THE PUZZLING PASSENGER
“Stop him,” the second officer yelled, “he’s going to jump overboard!”
The man who dashed past him and through a group of passengers waving hands at friends on the deck below, was too quick for those who sought to stay him. He balanced himself for a moment on the rail and then jumped ten feet down to the pier.
The gangplanks had already been withdrawn and the great liner bound for New York was too mighty a piece of momentum to pause now. Furthermore her commander was going down the river on a favoring tide and nothing short of a signal from the port authorities would have made him put back for a passenger who had chosen such a singular moment for a leap into the dark.
An hour or so later in the smoking room the disappearance was discussed with fervor. A collar manufacturer of Troy, named Colliver, was holding his group for the reason he had been standing by the rail when the young man jumped and had even sought to restrain him.
“He was too quick for me,” Colliver declared. “I surely thought he’d hurt himself jumping ten feet down.”
“What did he do after he jumped?” a man demanded.
“Picked himself up and looked around as if he expected to see someone. The last I saw of him was going from group to group of people asking something I couldn’t hear.”
“Very mysterious,” another passenger commented. “I don’t believe he was crazy. I believe he jumped off just at the right moment—for him. I believe we shall find he took some loot with him. The purser is making an investigation now.”
“I’ve got a theory,” another smoker asserted. “I was just going to ask him for a light when he began that run down the deck to the rail and believe me he can sprint. Just as I was about to open my mouth I saw his face suddenly change. Evidently he had seen or heard something that frightened him.”
“So he ran away from danger?” Colliver added. “That might be. I tell you on a big boat like this we are surrounded by crooks, male and female, and they look on us as their lawful prey. He might have been a gambler who spotted a victim he was afraid of.”
“Or a murderer,” a Harvard theologian replied nervously. “I never feel really safe on a great liner like this. We all have to take one another on trust. I have been introduced to you gentlemen as a professor of pastoral theology. I may be a professional[Pg 3] murderer for all you know. Mr. Colliver here isn’t known to me personally and he may be a really high class bank robber for all I can tell.”
Mr. Colliver took the suggestion sourly.
“Everybody in Troy knows me,” he replied with dignity.
“Exactly,” the theologian answered. “But Troy is not on the ship’s passenger lists to any such extent as to corroborate your statement. There may be Harvard men on board who know me by name but for all they know I may be made up to represent Professor Sedgely so as to gain your confidence and rob you.”
“My collars encircle the necks of more men than those of any other maker,” said Colliver quoting one of his advertisements. “My name is known everywhere. No man is perfectly dressed without my collars. I presented a swimming pool to Troy and there isn’t a man or woman in the city but would resent any slur on me.”
“My dear sir,” said the professor smiling, “I am not attacking your good name or your city’s fame. I am only saying that if you were crossing with the idea of making a killing at games of chance I should not benefit because you assumed the name of one who ornaments the cervical vertebræ of perfectly dressed men. I only meant that anything can take place on a ship such as this is and that this man who escaped tonight may have done so to avoid capture and possible imprisonment or even death.”
“He is probably in prison now,” Professor Sedgely remarked.
“You certainly have a cheerful mind,” Colliver commented.
“I read for mental relaxation the lightest forms of fiction,” the professor answered, “and I am prepared for anything. I maintain that every passenger on a fast ship like this is regarded as a possible victim by the cleverest criminals in existence. For myself I have nothing of value, being poorly paid, but our friend there who has so finely benefitted his home city wears a diamond pin of great value. Furthermore there is a sapphire set in platinum on his finger which might well tempt the professional robber.”
“Say,” said Colliver a little uneasily, “you’re observant all right. Anything else you saw?”
“That you have a gold cigar case with initials in emeralds. I have,” the professor said modestly, “trained my powers of observation. I do it to protect myself.”
He rose from his chair and bowed a courteous goodnight to the immediate group and then went on deck.
“I don’t trust that man,” said the manufacturer. “I never trust any man on a ship who wears smoked glasses. He wanted to conceal his eyes. I’ll bet he never saw Harvard except on a picture postal. Damn it!” Colliver cried peevishly, “Why can’t a man wear a passable ring and stickpin without it attracting the attention of other people?”
The Harvard theologian had sown seeds of suspicion. Colliver, as amiable a manufacturer of collars as any in Troy, looked over at Myers Irving who ran an advertising agency in New York and suspected him of being a confidence man.
“It’s a pretty good looking ring,” Irving said heartily. He wished he had one like it. Now that he knew who Colliver was he thirsted after his account. His overtures were accepted with marked reserve and a gloom fell upon the party until the entrance of the genial purser.
“Who was the mysterious man?” Colliver asked.
“His name was Anthony Trent,” said the purser.
A man in the uniform of a captain in the United States army who had been playing solitaire and had taken no part in this talk, looked up with such sudden interest at the name that the purser turned to him.
