The Tragedy of the Life Raft
Twas a shabby picture altogether—old Peter Ordway in his office; the man shriveled, bent, cadaverous, aquiline of feature, with skin like parchment, and cunning, avaricious eyes; the room gaunt and curtainless, with smoke-grimed windows, dusty, cheerless walls, and threadbare carpet, worn through here and there to the rough flooring beneath. Peter Ordway sat in a swivel chair in front of an ancient roll-top desk. Opposite, at a typewriter upon a table of early vintage, was his secretary—one Walpole, almost a replica in middle age of his employer, seedy and servile, with lips curled sneeringly as a dog’s.
Familiarly in the financial district, Peter Ordway was “The Usurer,” a title which was at once a compliment to his merciless business sagacity and an expression of contempt for his methods. He was the money lender of the Street, holding in cash millions which no one dared to estimate. In the last big panic the richest man in America, the great John Morton in person, had spent hours in the shabby office, begging for the loan of the few millions in currency necessary to check the market. Peter Ordway didn’t fail to take full advantage of his pressing need. Mr. Morton got the millions on collateral worth five times the sum borrowed, but Peter Ordway fixed the rate of interest, a staggering load.
Now we have the old man at the beginning of a day’s work. After glancing through two or three letters which lay open on his desk, he picked up at last a white card, across the face of which was scribbled in pencil three words only:
One million dollars!
Ordinarily it was a phrase to bring a smile to his withered lips, a morsel to roll under his wicked old tongue; but now he stared at it without comprehension. Finally he turned to his secretary, Walpole.
“What is this?” he demanded querulously, in his thin, rasping voice.
“I don’t know, sir,” was the reply. “I found it in the morning’s mail, sir, addressed to you.”
Peter Ordway tore the card across, and dropped it into the battered wastebasket beside him, after which he settled down to the ever-congenial occupation of making money.
On the following morning the card appeared again, with only three words, as before:
One million dollars!
Abruptly the aged millionaire wheeled around to face Walpole, who sat regarding him oddly.
“It came the same way, sir,” the seedy little secretary explained hastily, “in a blank envelope. I saved the envelope, sir, if you would like to see it.”
“Tear it up!” Peter Ordway directed sharply.
Reduced to fragments, the envelope found its way into the wastebasket. For many minutes Peter Ordway sat with dull, lusterless eyes, gazing through the window into the void of a leaden sky. Slowly, as he looked, the sky became a lashing, mist-covered sea, a titanic chaos of water; and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons were clinging. Now the frail craft was lifted up, up to the dizzy height of a giant wave; now it shot down sickeningly into the hissing trough beyond; again, for minutes it seemed altogether lost in the far-plunging spume. Peter Ordway shuddered and closed his eyes.
On the third morning the card, grown suddenly ominous, appeared again:
One million dollars!
Peter Ordway came to his feet with an exclamation that was almost a snarl, turning, twisting the white slip nervously in his talonlike fingers. Astonished, Walpole half arose, his yellow teeth bared defensively, and his eyes fixed upon the millionaire.
“Telephone Blake’s Agency,” the old man commanded, “and tell them to send a detective here at once.”
Came in answer to the summons a suave, smooth-faced, indolent-appearing young man, Fragson by name, who sat down after having regarded with grave suspicion the rickety chair to which he was invited. He waited inquiringly.
“Find the person—man or woman—who sent me that!”
Peter Ordway flung the card and the envelope in which it had come upon a leaf of his desk. Fragson picked them up and scrutinized them leisurely. Obviously the handwriting was that of a man, an uneducated man, he would have said. The postmark on the envelope was Back Bay; the time of mailing seven p.m. on the night before. Both envelope and card were of a texture which might be purchased in a thousand shops.
“ ‘One million dollars!’ ” Fragson read. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” the millionaire answered.
“What do you think it means?”
“Nor do I know that, unless—unless it’s some crank, or—or blackmailer. I’ve received three of them—one each morning for three days.”
Fragson placed the card inside the envelope with irritating deliberation, and thrust it into his pocket, after which he lifted his eyes quite casually to those of the secretary, Walpole. Walpole, who had been staring at the two men tensely, averted his shifty gaze, and busied himself at his desk.
“Any idea who sent them?” Fragson was addressing Peter Ordway, but his eyes lingered lazily upon Walpole.
