took quite some moments for the millionaire to take in the significance of this. When he did it seemed to deprive him momentarily of his flow of language, and he merely demanded—“You have wirelessed for help, of course?”
“I intend doing so . . .” the Captain began, but at that moment there was a peremptory knock at the door. He opened it himself. I did not hear what the person outside said, but there was both urgency and agitation in the voice. The Captain slipped out of the cabin quickly, shutting the door behind him, but he did not say where he was going and we were left to an uncomfortable silence. Sir Aubrey indeed made yet another speech expressive of his opinion on the affair, but I fear I paid him scant attention. The other two remained silent, as they had throughout the interview. The First stared out of the porthole, but there was nothing of interest to be seen. The strikers were, I gathered, congregated for the most part on the well-deck for’ard and in the fo’c’sle, but they were not visible from the cabin.
It was about ten minutes before the Captain returned, and when he did so his face told us that something was badly amiss.
“Gentlemen, I’m sorry,” he said, and his voice sounded shaken, “but there has been an untoward occurrence. The Marconi installation has been wrecked.”
The exclamation came from four pairs of lips. The Captain made a little gesture, almost, it seemed, of apology.
“It must have happened about an hour ago,” he said. “At that time though the strike had begun it was not, of course, known to people in general. One of the operators was in the wireless cabin, taking messages, when a steward—it was Burton—entered, bearing a sheet of paper on a tray. The operator, suspecting nothing, and merely supposing that the man had been sent up with a message for transmission from one of the passengers, signed to him to wait and went on with his task. He suspected nothing until a pad of cotton soaked in chloroform was pressed over his face and he felt himself held in a grip like a vice. As you know, the Burtons are a hefty couple and an ordinary man has little chance against them, even without the additional handicaps of being taken unawares and having to struggle against chloroform. The operator lost consciousness and knew nothing more until his colleague went into the cabin a short time ago and found him gagged, bound and unconscious, and the apparatus scientifically wrecked. He has just recovered consciousness.”
“Good Lord!” I exclaimed rather feebly, they mean business!”
Sir Aubrey ejected the word “Preposterous” in something the way a pea-shooter projects its missile. I began to wonder if the little man’s complexion would ever return to the normal.
“Oh yes,” the Captain agreed, “they mean business all right. The Burtons are the kind that usually do.”
“But what on earth is their object?” I exclaimed in exasperation. “They can’t hope to keep the ship at sea indefinitely, yet if they have no terms, and no grievance of any adjustable kind, what is the point of it all?”
It was the First Officer that answered me.
“I think I understand that part of it,” he said. “It seems that in the case when Burton was tried there was a possibility of some one—a Lord Somebody-or-Other, I think, being the real culprit. Burton, who is a Socialist by upbringing and a Bolshie by nature, got it firmly fixed in his head that he was deliberately made the scapegoat, and, what is more, that the thing was a plot—I mean that the lord, or whoever he was, got his friends to swear falsely to exonerate him and implicate Burton. Of course, the thing’s a fable, but with Burton it has become an obsession. Hence his reaction to the present crisis. He is convinced, and he has unfortunately—-for he is a something of an orator in his own rough way—succeeded in convincing the others that the same thing is happening again. That we all know that the murderer is one of ourselves, and that we are going to foist it on to one of them. That is the idea at the root of their behaviour, and I gather they think that they can intimidate us into giving up the murderer. If they go on long enough one or the other of us will give him up, that is the idea. It’s a crazy sort of thing, of course, and once Burton’s influence wanes the men will see that for themselves, but you know the queer power some fellows can get over the minds of others—it’s almost hypnotic. I doubt if they’ve any of them stopped to think it out—they’re just determined that they won’t let the ship go into port until they can be quite certain there’s no dirty work afoot. That is the gist of the idea.”
“Good Lord!” I ejaculated again. “And is Burton quite sane?”
The Officer shrugged his shoulders.
“The doctor described it as an idée fixe,” he said.
“There’s one thing,” the Captain said, after a slight pause, “they’re not really out for blood, any one of them—except, perhaps, Burton in his more fiery moments. They want to avoid any upheaval just so long as they can ensure that we aren’t playing any tricks on the ‘defenceless poor’ and taking their characters away. They’ve done in the Marconi so that we shall not be able to communicate either with a port or with another ship. And similarly they have intimated that they will not allow any signal to be made if we pass a ship—if we attempt it there will be trouble, but failing that I think that they are inclined for a policy of masterly inaction.”
It sounded rather cold comfort.
“And meantime is there nothing that we can do?” I asked.
“I’ve been thinking,” said the Captain. He had listened to the First Officer’s account of the case obviously as one who had heard the facts but is still wondering what to do. Now he spoke as though his mind were made up.
“We were due in Aden at dawn tomorrow,” he began. “At the moment we are keeping up just enough steam to stand against the currents—our progress is negligible. We can’t make Aden at the scheduled time, that’s clear, but, if we could get the boat going, we might make Perim, just at, or preferably just before, dawn. Now it’s quite clear that the men will realise that Perim is a danger spot and they will be standing ready for us to make any attempt to get help there. But if we sail straight past Perim I guess they’ll relax their vigilance a bit and think that it’s all safe till Aden. You see, they’ll perhaps be able to calculate roughly what progress we’re making but not with any accuracy. That means that they’ll have to keep watch all night. Once we’re past they’ll relax and then we get her head round and beat it back to Perim for all we’re worth. We’ve got a certain amount of ammunition and guns on board, but, unfortunately, not much. We can’t afford to take ’em on just in the open sea—they could wear us out and then, when our bullets were done, take over the ship. They’re very much in the majority. But we could, and will have enough to hold them up whilst a boat gets off for Perim, or at least an S.O.S. signal is sent out. After that, I hope they’ll see sense. That’s my plan, gentlemen—can any of you think of a better?”
We couldn’t. The whole thing seemed fantastic and incredible. Such things do not happen nowadays. And yet—one knows that they are not impossible, and given a half-crazy man with an idée fixe and possessing that curious power granted to some of swaying others to their own way of thinking the thing became not so fantastic. Just exactly how the men expected to get away with it, as the saying goes, in the end, I could not think. Possibly the First Officer was right when he said they had not stopped to think it out; possibly, too, Burton, backed by his brother, was quite capable of outlining some ingenious and fine-sounding scheme that would catch their fancy. The twins had shown themselves to be men of resource.
“I gather,” I said, turning to the Captain, “that it is a case of passengers into the engine-room.”
He smiled ruefully.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to ask you to do that,” he said. “You’ll be able to have some of the boat-deck passengers to help you, of course, but we need some intelligent people capable of supervising things.”
“Let us be glad that we are not living in the bad old days of coal,” I answered lightly.
All the same, I prefer not to think of the rest of that day. The interior of an oil boat may be paradise compared to that of a coal boat, but there are few places I wouldn’t sooner choose to spend the hottest part of a day in the Red Sea. Our work was not so strenuous for we had the Indians from the boat-deck to help us and they worked with a will, not minding the heat, which was the chief cause of our sufferings. I drew some comfort from the sight of Sir Aubrey struggling with a huge, oily spanner, his silk shirt black and oozing heat at every thread. Lawrence through it all worked with a will and good humour. He appeared to be the type of man admirable in every way except in their regard for women.
I began to sympathise more with the strikers as I sweated through the interminable hours Working, day after day, and night after night, in that inferno of heat and noise, in shifts that seemed to contain double their number of rightful hours, with a half-crazed but forceful personality muttering his black thoughts and insinuations in your ears, it would be very easy to get a distorted idea of the facts. Late in the afternoon when, after what seemed an eternity, I came up into the outer air once more, I began to see a little further into the psychology of the situation. My chief need on first emerging was a drink, and, there being no steward to procure me one, I wandered into the saloon myself to see what I could get—I felt too weary to climb the stairs to the lounge. I found a small Goanese steward presiding among the bottles and from him obtained an outside size in lemon squashes. Then, still too tired to go any farther, I wandered to a table under the for’ard portholes and sat down to consume it. The portholes gave immediately on to the well-deck where most of the strikers were congregated, and, though the shutters had been prudently put up halfway, the breeze, as on a former occasion, blew the sounds through to me. I heard a husky, raucous voice which, though I could not see the speaker, I felt sure belonged to Burton, speaking in the tone of one haranguing an audience.
“The . . . swine. Not a stroke of work—that’s wot I says, not while there’s this dirty plot goin’ on. That’s wot it is a . . . plot. But we’ll show ’em we mean business. We carnt be trampled on for ever by their . . . feet. If they don’t give in then we’ll take it into our own ’ands. I arsk you, mates—is there any doubt oo’ killed ’im? Why don’t they give ’er up, that’s wot I want to know. ’Er and ’er . . . lover. Just because a ruddy little ’arlot does in ’er nigger ’usband every honest man on board’s under suspicion. ‘Where was you at the time of the murder,’ eh? We’ll show ’em we’re wise to their . . . tricks. . . .”
