Jacques Futrelle.

The Chase of the Golden Plate



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Hatch was listening with mouth open.

"Suppose we begin now," continued The Thinking Machine, "by finding out the name of the physician who treated Mr. Herbert's wound last Thursday night. Mr. Herbert may have a reason for keeping the identity of this physician secret, but, perhaps – wait a minute," and the scientist disappeared into the next room. He was gone for five minutes. "See if the physician who treated the wound wasn't Dr. Clarence Walpole."

The reporter blinked a little.

"Right," he said. "What next?"

"Ask him something about the nature of the wound and all the usual questions."

Hatch nodded.

"Then," resumed The Thinking Machine casually, "bring me some of Mr. Herbert's blood."

The reporter blinked a good deal, and gulped twice.

"How much?" he inquired briskly.

"A single drop on a small piece of glass will do very nicely," replied the scientist.

CHAPTER II

The Supreme Police Intelligence of the Metropolitan District was doing some heavy thinking, which, modestly enough, bore generally on his own dazzling perspicacity. Just at the moment he couldn't recall any detector of crime whose lustre in any way dimmed his own, or whose mere shadow, even, had a right to fall on the same earth as his; and this lapse of memory so stimulated his admiration for the subject of his thoughts that he lighted a fresh cigar and put his feet in the middle of the desk.

He sat thus when The Thinking Machine called. The Supreme Intelligence – Mr. Mallory – knew Professor Van Dusen well, and, though he received his visitor graciously, he showed no difficulty in restraining any undue outburst of enthusiasm. Instead, the same admirable self-control which prevented him from outwardly evidencing his pleasure prompted him to square back in his chair with a touch of patronising aggressiveness in his manner.

"Ah, Professor," was his noncommittal greeting.

"Good-evening, Mr. Mallory," responded the scientist in the thin, irritated voice which always set Mr. Mallory's nerves a-jangle. "I don't suppose you would tell me by what steps you were led to arrest Mr. Herbert?"

"I would not," declared Mr. Mallory promptly.

"No, nor would you inform me of the nature of the evidence against him in addition to the jewels and plate found in his possession?"

"I would not," replied Mr. Mallory again.

"No, I thought perhaps you would not," remarked The Thinking Machine. "I understand, by the way, that one of your men took a leather cushion from the automobile in which the thieves escaped on the night of the ball?"

"Well, what of it?" demanded the detective.

"I merely wanted to inquire if it would be permissible for me to see that cushion?"

Detective Mallory glared at him suspiciously, then slowly his heavy face relaxed, and he laughed as he arose and produced the cushion.

"If you're trying to make any mystery of this cushion, you're in bad," he informed the scientist.

"We know the owner of the automobile in which Herbert and the Girl escaped. The cushion means nothing."

The Thinking Machine examined the heavy leather carefully and paid a great deal of attention to the crusted stains which it bore. He picked at one of the brown spots with his penknife and it flaked off in his hand.

"Herbert was caught with the goods on," declared the detective, and he thumped the desk with his lusty fist. "We've got the right man."

"Yes," admitted The Thinking Machine, "it begins to look very much as if you did have the right man – for once."

Detective Mallory snorted.

"Would you mind telling me if any of the jewelry you found in Mr. Herbert's possession has been identified?"

"Sure thing," replied the detective. "That's where I've got Herbert good. Four people who lost jewelry at the masked ball have appeared and claimed pieces of the stuff."

For an instant a slightly perplexed wrinkle appeared in the brow of The Thinking Machine, and as quickly it passed.

"Of course, of course," he mused.

"It's the biggest haul of stolen goods the police of this city have made for many years," the detective volunteered complacently. "And, if I'm not wrong, there's more of it coming – no man knows how much more. Why, Herbert must have been operating for years, and he got away with it, of course, by the gentlemanly exterior, the polish, and all that. I consider his capture the most important that has happened since I have been connected with the police."

"Indeed?" inquired the scientist thoughtfully. He was still gazing at the cushion.

"And the most important development of all is to come," Detective Mallory rattled on. "That will be the real sensation, and make the arrest of Herbert seem purely incidental. It now looks as if there would be another arrest of a – of a person who is so high socially, and all that – "

"Yes," interrupted The Thinking Machine, "but do you think it would be wise to arrest her now?"

"Her?" demanded Detective Mallory. "What do you know of any woman?"

"You were speaking of Miss Dorothy Meredith, weren't you?" inquired The Thinking Machine blandly. "Well, I merely asked if you thought it would be wise for your men to go so far as to arrest her."

The detective bit his cigar in two in obvious perturbation.

"How – how – did you happen to know her name?" he demanded.