“No.” The word came emphatically, after an almost imperceptible instant of hesitation.
“Why”—and the detective turned to the millionaire curiously—“why do you think it might be blackmail? Has any one any knowledge of any act of yours that——”
Some swift change crossed the parchmentlike face of the old man. For an instant he was silent; then his avaricious eyes leaped into flame; his fingers closed convulsively on the arms of his chair.
“Blackmail may be attempted without reason,” he stormed suddenly. “Those cards must have some meaning. Find the person who sent them.”
Fragson arose thoughtfully, and drew on his gloves.
“And then?” he queried.
“That’s all!” curtly. “Find him, and let me know who he is.”
“Do I understand that you don’t want me to go into his motives? You merely want to locate the man?”
“That understanding is correct—yes.”
. . . a lashing, mist-covered sea; a titanic chaos of water, and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons were clinging. . . .
Walpole’s crafty eyes followed his millionaire employer’s every movement as he entered his office on the morning of the fourth day. There was nervous restlessness in Peter Ordway’s manner; the parchment face seemed more withered; the pale lips were tightly shut. For an instant he hesitated, as if vaguely fearing to begin on the morning’s mail. But no fourth card had come! Walpole heard and understood the long breath of relief which followed upon realization of this fact.
Just before ten o’clock a telegram was brought in. Peter Ordway opened it:
One million dollars!
Three hours later at his favorite table in the modest restaurant where he always went for luncheon, Peter Ordway picked up his napkin, and a white card fluttered to the floor:
One million dollars!
Shortly after two o’clock a messenger boy entered his office, whistling, and laid an envelope on the desk before him:
One million dollars!
Instinctively he had known what was within.
At eight o’clock that night, in the shabby apartments where he lived with his one servant, he answered an insistent ringing of the telephone bell.
“What do you want?” he demanded abruptly.
“One million dollars!” The words came slowly, distinctly.
“Who are you?”
“One million dollars!” faintly, as an echo.
Again Fragson was summoned, and was ushered into the cheerless room where the old millionaire sat cringing with fear, his face reflecting some deadly terror which seemed to be consuming him. Incoherently he related the events of the day. Fragson listened without comment, and went out.
On the following morning—Sunday—he returned to report. He found his client propped upon a sofa, haggard and worn, with eyes feverishly aglitter.
“Nothing doing,” the detective began crisply. “It looked as if we had a clew which would at least give us a description of the man, but——” He shook his head.
“But that telegram—some one filed it?” Peter Ordway questioned huskily. “The message the boy brought——”
“The telegram was inclosed in an envelope with the money necessary to send it, and shoved through the mail slot of a telegraph office in Cambridge,” the detective informed him explicitly. “That was Friday night. It was telegraphed to you on Saturday morning. The card brought by the boy was handed in at a messenger agency by some street urchin, paid for, and delivered to you. The telephone call was from an automatic station in Brookline. A thousand persons use it every day.”
For the first time in many years, Peter Ordway failed to appear at his office Monday morning. Instead he sent a note to his secretary:
Bring all important mail to my apartment to-night at eight o’clock. On your way uptown buy a good revolver with cartridges to fit.
Twice that day a physician—Doctor Anderson—was hurriedly summoned to Peter Ordway’s side. First there had been merely a fainting spell; later in the afternoon came complete collapse. Doctor Anderson diagnosed the case tersely.
“Nerves,” he said. “Overwork, and no recreation.”
“But, doctor, I have no time for recreation!” the old millionaire whined. “My business——”
“Time!” Doctor Anderson growled indignantly. “You’re seventy years old, and you’re worth fifty million dollars. The thing you must have if you want to spend any of that money is an ocean trip—a good, long ocean trip—around the world, if you like.”
“No, no, no!” It was almost a shriek. Peter Ordway’s evil countenance, already pallid, became ashen; abject terror was upon him. . . . a lashing, mist-covered sea; a titanic chaos of water, and upon its troubled bosom rode a life raft to which three persons were clinging. . . .
“No, no, no!” he mumbled, his talon fingers clutching the physician’s hand convulsively. “I’m afraid, afraid!”
