Tales of the Thinking Machine, by Jacques Futrelle

The Problem of the Cross Mark

It was an unsolved mystery, apparently a riddle without an answer, in which Watson Richards, the distinguished character actor, happened to play a principal part. The story was told at the Mummers Club one dull afternoon. Richards’ listeners were three other actors, a celebrated poet, and a newspaper reporter named Hutchinson Hatch.

“You know there are few men in the profession today who really amount to anything who haven’t had their hard knocks. Well, my hard times came early, and lasted a long time. So it was just about three years ago to a day that a real crisis came in my affairs. It seemed the end. I had gone one day without food, had bunked in the park that night, and here it was two o’clock in the afternoon of another day. It was dismal enough.

“I was standing on a corner, gazing moodily across the street at the display window of a restaurant, rapidly approaching the don’t care stage. Some one came up behind and touched me on the shoulder. I turned listlessly enough, and found myself facing a stranger — a clean cut, well groomed man of some forty years.

“‘Is this Mr. Watson Richards, the character actor?’ he asked.

“‘Yes,’ I replied.

“‘I have been looking for you everywhere,’ he explained briefly. ‘I want to engage you to do a part for one performance. Are you at liberty?’

“You chaps know what that meant to me just at that moment. Certainly the words dispelled some unpleasant possibilities I had been considering.

“‘I am at liberty — yes,’ I replied. ‘Be glad to do it. What sort of part is it?’

“‘An old man,’ he informed me. ‘Just one performance, you know. Perhaps you’d better come up town with me and see Mr. Hallman right now.’

“I agreed with a readiness which approached eagerness, and he called a passing cab. Hallman was perhaps the manager, or stage manager, I thought. We had driven on for a block in the general direction of up town, my companion chatting pleasantly. Finally he offered me a cigar. I accepted it. I know now that cigar was drugged, because I had hardly taken more than two or three puffs from it when I lost myself completely.

“The next thing I remember distinctly was of stepping out of the cab — I think the stranger assisted me — and going into a house. I don’t know where it was — I didn’t know then — didn’t know even the street. I was dizzy, giddy. And suddenly I stood before a tall, keen faced, clean shaven man. He was Hallman. The stranger introduced me and then left the room. Hallman regarded me keenly for several minutes, and somehow under that scrutiny my dormant faculties were aroused. I had thrown away the cigar at the door.

“‘You play character parts?’ Hallman began.

“‘Yes, all the usual things,’ I told him. ‘I’m rather obscure, but —’

“‘I know,’ he interrupted; ‘but I have seen your work, and like it. I have been told too that you are remarkably clever at make-up.’

“I think I blushed — I hope I did, anyway — I know I nodded. He paused to stare at me for a long time.

“‘For instance,’ he went on finally, ‘you would have no difficulty at all in making up as a man of seventy-five years?’

“‘Not the slightest,’ I answered. ‘I have played such parts.’

“‘Yes, yes, I know,’ and he seemed a little impatient. ‘Well, your make-up is the matter which is most important here. I want you for only one performance; but the make-up must be perfect, you understand.’ Again he stopped and stared at me. ‘The pay will be one hundred dollars for the one performance.’

“He drew out a drawer of a desk and produced a photograph. He looked at it, then at me, several times, and finally placed it in my hands.

“‘Can you make up to look precisely like that?’ he asked quietly.

“I studied the photograph closely. It was that of a man about seventy-five years old, of rather a long cast of features, not unlike the general shape of my own face. He had white hair, and was clean shaven. It was simple enough, with the proper wig, a make-up box, and a mirror.

“‘I can,’ I told Hallman.

“‘Would you mind putting on the make-up here now for my inspection?’ he inquired.

“‘Certainly not,’ I replied. It did not strike me at the moment as unusual. ‘But I’ll need the wig and paints.’

“‘Here they are,’ said Hallman abruptly, and produced them. ‘There’s a mirror in front of you. Go ahead.’

