THE LONELY PASSENGER
NORMAN REILLY RAINE
FOR hours the passenger leaned, with rounded, gaunt shoulders under a glistening black waterproof, over the lower bridge rail, indifferent to cold, indifferent to pelting rain, and staring with unseeing eyes into the night. Hundreds of miles inland, in an obscure country cemetery, the passenger’s past lay buried with the man he had murdered.
He leaned, motionless, over the rail.
Far off to starboard the lights of Atlantic City twinkled a dim farewell, then dissolved into the downpour astern. Lacy foam roared past the tall sides, and icy spray flew across the forward deck, as the fruit steamer Caribbean, outward bound, New York for the West Indies and Central American ports, sliced through a lumpy sea.
Four bells struck. The long-drawn hail of the lookout reported the lights and was answered from the bridge. A half hour later a seaman, passing up the bridge ladder with toast and coffee for the second mate, glanced, curious, at the lonely figure, and clattered up the iron steps. The alien sound penetrated the passenger’s absorbtion. He straightened, and a beam of light from a smokeroom port cut athwart the dark and fell full upon his face.
It was a face, hatchet in profile, equine in full, weather-reddened over pallor, and deeply lined, under a battered green felt hat; a face flanked by prominent ears, and with very small, bright black eyes set much too close together, on each side of a nose which gave the impression of having been seized in its plastic stage between a sardonic finger and thumb and smooched downward and outward, overleaping in its downward swoop a straight line of mouth, thinlipped and cruel. A cold, hard face, with many positive qualities, and no redeeming softness.
npHE passenger went through the smokeroom and switched on the lights in his cabin. In hospitable contrast to the weather outside, a tiny steam radiator hissed comfortably, and a shaded globe by the bulkhead desk cast a soft glow on the blue plush of settee and easy chair.
The Caribbean, although primarily a fruit carrier, had two extra staterooms, each with accommodation for three persons. They were for the convenience of commercial men willing to forego the greater speed and comfort of the liners in favor of a lower passage price. On this southward trip there were no other passengers, the other stateroom having been engaged
and paid for by one who failed to appear before soiling. The two cabins adjoined, off the forward end of th-
wheèîhousm" direct]y ab°Ve tbem was the
Making sure that the heavy port curtains were tightly closed, the passenger, after removing his waterproof and spreading it meticulously upon a sheet of wrapping paper near the radiator to dry, opened a small, battered steamer trunk, which looked as if it had come out of a South Street slopshop. Taking therefrom a sheaf of newspapers headed with the name of a large Great Lakes city, he settled himself in a chair.
With the insides he did not greatly concern himself, but his bright black eyes feasted on the scareheads which Iblazed across each front page, and as he read down the solid columns of type his chest lifted with pride. A perfect job, he thought, carefully planned, faultlessly carried out, «ach detail falling into place like the methodical clicking of well-oiled tumblers in a combination lock. A corner of his mouth lifted.
‘‘The fools! The numskulls!” he breathed, and acrid satisfaction again raised his lip. He read:
The lonely passenger had made a clean get-away but he could not get away from himself. To use the jargon of the psychologists, his subconscious reactions finally dominated the conscious will. Those reactions and the denouement to which they led are what make this story.
ABSCONDING TREASURER A SUICIDE
Emile Casson Found Dead in Lonely Country Hotel
FACE BLOWN OFF WITH SHOTGUN
Nation-Wide Search for Clever Thief Ends in Ghastly Early Morning Find. No trace of Missing Funds
The continent-wide search for Emile Casson of this city, fugitive from justice, is ended. The dead body of Casson, shot through the head, was found at an early hour, three mornings ago, in his hotel room at Tillbury, Ohio, a small rural centre, according to a telegram received by Police Headquarters late last night. A shotgun with a discharged shell lay on the floor, and the position
and condition of the body indicated that Casson died by his own hand.