I began to see daylight. Burton was, after all, not so unbalanced as I had at first supposed. He had not called a strike on some indefinite, abstract idea—he had worked out a definite and plausible theory of the murder—the one which most readily occurred to everyone—and had decided on the culprit, or culprits. Probably the day before the fact of John’s being detained in custody had been sufficient to reassure him, but perhaps the facts that the imprisonment was obviously made as comfortable as possible and that suspicions were pointing in a different way had leaked out. Then, Sir Aubrey’s injudicious enquiry of the morning had confirmed his fears. If we already had someone who had confessed to the murder why all this suspicion? It was a plot—we were out to shield Ruth and her lover and throw the blame on the downtrodden underdogs once again. That, I gathered roughly, had been his reasoning, and the terms he intended to dictate, if it came to terms, were that Ruth and John should be handed over to them to be in turn handed over to the police at Aden.
Of course if those really were to be their terms it seemed to me that something might be arranged. There was John, who had already confessed to the murder, and failing the discovery of the real culprit, would inevitably be handed over at Aden. If we could convince them of that . . . But a second’s thought showed the flaw in my reasoning. Naturally that line had already been tried by the Captain, and the tone of Burton’s voice was enough to show that they would not be content with anything reasonable. They had made up their minds that Ruth was the guilty one, and they would demand that she should be handed over to them completely. I did not myself think that Ruth had anything to fear from the police—but the idea of her being given into the hands of men of the Burton stamp, more especially in their present mood, was unthinkable. Besides, even apart from that, convinced, as I myself was, and I thought the Captain agreed with me, of her innocence, we could not subject the girl to such an ordeal. It seemed to me that there might be some possible modification of the Captain’s plan, but I could not quite see where and how. Burton was not likely to appreciate psychological niceties such as the unlikelihood of a murderer passing an open place with the corpse in his arms, as telling in Ruth’s favour. He, if not the others, was out for blood.
I finished my drink and went on upstairs. My next most pressing need was a bath as cool as, and longer than, the drink.
As I reached the top of the companion I encountered Hajji swelling like a turkey-cock with rage and righteous wrath. As he caught sight of me he burst into a flood of vernacular eloquence—apparently his feelings were too intense to find expression in English.
I was so tired that I fear I did not take in the whole of his meaning, though I gathered the reason for his anger. It had been suggested that Rama Rao was his wife’s lover—the honour of his house had been assailed.
More than that—it was suspected that he, Hajji, was the man who had killed the Hindu and, as a climax of outrage, on going to his cabin he had found that it had been searched. Men had penetrated into the sanctity of his harem—it was this that should bring down the vengeance of the true believers upon the infidels. . . .
He passed on, still seething with righteous indignation, and I went to my bath. It was silly of me, perhaps, not to take his full meaning, but I was feeling mentally and physically dead beat. The whole affair had got beyond me—it was too complicated for my inexpert brain to cope with. I thought I detected in Hajji’s words something more of the elephantine spoor of the millionaire, and I did not feel inclined to interfere in order to save Sir Aubrey from humiliation.
I lay soaking luxuriously in my bath, letting the water draw the ache out of my limbs, but all the time my brain was busy revolving round the mystery of the murder. I did not feel over pleased with myself in the rôle of detective. Yesterday when I had made out the balance sheets it had seemed to me that I had taken several steps towards the solution of the mystery, but today I seemed further away than ever. To my own satisfaction I had eliminated both John and Ruth, and I was more than a little inclined to think that Hajji might also be counted out from among the possible suspects, but I greatly doubted whether my reasons in any one of the cases would have held good with an expert. Moreover, even with them eliminated, I did not seem to have advanced much. I had an idea that I had read in some classic of detective fiction that once all the doubtful theories were disposed of, whatever remained, however unlikely it seemed must be the solution. But I should be afraid to say that I had completely exhausted all possible theories and that there could not be any that had not occurred to me. In the present case I found myself left with Burton and an Unknown from the boat-deck as the sole survivors of my suspects. Certainly Burton’s behaviour and record both lent colour to the idea of his guilt, but whenever one endeavoured to connect either him or his brother with the crime one was brought up against a bewildering lack of motive. Why in heaven should they want to kill Rama Rao? Behind all my thoughts the whole time throbbed the sickening questions—-why was the cocaine in Mary’s drawer? Who had written those letters? Was it a plot? Why? . . .
It was while I was dressing in my cabin once more that I became aware of strange activity overhead. There was shouting, stamping, and a persistent rhythmic chanting, with, every now and again, the menacing beat of a tom-tom. I did not like it—I had heard the beginnings of a riot once. . . .
Hastily I scrambled into my clothes and went out of the cabin. As I reached the door there came the sounds of shots, of English voices issuing crisp commands, and of feet running overhead.
Outside I encountered a rush of people being hurriedly shepherded into the lounge from the deck by an agitated young officer. I tried to get out, but he headed me back, inexorably.
“No passengers allowed on deck, Mr. Grant—sorry,” he exclaimed. He looked white and flustered and he spoke as though he had been running.
“What is it?” I asked. His hands were already busy with the catches of the heavy iron door, preparing to swing it to.
“That Indian man,” he answered. “He’s roused his co-religionists to a sort of holy war. They’re out for blood. For God’s sake keep the women inside.”
“What—Hajji—here, let me come out! Perhaps I can do something with him. Anyway, I can talk to him.”
He shook his head. The door was free of its catches now, ready to be slammed.
“Sorry, Mr. Grant. No passengers allowed on deck.”
“Yes, but I say . . .”
“Sorry, Mr. Grant—we’ve got our orders.”
The door slammed and I’m afraid I swore. It was maddening to be penned in when one felt that one -might be of some use. To be sure, if Hajji had really succeeded in rousing them in a “holy war” there was not much to be done. One cannot stem the tide of fanaticism when it is on the rise. But still it seemed that some one with a knowledge of the Oriental temperament might be of use on the bridge. However—doubtless if there was anything for me to do they would send for me.
The noise overhead was deafening now—stamping of feet, shots, shouting, and through it all that chant and the throbbing of the tom-toms. In the lounge itself things seemed pretty well in confusion. Mrs. Marshall and two or three other women were grouped together in one corner, whispering and casting alarmed glances at the ceiling when the noise became more pronounced. Celia was standing in the midst of a group of young men talking excitedly, and Sir Aubrey seemed to be almost everywhere. I could not see Mary, but Evelyn seized me by the arm as I turned away from the door.
“Alan, what has happened—I can’t bear it!” she exclaimed. “What do they mean by ordering us in here like that? And what’s that noise overhead? I shall go mad—I shall go mad. . . .”
“Steady, steady,” I said. Her voice had broken hysterically. “They ordered us in here for safety, Evelyn, and we’ve got to keep cool.”
“But what is the meaning of it all? Things like this have no right to happen on a ship of this kind.”
“I’m afraid that doesn’t affect matters,” I said drily. “They’ve happened and we’ve got to cope with them.”
“But what has happened? Oh . . she gave a scream as there came a bump and the sound of a shot overhead. “I can’t bear it . . .”
I saw that it was hopeless to tell her the real facts of the case. She had never been of the strong, courageous stamp, and could not be trusted to keep her nerve in a crisis. But I wondered just exactly what I could tell her. The actual facts were far from pleasant. I found myself wondering how long the ammunition would hold out. The Captain had said they carried very little and I did not care to think of what might happen if they did not succeed in quelling the disturbance before the cartridges gave out. It is not easy to stop fanatics either—the ammunition would have had more power against the strikers. The Indians were probably out for martyrdom and a stray bullet or two would not stop them. No, things were decidedly not pleasant—but what was I to say to Evelyn?
Fortunately, the question was solved for me. At that moment the noise swelled suddenly louder and nearer. We could hear naked feet running on the deck outside and realised that the fighting had reached our own quarters. Several of the men automatically moved over to the doors as though to guard them against an onslaught, but it was unnecessary as they had of course been automatically locked from the bridge and it would have taken more than a handful of unarmed fanatics to hack their way through those sheets of iron.
It was Mathers who first guessed what had happened. He had been silent up till now, standing near Mrs. Crandon’s chair, but now he came over to me.
“I believe the Indians are fighting with the strikers, he said. “I’ve been listening carefully, and I swear that I heard the sounds of fighting coming from the well-deck. It may be they who are fighting outside now.”
The words were encouraging. If the strikers were indeed grappling with the foe, fighting on our side then things were not so hopeless. I wished to heaven they had allowed us men to go up on the bridge it seemed senseless cooping us up in the lounge.
Mathers made a further suggestion.
“Couldn’t we see over the top of the shutters?” he said.