“Do you know Anthony Trent?” he demanded.
“Yes,” said Captain Sutton, “I do.”
“Can you think of any reason why he should jump ashore just as we were starting for the Hudson River?”
“He might have been saying goodbye to his best girl and taken no heed of the warning to go ashore.”
“That won’t do,” the purser declared. “All his kit is in his stateroom and he had already seen his table steward and arranged about his seat. He went off on the impulse of the moment and I’d like to know what that impulse was.”
“Has anyone missed anything?” Colliver asked.
“Don’t know,” the purser said. “Haven’t heard of anything so far. I wirelessed the office and the pier superintendent and they have lost all trace of him. The last they heard of him was that he was seen offering a taxicab driver double fare to drive fast.”
“He saw someone on the ship he was afraid of,” Colliver said with the air of one called upon to solve a deep mystery.
The purser was determined not to let Captain Sutton get back to his solitaire.
“I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you more about your friend,” he said smiling, “the whole thing is so unusual that the old man wants a thorough investigation. In confidence, is there anything fishy about this Anthony Trent?”
“In confidence, I may tell you,” Captain Sutton answered, “but my confidence will be in the captain’s cabin and not here.”
“Do you think we’d say anything to anyone about it?” Colliver demanded. He feared he was to be robbed of interesting details.
“I’m a lawyer by profession,” Captain Sutton returned, “and I know how people talk even when they mean to be silent. Anthony Trent is a friend of mine and I shall constitute myself his counsel. He served under me in the war, was recommended for a commission, and won the Croix de Guerre. He is an American with enough money to play golf and flyfish for trout all he wants to. He was in a hospital in the Isle of Wight for three months after being wounded and I had a letter from him saying[Pg 7] he would come over on this ship. I came by Liverpool just because I wanted to see him; and when I didn’t see him at dinner I thought he had changed his plans. I can give no reason why he should have left the boat in the manner he did but as a lawyer I can assure the company that it is his affair and not theirs.”
The purser was skilled in the ways of human beings. He had not straightened out difficulties for his company on half a thousand trips across the Atlantic for nothing. He could see plainly enough that Captain Sutton knew something about Anthony Trent that he would not tell the captain or anyone else unless process of law compelled. There had been a quick look of fear on his face when he realized Trent was the man of whom the group about him had been speaking. Whether Captain Sutton knew the reason why his friend had leapt from the ship’s rail was doubtful; but that the act had conjured up sudden fear gave the purser food for thought.
“The company certainly does not want to bring suit against a passenger who has paid for a high priced state room and a number of excellent meals and refuses to benefit by them. The old man was annoyed that everyone was talking about it at his table and he wasn’t able to get off his little crop of chestnuts as usual. He’d appreciate it if you would tell him what you know about Mr. Trent.”
“If I see him it will be as Mr. Trent’s lawyer,” Sutton retorted.
The purser looked at him keenly.
“So you admit,” he said genially, “that this mysterious Anthony Trent needs a defender?”
“I admit nothing of the sort,” Sutton replied quickly. But he felt he had not conducted the affair with his usual skill. “There’s been a lot of hot air talked about crimes on board ship and I’m not going to have my friend’s name linked with that sort of thing.”
“Of course not,” the purser agreed. “I can understand why you come to the rescue; still there is bound to be some misunderstanding about a man who leaves all his baggage behind and takes a desperate jump as he did.”
“He saw someone on this ship he was afraid of,” Colliver insisted. “It might have been you for all I know.”
“What do you mean by that?” Sutton demanded and flushed dusky red.
Colliver was amazed at the sudden heat. The purser was more interested than ever. He would have been even more amazed if he had known that Captain Sutton honestly believed that it was because Anthony Trent had seen him face to face that he had escaped. The letter of which he had spoken was non-existent. He had lied because of the man whom he had, for the first time, claimed as his friend.
Sutton had been the officer; Trent the enlisted man and the discipline of the service prevented a friendship that would have been possible in other days and, now war was finished, might again become practicable. The space of an hour was the time[Pg 9] the officer had been with the man and yet he was determined to fight for his interests. And he suddenly realized that he had begun his fight by antagonizing a very shrewd purser.
“My dear sir,” the purser said gently, “I am sure you are taking this too much to heart. Nobody is accusing your client of anything more serious than risking a broken leg which, after all, is more his affair than even his counsel’s. Captain Kingscote will ask you a few questions which you must understand, as a lawyer, a ship’s commander ought to ask. There is such a thing as a log and it has to be written correctly. Tomorrow morning perhaps? You will be offered an excellent cigar and a drink that you can’t get in all the length and breadth of your native land.”
“Any time at all,” Sutton answered with an effort to be as genial as the purser. “I only resented the idle chatter that centred around a man who fought very gallantly.”
“If you mean me by that reference,” Colliver said angrily, “I’d like to say that I have as much right to talk as anyone on board.”