Although the face was badly mutilated, the physical characteristics tally with the description broadcast by the local police at the time of Casson’s disappearance. The delay in notifying the local authorities of the gruesome find was due to the fact that the Tillbury police were unable to identify the man at once, and it was not until after the inquest that a more careful search of his effects revealed a local newspaper in the bottom of his club-bag, containing an account of his disappearance from this city. This, and a laundry mark on a collar, verified by wire upon receipt of the telegram last night establish beyond doubt that the dead man was the missing treasurer. Careful search of the room and vicinity thus far have failed to reveal trace of the $210,000 in cash and negotiable securities belonging to the Commonwealth Trust and Guaranty Company, with which Casson made his getaway two months ago.
After reading, the passenger arose and carefully tore the papers into little bits, collecting from the carpets pieces which fluttered from his hands. Opening a port which was on the leeward side, he dropped them out, and the wind sucked them into darkness. He took from his pocket a key with a numbered fibre tag attached, such as are issued by country hotels, and threw it into the sea. Then, shivering slightly, he screwed the port shut and resumed his seat, long legs thrust before him, cynical lips curled and smoldering eyes on the carpet, to review the story in his mind, point by point, as he had done a hundred times before.
'T'O THE conventional nincompoops who constitute the public, he thought, it would be the old familiar tale; a good citizen, that datum line of mediocrity, established, respected, in rebellion against the placidity of life—the passenger could understand that feeling—had kicked over the traces, yielding to sudden temptation, and perhaps in financial difficulty. Sudden temptation? No matter. There was theft and flight, with the police like hungry dogs worrying at his heels. Instead of the larger freedom to which he had looked forward there was a shrinking hiding in noisome burrows, craven avoidance of his fellow men and the monotony of keeping under cover. Conscience and the old conventions, eating like acid into the veneer of courage. Then, perhaps, remorse, and the sinner finding peace at last in that never-failing sanctuary, death. Remorse. The passenger’s horse teeth showed in a wry grin. Now, there would be head-shakings, a hypocritical snivel from the sob sisters, blast them, and time would wipe the slate.
So much for the public’s thoughts. Now for the truth behind these printed words. Let him examine for the last time his position, and he would wash his mind of it forever. The truth, then, which he alone knew—and which he only in this world ever would know—as to what had happened in that lonely hotel room.
But his mind was lazy and he listened—to the creak and strain of the ship as she pitched and rolled in a making sea; to the hiss and rattle of driven spray against the thick glass of the port; to the north Atlantic gale that clutched with angry fingers at the corners of the deck houses and whined through the standing gear; to the sudden shake and tremor of the whole fragile shell as the propeller lifted clear and raced for a few seconds before submerging again in the yeasty brine. These were strange new things to him, who had never been on anything larger than an excursion boat on a sheltered lake. There was wildness in it all, and violence, and the working Continued on page 36
Continued from page 27
of great, unseen powers and—menace?
The passenger stiffened suddenly and sat upright, aural faculties tensed, as a low1, moaning sigh swept through the room. His scalp prickled. Then he sat back again. A trick of the wind, of course —but the natural pallor of his face was acute. He fought to press his mind to the subject which engrossed him, and, as it entered the well-worn channels, remembrance of his cleverness and his present and future security buttressed him. Three —no, four days more; a new life would begin, in those magical tropic lands of which he had read and dreamed. Days of sunshine and ease. Nights of warmth and southern langor, music, women, a world he was rich enough to make his own. Nothing could touch him now.
Again he smiled, and stretched luxuriously as he saw before him, in cinematic procession, a small country town_ in a snowstorm, huddled by the railroad tracks. Shunting engines threw misty golden bullseyes through the whirling flakes. He moved toward the cheery windows of the hotel, opened the door, stamping the snow from his feet, and passed through the downstairs parlor, where railroaders and village loungers gossiped and spat and played poker in an atmosphere blue with tobacco smoke and profanity.
He climbed the stairs and along a narrow, elongated hall on the third floor to a little room at the end of the ell which faced on the tracks. Quickly he entered, and closed the door. There_ was a grey square of window against which the snow lay in virginal mosaic, and within the room, darkness, and the heavy breathing of a long figure which lay in alcoholic stupor across the bed.