The shutters over the ports had been closed all day, since the strike began, as a precautionary measure, and now the glass had also been slammed to. Only the air coolers, incessantly pumping outside air into the room, kept the air tolerable. I nodded to Mathers and we cautiously lowered one of the wooden shutters a few inches and peered over the top. We could not see much, but I saw enough to raise my spirits. Outside on the deck I caught sight of no less a person than one of the Burtons—I was not sure which—and as my eye lighted on him I saw his fist go out and meet a Mahommedan straight on the jaw, sending him sprawling on the deck. If things went on that way we could be quite hopeful. I could guess what had happened. The Moslem contingent, roused by Hajji’s inflammatory eloquence, had swarmed down from the boat-deck thirsting for infidel blood and martyrdom. To them mere niceties of “sides” did not matter—any infidel was good enough. They had fallen foul of one of the strikers and after that, doubtless, the fun had begun. It looked as though we might yet be in the position of honest men when less reputable members of society have a difference of opinion.
I turned back to Evelyn. She had screamed and hidden her head in a cushion when the sound of the fighting had come close, but she raised it now.
“There’s nothing to be unduly alarmed about,” I said, with a perhaps exaggerated optimism. “The strikers and the Indians on the boat-deck have come to blows over something—probably it will all settle down soon.”
It seemed as good an explanation of the general situation as any, and it was not strictly untruthful.
As I turned away from addressing Evelyn I became aware that Mary had entered the lounge. She had come up the stairs, and I guessed when the trouble began she had been either in the pantry or the kitchen, getting tea ready in the absence of any stewards to do the work. She still wore the apron she had donned for the task. She came straight over to me.
“Is that true, Alan?” she asked in a low voice.
She was perfectly calm, but deadly pale, and there was a look in her eyes that I could not fathom. Fear seemed to express it best, but it was not a fear that had been inspired by the situation. Perhaps “dread” or “horror” came nearer the mark.
I nodded in answer to her question.
“Substantially,” I said. There was no fear of Mary going into hysterics, and I felt that I would rather tell her the whole truth.
“They really are fighting now—and it may be our salvation, but that isn’t the cause of the trouble.”
“What is the cause?” she asked. She still kept her voice low and it was perfectly steady. And why did the men strike? I haven’t fathomed that yet.”
I pulled her down on to a seat, for she looked deadly tired, and as briefly as I could I told her the stories.
“You mean,” she exclaimed, when I had finished “that in both cases it is the murder that is the cause? That if we could find the real murderer this might be settled?”
“It might,” I begun, then stopped, thunderstruck, for Mary had raised her eyes to mine, and the horror in them froze my blood.
“Alan, Alan!” she cried, and her voice, though she did not raise it, was anguished. “I must go to the Captain. I must tell him about it. Oh, I ought to have gone before, but I hadn’t the courage. I must go—I must get up to the bridge somehow. . . .”
“Mary, you can’t!” I exclaimed, aghast not only at what she said, but even more at her manner in saying it. “Don’t you see, the doors are locked? There is no way up to the bridge. . . .”
“There must be!” she exclaimed, and I noticed that she twisted her hands together in anguish as she spoke. “There must be . . . yes, of course—don’t you remember?—the door down near the saloon that leads into the engine-rooms. I can get up through there. . . .”
With a sudden dart she was half across the lounge before I realised what she was doing.
“Mary!” I exclaimed urgently. I leapt up to follow her, but in the stress of the moment I caught my foot in the wheel of Mrs. Crandon’s beastly chair and nearly measured my length on the floor. Mary was already halfway down the stairs by the time I recovered my balance.
“What is it?” cried Meta, catching at my arm.
“What has happened, Mr. Grant? Where has Mrs. Stanbrook gone?”
Evidently the nameless terror clutching at my heart had been communicated to her, for her face was white and startled.
“God knows,” I answered.
I leapt down the stairs three at a time. I was conscious of only one hope—that the door Mary had thought of would prove to be locked. But when I reached it it was wide open, swinging on its hinge and Mary was already out of sight.
I pray that few people may know in their lives the mental agony that was mine as I followed through the hot, noisy hell of the engine-room, slipping on the greasy plates, coming at last to the breakneck perpendicular metal ladders where the railings burnt my hands, and my feet could scarcely cling to the slippery rungs. I saw Mary vanishing at the top just as I reached the foot and Everest by comparison would have seemed a puny climb to that endless height of steps as I panted upwards. Heaven knows what I hoped to accomplish—I was conscious of only one thought: Mary was my wife; whatever story she had to tell, whatever ordeal she had to face, my place was beside her. . . .
The door at the top was shut when I reached it, but I battered upon it till it opened and the scared face of the young Third Officer looked in at me.
“You can’t come here, Mr. Grant,” he began, but I pushed past him.
“Which way did she go?” I demanded.
“You can’t,” he said again, but at that moment there came a cry that froze the very blood in my veins.
“Man overboard; man overboard. . . .”
I was aware of a sudden silence on the ship. The noise of the fighting stopped as though a mighty hand had come down on it. The horror and the tragedy of that cry had pierced even the heated brains of the fighters, and I was dimly conscious that figures were crowding to the sides, ship’s officers, strikers, Indians, all together, their feud momentarily forgotten. There came a great blast from the funnel, and a young officer raced past me.
“We’ll never get to her in time,” I heard him cry. “One man and a boy in the engine-room and the ship all anyhow. . . .”
Then for the first time I realised that I could see, far out on that blinding, blazing expanse of blue, a tiny black dot. . . .
I have never fainted in my life, but I think as I stood there I was all but in a trance. I seemed to have no relation to anything that went on about me. My whole being was concentrated on that tiny black dot which I seemed to see down a long tunnel of blackness. There was nothing else; the ship, the people were invisible to me. There was only that single tiny black dot, the long tunnel and at its other end, myself. Through my mind throbbed only one thought. They cannot reach her in time. . . .
Somehow I knew that a boat had got away, though I could not see it. Dimly I heard some one near by say:
“They’ll do it—they’re making good way.”
The tiny black dot vanished for a moment, but it reappeared again at the end of the long tunnel.
Then suddenly I heard another voice, close behind me it seemed. A quiet voice, but which pierced through my trance and jerked me awake.
“I doubt if they're in time,” it said. “But perhaps it is as well.”
I turned with a start and, through the mists, still at the end of that long black tunnel, faint and distant, I saw Mary's face. Mary! She was standing beside me, her eyes fixed as mine had been on that tiny black dot. I put out my hand blindly, half expecting to encounter empty air, but I found instead an arm, slim and fragile, but perfectly tangible.
“Mary!” I gasped. “Mary! But how . . . then who?. . .”
Mary glanced up at me for a moment, then she returned her eyes to the sea.
“They’ve got her,” she exclaimed, “but I doubt if they are really in time.”
I, too, looked back at the sea. The black tunnel had gone and I could see. My mind was a blank of bewilderment, and I was aware that my limbs were shaking with sudden weakness. I saw the boat far out on the waves; I saw them fitting something limp and dark into it. I saw them start back towards the ship.
The Captain had come out and was standing behind Mary. His face was very grave and white. The silence still prevailed, and all along the ship strikers and Indians stood without speaking, all gazing at the returning boat. My nerves and bewilderment got the better of me, and I stammered an incoherent question.
“But, Mary, who—was it an accident, then?
Mary looked up at me but she did not speak, and it was the Captain who answered my question.
“Not an accident, I fear,” he said gravely. “I hardly knew what to believe when first Mrs. Stanbrook came up to me, but I am afraid this clinches it.”
“What do you mean?” I exclaimed.
“I fear we have found the person who killed Rama Rao,” he answered.
Slowly the boat was hauled up the ship’s side. A man was bending over the prostrate form, applying artificial respiration, and not till it was laid out on the deck did I see the face.
Then I started back with a cry.
“My God—Meta Crandon!”
She was alive, but only just. We got her away swiftly into the Captain's cabin, for there were signs of returning animation among the combatants on deck. Mary and the doctor stayed with her, and as I left I heard them send for Mathers. My brain was still in a whirl of bewilderment, but I had no time to think, for as we left the cabin the Captain seized me by the arm.
“Get on to those Indians, Mr. Grant,” he exclaimed. “Talk to them in their own lingo. Make them see reason. We’ve got to take advantage of this lull. I’ll tackle the other boys.”
He leapt among them as he spoke and I, following instructions, made for the Moslems. We were none too soon. Both sides had drawn apart and were standing grouped on the deck eyeing each other sullenly. For the moment the interest and the tragedy of what they had seen held their minds, but it was only a matter of minutes before some bold spirit on one side or the other would strike the first blow of renewed hostilities. Once that happened it would be too late for us to do anything.
I caught sight of my old friend Lal Mahommed and, in the absence of Hajji, he struck me as the best person to tackle. I heard the Captain’s voice upraised, haranguing the others, and I hoped that he would be inspired with the right words to use. A single glance had shown me that mine would be the easier task of the two. The fire had gone out from the Moslem fanaticism, and they looked for the most part as if they were wondering what it was all about.