“I examined the wig and compared it with the photograph. It was as near perfect as I had ever seen. The make-up box was new and the most complete I ever saw. It didn’t occur to me until a long time afterward that it had never been used before. So I went to work. Hallman paced up and down nervously behind me. At the end of twenty minutes I turned upon him a face which was so much like the photograph that I might have posed for it. He stared at me in amazement.

“‘By George!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s it! It’s marvelous!’ Then he turned and opened the door. ‘Come in, Frank,’ he called, and the man who had conducted me there entered. Hallman indicated me with a wave of his hand. ‘How is it?’ he asked.

“Frank, whoever he was, also seemed astonished. Then that passed and a queer expression appeared on his face. You may imagine that I awaited their verdict anxiously.

“‘Perfect — absolutely perfect,’ said Frank at last.

“‘Perhaps the only thing,’ Hallman mused critically, ‘is that it isn’t quite pale enough.’

“‘Easily remedied,’ I replied, and turned again to the make-up box. A moment later I turned back to the two men. Simple enough, you know — it was one of those pallid, pasty faced make-ups — the old man on the verge of the grave, and all that sort of thing — good deal of pearl powder.

“‘That’s it!’ the two men exclaimed.

“The man Frank looked at Hallman inquiringly.

“‘Go ahead,’ said Hallman, and Frank left the room.

“Hallman went over, closed and locked the door, after which he came back and sat down in front of me, staring at me for a long time in silence. At length he opened an upper drawer of the desk and glanced in. A revolver lay there, right under his hand. I know now he intended that I should see it.

“‘Now, Mr. Richards,’ he said at last very slowly, ‘what we want you to do is very simple, and as I said there’s a hundred dollars in it. I know your circumstances perfectly — you need the hundred dollars.’ He offered me a cigar, and foolishly enough I accepted it. ‘The part you are to play is that of an old man, who is ill in bed, speechless, utterly helpless. You are dying, and you are to play the part. Use your eyes all you want; but don’t speak!’

“Gradually the dizziness I had felt before was coming upon me again. As I said, I know now it was the cigar; but I kept on smoking.

“‘There will be no rehearsal,’ Hallman went on, and now I knew he was fingering the revolver I had seen in the desk; but it made no particular impression on me. ‘If I ask you questions, you may nod an affirmative, but don’t speak! Do only what I say, and nothing else!’

“Full realization was upon me now; but everything was growing hazy again. I remember I fought the feeling for a moment; then it seemed to overwhelm me, and I was utterly helpless under the dominating power of that man.

“‘When am I to play the part?’ I remember asking.

“‘Now!’ said Hallman suddenly, and he rose. ‘I’m afraid you don’t fully understand me yet, Mr. Richards. If you play the part properly, you get the hundred dollars; if you don’t, this!’

“He meant the revolver. I stared at it dumbly, overcome by a helpless terror, and tried to stand up. Then there came a blank, for how long I don’t know. The next thing I remember I was lying in bed, propped up against several pillows. I opened my eyes feebly enough, and there wasn’t any acting about it either, because whoever drugged those cigars knew his business.

“There in front of me was Hallman, with a grief stricken expression on his face which made all my art seem amateurish. There was another man there too (not Frank), and a woman who seemed to be about forty years old. I couldn’t see their faces — I wouldn’t even be able to suggest a description of them, because the room was almost dark. Just the faintest flicker of light came through the drawn curtains; but I could see Hallman’s devilish face all right. These three conversed together in low tones — sick room voices — but I couldn’t hear, and doubt if I could have followed their conversation if I had heard.

“Finally the door opened and a girl entered. I have seen many women, but — well, she was peculiarly fascinating. She gave one little cry, rushed toward the bed impulsively, dropped on her knees beside it, and buried her face in the sheets. She was shaking with sobs.

“Then I knew — intuitively, perhaps, but I knew — that in some way I was being used to injure that girl. A sudden feeling of fearful anger seized upon me, but I couldn’t move to save my soul. Hallman must have caught the blaze in my eyes, for he came forward on the other side of the bed, and, under cover of a handkerchief which he had been using rather ostentatiously, pressed the revolver against my side.