The slender thread which held sordid soul to withered body was severed that night by a well-aimed bullet. Promptly at eight o’clock Walpole had arrived, and gone straight to the room where Peter Ordway sat propped up on a sofa. Nearly an hour later the old millionaire’s one servant, Mrs. Robinson, answered the doorbell, admitting Mr. Franklin Pingree, a well-known financier. He had barely stepped into the hallway when there came a reverberating crash as of a revolver shot from the room where Peter Ordway and his secretary were.
Together Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson ran to the door. Still propped upon the couch, Peter Ordway sat—dead. A bullet had penetrated his heart. His head was thrown back, his mouth was open, and his right hand dangled at his side. Leaning over the body was his secretary, Walpole. In one hand he held a revolver, still smoking. He didn’t turn as they entered, but stood staring down upon the man blankly. Mr. Pingree disarmed him from behind.
Hereto I append a partial transcript of a statement made by Frederick Walpole immediately following his arrest on the charge of murdering his millionaire employer. This statement he repeated in substance at the trial:
I am forty-eight years old. I had been in Mr. Ordway’s employ for twenty-two years. My salary was eight dollars a week. . . . I went to his apartments on the night of the murder in answer to a note. (Note produced.) I bought the revolver and gave it to him. He loaded it and thrust it under the covering beside him on the sofa. . . . He dictated four letters and was starting on another. I heard the door open behind me. I thought it was Mrs. Robinson, as I had not heard the front-door bell ring.
Mr. Ordway stopped dictating, and I looked at him. He was staring toward the door. He seemed to be frightened. I looked around. A man had come in. He seemed very old. He had a flowing white beard and long white hair. His face was ruddy, like a seaman’s.
“Who are you?” Mr. Ordway asked.
“You know me all right,” said the man. “We were together long enough on that craft.” (Or “raft,” prisoner was not positive.)
“I never saw you before,” said Mr. Ordway. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I have come for the reward,” said the man.
“What reward?” Mr. Ordway asked.
“One million dollars!” said the man.
Nothing else was said. Mr. Ordway drew his revolver and fired. The other man must have fired at the same instant, for Mr. Ordway fell back dead. The man disappeared. I ran to Mr. Ordway and picked up the revolver. He had dropped it. Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson came in. . . .
Reading of Peter Ordway’s will disclosed the fact that he had bequeathed unconditionally the sum of one million dollars to his secretary, Walpole, for “loyal services.” Despite Walpole’s denial of any knowledge of this bequest, he was immediately placed under arrest. At the trial, the facts appeared as I have related them. The district attorney summed up briefly. The motive was obvious—Walpole’s desire to get possession of one million dollars in cash. Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson, entering the room directly after the shot had been fired, had met no one coming out, as they would have had there been another man—there was no other egress. Also, they had heard only one shot—and that shot had found Peter Ordway’s heart. Also, the bullet which killed Peter Ordway had been positively identified by experts as of the same make and same caliber as those others in the revolver Walpole had bought. The jury was out twenty minutes. The verdict was guilty. Walpole was sentenced to death.
It was not until then that “The Thinking Machine”—otherwise Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph. D., F. R. S., M. D., LL. D., et cetera, et cetera, logician, analyst, master mind in the sciences—turned his crabbed genius upon the problem.
Five days before the date set for Walpole’s execution, Hutchinson Hatch, newspaper reporter, introduced himself into The Thinking Machine’s laboratory, bringing with him a small roll of newspapers. Incongruously enough, they were old friends, these two—on one hand, the man of science, absorbed in that profession of which he was already the master, small, almost grotesque in appearance, and living the life of a recluse; on the other, a young man of the world, worldly, enthusiastic, capable, indefatigable.
So it came about The Thinking Machine curled himself in a great chair, and sat for nearly two hours partially submerged in newspaper accounts of the murder and of the trial. The last paper finished, he dropped his enormous head back against his chair, turned his petulant, squinting eyes upward, and sat for minute after minute staring into nothingness.
“Why,” he queried, at last, “do you think he is innocent?”
“I don’t know that I do think it,” Hatch replied. “It is simply that attention has been attracted to Walpole’s story again because of a letter the governor received. Here is a copy of it.”
The Thinking Machine read it:
You are about to allow the execution of an innocent man. Walpole’s story on the witness stand was true. He didn’t kill Peter Ordway. I killed him for a good and sufficient reason.