“What fool’s work is this, Lal Mahommed?” I asked genially. “And since when do the Sons of the Prophet fight for the chatter of women?”
He looked at me and a half-doubtful grin spread over his face. It struck me that he for one would not be sorry to have an honourable excuse given him for calling off the fight.
“No chatter of women, Sahib,” he answered, “but the word of the Hajji Sahib has called us out against the Infidels who have offered grievous insult to the True Believers.”
“It is strange,” I said quietly, “that one so wise as the Hajji Sahib should have been misled, for in truth there has been nothing in this but the chatter of idle women. But where is the Hajji Sahib?”
Hajji indeed was conspicuous by his absence and had been, I shrewdly guessed, since the fighting had begun. I was quite aware that the shot would tell with the men in their present mood. They looked about half ashamedly and there were discontented mutterings, but none tried to bluster or defend him.
“It is said, Sahib,” another man standing nearby broke in, “that a Son of the Prophet is unjustly accused of killing the idolator.”
“Then it is said falsely,” I retorted, “for it is believed that Rama Rao died by the hand of a woman, and that woman, too, is known.”
They remained silent for a moment apparently thinking it over. Then yet another man spoke.
“It is said, Sahib, that the honour of the Lord Hajji’s house has been attacked.”
“I have heard the tale,” I replied carelessly. “It was told me by a woman. The same doubtless who searched the Hajji Sahib’s cabin.” After all it was quite likely that Evelyn had searched the cabin. Then I smiled suddenly.
“Said I not truly that this is a tale of women and their mischief? Since when do the Sons of the Prophet make war for such things?”
I took out my cigarette-case, selected one, then carelessly offered the case to Lal Mahommed. Just for a second he hesitated, then with a faint salaam he took one and I felt that the victory was mine. I passed round the case to be emptied by the others. They talked then, and seemed, not unnaturally, perturbed at what would be the result of the business. But I reassured them. There had been no deaths fortunately, though there were several minor casualties, and, in view of the strike, and the fact that they fought the strikers, I felt that the matter could be adjusted. For myself I felt strongly that we had all been under some queer kind of spell—the atmosphere had been abnormal and the perspective distorted, and now for the first time I felt sane and rational again.
In spite of that, the Captain was obviously not having too easy a task of it with the strikers. All through my own conversation with the Mahommedans I had heard his voice ringing out stridently, haranguing the men, striving to make them see reason. To them, as yet, of course, the episode of Meta Crandon was no more than an irrelevant accident and the Captain was not sure enough of his facts to contradict the impression. But in spite of that it seemed to me that many of the men would have been only too glad to call off the strike and get back to normality again. They had had a fight; they had worked off their feelings, and for them too the spell seemed broken. Only the Burton twins would not give in. Time and again, as the Captain got a shot home that seemed to carry weight with the majority, they would growl out some surly comment which would send the pendulum swinging back once more.
What would eventually have happened I do not know but a diversion occurred. I had been subconsciously aware, for some minutes, of a curious, acrid smell, but with my mind wholly focussed on the scene in front of me had failed to pay it any attention. It was a cry from Lal Mahommed which first aroused me.
”Aré bhain, dekko. Sahib, dekko,” he cried suddenly.
I turned startled, and looked in the direction he pointed. Then I saw the reason for the acrid smell—flames were issuing from the deck cabin where the Indians had their lodging.
The Captain saw them as soon as I did. He paused for a moment, arrested in the middle of a word, scratching his chin in perplexity. Then he called out a crisp order.
“All hands to the hose and buckets—and stand by for a shipwreck, boys; it’s the only thing that hasn’t happened yet on this darned voyage!”
Strangely, I think it was the last remark that turned the scale. The younger Burton was standing near him at the time and I saw a slow smile overspread his face. For a moment he hesitated, then with a kind of whoop he turned to the others.
“Three cheers for the Old Man—come on mates: all ’ands to the ’ose and buckets.”
They followed him as sheep follow a shepherd.
The flames still continued to mount, and the bell was ringing the fire signal agitatedly. As if by magic long canvas hoses began to wind their snaky lengths about the ship. Two were playing on the flames almost before we had realised that the strikers were at work once more. Others were squirting water over the deck, the woodwork—every point of danger was being soused in a flood of protecting liquid. The passengers came up in groups, all wearing their lifebelts, some looking alarmed, some appearing merely bewildered. I did not blame them—the events of the day had been varied enough to bewilder the most phlegmatic. I saw Ruth come up amongst the last group. She was wearing an apron like Mary had done and I guessed that she too had been helping in the work of the kitchen or pantry. She looked tired, but the distraction had, I thought, been good for her, for the look of frozen horror had gone from her face—she looked normal once again. John came out from his “cell” as he had called it jokingly to me the day before, and I saw her eyes fight up as she caught sight of him. He was wearing his lifebelt as we all were by this time, but I did not think that his release was due solely to the fire. He went straight up to Ruth, apparently seeing no one else, and took both her hands in his. I was conscious of a slightly choky feeling in my throat as I turned away. They had been through rather deep waters, those two young things, and I hoped life would make amends to them. Mrs. Crandon’s chair was carried up by two stewards, and Mary followed in attendance upon the invalid. I wondered just how we were to tell her of her daughter’s accident. Meta herself was not brought out, neither did Mathers appear. It was not really necessary, for though we all dutifully lined up in our appointed places beneath the boats, it had been apparent for some time that the fire was but a small affair. The flames were already well under control. The cause of it, I learnt later, had been that illicit tin of methylated spirit that I had seen among Lal’s things the day I first visited him. In an access of scrupulosity and zeal, in the first enthusiasm of the “holy war,” he had emptied the tin, allowing the contents to soak over the floor, and the stub of one of the cigarettes, which I had passed round as a substitute for a peace pipe, flung by a careless hand, had done the rest.
Hajji was the last to appear on deck. He had been, one presumes, getting his “household” safely under way, and it was not till the flames had all but subsided that he appeared, very hot and flustered, his arms burdened with an enormous stamp album. How it happened I do not know, but his floating muslin nether draperies contrived to appropriate a stray spark and in a few moments flames were curling about his legs. It would have been a mere nothing if Hajji had kept calm, but at the sight of the first spiral of smoke he proceeded to execute a curious kind of dance, with a surprising agility for his size and build, leaping and capering along the deck to the accompaniment of loud whoops not unlike Highland battle yells. The sight was so irresistibly comic that we were most of us almost incapable of going to his assistance and in the end it was Ruth and Celia Marshall who coped with the situation, whacking and beating out the flames with two spare lifebelts that they had caught up. They worked with such a will that Hajji’s yelps began to have a more concrete cause than mere terror. For myself I was almost hysterical by the end of the episode, and even Ruth was laughing as she had not done for many weeks. Life is a strange thing. It had treated us to horrors and tragedies enough that day and it seemed almost needlessly cynical to finish up with this wild touch of farce. But perhaps we all needed a little of the medicine of mirth. . . .
Meta Crandon died that night of shock and exhaustion. Before the end she made a formal confession of the crime in the presence of both the Captain and Mathers. The latter was with her to the last and she died quietly and peacefully in her sleep. We buried her before dawn. I went out when I heard the engines stopping, for Mathers had warned me of what was happening. It was a smaller gathering than there had been for the funeral of Rama Rao—only Mary, the Captain, and myself, a group of sailors, and Mathers, vested in cassock and surplice.
The waning moon was making a cold metallic pathway across the dark waters, but close beneath the ship’s side they looked black and terribly deep. I shivered in spite of the warm mugginess of the air. Mathers’ voice sounded unnaturally loud and resonant as it rolled out across the deathly stillness, and the power of the splendid words seemed to bring comfort. . . .
He spoke to me as we passed back to our cabins:
“Thank God she is in His hands, and He—perhaps only He—can understand.”
It was much what I had felt in regard to Rama Rao.
It was not until the following afternoon, when Aden was just appearing, faint and fairylike over the horizon, that I succeeded in getting hold of Mary for an explanation. My mind was still bewildered, and I had made several attempts to waylay her, but she had been in attendance on Mrs. Crandon most of the time. About three o’clock, however, she emerged on deck and I went straight up to her.
“Come up into the fo’c’sle,” I commanded. “I’ve got to talk to you. I’ve no doubt that to the normal, average intelligence the whole thing is as clear as crystal and I ought by rights to be saying ‘what a fool I have been,’ but candidly I’m completely fogged. If I don’t get a lucid explanation soon I shall burst.”
Mary laughed, but she made no demur and in the course of a few minutes we settled ourselves comfortably in a spot sheltered from the wind which had sprung up since we rounded the corner of Arabia. I had taken the precaution of providing two extra-long lemon squashes and a full cigarette-case.