Quickly the killer moved, and silently. He spread his coat along the bottom of the door, pushing it firmly against the crack, and stuffed paper in the keyhole. Then, with the other man’s face a dim blur in the semi-darkness, and his finger on the trigger of a shotgun, he waited.
A yard engine came down the main track dragging a string of empties. It passed the switch, bell ringing, and backed onto the siding. Puff . . . puff . . . puff . . . puff-puff-puff-f-f-f-f ... A finger squeezing on the trigger. Puff . . . puff . . . p—! _ The squeezing finger synchronized with the crash of couplings and the thunderous jar of colliding box-cars. The figure on the bed threshed wildly, then rolled off onto the floor.
Like a shadow the other moved and placed the weapon beside his victim. No sound? Listen! A long-drawn, bubbling half groan, half sigh from dying lips. Again . . . and again. Damnation! Would he never stop? Ah! The coat was snatched from the floor, the paper from the keyhole, and the murderer was out in the hall, the door locked and the key in his pocket. He listened again, intently. There was no alarm. There would be none—yet. On his toes he returned to the door and bent his ear to the keyhole. Silence.
The bright, black eyes gleamed as he walked casually down the steps and through the crowded room, out into the snow. The wind, sweeping around the corner of the building, caught him full in the teeth and forced a cough and a gasp from tuberculous lungs. He put his head into it and plodded toward the yards. Ten minutes later over two hundred thousand dollars were riding the rods to safety.
Shorn of moustache and shell-rimmed glasses in New York three days later, Mr. Stacy engaged a room at a good but unpretentious hotel. He booked passage in person with the Caribbean's agents, the vessel then lying in the Erie Basin, and moved aboard a day before sailing, with all his effects in a second-hand trunk. He had engaged the other cabin too. through the hotel clerk, to secure himself against inquisitive fellow travelers. And now he was safe.
Ah, he was clever—clever. A sense of greatness which had been steadily growing with his recapitulation of that dark act culminated in an overwhelming wave of emotion. He laughed, drunk with self love, and arose with arms outflung in a
grandiloquent gesture, unreal, grotesque. He did not speak, but an inner voice exulted, boasted, proclaimed him omnipotent. He, he, was a mahatma of crime! With twitching skin, and spots of beating color on his high cheek-bones he breathed deeply, gulping great swallows of selfadulation. His eyes burned fanatically in a head swollen with pride. His thoughts w'ere blasphemy.
Undressing, he turned into his bunk and, switching off the light, lay still, his mind tense as a gut string, until the swinging of the ship brought on faint nausea, and with it, mental reaction. The creak of the laboring vessel dissolved, the faint thump of the watch officer’s boots on the bridge above ceased, and he fell into deep and dreamless slumber.
THE passenger awoke with a start, and sat bolt upright, stunning his head against the bottom of the upper bunk. His breath tightened, and sweat started behind his ears. The cabin was in total darkness, and a sound trailed away through his aroused consciousness like the tail of a rat disappearing into its hole. Fanic, borne of the unknown, the howling wind and that low, dread sound shook him as with icy fingers. Listen! Again, out of the night and the dark, from nowhere, from everywhere it came, half moan, half sigh, dying away like the muted string of a base viol. The passenger’s stomach quivered with dread.
With a supreme effort he switched on the light, leaped from the bed and frantically parted the curtains of the upper bunk. It was empty. The ship pitched heavily, and the glasses in the washstand rack bumped against the bulkhead. The man was forced to cling to the bunk to keep to his feet, and when he let go a sudden list flung him sprawling on the settee. He regained his feet, and was about to dare his terror and regain his bunk, when he heard it again. The warmth of the stateroom was nothing. He froze from within. He knew that sound. His mind flashed back and he stood again in that darkened room along with his victim, whose life was oozing from his lips. Something gripped the passenger then; a something that he had never before felt. Remorse? No—white fear, that twisted the soul of him and turned his blood to lymph. Madly, his brain fought for control.
