Frédéric Boutet: The Passenger (complete)
This story is long past…it took place nearly forty years ago. We were told it by one Captain Marius Cazavan, retired, of Marseille.
“But I recall everything as though it were yesterday. I sailed for a firm out of Bordeaux, second in command aboard the Phoenix. My uncle, Captain Borel, her master…”
We were weighing anchor when the passenger arrived. He came in a launch with only a small suitcase, and insisted we embark him, offered to pay extra for his passage to Pernambuco, our destination. He was an odd fellow, with a restless air, at the same time resolute. As often we accepted passengers on our cargo ship, and as my uncle beyond this question of money looked no further, we took him aboard.
He was not troublesome. We allowed him a small cabin, unoccupied, on the deck; and for the first twenty-four hours he did not come out. He barely ate. He told us he was seasick, but had brought along what he needed.
The third day, in the morning, the captain called me into his cabin. I found him in distress. “Do you know who our passenger is?” Abruptly, he told me: “He is a murderer!”
“Oh, it’s certain. He’s the one they’re searching for…he was a doctor in Paris, and he poisoned a woman, to steal from her. His name is Leclanchy, not Morin, as he says.”
“You know this…how?”
“By the newspaper. The one we carry, that I couldn’t read until last night. It recounts the crime…it says the murderer has fled, that beyond doubt he’ll seek to embark from a southwestern port. They had found his tracks, then lost them. They give his description…our passenger! He has cut his beard, but it’s him. Besides, I’ve seen him.”
“You’ve seen him?”
“Yes, last night. I saw him by a crack in his cabin wall. He had hooked a curtain across the door, but I saw him all the same. He was sewing jewelry into the waistband of his pants. Him! It’s sure as sure.”
“But not sure,” I said. “You saw him, and it’s possible…but you can’t accuse a man of such things without real proofs.”
“Proofs, proofs…I’ll get them. Soon enough, I’ll have others… He’ll slip, betray himself. And you may well suppose I won’t be his accomplice or his dupe, letting him escape at the first port. But for the moment, you know, he’s going nowhere. He’s keeping himself locked away.”
The passenger’s voluntary seclusion did not last. Two days later, relieved of seasickness, he strolled the deck, engaged in conversation with us, told us he’d got his sea-legs. He passed pleasantries and related his affairs, said that he was agent for a watchmaker, and was sent to establish an important outlet at Rio de Janeiro. But neither my uncle nor I were men who could dissimulate, as would have been necessary to trick him into giving himself away. He quickly perceived there was something, and from that point grew reserved with us, which…although we might explain this as the anxiety of a guilty man feeling himself suspected…might have been vexation at finding his advances repulsed. Besides, I read the newspaper’s description myself, of the murdering doctor Leclanchy, and I was less certain than my uncle that here could be recognized our passenger, the agent Morin.
Several days passed, in such doubt and worry that I have never made a more punishing journey despite magnificent weather, and the Phoenix so trim it ought to have been a lark. In the second week came the event I have never forgotten. The cabin boy fell ill…after a short time, very ill. He had fever and his throat was filled by a membrane. I knew enough to name this disease diphtheria, but that was all I knew. No one on board was able to treat it. He was a good lad, loved by all, and we could only watch him dying. That he must die soon became obvious. It was an afternoon, we were all around him, and he suffocated, frightful to see.
“The passenger,” the captain said to me all at once, in a voice rough with emotion.
“If it’s him, he is a doctor.”
“But if it’s him, he’ll never betray himself…” I began.
At that moment, I was pushed aside. The passenger surveyed the cabin and approached the bed. He held a box of polished instruments. Without looking at us, he leaned to the sufferer, made some brief and expert movements. Blood fountained, and through the opened throat, the dying cabin boy breathed in life.
A few minutes later, and the surgeon had finished his work.
“I think he’ll come out of it,” he murmured between his teeth. He stood and looked the captain in the face, with an air of defiance and resolve. “I am a doctor.”
The captain jumped on him and kissed him. Next he pushed him off in horror, and fled to his cabin.
The boy healed. The passenger was for days attentive to his care. He spoke to no one, not even the sailors who’d heard nothing, and everyone held him in respect and admiration.
The captain was prey to contradictory sentiments. He did not make me party to his thoughts, but not a moment of rest did he enjoy, and I heard him in his cabin debate aloud…over what you might call a matter of conscience. One morning, he at last decided. In my company, he went to find the passenger.
“M. Morin,” he said, barely looking at him. “I think it will not be to your advantage to disembark at Pernambuco, where they wait for us. I will take a side trip to Caracas, which is a beautiful city you may love to visit. What do you think?”
“I am at your command,” answered the passenger.
And so it was that the crime of Dr. Leclanchy, which made so much noise in its day, went unpunished, and when our passenger left us at Venezuela, we never heard another word of him. But when we were at sea, between the sky and the waves, far from the crimes of the earth, the captain put his hand on my shoulder and said:
“He cut short a human life, but he saved another, despite the risk. I think that must make a balance… But listen to me well, my boy. Never again, you hear me, never again, will I take on a passenger.”
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)