“Now,” I commanded once again, “begin right at the beginning, please. I am quite aware that in the classics of detective fiction it is always the kindly person devoted to dogs and children who turns out to be the murderer, but in real life I find it rather upsetting.”
Mary smiled as she pulled at the straws of her lemon squash.
“It’s all quite simple really,” she said, “only, as I believe I once remarked, we are full of conscious and unconscious prejudices. Everyone was prepared to suspect Ruth, not only because she had a motive and seemed to have had the opportunity, but also because she painted her face, had been on the stage, married an Indian, and seemed keen on enjoying life. Similarly everyone naturally assumed Meta Crandon to be a ‘saint’ because she dressed dowdily, came from a quiet country village, knew nothing of the world, and pushed an invalid’s chair. But it isn’t either circumstances or environment that make us saints, Alan—only the dispositions that we bring to them. And there is another thing—we are always inclined to associate anything violently dramatic with a varied and exciting life; we forget that human nature is just the same everywhere. It’s not the size of things that matters, but the amount of room they manage to take up in one’s life. After all, if you’d never had anything but a candle you’d be just as much in the dark when it went out as if it had been an arc lamp.”
“All of which,” I remarked drily, “is doubtless very apposite, and ought to be improving, but I am a trifle in the dark myself at the moment. Can’t you pretend for a short time that you are talking to a child of seven who has always been thought mildly mental?”
“All right,” she said, “I’ll start from the beginning. I’ve been listening to Mrs. Crandon talking for about five hours and I think I’ve got the whole picture fitted together now. (The old lady, by the way, is perfectly wonderful. She doesn’t seem to have felt the blow much; I suppose she isn’t capable of feeling anything very deeply in her state of health, poor soul. Of course she believes that it was an accident.) But to go on: the Crandon family five at Rivendown. I’ve never been there but I know exactly what it is like—a kind of bandbox on a branch line where every little scratch and squeak makes the noise of a howitzer. The kind of place that numbers about a score of families among the ‘upper ten,’ and if any member of any one of them sneezes suddenly it sets the remainder whispering and wondering for over a week as to where they can have been to catch the cold. The Crandons were the kind of class that has lost its money but kept its traditions. That is to say they are always too poor to keep up with their social and too proud to mix with their financial equals. There are thousands of families like that in England today, living in places like Rivendown and spending what little substance they have on the upkeep of a dead and gone Victorian convention of caste. All night,” she added hurriedly, catching sight of my expression, “I really am getting on with the story quicker than you think. Meta was the eldest of three girls; there were no brothers—somehow that kind of family always runs to girls. She was some years older than her sisters who were close together in age and that may have given her something of the feeling of being odd man out.
“Anyway, even from a child, she was always the ‘difficult’ one of the family. Always moody and uncertain, fancying slights, and sulking for days at a time. She was dreamy too—seeming to live in a world of her own, quite out of contact with that around her. I suppose, really, poor soul, she had an abnormally sensitive, and perhaps something of an artistic temperament. If she had been wisely handled she might have gone far in the world, but as it was, her family gave in before her moods for peace sake. She was never taught to conquer her sensitiveness nor to discipline her dreaminess. As a result, the former led to what nowadays would probably be called an inferiority complex, and her dreams, I am nearly sure (you understand, Alan, I am inferring all this from Mrs. Crandon’s flow of reminiscences) took the form of heroic adventures with herself always in the central part. If she had been sent to a modern school it would have been different, but they all three got what little education they could from an old-fashioned governess that they shared with another family of girls.
Meta hated lessons and everything to do with schoolroom life; her one ambition was to grow up and be freed from its restraint. Yet, when she did get her liberty there was no way in which she could exercise it except by putting on her best clothes and walking down town in the morning, and perhaps once or twice a week going out to tea where a gathering of women, all much older than herself, talked scandal. There isn’t anything else for girls like the Crandons to do in a place like Rivendown. Of course it’s unnecessary to remark that the interest of the place centred mainly in the churches—there were three Church of England ones, all of different grades, besides, of course, the chapels and fancy-religion tabernacles. Meta was the only unreligious member of the Crandon family and consequently she lacked even that much outlet for her social longings and ambitions. Churchgoing had nothing but boredom for her in those days, and not a few of the bitter quarrels in the home arose in the first place from her scathing and sarcastic comments on religion.
“That was in the days before the war. Her sisters, Millicent and Kathleen, had their eighteenth and seventeenth birthdays in 1914, and in the September of that year, Kathleen, who was the go-ahead one of the family, announced her intention of becoming a nurse. Mrs. Crandon was shocked at the idea, but she gave in—that seems to have been her usual method—and Kathleen duly went off for her training. Millicent didn’t leave home, chiefly, I think, because Mrs. Crandon was then in failing health and she felt she ought to be there to look after her—no one in the family ever expected Meta to fulfil any responsible or irksome task. Meta herself did not take up any regular war-work—she seemed to share her mother’s attitude towards it and consider it not quite ladylike—but she used to go and arrange flowers for the wards in the local hospital. Even in that mild occupation though, her super-sensitiveness made it almost impossible to work with her, and there were continual feuds with all her fellow-workers. Millicent, though she did not leave home, contrived to cycle over most nights of the week to work at a canteen some miles away, and in Rivendown itself she attended about four different working parties. She was popular everywhere she went.
“Well, the time went on. In the autumn of ’17 Mrs. Crandon had the stroke which left her as she is now—not ill enough to need skilled or trained attention, but requiring constant care. Millicent had to cut out her working parties to look after her, and Meta developed a grouse—why did not Kathleen come back from France and look after her mother? She was the nurse of the family, what did she mean by leaving them to do it? Actually, I gather Meta did very little of it. It was about this time that Mathers came to Rivendown. He came first as curate and afterwards succeeded to the living. Meta did not know of his coming until Millicent, who was the pious one of the family, and used to cycle in to early service most mornings, told her. She met him a few days afterwards when she was out pushing her mother’s wheeled chair. I think, though I’m not certain, that there had been a row that morning when Millicent had suggested her taking her turn at the task.
“Anyway, when Mathers met them and was introduced to Meta, he said a few words on the subject of how pleasant it was to meet, in these hectic modern times, young girls who stopped at home and did their duty, cared for the invalid and all such like things—this was not the day of devoted daughters or filial piety. Meta was startled. No one had ever adorned her head with a halo before. She liked the feel of it; she began to preen herself on it and to cultivate it assiduously. After that she was always to be seen wheeling her mother’s chair up and down the hilly road of Rivendown. She took to speaking in sweetly patient tones of Kathleen, who was a nurse but absorbed by her work in France and the distractions to be had there. She began to attend services at the church and in a short time developed a kind of fever of churchgoing which left Millicent far behind. But whereas Millicent went out of a simple faith and spiritual fervour, Meta’s attendance had only one object—to cultivate the spurious halo to the end that its unusual luminosity might catch the eye of Mathers. Of the reality of religion she scarcely knew anything, but every tiny detail of its externalities came to have a supreme importance for her. A slip, a hesitation on the part of Mathers over so much as a word while he read the service assumed almost the dignity of an episode. She developed, too, a sensuous delight in the mere sound of the sonorous language as it rolled off his tongue, and an emotional response to the music of the familiar hymns. She used to talk of these things at home in a way that edified her mother and sister, but puzzled them too, for they knew only too well that in spite of her ‘conversion’ Meta was no sweeter tempered or more ready to help than she had ever been.
“Then the war ended and people began to come back to Rivendown. Kathleen did not return but other girls did, and among them Rosalie Hendron, the daughter of Mathers’ former Rector—Mathers had succeeded to the living by then. Rosalie came back only to stay with friends, but her stay was prolonged and there were rumours that her father intended to settle in Rivendown now that he had retired from active life. Rosalie was a charming girl, she and Mathers seemed to get on well together, and people began to whisper that some day she would be residing as mistress of the old Rectory where she had grown up. Then suddenly from the blue, a crop of anonymous letters descended on the parish—vile, obscene things signed ‘The Serpent,’ vilifying almost every girl in the neighbourhood with the exception of Rosalie Hendron. Of the whole lot no one came in for such a gruelling as Meta Crandon. For everyone else there was a ray of mercy, but for her no abuse was too vile, no suggestion too filthy. She bore it all bravely, going her way with a serene smile and a growing halo. Sometimes she would remark to people ‘What a sweet girl Rosalie is. Even the “Serpent” has nothing against her. I wish she liked me better, but somehow I can never make her take to me, I don’t know why.’
“Remarks like that are apt to bear fruit in a seeding ground like Rivendown. People began to whisper and to wonder. Why was Rosalie the only one not attacked? Why had she alone not had a letter sent to her? There were other things, too, of course, tiny little bits of evidence somehow manufactured and indicated, until in the end poor Rosalie left the parish under more than a cloud, and Meta Crandon continued upon her way, the halo larger and brighter than ever.”