A half hour passed in which he lay trembling upon his bunk, too mistrustful of the dark to switch off the light, dreading, yet longing, to hear again that sound and fasten upon it for location and analysis. It came and passed, each time wrapping him in deeper terror. Memory preyed upon him.
He staggered into the smokeroom when he could bear inaction no longer. It was in darkness and he could not find the switch. Blindly he groped, searching every corner on his knees, because he could not keep his feet. The wind was battering the thick teak door until the hook rattled. Bruised, and with fluttering hands the passenger encountered the door of the spare stateroom and entered. It, too, was in darkness. Fingers outstretched, he felt his way to the bunks and searched them, shrinking from what he might find. They were unoccupied. A pitch of the vessel slammed the door shut. As he reached for the knob something wrapped itself about his ankle. Voiceless he stooped to throttle it, but it was a towel which had fallen from the rack. His last remnant of control snapped and he uttered an inarticulate note of horror and flungopenthedoor. He ran from stateroom to smokeroom and back again, pursued always by that disembodied dribble of sound which made definite for him the vengeance of a flouted God. Desperation taking him by the throat, he threw himself against thesmokeroom door leading to the lower bridge and fell out on the deck.
A wild gust of wind and freezing sleet struck through his flimsy covering like a thousand knives as he regained his balance and, bare feet on the freezing iron plates, gaunt body whipped by the elements, he stumbled down the ladder leading to the gale-swept boat deck, shouting incoherencies. A watchful seaman, who had been sitting in the galley,
caught him in brawny arms just as he flung himself over the rail.
“T TE’S Casson, right enough,” the Il Captain told the Chief Engineer next morning as they stood in the lee of the w'heelhouse and the Caribbean plunged through a day bright with sunlight and wind. “They brought him to my cabin last night after he tried to throw himself in the ditch, and he confessed the whole yarn.”
He stopped and crammed tobacco in the blackened bowl of his pipe with a wind-ship sailor’s flattened thumb, then went on:
“He planned the steal for months, making periodic trips to a town a few hundred miles away, where he established another name, bank account and identity, posing as a fairly prosperous farmer. Then, when his plot was ripe he slung his hook with the money, and took up his second identity wholly unsuspected.”
“Aye, but the suicide—”
“I’m coming to that, Mister. He knew that the only way to stop pursuit for good was to die, so he planned to die—by proxy. He picked on this place, Tillbury, as one that would suit his purpose, being near the railway, where there was likely to be plenty of noise, not many people to see him, and a good avenue of escape, d’ye see? Then, by digging around employment bureaus and the like, he got hold of a fellow resembling himself in appearance—a drunken sot out of a job and ready to do anything for the sake of a
dollar bill and a drink—particularly the drink. So, between whisky and promises he tricked him into getting in his car that night and they drove to Tillbury in the blizzard.”
“How did he get this fellow up to the room without being seen, then?”
“Casson put the car in the garage. The other poor fellow was lying in the back under a robe, stupefied. It was easy then for Casson, after he’d got the location of his room, to lug the other fellow up the side stairs, what with the snow and dark and all, without attracting attention. And then he did him in. Eh, man, what a cold-livered dog he is; But what I cannot understand, Mister, is why he gave way at this stage, when he was well on the road to safety, and all that money in his trunk. He’d have got clear and started afresh down yonder, with no one ever the wiser. Eh?”
“Ask the Almighty, sir. His will He works in devious ways.”
“Aye, well, we’ll never know.” The Captain paused.
The wheelsman who, in his eagerness to overhear further details of what had already set the fo’castle agog, had allowed the vessel to fall off her course, spun the wheel over to bring her back. As he did so a prolonged and hollow groan came from the standard. The Captain turned.
“By the way, Chief,” he said as the other started down the ladder, “I wish ye’d see to having that steering gear repacked. It’s worked loose again, and making a devil of a row. Hear it?”