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The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes
An Anthology of Crime Stories 1890 â" 1914
By Nick Rennison
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Nick Rennison
All rights reserved.
Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen (The Thinking Machine)
Created by Jacques Futrelle (1875 – 1912)
* * *
ONE OF THE MOST memorable crime-solvers in the fiction of the decade before the First World War was the magnificently named Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, otherwise known as 'The Thinking Machine'. Arrogant, cantakerous and eccentric, the very model of the mad scientist, Van Dusen solved a series of apparently insoluble mysteries, usually brought to his attention by his associate, the journalist Hutchinson Hatch. 'The Thinking Machine' was the creation of Jacques Futrelle, an American journalist and novelist born in Georgia in 1875. Futrelle wrote around fifty stories featuring the professor with a brain the size of a planet and doubtless there would have been more if the author had not met an untimely end in one of the most famous disasters of the twentieth century. In 1912, Futrelle and his wife were visiting England and chose to return to New York as first-class passengers on the Titanic. When the ship struck the iceberg and sank, Futrelle's wife survived but he was amongst nearly 1,500 who drowned.CHAPTER 2
The Problem of Cell 13
Practically all those letters remaining in the alphabet after Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen was named were afterward acquired by that gentleman in the course of a brilliant scientific career, and, being honorably acquired, were tacked on to the other end. His name, therefore, taken with all that belonged to it, was a wonderfully imposing structure. He was a Ph.D., an LL.D., an F.R.S., an M.D., and an M.D.S. He was also some other things – just what he himself couldn't say – through recognition of his ability by various foreign educational and scientific institutions.
In appearance he was no less striking than in nomenclature. He was slender with the droop of the student in his thin shoulders and the pallor of a close, sedentary life on his clean-shaven face. His eyes wore a perpetual, forbidding squint – the squint of a man who studies little things – and when they could be seen at all through his thick spectacles were mere slits of watery blue. But above his eyes was his most striking feature. This was a tall, broad brow, almost abnormal in height and width, crowned by a heavy shock of bushy, yellow hair. All these things conspired to give him a peculiar, almost grotesque, personality.
Professor Van Dusen was remotely German. For generations his ancestors had been noted in the sciences; he was the logical result, the master mind. First and above all he was a logician. At least thirtyfive years of the half-century or so of his existence had been devoted exclusively to proving that two and two always equal four, except in unusual cases, where they equal three or five, as the case may be. He stood broadly on the general proposition that all things that start must go somewhere, and was able to bring the concentrated mental force of his forefathers to bear on a given problem. Incidentally it may be remarked that Professor Van Dusen wore a No. 8 hat.
The world at large had heard vaguely of Professor Van Dusen as The Thinking Machine. It was a newspaper catch-phrase applied to him at the time of a remarkable exhibition at chess; he had demonstrated then that a stranger to the game might, by the force of inevitable logic, defeat a champion who had devoted a lifetime to its study. The Thinking Machine! Perhaps that more nearly described him than all his honorary initials, for he spent week after week, month after month, in the seclusion of his small laboratory from which had gone forth thoughts that staggered scientific associates and deeply stirred the world at large.
It was only occasionally that The Thinking Machine had visitors, and these were usually men who, themselves high in the sciences, dropped in to argue a point and perhaps convince themselves. Two of these men, Dr Charles Ransome and Alfred Fielding, called one evening to discuss some theory which is not of consequence here.
'Such a thing is impossible,' declared Dr Ransome emphatically, in the course of the conversation.
'Nothing is impossible,' declared The Thinking Machine with equal emphasis. He always spoke petulantly. 'The mind is master of all things. When science fully recognizes that fact a great advance will have been made.'
'How about the airship?' asked Dr Ransome.
'That's not impossible at all,' asserted The Thinking Machine. 'It will be invented some time. I'd do it myself, but I'm busy.'
Dr Ransome laughed tolerantly.
'I've heard you say such things before,' he said. 'But they mean nothing. Mind may be master of matter, but it hasn't yet found a way to apply itself. There are some things that can't be thought out of existence, or rather which would not yield to any amount of thinking.'
'What, for instance?' demanded The Thinking Machine.
Dr Ransome was thoughtful for a moment as he smoked.
'Well, say prison walls,' he replied. 'No man can think himself out of a cell. If he could, there would be no prisoners.'
'A man can so apply his brain and ingenuity that he can leave a cell, which is the same thing,' snapped The Thinking Machine.
Dr Ransome was slightly amused.
'Let's suppose a case,' he said, after a moment. 'Take a cell where prisoners under sentence of death are confined – men who are desperate and, maddened by fear, would take any chance to escape – suppose you were locked in such a cell. Could you escape?'
'Certainly,' declared The Thinking Machine.
'Of course,' said Mr Fielding, who entered the conversation for the first time, 'you might wreck the cell with an explosive – but inside, a prisoner, you couldn't have that.'