“Great Heaven!” I interjected, “do you mean to say she actually wrote the letters against herself, to throw the suspicion on to the other girl?”
Mary nodded gravely.
“I can’t be absolutely sure, of course,” she said, “but it seems pretty certain—the whole thing fits together too completely. That story, when you told it to me, proved the first real clue that put me on the right track. You see, I have lived in tiny places like Rivendown and I know what they’re like. I’ve come across a case of anonymous letter-writing, too, and I know it is quite fairly common for the person to write things against herself. It seemed rather an odd coincidence that the same experience should happen to Mathers twice in such different circumstances, and if it was not coincidence, then there were only two alternatives—either he was writing them about himself, which was obviously absurd, or Meta was the culprit, which did not seem nearly so incredible. The mentality which will run to the writing of anonymous letters is after all not quite a normal one. There must be a kink, a suggestion of warped outlook and distorted perspective, and it was in just this way that Meta impressed me.”
“She did me, too,” I exclaimed with a sudden recollection. “I remember the first time I talked to her I felt positively suffocated, and I think—yes, by Jove, it was that night that I dreamed of the avalanche—it was she who had inspired me with that sense of danger, though I could not locate it at the time. I had been taken in by the halo.”
I told her about my dream then and we discussed the matter for some little time.
“Yes, it’s queer,” she said, “and interesting. I think that subconsciously Meta affected us all in that way—as something abnormal and rather venomous; something that might be dangerous, but we were most of us deceived by the halo and did not follow our thoughts home. But to get on with my story. After Rosalie had gone things ran smoothly for Meta. Not that she was happy—that sort never can be, but at least she was feverishly active. She flung herself into the welter of parochial politics, gossip and intrigue. Again, I don’t know for certain, but I feel convinced that when Mathers goes back he will find that the terrible feuds, heart-burnings and scandals which had been rending his parish will have simmered down and died out. It is an awful thing to have a jealous mischief-maker, with a halo to cultivate, let loose among your flock. About a year ago Millicent married, and Meta engaged a maid to look after Mrs. Crandon, though she still, of course, continued to wheel her chair about in order to keep her halo bright. The news of Mathers’ threatened breakdown and journey must have been a shock but she succeeded in coping with it. It was very easy to engineer the voyage for her mother, for since Kathleen and Millicent had both left the nest the two of them had not been so badly off. Doubtless the poor thing hoped much from the voyage, but from the first it must have been a crushing disappointment.
“The first few days were not exactly rough, but sufficiently choppy to make Mrs. Crandon keep to her cabin, and Meta had now no one on to whom she could shoulder the duty of looking after her—she had to do it herself. When she regained a little liberty it was to find Mathers already settled down into the life on board ship. He was playing quoits with Celia Marshall, walking round the deck with her, lending books to her mother. Of course there was nothing but the most casual of board-ship friendship about it all, but Meta could not see things in that rational light. And there was more in it than mere jealousy, though that was strong enough. It seemed to her that her idol himself had changed. In Rivendown she had, to a large extent, worshipped from afar. Even when she met him it had been chiefly in connection with the choir or some other parochial activity. Over and above such meetings she had known him only as she saw him in church—reading the services in a beautiful but hardly natural voice; in the pulpit, reading his sermons in carefully modulated intonation; presiding among the choirboys or at a church bazaar, where he was the oracle, the demi-god descended among lesser folk. All these mannerisms in him which make us think of him as parsonical, as unhuman, to her made him seem superhuman. And it was just those other qualities which we admire and like, his naturalness sincerity, sense of humour, which filled her with alarm—she had never been close enough to see them before.
“Now it seemed to her that he had become a stranger interested in a hundred things of which she knew nothing. Nay, more than that, I think it seemed to her that he was back-sliding, slipping down from his high spiritual level. She was panic-stricken; tortured by jealousy; crushed with a sense of helplessness, for here on the ship she had none of her familiar channels through which she could ensure news and comments reaching him, and so hope to influence him. I think it must have been as early as Gibraltar that the idea of anonymous letters began to fill her mind. It seemed to her safe enough—it had all been so long ago, that other incident, and there had never been a breath of suspicion attaching to her. She dared not, of course, make herself the victim again—that might have struck him as too odd a coincidence—but she could make the insinuations centre round him. That, it seemed to her, would convince him of the wickedness and shallowness of Celia Marshall (on whom she intended suspicion to fall) and it would surely send him for sympathy to the person who had suffered from a similar persecution. But naturally she did not dare to start while the ship was so empty—she waited until after Marseilles when she knew others were joining.
“There was one thing which put a difficulty in her way—though she wanted to frighten and upset Mathers she did not want to damage his reputation seriously; after all, he was still her idol. She wanted to connect his name with that of some girl, other, of course, than Celia Marshall; she also wanted there to be sufficient grounds for people to believe that Celia herself had been jealous of the girl mentioned in the letters, but she did not want the grounds to be strong enough to do Mathers any permanent harm. The incident of the silk stockings seemed to her just the very thing. We were all a bit puzzled by it, I think, Alan, just because it was so absurd—we could not imagine anyone taking it seriously. But that was the very reason that she chose it. Once I had begun to suspect her I saw the reason for that and it was, I think, the second tiny clue that set me on the right track.
“Well, Meta waited until two days out from Marseilles before springing her mine. She may even have hoped that, once more people came on board, Celia would retire into obscurity and that there would be no need for the letters. But though Celia automatically drifted to companions more of her own age than Mathers, that ‘slipping away’ process still continued. He was still immersed in alien interests, surrounded by strangers. You did not notice her face that day when we were all standing together looking at Stromboli, but I did, and I wondered at the time what had provoked such a bitter expression.
“Of course, her idea was, once having started the letters, to set to work to throw suspicion on Celia Marshall, and she made what she must have thought was a masterly beginning that morning with you, when she told you she had had an impression of someone tall, and pointed out that the person seemed conversant with their ways and had probably come round by sea. The only hitch was that you do not possess the Rivendown mentality, which is the only one for which she could cater.
“Still, though she never quite succeeded in throwing suspicion where she wanted it to fall—she tried Major Lawrence after you—she thought her plan had succeeded in other ways. Mathers, I think from a few things he has let fall since yesterday, began for the first time to suspect her, not only of this, but of the other episode as well. It seemed something of a remarkable coincidence to him that the letters should begin again, and, though he had never suspected her in the Rosalie Hendron incident, he had divined, of course, that a great deal of her halo was sham—there is nothing that shows up more quickly than spurious spirituality. He hardly admitted his suspicions, even to himself, but they made him cautious. He did not want poor Celia to be served as Rosalie had been, and he avoided her. More than that, he kept generally somewhere near Meta and her mother, and at Port Said he offered to accompany them on shore.
“To Meta that was an intoxicating day, one may suppose. She was having her triumph—her plan had succeeded or so it seemed to her. But, more than that, she was beginning to feel a sense of power, and a thrill of excitement in the writing and distributing of the letters. It added a zest to the voyage, which before she started the campaign had been very dull and boring. Now she had an acute interest added to her usual occupation of watching and speculating upon her neighbours’ actions. The slightest movement had a significance for her as she sat on deck watching who spoke to who, and how they looked, and if they seemed likely to be plotting any detective measures. She had got to hear of other things too among them the drug-traffic, though how I can’t say——”
“I can,” I interrupted, for it had dawned on me suddenly.
“Meta had the cabin corresponding to mine on the starboard side, and speaking from personal experience they are prize spots for eavesdropping. Why, I remember that when I first heard of the drug-traffic it was just under those windows that we discussed the matter.”
“I see,” said Mary. “Yes—that would explain how she got to know a lot of things. Well, anyway, she resolved to extend her campaign—she would no longer confine herself to Ruth and her silk stockings. You remember that morning at Simon Artz, I was trying on topis in front of a glass? Suddenly, in the glass, I caught sight of Meta Crandon. She was at the opposite side of the shop, alone, for Mathers and Mrs. Crandon were in the Oriental department, and she was buying notepaper—cheap, white notepaper. Of course it was a trivial thing, and might be quite harmless, but I had already begun to suspect her and it fitted in so horribly. After all, why should she want to buy notepaper in Port Said? She didn’t strike one as a person who wrote such a very great number of letters, and there was the ship’s stationery. There was, too, a vague suggestion, not of furtiveness exactly, but of flurry in her manner. It was as though she was anxious to get her purchase over before there was any chance of her companions joining her.
“I was worried. I could not bring myself to tell my suspicions to anyone—they seemed to be founded on such very slender grounds—and yet I felt all the time that I ought to do something. I shouldn’t have worried about the letters very much—they were so obviously farcical—if they had attacked anyone but Ruth, but with Rama’s peculiar temperament I felt nervous. However, I’m sorry to say, I funked it—the evidence seemed so very feeble for making a serious insinuation like that against anyone.