“Of course,” the reporter explained, “the letter wasn’t signed. However, three handwriting experts say it was written by the same hand that wrote the ‘One million dollar’ slips. Incidentally the prosecution made no attempt to connect Walpole’s handwriting with those slips. They couldn’t have done it, and it would have weakened their case.”
“And what,” inquired the diminutive scientist, “does the governor purpose doing?”
“Nothing,” was the reply. “To him it is merely one of a thousand crank letters.”
“He knows the opinions of the experts?”
“He does. I told him.”
“The governor,” remarked The Thinking Machine gratuitously, “is a fool.” Then: “It is sometimes interesting to assume the truth of the improbable. Suppose we assume Walpole’s story to be true, assuming at the same time that this letter is true—what have we?”
Tiny, cobwebby lines of thought furrowed the domelike brow as Hatch watched; the slender fingers were brought precisely tip to tip; the pale-blue eyes narrowed still more.
“If,” Hatch pointed out, “Walpole’s attorney had been able to find a bullet mark anywhere in that room, or a single isolated drop of blood, it would have proven that Peter Ordway did fire as Walpole says he did, and——”
“If Walpole’s story is true,” The Thinking Machine went on serenely, heedless of the interruption, “we must believe that a man—say, Mr. X—entered a private apartment without ringing. Very well. Either the door was unlocked, he entered by a window, or he had a false key. We must believe that two shots were fired simultaneously, sounding as one. We must believe that Mr. X was either wounded or the bullet mark has been overlooked; we must believe Mr. X went out by the one door at the same instant Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson entered. We must believe they either did not see him, or they lied.”
“That’s what convicted Walpole,” Hatch declared. “Of course, it’s impossible——”
“Nothing is impossible, Mr. Hatch,” stormed The Thinking Machine suddenly. “Don’t say that. It annoys me exceedingly.”
Hatch shrugged his shoulders, and was silent. Again minute after minute passed, and the scientist sat motionless, staring now at a plan of Peter Ordway’s apartment he had found in a newspaper, the while his keen brain dissected the known facts.
“After all,” he announced, at last, “there’s only one vital question: Why Peter Ordway’s deadly fear of water?”
The reporter shook his head blankly. He was never surprised any more at The Thinking Machine’s manner of approaching a problem. Never by any chance did he take hold of it as any one else would have.
“Some personal eccentricity, perhaps,” Hatch suggested hopefully. “Some people are afraid of cats, others of——”
“Go to Peter Ordway’s place,” The Thinking Machine interrupted tartly, “and find if it has been necessary to replace a broken windowpane anywhere in the building since Mr. Ordway’s death.”
“You mean, perhaps, that Mr. X, as you call him, may have escaped——” the newspaper man began.
“Also find out if there was a curtain hanging over or near the door where Mr. X must have gone out.”
“We’ll assume that the room where Ordway died has been gone over inch by inch in the search for a stray shot,” the scientist continued. “Let’s go farther. If Ordway fired, it was probably toward the door where Mr. X entered. If Mr. X left the door open behind him, the shot may have gone into the private hall beyond, and may be buried in the door immediately opposite.” He indicated on the plan as he talked. “This second door opens into a rear hall. If both doors chanced to be open——”
Hatch came to his feet with blazing eyes. He understood. It was a possibility no one had considered. Ordway’s shot, if he had fired one, might have lodged a hundred feet away.
“Then if we find a bullet mark——” he questioned tensely.
“Walpole will not go to the electric chair.”
“And if we don’t?”
“We will look farther,” said The Thinking Machine. “We will look for a wounded man of perhaps sixty years, who is now, or has been, a sailor; who is either clean-shaven or else has a close-cropped beard, probably dyed—a man who may have a false key to the Ordway apartment—the man who wrote this note to the governor.”
“You believe, then,” Hatch demanded, “that Walpole is innocent?”
“I believe nothing of the sort,” snapped the scientist. “He’s probably guilty. If we find no bullet mark, I’m merely saying what sort of man we must look for.”
“But—but how do you know so much about him—what he looks like?” asked the reporter, in bewilderment.
“How do I know?” repeated the crabbed little scientist. “How do I know that two and two make four, not sometimes, but all the time? By adding the units together. Logic, that’s all—logic, logic!”