“But I wouldn’t be made a tool of. In my dazed condition I know I was seized with a desperate desire to fight it out — to make him kill me if he had to, but I would not deceive the girl. I knew if I could jerk my head down on the pillow it would disarrange the wig, and perhaps she would see. I couldn’t. I might pass my hands across my make-up and smear it. But I couldn’t lift my hands. I was struggling to speak, and couldn’t.

“Then somehow I lost myself again. Hazily I remember that somebody placed a paper in front of me on a book — a legal-looking document — and guided my hand across it; but that isn’t clear. I was helpless, inert, so much clay in the hands of this man Hallman. Then everything faded — slowly, slowly. My impression was that I was actually dying; my eyelids closed of themselves; and the last thing I saw was the shining gold of that girl’s hair as she sobbed there beside me.

“That’s all of it. When I became fully conscious again a policeman was shaking me. I was sitting on a bench in the park. He swore at me volubly, and I got up and moved slowly along the path with my hands in my pockets. Something was clenched in one hand. I drew it out and looked at it. It was a hundred-dollar bill. I remember I got something to eat; and I woke up in a hospital.

“Well, that’s the story. Make what you like of it. It can never be solved, of course. It was three years ago. You fellows know what I have done in that time. Well, I’d give it all, every bit of it, to meet that girl again (I should know her), tell her what I know, and make her believe that it was no fault of mine.”

Hutchinson Hatch related the circumstances casually one afternoon a day or so later to Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen — The Thinking Machine.

That eminent man of science listened petulantly, as he listened to all things. “It happened in this city?” he inquired at the end.

“Yes.”

“But Richards has no idea what part of the city?”

“Not the slightest. I imagine that the drugged cigar and a naturally weakened condition made him lose his bearings while in the cab.”

“I dare say,” commented the scientist. “And of course he has never seen Hallman again?”

“No — he would have mentioned it if he had.”

“Does Richards remember the exact date of the affair?”

“I dare say he does, though he didn’t mention it,” replied the reporter.

“Suppose you see Richards and get the date — exactly, if possible,” remarked The Thinking Machine. “You might telephone it to me. Perhaps —” and he shrugged his slender shoulders.

“You think there is a possibility of solving the riddle?” demanded the reporter eagerly.

“Certainly,” snapped The Thinking Machine. “It requires no solution. It is ridiculously simple — obvious, I might say — and yet I dare say the girl Richards referred to has been the victim of some huge plot. It’s worth looking into for her sake.”

“Remember, it happened three years ago,” Hatch suggested tentatively.

“It wouldn’t matter particularly if it happened three hundred years ago,” declared the scientist. “Logic, Mr. Hatch, remains the same through all the ages — from Adam and Eve to us. Two and two made four in the Garden of Eden just as they do now in a counting house. Therefore, the solution, I say, is absurdly simple. The only problem is to discover the identity of the principals in the affair — and a child could do that.”

Later that afternoon Hatch telephoned to The Thinking Machine from the Mummers Club.

“That date you asked for was May 19, three years ago,” said the reporter.

“Very well,” commented The Thinking Machine. “Drop by tomorrow afternoon. Perhaps we can solve the riddle for Richards.”

Hatch called late the following afternoon, as directed, but The Thinking Machine was not in.

“He went out about nine o’clock, and hasn’t returned yet,” the scientist’s aged servant, Martha, informed him.

That night about ten o’clock Hatch used the telephone in a second attempt to reach The Thinking Machine.

“He hasn’t come in yet,” Martha told him over the wire. “He said he would be back for luncheon; but he isn’t here yet.”

Hatch replaced the receiver thoughtfully on the hook. Early the following morning he again used the telephone, and there was a note of anxiety in Martha’s voice when she answered.

“He hasn’t come yet, sir,” she explained. “Please, what ought I to do? I’m afraid something has happened to him.”

“Don’t do anything yet,” replied Hatch. “I dare say he’ll return today.”

Again at noon, at six o’clock, and at eleven that night Hatch called Martha on the telephone. Still the scientist had not appeared. Hatch too was worried now; yet how should he proceed? He didn’t know, and he hesitated to think of the possibilities. On the morrow, however, something must be done — he would take the matter to Detective Mallory at police headquarters if necessary.