“Well, after that, Meta must have persuaded Mathers to take her mother back to the ship whilst she herself went on shopping, and it was then that she bought the burqa. She had probably seen it in a shop displayed in the hope that some one would buy it for a fancy dress, and the idea had come to her that it would greatly facilitate her in her campaign—she could wear it whilst distributing her letters and feel more secure.”
“I remember,” I said, “that she caught us up as we reached the gangway and that her arms were full of parcels. One of them was fairly bulky. And I remember too, your seeing something which startled you in Simon Artz, but I never thought of the glass.”
“Yes,” she said, “we saw that much, but, unfortunately for her, there was one person who had seen her buy the burqa—that was Rama Rao. He had happened to stroll past the shop whilst she was inside. Of course at the time it would mean nothing to beyond the fact that she was buying a fancy dress, but that night Meta started her campaign, you remember, by distributing letters asking pointed questions about the drug-traffic. She wore her burqa and it so happened that Rama passed her in it.”
“I did, too,” I exclaimed, “and I wondered why she—I took it to be Hajji’s wife of course—cowered back as I looked at her, but it made no other impression on me except a vague idea that I had never realised the Indian woman was so tall.”
“That’s probably all it made on Rama at the time. He knew nothing of the letters then, but the next morning on deck he happened to sit down beside Meta, and she told him of the things that were being said about his wife. I suppose she wanted to see how he would react to it—she enjoyed that sense of power and intrigue.”
“I remember seeing him sit down by her,” I exclaimed. “And, of course, it was hearing about the letters that was the cause of his row with Ruth in the evening?”
“Yes—he bottled it up all day, but it got the better of him in the end. Ruth, of course, was completely in the dark—she knew nothing about the letters and could not imagine what had happened to infuriate Rama. She was terrified because she had never before seen him so beside himself with rage.
“Rama as we know followed her up on to deck. His fury was divided between Ruth and the unknown person who was slandering her. I don’t know, of course, but I think it was probably whilst he strolled round the deck then that the memory of the burqa he had seen Meta buy, and of the figure he had taken to be the Hajji’s wife, but who had seemed tall and somehow different, occurred to him. The Oriental mind jumps more quickly to the thought of intrigue than ours does. Rama would not be able to fathom Meta’s actual motive, but he would be able to imagine quite a number that might influence her, and the thought that it was she herself who told him of the matter would not put him off the scent, quite the reverse. Anyhow, whether then or before that, his mind made the connection, and when he came level with Meta’s starboard porthole he deliberately stood on tiptoe and looked over her shutters which were halfway up. He saw her in the very act of slipping a letter into her pocket—for she had intended distributing some more that night. The burqa lay on the bunk. Rama turned and walked back to the lounge entrance. (That was how you missed seeing him. You remember you went out on the port side and walked for’ard, then stopped for a while leaning on the rail.) Rama walked straight into Meta’s cabin without knocking and shut the door behind him. She had finished with the letters and was holding a medicine glass in one hand and a water carafe in the other. She was just going to measure out her mother’s drops.
“Just what happened at the interview we shall never know, for Meta became rather incoherent at that part of her statement, but we know that Rama opened matters quietly but terrifyingly by telling her that he had seen her buy the burqa and had guessed her motive in doing so. Meta, aghast, could not answer him. Then his ungovernable temperament began to get the better of him and he worked himself into a fury as he accused her of being the person who was slandering Ruth, and threatened her with exposure, with heaven knows what. Suddenly he seized her by the shoulders—probably he meant to do no more than shake her but she was beside herself with terror. She struck out blindly and with all her force, not thinking what it was that she had in her hand. It was the water carafe. The force of the blow broke the bottle as she struck again, still not knowing what she did, she cut his face with the sharp edge of the glass—but it was the first blow that killed him. When you come to think of it a heavy carafe of thick glass, full of water, is a pretty dangerous weapon.”
“Great Heavens!...” I exclaimed, I could think of no other comment.
“After that,” Mary continued, “she seems by her own account to have become preternaturally calm—suppose one would. Her first fear was that some one might have heard them quarrelling. It seems rather strange that no one did.”
“Not really,” I said. “One can’t hear things from inside those cabins when a head-wind is blowing and the shutters are half-up—I’ve tested it myself. Besides, the air-cooler would be roaring overhead.”
“Yes—well, Meta’s first act was to seize the burqa and put it on the corpse. She had some idea that if anyone came to the door she could still bluff them and make them think it was the Hajji’s wife who had come in to see her. She had propped it up on the bunk. But no one came, and the sight of her mother’s wheeled chair gave her an idea. It was a folding one, and always stood in the cabin at night. She unfolded it and sat the corpse in it. Then she pushed the shutters right up, cleaned up the mess that the smashed carafe had made, went out and locked the door. She often left it locked when she went down to dinner if she hadn’t had time to finish clearing up all her mother’s paraphernalia, so it would awaken no suspicion. Her plan was to wait until everyone was in bed and the lights were out on deck, then to wheel the corpse out and leave it somewhere on deck. It was, as a matter of fact, a much less risky plan than the one she eventually adopted, but her nerves simply would not hold out. She got through dinner somehow and on to the time of the treasure hunt, but all the while was the dread of what she had to do: the suspense of wondering whether it would be possible; of whether at the last moment some one would not just come along as she was disposing of the corpse. Suddenly, she saw a chance—a chance to get it over and done with; to know the worst.
“At the first clue all the people went trooping down to the saloon. You and she were the last two left on deck. Her nerves alert and strained to the utmost, she perceived in a flash that the steward too had gone down the stairs and was looking on at the hunt down below. On the instant she acted. With a muttered excuse to you that her mother wanted her—you did not hear her mother call, did you?—she rushed to her own cabin. She must have reached it and got the door unlocked almost before you had disappeared. She had become an expert in manipulating the wheeled chair—-it was the work of but a few seconds to rush it and its burden across to the lounge. Another second or so to place the body in position—Meta was a strong girl and desperation lent her added strength—then, almost in a lightning flash of time, she was back in her own cabin with the chair, feeling that all was safe. I don't think she bargained for the hunt ending in the lounge, but she faced the situation gamely when it came upon her—whatever one thinks of her one has to admit that she had nerve! I don't know whether it was then, before you came up, or later when we had found the body, that she went into your cabin and removed your water carafe to replace her own shattered one, the fragments of which she had contrived to throw overboard.”
“Great Scott!” I exclaimed. “So, after all, I had a clue right under my nose and never saw it!”
“We might all have tumbled to it sooner,” she said, “if it hadn’t been for that red-herring of an idol which got dragged across the trail. The doctor had seen the deva in Rama’s cabin and he got it in his mind as soon as he saw the man had been killed with something blunt and heavy. But it was when you happened to mention to me that your water carafe was missing that I got a sudden illumination and everything fell into place. At first I never connected the murder with the anonymous letters—I thought, like Mathers, when I saw the burqa that it was ‘something racial.’ But when you referred quite casually to your carafe having been missing, I had, as one often does, a kind of picture of one floating through my mind. I ‘looked’ at it idly, seeing it so large and shining and smooth—then suddenly the description of the weapon came into my mind, and oh, so many things all fell into place. The wheeled chair—it provided a way of getting the corpse to the lounge other than carrying it; the place—when last Rama was seen it was on our deck and no one had seen him either go up or down from there; the strangeness of finding the body in the lounge when on a ship one would have thought the natural thing was to throw it overboard—but not if the corpse was lying only a few yards from the lounge as it would be in one of those cabins; the possible motive—oh, everything fitted together simply, horribly, except, of course, the burqa, but I found the explanation of that next day when we examined it. It was Meta, of course, who passed whilst we were looking at it and it must have terrified her to see us doing it.
“Then there was just one little accident that I didn’t know of then. After you had told me about the carafe I could not escape from the thought that if my theory of the murder was correct, then the floor of Meta’s cabin might still be damp where the water from the carafe had fallen. Of course there were the air coolers which probably had dried it, but the idea haunted me, and at last I slipped into her cabin to find out for myself. It was damp. Unluckily I dropped a handkerchief there. I missed it later but did not know where I had lost it. It was only the sight of Meta’s startled face the next day, when she picked up the one the wind blew along the deck, that made me guess. Of course, the name had puzzled her—she knew of no Mary Grant on board. It alarmed her too, and from that moment she was quite sure that I suspected her. When she saw me run off like that out of the lounge, she realised that it was all up, and she went down and threw herself out of that open space near Ruth’s cabin. She meant never to be picked up, but as it happened she was a strong swimmer and instinct was too much for her—against her will she kept herself afloat.
“And I think that is really all, Alan. . . .”