While Hatch was scrutinizing the shabby walls of the old building where Peter Ordway had lived his miserly life, The Thinking Machine called on Doctor Anderson, who had been Peter Ordway’s physician for a score of years. Doctor Anderson couldn’t explain the old millionaire’s aversion to water, but perhaps if the scientist went farther back in his inquiries there was an old man, John Page, still living who had been Ordway’s classmate in school. Doctor Anderson knew of him because he had once treated him at Peter Ordway’s request. So The Thinking Machine came to discuss this curious trait of character with John Page. What the scientist learned didn’t appear, but whatever it was it sent him to the public library, where he spent several hours pulling over the files of old newspapers.
All his enthusiasm gone, Hatch returned to report.
“Nothing,” he said. “No trace of a bullet.”
“Any windowpanes changed or broken?”
“There were curtains, of course, over the door through which Mr. X entered Ordway’s room.” It was not a question.
“There were. They’re there yet.”
“In that case,” and The Thinking Machine raised his squinting eyes to the ceiling, “our sailorman was wounded.”
“There is a sailorman, then?” Hatch questioned eagerly.
“I’m sure I don’t know,” was the astonishing reply. “If there is, he answers generally the description I gave. His name is Ben Holderby. His age is not sixty; it’s fifty-eight.”
The newspaper man took a long breath of amazement. Surely here was the logical faculty lifted to the nth power! The Thinking Machine was describing, naming, and giving the age of a man whose existence he didn’t even venture to assert—a man who never had been in existence so far as the reporter knew! Hatch fanned himself weakly with his hat.
“Odd situation, isn’t it?” asked The Thinking Machine. “It only proves that logic is inexorable—that it can only fail when the units fail; and no unit has failed yet. Meantime, I shall leave you to find Holderby. Begin with the sailors’ lodging houses, and don’t scare him off. I can add nothing to the description except that he is probably using another name.”
Followed a feverish two days for Hatch—a hurried, nightmarish effort to find a man who might or might not exist, in order to prevent a legal murder. With half a dozen other clever men from his office, he finally achieved the impossible.
“I’ve found him!” he announced triumphantly over the telephone to The Thinking Machine. “He’s stopping at Werner’s, in the North End, under the name of Benjamin Goode. He is clean-shaven, his hair and brows are dyed black, and he is wounded in the left arm.”
“Thanks,” said The Thinking Machine simply. “Bring Detective Mallory, of the bureau of criminal investigation, and come here to-morrow at noon prepared to spend the day. You might go by and inform the governor, if you like, that Walpole will not be electrocuted Friday.”
Detective Mallory came at Hatch’s request—came with a mouthful of questions into the laboratory, where The Thinking Machine was at work.
“What’s it all about?” he demanded.
“Precisely at five o-clock this afternoon a man will try to murder me,” the scientist informed him placidly, without lifting his eyes. “I’d like to have you here to prevent it.”
Mallory was much given to outbursts of amazement; he humored himself now:
“Who is the man? What’s he going to try to kill you for? Why not arrest him now?”
“His name is Benjamin Holderby,” The Thinking Machine answered the questions in order. “He’ll try to kill me because I shall accuse him of murder. If he should be arrested now, he wouldn’t talk. If I told you whom he murdered, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Detective Mallory stared without comprehension.
“If he isn’t to try to kill you until five o’clock,” he asked, “why send for me at noon?”
“Because he may know you, and if he watched and saw you enter he wouldn’t come. At half past four you and Mr. Hatch will step into the adjoining room. When Holderby enters, he will face me. Come behind him, but don’t lift a finger until he threatens me. If you have to shoot—kill! He’ll be dangerous until he’s dead.”
It was just two minutes of five o’clock when the bell rang, and Martha ushered Benjamin Holderby into the laboratory. He was past middle age, powerful, with deep-bronzed face and the keen eyes of the sea. His hair and brows were dyed—badly dyed; his left arm hung limply. He found The Thinking Machine alone.
“I got your letter, sir,” he said respectfully. “If it’s a yacht, I’m willing to ship as master; but I’m too old to do much——”
“Sit down, please,” the little scientist invited courteously, dropping into a chair as he spoke. “There are one or two questions I should like to ask. First”—the petulant blue eyes were raised toward the ceiling; the slender fingers came together precisely, tip to tip—“first: Why did you kill Peter Ordway?”