But this was made unnecessary unexpectedly by the arrival next morning of a letter from The Thinking Machine. As he read, an expression of utter bewilderment spread over Hatch’s face. Tersely the letter was like this:

Employ an expert burglar, a careful, clever man. At two o’clock of the night following the receipt of this letter go with him to the alley which runs behind No. 810 Blank Street. Enter this house with him from the rear, go up two flights of stairs, and let him pick the lock of the third door on the left from the head of the stairs. Silence above everything. Don’t shoot if possible to avoid it.

Van Dusen.

P.S. Put some ham sandwiches in your pocket.

Hatch stared at the note in blank bewilderment for a long time; but he obeyed orders. Thus it came to pass that at ten minutes of two o’clock that night he boosted the notorious Blindy Bates — a man of rare accomplishments in his profession, who at the moment happened to be out of prison — to the top of the rear fence of No. 810 Blank Street. Bates hauled up the reporter, and they leaped down lightly inside the yard.

The back door was simplicity itself to the gifted Bates, and yielded in less than sixty seconds from the moment he laid his hand upon it. Then came a sneaking, noiseless advance along the lower hall, to the accompaniment of innumerable thrills up and down Hatch’s spinal column; up the first flight safely, with Blindy Bates leading the way; then along the hall and up the second flight. There was absolutely not a sound in the house — they moved like ghosts.

At the top of the second flight Bates shot a gleam of light from his dark lantern along the hall. The third door it was. And a moment later he was concentrating every faculty on the three locks of this door. Still there had been not the slightest sound. The one spot in the darkness was the bull’s eye of the lantern as it illuminated the lock. The first lock was unfastened, then the second, and finally the third. Bates didn’t open the door — he merely stepped back — and the door opened as of its own volition. Involuntarily Hatch’s hand closed fiercely on his revolver, and Bates’s ready weapon glittered a little in the darkness.

“Thanks,” came after a moment, in the quiet, querulous voice of The Thinking Machine. “Mr. Hatch, did you bring those sandwiches?”

Half an hour later The Thinking Machine and Hatch appeared at police headquarters. Being naturally of a retiring, unostentatious disposition, Bates did not accompany them; instead, he went his way fingering a bill of moderately large denomination.

Detective Mallory was at home in bed; but Detective Cunningham, another shining light, received his distinguished visitor and Hatch.

“There’s a man named Howard Guerin now asleep in his state room aboard the steamer Austriana, which sails at five o’clock this morning — just an hour and a half from now — for Hamburg,” began The Thinking Machine without any preface. “Please have him arrested immediately.”

“What charge?” asked the detective.

“Really, it’s of no consequence,” replied The Thinking Machine. “Attempted murder, conspiracy, embezzlement, fraud — whatever you like. I can prove any or all of them.”

“I’ll go after him myself,” said the detective.

“And there is also a young woman aboard,” continued The Thinking Machine — “a Miss Hilda Fanshawe. Please have her detained, not arrested, and keep a close guard on her — not to prevent escape, but to protect her.”

“Tell us some of the particulars of it,” asked the detective.

“I haven’t slept in more than forty-eight hours,” replied The Thinking Machine. “I’ll explain it all this afternoon, after I’ve rested a while.”

The Thinking Machine, for the benefit of Detective Mallory and his satellites, recited briefly the salient points of the story told by the actor, Watson Richards. His listeners were Howard Guerin, tall, keen faced, and clean shaven; Miss Hilda Fanshawe, whose pretty face reflected her every thought; Hutchinson Hatch, and three or four headquarters men. Every eye was upon the drawn face of the diminutive scientist, as he sat far back in his chair, with squint eyes turned upward, and fingertips pressed together.

“From the facts as he stated them, we know beyond all question, in the very beginning, that Mr. Richards was used as a tool to further some conspiracy or fraud,” explained The Thinking Machine. “That was obvious. So the first thing to do was to learn the identity of those persons who played the principal parts in it. From Mr. Richards’ story we apparently had nothing, yet it gave us practically the names and addresses of the persons at the bottom of the thing.