'There would be nothing of that kind,' said The Thinking Machine. 'You might treat me precisely as you treated prisoners under sentence of death, and I would leave the cell.'
'Not unless you entered it with tools prepared to get out,' said Dr Ransome.
The Thinking Machine was visibly annoyed and his blue eyes snapped.
'Lock me in any cell in any prison anywhere at any time, wearing only what is necessary, and I'll escape in a week,' he declared, sharply.
Dr Ransome sat up straight in the chair, interested. Mr Fielding lighted a new cigar.
'You mean you could actually think yourself out?' asked Dr Ransome.
'I would get out,' was the response.
'Are you serious?'
'Certainly I am serious.'
Dr Ransome and Mr Fielding were silent for a long time.
'Would you be willing to try it?' asked Mr Fielding, finally.
'Certainly,' said Professor Van Dusen, and there was a trace of irony in his voice. 'I have done more asinine things than that to convince other men of less important truths.'
The tone was offensive and there was an undercurrent strongly resembling anger on both sides. Of course it was an absurd thing, but Professor Van Dusen reiterated his willingness to undertake the escape and it was decided upon.
'To begin now,' added Dr Ransome.
'I'd prefer that it begin to-morrow,' said The Thinking Machine, 'because –'
'No, now,' said Mr Fielding, flatly. 'You are arrested, figuratively, of course, without any warning locked in a cell with no chance to communicate with friends, and left there with identically the same care and attention that would be given to a man under sentence of death. Are you willing?'
'All right, now, then,' said The Thinking Machine, and he arose.
'Say, the death-cell in Chisholm Prison.'
'The death-cell in Chisholm Prison.'
'And what will you wear?'
'As little as possible,' said The Thinking Machine. 'Shoes, stockings, trousers and a shirt.'
'You will permit yourself to be searched, of course?'
'I am to be treated precisely as all prisoners are treated,' said The Thinking Machine. 'No more attention and no less.'
There were some preliminaries to be arranged in the matter of obtaining permission for the test, but all three were influential men and everything was done satisfactorily by telephone, albeit the prison commissioners, to whom the experiment was explained on purely scientific grounds, were sadly bewildered. Professor Van Dusen would be the most distinguished prisoner they had ever entertained.
When The Thinking Machine had donned those things which he was to wear during his incarceration he called the little old woman who was his housekeeper, cook and maid servant all in one.
'Martha,' he said, 'it is now twenty-seven minutes past nine o'clock. I am going away. One week from to-night, at half-past nine, these gentlemen and one, possibly two, others will take supper with me here. Remember Dr Ransome is very fond of artichokes.'
The three men were driven to Chisholm Prison, where the warden was awaiting them, having been informed of the matter by telephone. He understood merely that the eminent Professor Van Dusen was to be his prisoner, if he could keep him, for one week; that he had committed no crime, but that he was to be treated as all other prisoners were treated.
'Search him,' instructed Dr Ransome.
The Thinking Machine was searched. Nothing was found on him; the pockets of the trousers were empty; the white, stiff-bosomed shirt had no pocket. The shoes and stockings were removed, examined, then replaced. As he watched all these preliminaries – the rigid search and noted the pitiful, childlike physical weakness of the man, the colorless face, and the thin, white hands – Dr Ransome almost regretted his part in the affair.
'Are you sure you want to do this?' he asked.
'Would you be convinced if I did not?' inquired The Thinking Machine in turn.
'All right. I'll do it.'
What sympathy Dr Ransome had was dissipated by the tone. It nettled him, and he resolved to see the experiment to the end; it would be a stinging reproof to egotism.
'It will be impossible for him to communicate with anyone outside?' he asked.
'Absolutely impossible,' replied the warden. 'He will not be permitted writing materials of any sort.'
'And your jailers, would they deliver a message from him?'
'Not one word, directly or indirectly,' said the warden. 'You may rest assured of that. They will report anything he might say or turn over to me anything he might give them.'
'That seems entirely satisfactory,' said Mr Fielding, who was frankly interested in the problem.
'Of course, in the event he fails,' said Dr Ransome, 'and asks for his liberty, you understand you are to set him free?'
'I understand,' replied the warden.
The Thinking Machine stood listening, but had nothing to say until this was all ended, then:
'I should like to make three small requests. You may grant them or not, as you wish.'
'No special favors, now,' warned Mr Fielding.
'I am asking none,' was the stiff response. 'I would like to have some tooth powder – buy it yourself to see that it is tooth powder – and I should like to have one five-dollar and two ten-dollar bills.'
Dr Ransome, Mr Fielding and the warden exchanged astonished glances. They were not surprised at the request for tooth powder, but were at the request for money.
'Is there any man with whom our friend would come in contact that he could bribe with twenty-five dollars?' asked Dr Ransome of the warden.
'Not for twenty-five hundred dollars,' was the positive reply.
'Well, let him have them,' said Mr Fielding. 'I think they are harmless enough.'