"Oh, Mr. Hatch mentioned it to me," replied the scientist. "He has known of her connection with the case for several days, as well as Herbert's, and has talked to them both, I think."

The Supreme Intelligence was nearly apoplectic.

"If Hatch knew it why didn't he tell me?" he thundered.

"Really, I don't know," responded the scientist. "Perhaps," he added curtly, "he may have had some absurd notion that you would find it out for yourself. He has strange ideas like that sometimes."

And when Detective Mallory had fully recovered The Thinking Machine was gone.

Meanwhile Hatch had seen and questioned Dr. Clarence Walpole in the latter's office, only a stone's throw from Dick Herbert's home. Had Doctor Walpole recently dressed a wound for Mr. Herbert? Doctor Walpole had. A wound caused by a pistol-bullet? Yes.

"When was it, please?" asked Hatch.

"Only a few nights ago."

"Thursday night, perhaps?"

Doctor Walpole consulted a desk-diary.

"Yes, Thursday night, or rather Friday morning," he replied. "It was between two and three o'clock. He came here and I fixed him up."

"Where was the wound, please?"

"In the right shoulder," replied the physician, "just here," and he touched the reporter with one finger. "It wasn't dangerous, but he had lost considerable blood."

Hatch was silent for a moment, dazed. Every new point piled up the evidence against Herbert. The location of the wound – a pistol-wound – the very hour of the dressing of it! Dick would have had plenty of time between the moment of the robbery, which was comparatively early, and the hour of his call on Doctor Walpole to do all those things which he was suspected of doing.

"I don't suppose Mr. Herbert explained how he got the wound?" Hatch asked apprehensively. He was afraid he had.

"No. I asked, but he evaded the question. It was, of course, none of my business, after I had extracted the bullet and dressed the hurt."

"You have the bullet?"

"Yes. It's the usual size – thirty-two calibre."

That was all. The prosecution was in, the case proven, the verdict rendered. Ten minutes later Hatch's name was announced to Dick Herbert. Dick received him gloomily, shook hands with him, then resumed his interrupted pacing.

"I had declined to see men from other papers," he said wearily.

"Now, look here, Dick," expostulated Hatch, "don't you want to make some statement of your connection with this affair? I honestly believe that if you did it would help you."

"No, I cannot make any statement – that's all." Dick's hand closed fiercely. "I can't," he added, "and there's no need to talk of it." He continued his pacing for a moment or so; then turned on the reporter. "Do you believe me guilty?" he demanded abruptly.

"I can't believe anything else," Hatch replied falteringly. "But at that I don't want to believe it." There was an embarrassed pause. "I have just seen Dr. Clarence Walpole."

"Well?" Dick wheeled on him angrily.

"What he said alone would convict you, even if the stuff had not been found here," Hatch replied.

"Are you trying to convict me?" Dick demanded.

"I'm trying to get the truth," remarked Hatch.

"There is just one man in the world whom I must see before the truth can ever be told," declared Dick vehemently. "And I can't find him now. I don't know where he is!"

"Let me find him. Who is he? What's his name?"

"If I told you that I might as well tell you everything," Dick went on. "It was to prevent any mention of that name that I have allowed myself to be placed in this position. It is purely a personal matter between us – at least I will make it so – and if I ever meet him – " his hands closed and unclosed spasmodically, "the truth will be known unless I – I kill him first."

More bewildered, more befuddled, and more generally betangled than ever, Hatch put his hands to his head to keep it from flying off. Finally he glanced around at Dick, who stood with clenched fists and closed teeth. A blaze of madness lay in Dick's eyes.

"Have you seen Miss Meredith again?" inquired the reporter.

Dick burst out laughing.

Half an hour later Hatch left him. On the glass top of an inkstand he carried three precious drops of Herbert's blood.

CHAPTER III

Faithfully, phonographically even, Hatch repeated to The Thinking Machine the conversation he had had with Doctor Walpole, indicating on the person of the eminent scientist the exact spot of the wound as Doctor Walpole had indicated it to him. The scientist listened without comment to the recital, casually studying meanwhile the three crimson drops on the glass.

"Every step I take forward is a step backward," the reporter declared in conclusion with a helpless grin. "Instead of showing that Dick Herbert might not have stolen the plate I am proving conclusively that he was the thief – nailing it to him so hard that he can't possibly get out of it." He was silent a moment. "If I keep on long enough," he added glumly, "I'll hang him."

The Thinking Machine squinted at him aggressively.

"You still don't believe him guilty?" he asked.

"Why, I – I – I – " Hatch burst out savagely. "Damn it, I don't know what I believe," he tapered off. "It's absolutely impossible!"