Fell an instant’s amazed silence. Benjamin Holderby’s muscles flexed, the ruddy face was contorted suddenly with hideous anger, the sinewy right hand closed until great knots appeared in the tendons. Possibly The Thinking Machine had never been nearer death than in that moment when the sailorman towered above him—’twas giant and weakling. The tiger was about to spring. Then, suddenly as it had come, anger passed from Holderby’s face; came instead curiosity, bewilderment, perplexity.
The silence was broken by the sinister click of a revolver. Holderby turned his head slowly, to face Detective Mallory, stared at him oddly, then drew his own revolver, and passed it over, butt foremost.
No word had been spoken. Not once had The Thinking Machine lowered his eyes.
“I killed Peter Ordway,” Holderby explained distinctly, “for good and sufficient reasons.”
“So you wrote the governor,” the scientist observed. “Your motive was born thirty-two years ago?”
“Yes.” The sailor seemed merely astonished.
“On a raft at sea?”
“There was murder done on that raft?”
“Instigated by Peter Ordway, who offered you——”
“One million dollars—yes.”
“So Peter Ordway is the second man you have killed?”
With mouth agape, Hutchinson Hatch listened greedily; he had—they had—saved Walpole! Mallory’s mind was a chaos. What sort of tommyrot was this? This man confessing to a murder for which Walpole was to be electrocuted! His line of thought was broken by the petulant voice of The Thinking Machine.
“Sit down, Mr. Holderby,” he was saying, “and tell us precisely what happened on that raft.”
’Twas a dramatic story Benjamin Holderby told—a tragedy tale of the sea—a tale of starvation and thirst torture and madness, and ceaseless battling for life—of crime and greed and the power of money even in that awful moment when death seemed the portion of all. The tale began with the foundering of the steamship Neptune, Liverpool to Boston, ninety-one passengers and crew, some thirty-two years ago. In mid-ocean she was smashed to bits by a gale, and went down. Of those aboard only nine persons reached shore alive.
Holderby told the story simply:
“God knows how many of us went through that storm; it raged for days. There were ten of us on our raft when the ship settled, and by dusk of the second day there were only six—one woman, and one child, and four men. The waves would simply smash over us, and when we came to daylight again there was some one missing. There was little enough food and water aboard, anyway, so the people dropping off that way was really what saved—what saved two of us at the end. Peter Ordway was one, and I was the other.
“The first five days were bad enough—short rations, little or no water, no sleep, and all that; but what came after was hell! At the end of that fifth day there were only five of us—Ordway and me, the woman and child, and another man. I don’t know whether I went to sleep or was just unconscious; anyway, when I came to there were only the three of us left. I asked Ordway where the woman and child was. He said they were washed off while I was asleep.
“ ‘And a good thing,’ he says.
“ ‘Why?’ I says.
“ ‘Too many mouths to feed,’ he says. ‘And still too many.’ He meant the other man. ‘I’ve been looking at the rations and the water,’ he says. ‘There’s enough to keep three people alive three days, but if there were only two people—me and you, for instance?’ he says.
“ ‘You mean throw him off?’ I says.
“ ‘You’re a sailor,’ says he. ‘If you go, we all go. But we may not be picked up for days. We may starve or die of thirst first. If there were only two of us, we’d have a better chance. I’m worth millions of dollars,’ he says. ‘If you’ll get rid of this other fellow, and we ever come out alive, I’ll give you one million dollars!’ I didn’t say anything. ‘If there were only two of us,’ says he, ‘we would increase our chances of being saved one-third. One million dollars!’ says he. ‘One million dollars!’
“I expect I was mad with hunger and thirst and sleeplessness and exhaustion. Perhaps he was, too. I know that, regardless of the money he offered, his argument appealed to me. Peter Ordway was a coward; he didn’t have the nerve; so an hour later I threw the man overboard, with Peter Ordway looking on.
“Days passed somehow—God knows—and when I came to I had been picked up by a sailing vessel. I was in an asylum for months. When I came out, I asked Ordway for money. He threatened to have me arrested for murder. I pestered him a lot, I guess, for a little later I found myself shanghaied, on the high seas. I didn’t come back for thirty years or so. I had almost forgotten the thing until I happened to see Peter Ordway’s name in a paper. Then I wrote the slips and mailed them to him. He knew what they meant, and set a detective after me. Then I began hating him all over again, worse than ever. Finally I thought I’d go to his house and make a holdup of it—one million dollars! I don’t think I intended to kill him; I thought he’d give me money. I didn’t know there was any one with him. I talked to him, and he shot me. I killed him.”