'And what is the third request?' asked Dr Ransome.
'I should like to have my shoes polished.'
Again the astonished glances were exchanged. This last request was the height of absurdity, so they agreed to it. These things all being attended to, The Thinking Machine was led back into the prison from which he had undertaken to escape.
'Here is Cell 13,' said the warden, stopping three doors down the steel corridor. 'This is where we keep condemned murderers. No one can leave it without my permission; and no one in it can communicate with the outside. I'll stake my reputation on that. It's only three doors back of my office and I can readily hear any unusual noise.'
'Will this cell do, gentlemen?' asked The Thinking Machine. There was a touch of irony in his voice.
'Admirably,' was the reply.
The heavy steel door was thrown open, there was a great scurrying and scampering of tiny feet, and The Thinking Machine passed into the gloom of the cell. Then the door was closed and double locked by the warden.
'What is that noise in there?' asked Dr Ransome, through the bars.
'Rats – dozens of them,' replied The Thinking Machine, tersely.
The three men, with final good-nights, were turning away when The Thinking Machine called:
'What time is it exactly, warden?'
'Eleven seventeen,' replied the warden.
'Thanks. I will join you gentlemen in your office at half-past eight o'clock one week from to-night,' said The Thinking Machine.
'And if you do not?'
'There is no "if" about it.'
Chisholm Prison was a great, spreading structure of granite, four stories in all, which stood in the centre of acres of open space. It was surrounded by a wall of solid masonry eighteen feet high, and so smoothly finished inside and out as to offer no foothold to a climber, no matter how expert. Atop of this fence, as a further precaution, was a five-foot fence of steel rods, each terminating in a keen point. This fence in itself marked an absolute deadline between freedom and imprisonment, for, even if a man escaped from his cell, it would seem impossible for him to pass the wall.
The yard, which on all sides of the prison building was twenty-five feet wide, that being the distance from the building to the wall, was by day an exercise ground for those prisoners to whom was granted the boon of occasional semi-liberty. But that was not for those in Cell 13. At all times of the day there were armed guards in the yard, four of them, one patrolling each side of the prison building.
By night the yard was almost as brilliantly lighted as by day. On each of the four sides was a great arc light which rose above the prison wall and gave to the guards a clear sight. The lights, too, brightly illuminated the spiked top of the wall. The wires which fed the arc lights ran up the side of the prison building on insulators and from the top story led out to the poles supporting the arc lights.
All these things were seen and comprehended by The Thinking Machine, who was only enabled to see out his closely barred cell window by standing on his bed. This was on the morning following his incarceration. He gathered, too, that the river lay over there beyond the wall somewhere, because he heard faintly the pulsation of a motor boat and high up in the air saw a river bird. From that same direction came the shouts of boys at play and the occasional crack of a batted ball. He knew then that between the prison wall and the river was an open space, a playground.
Chisholm Prison was regarded as absolutely safe. No man had ever escaped from it. The Thinking Machine, from his perch on the bed, seeing what he saw, could readily understand why. The walls of the cell, though built he judged twenty years before, were perfectly solid, and the window bars of new iron had not a shadow of rust on them. The window itself, even with the bars out, would be a difficult mode of egress because it was small.
Yet, seeing these things, The Thinking Machine was not discouraged. Instead, he thoughtfully squinted at the great arc light – there was bright sunlight now – and traced with his eyes the wire which led from it to the building. That electric wire, he reasoned, must come down the side of the building not a great distance from his cell. That might be worth knowing.
Excerpted from The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes by Nick Rennison. Copyright © 2008 Nick Rennison. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen Created by Jacques Futrelle,
The Problem of Cell 13,
Loveday Brooke Created by Catherine Louisa Pirkis,
The Murder at Troyte's Hill,
Dr Halifax Created by L. T. Meade and Clifford Halifax,
The Horror of Studley Grange,
Father Brown Created by G. K. Chesterton,
The Hammer of God,
Eugène Valmont Created by Robert Barr,
The Clue of the Silver Spoons,
Sebastian Zambra Created by Headon Hill,
The Sapient Monkey,
Carnacki the Ghost Finder Created by William Hope Hodgson,
The Horse of the Invisible,
Thorpe Hazell Created by Victor Whitechurch,
The Affair of the Corridor Express,
Mr Barnes and Mr Mitchel Created by Rodrigues Ottolengui,
The Azteck Opal,
Klimo Created by Guy Boothby,
The Duchess of Wiltshire's Diamonds,
Hagar of the Pawn Shop Created by Fergus Hume,
The Ninth Customer and the Casket,
November Joe Created by Hesketh Prichard,
The Black Fox Skin,
Craig Kennedy Created by Arthur B. Reeve,
The Deadly Tube,
Cecil Thorold Created by Arnold Bennett,
A Bracelet at Bruges,
Miss Lois Cayley Created by Grant Allen,
The Adventure of the Cantankerous Old Lady,