The voyage was mostly uneventful the next four days. The ocean remained calm and glasslike, and the SS China sliced through it with little effort. On the fifth day, Potts informed me we would be docking the following morning in Honolulu, Hawaii. I was relieved. As comfortable as I was aboard the ship, I longed to walk on solid ground again and to see a tree or a bush or just about anything green and growing. I shuddered to think I had another nineteen days of sea travel before I would reach Saigon.
I spent most of those first five days pacing the deck, sitting in my deck chair, and writing in my journal. On one occasion, I was invited to join Captain Kreitz and Deputy Captain Partington on the bridge where I and a few others were accorded a brief seminar on the intricacies of maneuvering a steamship through the Pacific Ocean.
Ocean travel, I concluded, is a tedious proposition. Unlike train travel, which is what I was used to in Kansas and Colorado, progress by ship seemed imperceptible. At least on a train you could watch the landscape pass by your window. Aboard ship, all you saw was an endless expanse of water that never changed. Thinking back on it now, I recall that being in the middle of what seemed like an infinite sea on a relatively diminutive vessel left me feeling extremely claustrophobic.
After my dining experience that first night, I avoided the first-class dining room, preferring the more modest menu and the less formal atmosphere at a smaller cafe. I also wrote several letters that I planned to post in Honolulu. Once again, I felt compelled to explain my actions to the McNabs and my mother. I even wrote letters to Anna Marie, knowing that they would not make any sense to her until she was much older. Guilt is a potent motivator, and each word I wrote seemed to erode it a little.
I only saw Katharina Schreiber a few times during those four days. She seemed to keep to herself, not often leaving her cabin. Once or twice, I noticed her on the foredeck reclining in one of the lounge chairs and reading a book. I considered walking over to say hello but decided against it. She seemed aloof and unapproachable, and I didn’t feel any need to be snubbed.
So I avoided her, often turning around and walking in the opposite direction when I saw her. Then on the evening of the fifth day, I decided to take dinner in the main dining room again. Katharina was dining at the captain’s table with several other first-class passengers. I nodded to her as I passed her table. She nodded back and flashed me a feeble smile.
I continued on to a larger communal table for ten at the other end of the dining room. I settled at the table with eight other guests. We introduced ourselves and made some small talk for maybe ten minutes. Then dinner was served. The menu was an eclectic combination of duck, fish, and pork with a generous helping of potatoes and vegetables. I ate heartily.
Every so often, out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed Katharina across the dining room. I never made direct eye contact with her, but I had the distinct impression that she was occasionally looking fleetingly at me also.
About a half hour later, I excused myself, telling my dining companions that I had some letters to write before we arrived the next morning in Honolulu.
As I stood up, I looked over at the captain’s table. Katharina Schreiber was gone. I felt relieved. My interaction with her up to that point had been nothing if not discomfited. After leaving the dining room, I took a quick turnaround the promenade deck and then returned to my cabin. It was a little after 9:00 p.m., and I had just settled down at my writing desk when I heard a loud and insistent knock on my door.
Probably Potts, checking to see if I needed anything before turning in, I recall thinking.
However, when I opened the door, my eyes widened, and I shuffled backward a couple of steps. It wasn’t Potts. It was Katharina Schreiber.
I must have gasped audibly because Katharina said, “I’m sorry. Did I startle you?”
“No . . . Uh . . . I just wasn’t expecting to see you standing in my doorway.”
“Believe me, it is not my usual practice to go knocking on the doors of men I hardly know, but this is an exceptional situation.”
“Yes, well . . . won’t you come in?”
“I’d rather not . . . would you mind coming out on the deck?” She didn’t wait for an answer but turned and walked slowly to the promenade deck railing some ten feet away where she stopped and stood looking out at the black ocean. I grabbed my slouch hat and shut the door behind me.
As I walked across the deck to join her, I wondered what to make of Katharina Schreiber. Yes, she was statuesque, an elegant beauty, highly intelligent, well-educated, sophisticated. Any man would relish her company. Yet I also detected a callousness in her, a distinct harshness that seemed strange and out of place in a woman of such refinement and exquisiteness. At the time, I didn’t understand why this was the case. However, I was soon to learn why.
After I joined her, we both stood at the ship’s railing in awkward silence for a few moments. I was waiting for Katharina to explain why she wanted to talk to me, but she seemed content to stare out at the glabrous black sea. I resolved not to disrupt whatever reverie had seized her and remained mute. The only sounds were the dull vibrating hum of the ship’s engines and the soft splash of water against the hull as the ship sliced through the ocean. It was about nine thirty , and a full moon irradiated the water with shimmering threadlike streaks of pale light.
I found myself stealing quick but meticulous glances at Katharina’s profile silhouetted against the dim running lights of the ship. She stood about five feet ten inches tall, maybe four inches shorter than I was. Her beauty was breathtaking. She seemed perfect in almost every physical feature. Still, it was her personality, her caustic behavior that detracted from that stunning physical beauty. Until I met Katharina Schreiber, I was sure my late Mallie was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Of course, Mallie was also beautiful inside where it actually counted. I wasn’t so sure about the widow Schreiber.
I was still debating that issue when Katharina at last broke the silence.
“Mr. Battles, I need your help.”
I was not expecting that. “My help?”
“Yes,” she said, her voice quavering. Then she continued. Her words were barely above a whisper. “I don’t want to sound overly histrionic, but it really is a matter of life and death . . . and Deputy Captain Partington informed me that you are a deputy U.S. marshal.”