"Nothing is impossible, Mr. Hatch," snapped The Thinking Machine irritably. "The worst a problem can be is difficult, but all problems can be solved as inevitably as that two and two make four – not sometimes, but all the time. Please don't say things are impossible. It annoys me exceedingly."

Hatch stared at his distinguished friend and smiled whimsically. He was also annoyed exceedingly on his own private, individual account – the annoyance that comes from irresistibly butting into immovable facts.

"Doctor Walpole's statement," The Thinking Machine went on after a moment, "makes this particular problem ludicrously simple. Two points alone show conclusively that Mr. Herbert was not the man in the automobile. I shall reach the third myself."

Hatch didn't say anything. The English language is singularly inadequate at times, and if he had spoken he would have had to invent a phraseology to convey even a faint glimmer of what he really thought.

"Now, Mr. Hatch," resumed the scientist, quite casually, "I understand you graduated from Harvard in ninety-eight. Yes? Well, Herbert was a classmate of yours there. Please obtain for me one of the printed lists of students who were in Harvard that year – a complete list."

"I have one at home," said the reporter.

"Get it, please, immediately, and return here," instructed the scientist.

Hatch went out and The Thinking Machine disappeared into his laboratory. He remained there for one hour and forty-seven minutes by the clock. When he came out he found the reporter sitting in the reception-room again, holding his head. The scientist's face was as blankly inscrutable as ever.

"Here is the list," said Hatch as he handed it over.

The Thinking Machine took it in his long, slender fingers and turned two or three leaves. Finally he stopped and ran a finger down one page.

"Ah," he exclaimed at last. "I thought so."

"Thought what?" asked Hatch curiously.

"I'm going out to see Mr. Meredith now," remarked The Thinking Machine irrelevantly. "Come along. Have you met him?"

"No."

Mr. Meredith had read the newspaper accounts of the arrest of Dick Herbert and the seizure of the gold plate and jewels; he had even taunted his charming daughter with it in a fatherly sort of a way. She was weeping, weeping her heart out over this latest proof of the perfidy and loathsomeness of the man she loved. Incidentally, it may be mentioned here that the astute Mr. Meredith was not aware of any elopement plot – either the first or second.

When a card bearing the name of Mr. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen was handed to Mr. Meredith he went wonderingly into the reception-room. There was a pause as the scientist and Mr. Meredith mentally sized each other up; then introductions – and The Thinking Machine came down to business abruptly, as always.

"May I ask, Mr. Meredith," he began, "how many sons you have?"

"One," replied Mr. Meredith, puzzled.

"May I ask his present address?" went on the scientist.

Mr. Meredith studied the belligerent eyes of his caller and wondered what business it was of his, for Mr. Meredith was a belligerent sort of a person himself.

"May I ask," he inquired with pronounced emphasis on the personal pronoun, "why you want to know?"

Hatch rubbed his chin thoughtfully. He was wondering what would happen to him when the cyclone struck.

"It may save him and you a great deal of annoyance if you will give me his address," said The Thinking Machine. "I desire to communicate with him immediately on a matter of the utmost importance – a purely personal matter."

"Personal matter?" repeated Mr. Meredith. "Your abruptness and manner, sir, were not calculated to invite confidence."

The Thinking Machine bowed gravely.

"May I ask your son's address?" he repeated.

Mr. Meredith considered the matter at some length and finally arrived at the conclusion that he might ask.

"He is in South America at present – Buenos Ayres," he replied.

"What?" exclaimed The Thinking Machine so suddenly that both Hatch and Mr. Meredith started a little. "What?" he repeated, and wrinkles suddenly appeared in the domelike brow.

"I said he was in South America – Buenos Ayres," repeated Mr. Meredith stiffly, but a little awed. "A letter or cable to him in care of the American Consul at Buenos Ayres will reach him promptly."

The Thinking Machine's narrow eyes were screwed down to the disappearing point, the slender white fingers were twiddled jerkily, the corrugations remained in his brow.

"How long has Mr. Meredith been there?" he asked at last.

"Three months."

"Do you know he is there?"

Mr. Meredith started to say something and swallowed it with an effort.

"I know it positively, yes," he replied. "I received this letter dated the second from him three days ago, and to-day I received a cable-dispatch forwarded to me here from Baltimore."

"Are you positive the letter is in your son's handwriting?"

Mr. Meredith almost choked in mingled bewilderment and resentment at the question and the manner of its asking.

"I am positive, yes," he replied at last, preserving his tone of dignity with a perceptible effort. He noted the inscrutable face of his caller and saw the corrugations in the brow suddenly swept away. "What business of yours is it, anyway?" blazed Mr. Meredith suddenly.

"May I ask where you were last Thursday night?" went on the even, steady voice.

"It's no business of yours," Mr. Meredith blurted. "I was in Baltimore."