Fell a long silence. The Thinking Machine broke it:
“You entered the apartment with a skeleton key?”
“And after the shot was fired, you started out, but dodged behind the curtain at the door when you heard Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson coming in?”
Suddenly Hatch understood why The Thinking Machine had asked him to ascertain if there were curtains at that door. It was quite possible that in the excitement Mr. Pingree and Mrs. Robinson would not have noticed that the man who killed Peter Ordway actually passed them in the doorway.
“I think,” said The Thinking Machine, “that that is all. You understand, Mr. Mallory, that this confession is to be presented to the governor immediately, in order to save Walpole’s life?” He turned to Holderby. “You don’t want an innocent man to die for this crime?”
“Certainly not,” was the reply. “That’s why I wrote to the governor. Walpole’s story was true. I was in court, and heard it.” He glanced at Mallory curiously. “Now, if necessary, I’m willing to go to the chair.”
“It won’t be necessary,” The Thinking Machine pointed out. “You didn’t go to Peter Ordway’s place to kill him—you went there for money you thought he owed you—he fired at you—you shot him. It’s hardly self-defense, but it was not premeditated murder.”
Detective Mallory whistled. It was the only satisfactory vent for the tangled mental condition which had befallen him. Shortly he went off with Holderby to the governor’s office; and an hour later Walpole, deeply astonished, walked out of the death cell—a free man.
Meanwhile Hutchinson Hatch had some questions to ask of The Thinking Machine.
“Logic, logic, Mr. Hatch!” the scientist answered, in that perpetual tone of irritation. “As an experiment, we assumed the truth of Walpole’s story. Very well. Peter Ordway was afraid of water. Connect that with the one word ‘raft’ or ‘craft’ in Walpole’s statement of what the intruder had said. Connect that with his description of that man—‘ruddy, like a seaman.’ Add them up, as you would a sum in arithmetic. You begin to get a glimmer of cause and effect, don’t you? Peter Ordway was afraid of the water because of some tragedy there in which he had played a part. That was a tentative surmise. Walpole’s description of the intruder said white hair and flowing white beard. It is a common failing of men who disguise themselves to go to the other extreme. I went to the other extreme in conjecturing Holderby’s appearance—clean-shaven or else close-cropped beard and hair—dyed. Since no bullet mark was found in the building—remember, we are assuming Walpole’s statement to be true—the man Ordway shot at carried the bullet away with him. Ergo, a seaman with a pistol wound. Seamen, as a rule, stop at the sailors’ lodging houses. That’s all.”
“But—but you knew Holderby’s name—his age!” the reporter stammered.
“I learned them in my effort to account for Ordway’s fear of water,” was the reply. “An old friend, John Page, whom I found through Doctor Anderson, informed me that he had seen some account in a newspaper thirty-two years before, at the time of the wreck of the Neptune, of Peter Ordway’s rescue from a raft at sea. He and one other man were picked up. The old newspaper files in the libraries gave me Holderby’s name as the other survivor, together with his age. You found Holderby. I wrote to him that I was about to put a yacht in commission, and he had been recommended to me—that is, Benjamin Goode had been recommended. He came in answer to the advertisement. You saw everything else that happened.”
“And the so-called ‘one million dollar’ slips?”
“Had no bearing on the case until Holderby wrote to the governor,” said The Thinking Machine. “In that note he confessed the killing; ergo I began to see that the ‘One million dollar’ slips probably indicated some enormous reward Ordway had offered Holderby. Walpole’s statement, too, covers this point. What happened on the raft at sea? I didn’t know. I followed an instinct, and guessed.” The distinguished scientist arose. “And now,” he said, “begone about your business. I must go to work.”
Hatch started out, but turned at the door. “Why,” he asked, “were you so anxious to know if any windowpane in the Ordway house had been replaced or was broken?”
“Because,” the scientist didn’t lift his head, “because a bullet might have smashed one, if it was not to be found in the woodwork. If it smashed one, our unknown Mr. X was not wounded.”
Upon his own statement, Benjamin Holderby was sentenced to ten years in prison; at the end of three months he was transferred to an asylum after an examination by alienists.