“How? To find how, we’ll have to consider the purpose of the conspiracy. An actor — an artist in facial impersonation, we might say — is picked up in the street and compelled to go through the mummery of a death bed scene while stupefied with drugs. Obviously this was arranged for the benefit of some person who must be convinced that he or she had witnessed a dissolution and the signature of a will, perhaps — and a will signed under the eyes of that person for whose benefit the farce was acted.

“So we assume a will was signed. We know, within reason, that the mummery was arranged for the benefit of a young woman — Miss Fanshawe here. From the intricacy and daring of the plot, it was pretty safe to assume that a large sum of money was involved. As a matter of fact, there was — more than a million. Now, here is where we take an abstract problem and establish the identity of the actors in it. That will was signed by compulsory forgery, if I may use the phrase, by an utter stranger — a man who could not have known the handwriting of the man whose name he signed, and who was in a condition that makes it preposterous to imagine that he even attempted to sign that name. Yet the will was signed, and the conspirators had to have a signature that would bear inspection. Now, what have we left?

“When a person is incapable of signing his or her name, physically or by reason of no education, the law accepts a cross mark as a signature, when properly witnessed. We know Mr. Richards couldn’t have known or imitated the signature of the old man he impersonated; but he did sign — therefore a cross mark, which could have been established beyond question in a court of law. Now, you see how I established the identity of the persons in this fraud. I got the date of the incident from Mr. Richards, then a trip to the surrogate’s office told me all I wanted to know. What will had been filed for probate about that date which bore the cross mark as a signature? The records answered the question instantly — John Wallace Lawrence.

“I glanced over the will. It specifically allowed Miss Hilda Fanshawe a trivial thousand dollars a year, and yet she was Lawrence’s adopted daughter. See how the joints began to fit together? Further, the will left the bulk of the property to Howard Guerin, a Mrs. Francis — since deceased, by the way — and one Frank Hughes. The men were his nephews, the woman his niece. The joints continued to fit nicely, therefore the problem was solved. It was an easy matter to find these people, once I knew their names. I found Guerin — Mr. Richards knew him as Hallman — and asked him about the matter. From the fact that he locked me up in a room of his house and kept me prisoner for two days I was convinced that he was the principal conspirator, and so it proves.”

Again there was silence. Detective Mallory took three long breaths, and asked a question. “But where was John Wallace Lawrence when this thing happened?”

“Miss Fanshawe had been in Europe, and was rushing home, knowing that her adopted father was dying,” The Thinking Machine explained. “As a matter of fact, when she returned Mr. Lawrence was dead — he died the day before the farce which had been arranged for her benefit, and at the moment his body lay in an up stairs room. He was buried two days later — a day after the farce had been played — and she attended his funeral. You see there was no reason why she should have suspected anything. I don’t happen to know the provisions of Lawrence’s real will, but I dare say it left practically everything to her. The thousand-dollar allowance by the conspirators was a sop to stop possible legal action.”

The door of the room opened, and a uniformed man thrust his head in. “Mr. Richards wants to see Professor Van Dusen,” he announced.

Immediately behind him came the actor. He stopped in the door and stared at Guerin for a moment.

“Why, hello, Hallman!” he remarked pleasantly. Then his eyes fell upon the girl, and a flash of recognition lighted them.

“Miss Fanshawe, permit me, Mr. Richards,” said The Thinking Machine. “You have met before. This is the gentleman you saw die.”

“And where is Frank Hughes?” asked Detective Mallory.

“In South Africa,” replied the scientist. “I learned a great deal while I was a prisoner.”

A deeply troubled expression suddenly appeared on Hutchinson Hatch’s face that night when he was writing the story for his newspaper, and he went to the telephone and called The Thinking Machine.

“If you were guarded so closely as a prisoner in that room, how on earth did you mail that letter to me?” he inquired.

“Guerin came in to say some unpleasant things,” came the reply, “and placed several letters he intended to post on the table for a moment. The letter for you was already written and stamped, and I was seeking a way to mail it, so I put it with his letters and he mailed it for me.”

Hatch burst out laughing.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:06