Life Among The Savages, Part 16.
[NOTE: If you want to start from the beginning, here's Part 1 or, if you reject linear storytelling, here's a link to all the parts so you can choose for yourself.]
My period of unconsciousness was uncharacteristically brief this time, for I found myself still on the floorboards of the corridor, with Captain Stagg, Dr. Blight, and Mr. Jones standing over me and studying my face, illuminated by a lanthorn held by the doctor, presumably in the hope of determining my health. I deduced, as they were still engaged in assessing my condition and had not transported me to my cabin for a more prolonged period of convalescence, that the duration of my incapacity could not have been more than a few minutes, and felt quite strongly that my estimate was an accurate one. I was about to ask how long they had been considering my condition when Dr. Blight spoke.
“Lad,” he said, “we must discuss your peculiar habit of lying on the floor in inconvenient locations.” Captain Stagg moved to help me to my feet, but Jones waved off his encroaching hands and assisted me in standing himself.
As I brushed off my clothes and searched myself for open wounds, I said, “I assure you, Doctor, this is no idle pastime, nor is it voluntary.”
“Who hit you this time?” Jones asked, around the bit of his pipe.
“Alas, I did not see my assailant. He crept up behind me in the dark, like the vilest of cowards. And dangerous too: as he rendered me insensate with a single blow, he must possess formidable strength.”
“I don’t think your skull’s the best measure of that,” Jones remarked.
I chuckled at the first mate’s sporting jest. “Fair enough, Mr. Jones, but the man is still a danger to all aboard, and I will happily aid in tracking down the scoundrel. First though– what of Mrs. von Kant? She was here when I was attacked.”
The door to the widow von Kant’s cabin creaked open and she emerged, careful to keep the door mostly closed behind her. “I am here, and unharmed,” she said. “When you were attacked, I ran to my cabin, and shut and locked the door behind me as quickly as I could. Please forgive me for not trying to assist you. I was terrified!”
“Milady, ” I said, “you did the only sensible thing. Had you tried to fend him off, who knows what harm could have befallen you? Did you see the blackguard as he struck me?”
“No, only a shape in the darkness. A large shape. As soon as you fell, I ran to my room…I am so very glad to see you unharmed,” the widow said, and then clutched a handkerchief to her face and trembled. I reached out to console Mrs. von Kant, but the Captain inserted himself between us in the confined space of the cabin, touching her shoulder with one hand while rubbing my back with great intensity with the other.
“Yes, we’re all overjoyed to see the boy without injury, but you needn’t concern yourself with these matters anymore, Mrs. von Kant. Go back inside your cabin and allow us to track down this interloper with all due haste, so that he poses no threat to anyone aboard.”
The widow nodded, glancing at me with concern and affection, and retreated into her room, while the Captain continued his persistent massage. “Gentlemen, we must seek out and capture this rogue before he strikes again. The last thing we need is another Martin Garrett wandering the ship. Speaking of that idiot – Jones, go below and make sure Garrett didn’t wriggle out of the brig.”
“Perhaps someone should stay here, near the passengers’ chambers, to ensure that no other harm comes to them,” Jones said, and puffed a bit upon his pipe.
The captain considered his first mate’s idea, while kneading my shoulder blades with his fingers. “Good idea, Jones,” he said, “Put Starkey on it.”
“I might be a better choice, sir.”
“In general, I believe you’re a better choice than Starkey for nearly any task imaginable, but Starkey will be more than capable of clubbing someone in the dark, should the need arise. Go check on Garrett.”
The first mate exhaled a dense cloud of tobacco smoke. “Aye, sir,” he said and climbed and moved past us in the dark toward the stairs to the lower decks. After he left, the Captain was lost, first in what I thought was contemplation of how to best ensnare my mysterious attacker, but which soon revealed itself to be another one of his episodes, as his massaging hand moved up and over to encircle my arm. I looked with great unease to Dr. Blight as the Captain’s free hand moved toward my other arm. Before the Captain could grip my shoulder, the doctor hit the side of Stagg’s head with his lanthorn, which shook the Captain from his confusion.
“Of course not! What? Yes!” exclaimed the Captain, and then he stared hard at Dr. Blight for a moment. “Did you…”
“Yes,” said Dr. Blight. “Now what of the intruder?”
“Right, indeed. I’ll collect the watch and have them assist in the search.” The Captain looked at me, somewhat chagrined, patted my shoulder twice, and then was on his way.
“What should I do, Dr. Blight?” I asked.