We got into Aden very shortly after Mary had finished her long account of the mystery. I stood leaning on the for’ard rail and watching the strange, burnt-up landscape of Steamer Point slide by while I went over all she had said. The whole thing was abundantly clear—I only wondered how I had contrived to be such a fool as not to see it before—but there was one hiatus. I had not told Mary of the letters I had found in my cabin. It was plain now that the second had been written by Meta Crandon after the episode of the handkerchief, in a feeble effort to throw suspicion on to Mary before it was too late—perhaps she hoped to discredit anything Mary might say against her. She had written and delivered it whilst I was in the very act of throwing overboard the cocaine to which the first letter had directed me. The question now troubling my mind was—who had written the first letter, and why? It seemed plain enough that the drug-traffic had been the “red-herring” of our detective story, but all the same I should have liked this particular bit of mystery cleared up. I decided that I would speak to Mary about it as soon as I got the chance. She was not coming on shore at Aden as she was still in attendance on Mrs. Crandon pending the arrival of a nurse. As it happened I need not have worried for the mystery solved itself that very evening.
The anchor slid out with a curdling rush through the jade green water. The ship ceased its movement and the usual swarm of tiny craft appeared around her filled with divers, shawl and feather vendors, fruit sellers and every sort and condition of tout and charlatan. I had made up my mind that I would not go on shore until after sundown—it was too hot and unattractive. I stood and watched the whole shipload disembark in the tiny shoreboats. Hajji was the last to leave, and he descended the gangway with the grace and dignity of a prize turkey. I noticed that he did not take his wife with him. We had all been accorded a surprise that morning when he had brought her up on deck unveiled, and taken her to be presented to Celia and Ruth who, as he had expressed it, “had preserved for her the life of her protector!”
“Yes, sir,” he said to me later, “I have perceived that there may be good in all things—even in an unveiled woman.”
I think we were all rather touched as well as surprised by his gesture. Of course, the unveiling would not last—and from the look in the frightened eyes of the young girl-wife as she walked the deck “naked-faced,” I gathered that it would be no hardship for her when the purda fell once more between her and the world. No, the unveiling was merely a gesture, nothing more, but it was the most emphatic one that Hajji could have made and I for one was sensible of the fact. I could not help wondering as I watched him pad majestically down the gangway—his “household” safely left behind—whether, had the unveiling been permanent instead of temporary, any good would have come of it? Would the elimination of the visible burqa do away with the invisible one? I had come to have a faint belief in the existence of the invisible burqa.
I did not leave the ship till the sun was setting, and I went straight to the club, intending to spend a quiet evening reading the papers down by the water. But my plan was frustrated by Evelyn who swooped down upon me with a request to be taken out to the Tanks. Apparently Sir Aubrey had disappeared under five back numbers of the Financial Times and was not to be disinterred by any means, fair or foul.
We procured a taxi and were whirled along the winding, climbing road from Steamer Point just as the last fight faded from the sky. Aden by day is the abomination of desolation, but Aden by night, with the luminous, amethyst dusk of the South lying upon it like a caress, attains something of the glamour of the Arabian Nights. The arid, sun-blistered rocks grow beautiful and dignified when one sees but their shape silhouetted against the stars.
The lights were lighted in the bazaar as we passed through, and the crowds—the strange mixed crowds of every race and nation which one finds in all ports—were gathered round the open booths smoking, drinking coffee and talking of the day’s doings. When we left the busy scene behind us we seemed to pass outwards into a vast solitude and darkness. We could see nothing of the Tanks when we reached them, for starlight filtering through heavy trees is not the best light for sightseeing. Still, Evelyn seemed pleased with the romantic setting of the place. For myself I was conscious the whole time of a heavy scent—a cloying, sicklysweet scent—which I knew I had come in contact with lately, but which yet I could not identify. It was not until we were on our way home again that recollection came to me.
“Evelyn,” I said, “what is that scent you use?” She seemed pleased at the question. It was I gathered, a very super-scent and made for her alone. No one else could buy it.
“No one?” I queried. I wanted to be quite sure.
“No, absolutely no one—it’s my very own.”
I looked down at her face as I could see it in the faint starlight, and I struck hard for my heart felt very hot.
“Then in future,” I said, “take care there is none of it on your fingers when you write anonymous letters.”
I will not give the details of the scene that followed. So far as the facts concerning the smuggling went the story was simple enough. Evelyn, moving in Theosophical circles (why had I never thought of that?) had encountered some friends of Rama Rao who had inspired her with enthusiasm for his work. After that, there had seemed nothing extraordinary in their asking her to smuggle in some small packages for them—she had believed that they contained pamphlets relating to his work which had been printed in England to avoid difficulties with his enemies in the East. It was only after I told her of the drug-smuggling and its supposed connection with the murder that she became suspicious and opened one of the packets. After that she was panic stricken.
Oh yes, the facts were simple enough, but they did not explain, nor could anything, why Evelyn had written that letter; why she had hidden the cocaine in Mary’s cabin. I was glad when she gave up the attempt to whitewash the affair and stripped off the mask.
“I did it because I hated her—I’ve always hated her. In the old days I was jealous; not only because of you, but because then she seemed to have everything that I wanted and I had to earn my living as a drudge. Now I’ve got money—everything like that that I wanted, but I hate her more than ever. She’s so—so aloof and so untouchable! And I saw how things were with you. She had you under her spell. You bought her that shawl. Nothing I could say had any influence on you. That morning when I tried to make it up you only laughed at me in your heart. Ah I I saw it all, and I hated her.”
I could well believe in the hate—nothing less explained what Evelyn had done, but for my part I found it easier to forgive the clumsy attempt to throw suspicion on to Mary, and the equally clumsy efforts she had made to blacken her character on the voyage, than all she had done fifteen years ago. For it came to me then that she had always maligned Mary—not openly, not clumsily as she had done lately. She had not accused her of being immoral, of being concerned in drug-traffic, of being implicated in a murder case, as she had tried to do now; but she had been cleverer and more dangerous. Just a subtle stream of poisoning insinuations which had been so skilfully camouflaged that one could not detect them. And no definite, concrete accusation—just a suggestion of hardness, of narrowness, of selfishness, things which are so infinitely more difficult to refute, for which of us can plead that we are guiltless of them? From the blighting mist of her insinuations had emerged that picture of Mary that I had carried with me for fifteen years. . . .
I did not try to excuse myself—I had long been aware of my own weakness and stupidity—but now for the first time I realised its source. It dawned on me then that “uncharity” was the first stone of the avalanche of my dream. I thought of the events of the voyage and the strange pattern into which the stray chance-met threads of our lives had been woven. What was it but the red thread of Meta Crandon’s uncharity that had made the pattern such a sinister one? And it was Evelyn’s hate and uncharity that had made shipwreck of my fife, fifteen years ago. . . .
I did not get a chance to talk to Mary until after we had sailed that night. We stood leaning on the for’ard rail watching the great cross of the mast rise and fall lazily against the stars, with only the lazy wash, swish, slop of the sea to break the silence. Our little world of the ship—our tiny planet—had entered upon the last lap of its voyage. It had been an eventful trip, and had brought us many strange adventures—comedy, farce and tragedy all treading upon each other’s heels, with love and hate, hope and fear inextricably intermingled. But then, that, after all, is life.
“Mary,” I said suddenly, “what was in that parcel that you got at Port Said?”
She looked up at me, apparently surprised at the question, and I told her then of the letters that I had found in my cabin and of the cocaine. She did not speak for a minute or two after I had finished. Then she looked up with a smile.
“The parcel is still unopened, Alan. You’ll find it in my wardrobe—on the shelf under the topi. Bring it and open it here.”
It did not take me long to find the parcel in the spot she indicated, nor to open it when I had brought it out to her. When I had extricated the contents I had to take them to a lamp to examine them. They were the proofs of a new book by Faith Manners.
It took me some moments to grasp the truth. Mary was Faith Manners—this, then, was the secret of her money.
“Good heavens!” I exclaimed rather clumsily. “You must be quite rich!”
She shook her head laughing.
“Fairly well off—nothing more. Of course at first it was a struggle but I’ve made good now. I’m going to write a book on India—not a novel. That’s why I’m on my way out. John wants to do the illustrations. He’s mad on painting. I don’t know if he’ll succeed, but, of course, he’s very rich and the trip has turned out well for him after all. . . .”
I scarcely heard her. My mind was lost in contemplation of the fact that during all those fifteen years, whilst I had thought of Mary living the life of a hard, narrow, unloving and unlovable woman, I had in fact been reading her books because of the kindly, tolerant humour and tenderness they showed.
“Lord, what a fool I’ve been!” I exclaimed out loud and my voice was very bitter. A weight of loneliness pressed down on me. Mary had made her life—a full, happy, successful life with wider horizons than those open to the wife of a Forest Officer. I had chosen my path fifteen years ago and I must walk in it without grousing, but the role of a philosophic ploughman loomed very dreary and unsatisfactory as I contemplated it.
Then Mary’s voice cut across my thoughts.
“We’ve both been fools—but need we continue to be, Alan?” she said, and her voice held a tremor, half laughter, half tears.
I . . . but after all, this is meant to be a detective story.