“Certainly,” said Myers Irving, “and I can’t see why anyone wants to get excited about it. It was that professor who began it. Mr. Colliver what do you say to a little smile?”
Colliver looked at the card Irving handed to him. He did not like advertising men as a rule but he felt this debonair head of a big agency was an exception. He had come to the aid of big business.
“It must be the salt in the air,” he confessed, “I don’t mind if I do.”
Left to himself Sutton closed his eyes and lived over again those moments in France when Anthony Trent had been brought before him as adjutant on extraordinary charges.
Once or twice he had seen Private Trent and had been vaguely reminded of a forgotten face. It was only when Anthony Trent had been recommended for promotion and had declined it that he remembered the name. Trent had been the Dartmouth football captain in that historic year when Harvard was humbled. Sutton, a graduate of ten years previously, had shouted himself hoarse at the great run by which Trent had passed the crimson score.
Private Trent had been chosen on very dangerous business and the adjutant had no chance to speak to him as he had determined to do. Anthony Trent was one of those who volunteered to clean up machine gun nests left behind to harass the advancing troops of the Allies. He had done so well that Captain Sutton was proud of him for the sake of the old college in Hanover.
He remembered the shock he had when Lieutenant Devlin, a former detective in New York and a man to whom he was not drawn, declared that this same Anthony Trent was the most famous criminal of the day, a master craftsman who had never been in police toils.
Sutton laughed at the very suggestion. It was absurd. Devlin’s answer to this made the soldier-lawyer[Pg 11] less confident. Devlin said that Dr. Trent had left his son but a few hundred dollars and a rambling mortgaged home among New Hampshire hills. Young Trent had come to New York and settled down to writing detective and criminal stories for the lesser magazines. Then, suddenly, an Australian relative had died and left him a fortune. This was a lie, Devlin declared. There was no such relation. It was done to explain his sudden giving up of writing and living in a far better style.
Trent owned, so the detective asserted, a beautiful camp on Kennebago Lake in Maine, two automobiles and sundry other aids to a comfortable existence which his writings would never have gained for him.
Still disbelieving, Captain Sutton was shown the dying depositions of an English soldier who had been butler to a New York millionaire whose house had been robbed. Austin, the butler, had seen Trent and assumed him to be a friend of his employer. He had recognized him when British and American troops were brigaded side by side and had told only Devlin a detective who had worked on the case.
Evidence at last seemed conclusive. Devlin, dying in hospital wished for the downfall of a man who had beaten him in three big cases. The adjutant remembered well one case when the Dangerfield ruby worth almost two hundred thousand dollars was taken.
Private Trent seemed quite calm. He assured his officer that these charges were preposterous. “What else could they be?” he had asked.
“They might be the truth,” Sutton had said gravely.
He remembered the visit to the hospital where Devlin lay dying but eager to sign the testimony he had woven about his enemy. The ending of the incident was very curious. It made him like Devlin after all. When Devlin knew his end was come and the last rites of his church had been administered he had given up his plans for revenge. He had looked into the fearless eyes of the master criminal and he had seen there an unconquerable spirit which he admired. And so, with his last effort he had torn up the written evidence and declared that Anthony Trent was not the man; that it was all a mistake.
Sutton remembered the relief with which he had put his hand on the shoulder of the younger man and that he had said, “Trent, you were in luck this time. Don’t take a chance again.”
After the signing of peace he had determined to look up the old athlete and see if he could not offer him such opportunities that he could go straight. Sutton was a man of immense wealth and had mining properties in South America which needed supervision.
And now to find that Trent was aboard the ship and at the last moment had risked a broken limb in order to escape. It was not likely that a man who feared detection so much dare rely on the generosity of a man who knew his secret. There were probably rewards for his capture which, in the aggregate, offered immense inducement to deliver Anthony[Pg 13] Trent to justice. How was Trent to know that Sutton the adjutant was financially secure enough to make the sacrifice? Undoubtedly he had seen Sutton and made the desperate leap.
Sutton determined to safeguard his interests. The baggage for instance, that should not be searched. There might be in it evidence as damaging as that which the brothers of Joseph put into the younger’s sack. It would be far better to see the captain and make a friend of him. Why had not Trent been a better reader of character and recognized that in Captain Sutton he had a friend?
Sutton did not know that long ago Trent had seen that in the rich lawyer there was one whom he need not fear. Few were more skilled than the master criminal in the reading of those signs by which men reveal for a second or so the depths of their natures.
Anthony Trent had not jumped from the rails of the big ship because he had seen Sutton. He had no idea his old adjutant was on board. He had not jumped ashore because of any person on the liner. He took his reckless leap because among those who waited on the pier he heard the voice of the one man he feared, the man he had been trying to find since that day in France when death seemed at last to have claimed him.
Categories: English Literature