No. 18.—Mystery on Board
H.M.S. Drawing-Room, Part 1.
ONE OF THE less onerous duties of an admiral in her Majesty’s navy is to accompany the leading figures of our time on their occasional tours of the new ships. It seems that great men and women have an insatiable appetite for such tours, as long as the ship remains firmly docked.
So it was that I found myself conducting the Marquess of Rottenapple and his wife on a tour of H.M.S. Drawing-Room, which was the first of an entirely new class of naval vessel in which the interior appointments would be indistinguishable from those of a comfortable gentleman’s country house. It was intended to serve as the flagship of our entire fleet, and I myself was given the command of her on her first voyage, which was to commence as soon as the Marquess and Marchioness had completed their tour.
I will not say that I had been looking forward to serving as tour guide for the Marquess, who had a reputation for being somewhat difficult to get along with—a reputation that was quickly confirmed when, on our first introduction, he demanded to know whether I had applied my eyebrows with a spatula.
So it went throughout the tour. In the galley, he told my honest cook (one of the company of caterers who had accompanied me on every voyage since I visited the North Pole) that men had been shot for making a stench like that. When Higgs, my boatswain, attempted a mild defense of our cook by saying that the men seemed to like their fare, the Marquess remarked that he was not surprised to find them accustomed to eating pig-slops, if they were all such men as their boatswain. He told my chief engineer that he had seen a better-regulated engine in a wind-up toy tugboat, and asked my youngest ensign whether his mama knew that he had sneaked out to play battleships. Each time he spoke up, the Marchioness attempted to mollify him; and each time, he responded to her with language I shall not repeat, and wish I did not even remember.
At length the Marquess retired to the main drawing-room with a bottle of cognac and locked the door behind him, so that (as he explained it) he would not have to be sickened by the hideous faces of the most ill-favored lot of sailors it had ever been his misfortune to glance upon.
In his absence, I attempted to explain to the men that the deficiency in good manners often observable among the nobility was attributable to their being deprived of affection at home, and that they were therefore more to be pitied than censured. My men, however, were not convinced by my arguments.
“Beggin’ your pardon for my language, Admiral,” said Higgs, the boatswain, “but it’s a darn shame that a man can talk like that to honest sailors in Her Majesty’s navy. He’s lucky no one stabs him in the back, that he is.”
“I’d wring his neck if I thought I could get away with it,” said the cook.
“He ought to be drowned like the rat he is,” one ensign suggested.
“I’d just shoot him and be done with it,” another offered.
“I’d poison that filthy cognac of his,” someone else piped up.
Here old Dim-Eye Jim, who had been with me since my earliest command, spoke up in a loud voice. “Nay, nay, ye should be ashamed o’ yerselves! A man like that ain’t one to be shot, or poisoned, or stabbed. Are ye all base footpads an’ assassins?”
“Well said, Jim,” I told him.
“Aye,” Dim-Eye Jim continued, “a man like that oughta be hanged from the yardarm, right in the daylight, where he can be a warnin’ to ’is kind!”
This suggestion received much applause, as did others that the Marquess should be beaten to death, suffocated with a pillow, or electrocuted after the manner of the Americans.
Ordinarily I allow my men considerable frankness in expressing their opinions, but I believed that the time had come to restore some kind of discipline. “Gentlemen, please,” I began, “we must rise above pettiness and——”
Suddenly there was a loud crash, and then the sound of breaking glass; and a moment later a shot rang out. I turned and dashed down the corridor in the direction of the noise, and found myself in front of the drawing-room door, behind which we could hear the sounds of furniture splintering and glass breaking, and an occasional grunt or moan. I tried the door, but it was still locked. I put my shoulder to it, but the door was too well built to give; Higgs added his own shoulder, but it still would not budge. Just as the appalling din from within died down, Higgs and I finally succeeded in gaining entry by using Dim-Eye Jim as a battering-ram.
The room was in a frightful state, with evident signs of a desperate struggle: chairs and tables overturned, the chandelier pulled down, shelves collapsed, the water-pitcher spilled, and—in the center of it all—the lifeless form of the Marquess of Rottenapple. I could not see how an attacker could have entered the locked drawing-room, or how he could have escaped. But that there had been an attacker of some sort appeared certain: for it was clear at once from the most cursory examination that the Marquess had been stabbed, strangled, drowned, shot at close range, poisoned, hanged, bludgeoned with a pipe, suffocated, and electrocuted.
To be continued.