“I suggest that you return to your cabin, and lock yourself in. I know you want to join in the hunt for the cur who attacked you unawares, but the best place for you right now is out of harm’s way. You’re a guest on this vessel, remember? Furthermore, the fewer opportunities you’re given to be beaten about the head, the better. ” I related in truncated fashion the catalog of cranial collisions that made me confident that my brain was not in any significant danger, and the doctor considered them with a thoughtful expression. “At some point, my lad, you will have to come to where I make my medical practice here on the Holy Diver. I should very much like to take some measurements of you and your hapless brain case. But for now, retreat to your room and sleep safe in the knowledge that the Captain and his men will capture the cause of your most recent unconsciousness.” I saw the wisdom in the doctor’s words, thanked him for his counsel, and then walked the short distance to my cabin, securing the door as best I could.
After lighting a lanthorn of my own within my cabin, I probed the region of my latest injury, and though the soreness of the back of my head was predictable and even familiar, another discovery was peculiar indeed. Co-mingled with the hair, I felt a wet thick substance. I experienced a moment of panic, as my immediate surmise was that the substance was congealing blood, and the severity of my injuriousness had been missed by all present in the corridor due to the rapid unfolding of events and the considerable lack of light therein. However, when I brought my hand to my eyes, even in the dim lanthorn light I could see that the substance on my hands was not dark as blood would have been, but was instead pale gray, or perhaps a medium shade of gray, as the lanthorn light tinted the whole room in a warm yellow and did not allow for an accurate assessment of color.
Applying my scientific mind to the problem, I gathered what information I could, first rubbing the substance between my fingers, and detecting a fine grit to the particles. Then, upon smelling and delicately tasting the substance, I determined that it was most likely some kind of heavy clay, as one might use for sculpting or brickmaking. While satisfying as an appraisal of the mysterious substance, its likely nature failed to illuminate the greater mystery of why it was embedded in my hair. The means of its application seemed clear enough; whatever weapon the scoundrel had used to attack me had for whatever reason been covered in (or recently exposed to a source of) clay. Why this would have happened, and what it portended for the man and his motives for his assault remained stubborn in their elusiveness, and I pressed my intellect into the determination both these riddles as I tried to extract the clay itself from my hair and scalp.
I assumed, to start, that there was no such source of clay aboard ship, which, to be sure, was a somewhat bold axiom on which to base my suppositions, but in its favor were two significant factors: first, the need for clay aboard a sailing vessel is in most cases minimal; and second, the fundamental practicality of such an assumption. If there were a quantity of clay on the Holy Diver, then the identity of my attacker could easily be traced to whomever had most recently handled or been in contact with the clay. However convenient such a circumstance might be, it would not, in and of itself, provide any insight into why the man was on the ship, what he intended to do while here, or why he meant me (or any other passenger or crew member) harm. No, whatever deductions could be made regarding the character and schemes of this reprobate would not be derived from such a convenient happenstance!
Instead, I turned my attention to the determination of other reasons for the clay’s presence on the back of my head. Two possibilities presented themselves: either my attacker carried quantities of clay on his person with such frequency as to be oblivious to its presence, or he had intentionally brought some amount of the clay with him for the express purpose of applying it to his favored cudgel or, even more peculiarly, his own hands. The latter, implying as it did a ritualistic, even compulsive nature to the individual who had brained me, provided ample opportunity for extended ruminations on the inner workings of a clearly and profoundly disturbed mind – undoubtedly an engrossing and sensational subject, but unlikely to aid in the ultimate detection of the fiend. The former, though, showed much more promise, as a lack of attention to cleanliness in the area of the hands could be extended without overmuch whimsy to a lack of attention to cleanliness for the body in general, and not just the body, but also the clothes which surround it. This treacherous stalker, then, might not just have hands or a club streaked with gritty clay, but also sleeves and pants… and shoes also!
I felt a great excitement swell within me, as I realized that the origin of the miscreant might easily be tracked by that which he had foolishly overlooked: the telltale clay to which he had become all too accustomed, and which would now lead me straight to his hidden identity. He had walked up behind me, with great attention to any sound he might make, but none to what his feet might have left behind. I picked up my lanthorn, and determined to search the corridor for the footprints of my attacker. I threw open my cabin door, and was greatly startled by the sight of a person crouching just in front of my doorway. He also was startled and looked up at me. He was dressed in the manner of the other deckhands, in shabby working clothes, but seemed very young, with large bright blue eyes and almost girlish features, and a large knit cap ,not unlike Turner’s, pulled tightly down over his head. Before I could greet him, he ran off, stumbling up the stairs and into the night.
However, after I watched him flee, speechless due to my startlement, I noticed he had left something behind in front of my door: a small piece of paper, folded twice. I guessed that he may have been attempting to slip the paper under my door when I had surprised him. I picked up the note and carefully unfolded it. The page was blank, except for four words written in small, but keenly legible script: BEWARE THE FALSE MAN.