“That’s a bit of a stretch . . . I haven’t worn any kind of badge for years, and even then, I am not sure how legitimate it was.”
“But Mr. Partington said you showed him and Captain Kreitz your badge.”
I began to explain why I had shown them my U.S. marshal’s badge, but Katharina interjected before I got very far.
“Of course, if you aren’t willing to help me, then I shall bid you good evening.”
I wondered if she was joking or being facetious about her problem being life or death. After all, I had experienced the widow Schreiber’s razor-sharp cleverness at the dinner table. When I turned to look at her, however, I was met with a face that was obviously distraught. Her lips and chin were trembling, her bright green eyes were damp and glistened brightly in the pale light, and her knuckles were clutching the railing so tightly that they were turning white.
“I apologize . . . It’s simply that I didn’t think you meant it for real play.”
“I am serious,” she rasped. “This is not a matter of any flippancy.”
I didn’t know what to say. I cleared my throat, but my words came out gravelly and dissonant.
“Mrs. Schreiber, I did not mean to make light of your, uh, situation.”
“What situation?” she demanded, her voice rising sharply. “I haven’t even explained anything yet.”
“I am sorry . . . I—”
Before I could finish, she held up her hand and shook her head. “No, no, please forgive me. I am sure I sound a bit vague and mysterious.”
With that, she placed her hand softly on my arm. It was the first time she had touched me, and I felt an electric tremor as adrenaline surged through my body. My posture went suddenly rigid with legs and arms firmly tensed. I shuddered noticeably.
“Are you all right?” she asked, quickly removing her hand from my arm.
I covered my mouth with my hand and coughed quietly.
“I think I may be coming down with something,” I lied.
“Perhaps we should leave this to another time.”
“No, it is okay . . . please continue.”
We stood there for another five minutes or so, and she related one of the most extraordinary stories I had ever heard.
It seems the widow Schreiber had been a bit judicious with the facts at the captain’s table that first night aboard ship. Her German husband had indeed passed on, she was a widow, she had indeed grown up in Chicago of German parentage, and she was on her way to the Philippines to join her brother. That much was true. However, the rest of her story was almost unbelievable.
“I am a widow because I killed my husband,” Katharina suddenly declared. Her eyes were focused keenly on me as if looking to see what my reaction to that astounding bit of news might be. I am sure I flinched a bit as her words sunk in.
“You, uh, killed your husband . . . ?”
Katharina quickly interrupted before I could say more.
“Yes . . . but you will note that I told you I killed my husband, not that I murdered him.”
“That seems like a rather subtle distinction,” I responded.
Katharina was facing me squarely now, her face barely a foot from mine. This time when she spoke, it was in a voice just above a whisper.
“You must let me explain now that I have released the genie from the bottle. However, I don’t relish providing details here in the open. May we go to my cabin?”
I felt a quiver in my stomach, and I cleared my throat nervously. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen had just invited me to her cabin after telling me she had killed her husband. My mind was racing, running through all of the pros and cons of her suggestion, when I felt her hand on my arm again. Again, her touch sent an electric jolt through my body; and once again, I shuddered conspicuously. However, this time, she didn’t remove her hand. Instead, she tightened her grip on my arm.
“Please,” she pleaded.
I nodded. “Of course.” Then we walked to the port side of the promenade deck. When we arrived at her cabin door, I looked both ways to make sure the deck was deserted, and then we walked in and shut the door. It wouldn’t do for a deck steward or curious fellow passengers such as the Gladwells to see the two of us entering the widow Schreiber’s cabin.
Katharina’s cabin was a bit larger than mine was, and like mine, its walls were covered with dark mahogany panels. In addition to the two overstuffed chairs and writing table, she also had a small dining table. That is where we settled, she on one side and me on the other.
“I’m sorry, I have nothing to offer you to drink.” Then she paused, stood up, and walked to her wardrobe where she produced a tear-shaped bottle of Glenglassaugh single malt Scotch whiskey and two heavy cut crystal glasses. “Except for this.”
She returned and placed the glasses on the table in front of us. “May I?” she asked, and then uncorking the bottle, she poured two fingers in each glass. “This was my late husband’s favorite.”
I shuddered imperceptibly at that remark but pulled the glass toward me anyway. Images of Katharina pushing Baron von Schreiber over a cliff or poisoning him with arsenic-laced Wiener schnitzel flooded my mind.
I forced those macabre thoughts out of my mind by focusing on the rich amber hue of the whiskey as I uneasily swirled the glass around and around in front of me.
What was I doing? I found myself thinking. Why was I in Katharina Schreiber’s cabin about to drink expensive single malt Scotch whiskey with a woman who had just admitted she had killed, but not murdered, her husband?
I pulled out my pocket watch and checked the time. I wondered what people might think if they saw me leaving Katharina’s cabin late at night.
“What time is it?” Katharina asked, nodding at my pocket watch.
“Just after ten.”
“Well, then, I best get to it . . . Where to start, where to start . . .”
“How about at the beginning?” I suggested, perhaps a bit too brashly.
Katharina seemed to ignore that remark at first and then, picking up her glass of Scotch, said, “Yes, from the beginning, but first, one of my favorite German toasts: Genieße das Leben ständig! Du bist länger tot als lebendig!”
We touched glasses and sipped our Scotch. I found myself thinking back to my German language classes at the University of Kansas in order to translate Katharina’s toast. Loose translation: Constantly enjoy life! You’re longer dead than alive!
Apropos for the moment, I thought to myself.
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