"Can you prove it in a court of law?"

"Prove it? Of course I can prove it!" Mr. Meredith was fairly bellowing at his impassive interrogator. "But it's nobody's business."

"If you can prove it, Mr. Meredith," remarked The Thinking Machine quietly, coldly, "you had best make your arrangements to do so, because, believe me, it may be necessary to save you from a charge of having stolen the Randolph gold plate on last Thursday night at the masked ball. Good-day, sir."

CHAPTER IV

"But Mr. Herbert won't see anyone, sir," protested Blair.

"Tell Mr. Herbert, please, that unless I can see him immediately his bail-bond will be withdrawn," directed The Thinking Machine.

He stood waiting in the hall while Blair went up the stairs. Dick Herbert took the card impatiently and glanced at it.

"Van Dusen," he mused. "Who the deuce is Van Dusen?"

Blair repeated the message he had received below.

"What does he look like?" inquired Dick.

"He's a shrivelled little man with a big yellow head, sir," replied Blair.

"Let him come up," instructed Dick.

Thus, within an hour after he had talked to Mr. Meredith, The Thinking Machine met Dick Herbert.

"What's this about the bail-bond?" Dick inquired.

"I wanted to talk to you," was the scientist's calm reply. "That seemed to be the easiest way to make you believe it was important, so – "

Dick's face flushed crimson at the trick.

"Well, you see me!" he broke out angrily. "I ought to throw you down the stairs, but – what is it?"

Not having been invited to a seat, The Thinking Machine took one anyway and settled himself comfortably.

"If you will listen to me for a moment without interruption," he began testily, "I think the subject of my remarks will be of deep personal concern to you. I am interested in solving this Randolph plate affair and have perhaps gone further in my investigation than anyone else. At least, I know more about it. There are some things I don't happen to know, however, that are of the greatest importance."

"I tell you – " stormed Dick.

"For instance," calmly resumed the scientist, "it is very important for me to know whether or not Harry Meredith was masked when he came into this room last Thursday night."

Dick gazed at him in surprise which approached awe. His eyes were widely distended, the lower part of his face lax, for the instant; then his white teeth closed with a snap and he sat down opposite The Thinking Machine. Anger had gone from his manner; instead there was a pallor of apprehension in the clean-cut face.

"Who are you, Mr. Van Dusen?" he asked at last. His tone was mild, even deferential.

"Was he masked?" insisted the scientist.

For a long while Dick was silent. Finally he arose and paced nervously back and forth across the room, glancing at the diminutive figure of The Thinking Machine each time as he turned.

"I won't say anything," he decided.

"Will you name the cause of the trouble you and Meredith had in Harvard?" asked the scientist.

Again there was a long pause.

"No," Dick said finally.

"Did it have anything to do with theft?"

"I don't know who you are or why you are prying into an affair that, at least on its face, does not concern you," replied Dick. "I'll say nothing at all – unless – unless you produce the one man who can and shall explain this affair. Produce him here in this room where I can get my hands on him!"

The Thinking Machine squinted at the sturdy shoulders with admiration in his face.

"Did it ever happen to occur to you, Mr. Herbert, that Harry Meredith and his father are precisely of the same build?"

Some nameless, impalpable expression crept into Dick's face despite an apparent fight to restrain it, and again he stared at the small man in the chair.

"And that you and Mr. Meredith are practically of the same build?"

Tormented by unasked questions and by those emotions which had compelled him to silence all along, Dick still paced back and forth. His head was whirling. The structure which he had so carefully guarded was tumbling about his ears. Suddenly he stopped and turned upon The Thinking Machine.

"Just what do you know of this affair?" he asked.

"I know for one thing," replied the scientist positively, "that you were not the man in the automobile."

"How do you know that?"

"That's beside the question just now."

"Do you know who was in the automobile?" Dick insisted.

"I can only answer that question when you have answered mine," the scientist went on. "Was Harry Meredith masked when he entered this room last Thursday night?"

Dick sat staring down at his hands, which were working nervously. Finally he nodded.

The Thinking Machine understood.

"You recognised him, then, by something he said or wore?"

Again Dick nodded reluctantly.

"Both," he added.

The Thinking Machine leaned back in his chair and sat there for a long time. At last he arose as if the interview were at an end. There seemed to be no other questions that he desired to ask at the moment.

"You need not be unnecessarily alarmed, Mr. Herbert," he assured Dick as he picked up his hat. "I shall act with discretion in this matter. I am not representing anyone who would care to make it unpleasant for you. I may tell you that you made two serious mistakes: the first when you saw or communicated with Mr. Randolph immediately after the plate was stolen the second time, and again when you undertook something which properly belonged within the province of the police."



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