Tales of the Thinking Machine, by Jacques Futrelle

The Problem of the Private Compartment

Leaning forward in his seat, the driver lashed his horses into a gallop. The carriage had barely halted at the railroad station, when a woman leaped out. She was closely veiled; but her slender figure revealed the fact that she was little more than a girl. She paused just long enough to hand the driver a bill, then hurried to a train.

When the conductor passed through the cars he found the slender young woman sitting in one of the day coaches. She paid her fare in cash through to Albany, and made inquiry about accommodations in the sleeping car. He volunteered to arrange the matter for her; and so it came to pass that half an hour after she had boarded the train she was ushered into the more exclusive rear car.

“We have only one upper berth,” the conductor there apologized.

“Oh, well, it doesn’t really matter,” she remarked listlessly, and was shown to a seat.

Then for the first time she raised her veil. Her pretty face was still flushed from the excitement of catching the train; but a haunting, furtive fear mingled with a shade of sorrow in the shadowy, dark eyes, and the red lips expressed a sullen defiance. For a long time she sat moodily thoughtful, staring out of the window; then the growing dusk obliterated the flying landscape, and the porter came through to light the lamps.

After awhile the door of the drawing room compartment at one end of the car opened, and a young woman glanced out. It might have been idle curiosity which caused her to scrutinize the lounging passengers; but her eyes paused, with a flash of recognition, on the crisp, brown hair of the slender young woman just half a dozen seats ahead, and she went forward.

“Why, Julia!” she exclaimed. “I hadn’t the faintest idea you were on the train!”

First there came an embarrassed surprise into the face of the slender young woman; but it was instantly followed by an expression of relief.

“Oh, Mary! How you startled me!”

There was a little interchange of greetings, which ended by Miss Mary Langham leading Miss Julia Farrar back into the snug little drawing room. They had been classmates at Vassar, these two, and there were a thousand things to talk about; yet in the manner of each was a certain restraint, a vague, indefinable reserve. As a breaking point of a sudden silence which fell between them, Miss Farrar mentioned the upper berth that she had been given.

“Well, don’t worry about that a moment, my dear,” urged Miss Langham cheerfully. “I have this whole big compartment, and there are two lower berths. You shall take one, and I’ll take the other.” There was silence for a moment. “But, my dear girl, where are you going?”

“I’m going to Albany — now,” was the reply.

“Right on the eve of your —”

“I’m not going to marry Mr. Devore!” interrupted Miss Farrar with quick passion.

Miss Langham lifted her arched brows in astonishment. “Why, Julia, you amaze me!” she exclaimed.

“I’m running away from him now,” she went on.

Miss Langham stared at her blankly for an instant. Defiance flamed in Miss Farrar’s face; there were tense little lines about the mouth, and the lips were pressed sternly together. But at last some glimmer of comprehension seemed to reach Miss Langham, and with it came an expression which might almost have been of relief. With a quick movement she seized Miss Farrar’s hand.

“I think I understand, dear,” she said sympathetically at last. “Under all circumstances, I don’t know that I can blame you either. Mr. Devore must know that you don’t love him.”

“Well, if he doesn’t, it isn’t because I haven’t told him so, goodness knows!” replied Miss Farrar.

Miss Langham laughed lightly, and her eyes reflected some strange, new born light, a glimmer of satisfaction.

“Poor fellow!” she mused. “And he is so devoted!”

“I don’t want his devotion!” blazed Miss Farrar. “The mere sight of him is intolerable to me. It’s all just like — like I was being sold to him. It’s perfectly hideous, and I won’t — I won’t — I won’t!”

Defiance melted into tears of anger and mortification, and Miss Farrar lay against Miss Langham’s shoulder while her slender figure was shaken by a storm of sobs. Miss Langham stroked the crisp, brown hair back from the white temples, and continued to stare dreamily out of the window.

“Even my father and mother and brother conspired with him against me,” Miss Farrar sobbed after a time. “They insisted on the marriage from the first, merely because Mr. Devore happens to be wealthy. I don’t know why I ever agreed, unless it was just desperation. I detest the man, and yet the members of my own family, knowing that, could only think of the brilliant match, the money, and social position which marriage would bring.”

“Tomorrow it was to have been,” mused Miss Langham vacantly.

“Yes, tomorrow. For weeks and weeks it has been a nightmare to me, and last night, somehow, I seemed to go all to pieces. The sight of the wedding gown made me perfectly furious. All today I thought of it, and thought of it, until my head seemed bursting. Then late this afternoon I could stand it no longer; so I— I ran away. I suppose it’s horrid of me, and I know my father and mother will never forgive me for the scandal it will cause; but I don’t care. They’ve made me almost hate them. I’m going to my aunt’s in Albany and remain there for a few days. Of course, my father will be furious, and will try to force me to return; but she’s a dear loyal soul and won’t let them take me away. Then I shall decide about the future.”

“I can’t imagine a worse fate than marriage with a man whom you don’t love,” said Miss Langham after a pause. “I don’t blame you at all. But remember, my dear, in giving up your family you will have to look out for yourself — perhaps earn your own living?”

“I don’t care,” continued Miss Farrar passionately. “I have fifty or sixty dollars now, and before that is gone surely I can get a place as teacher, or governess, or something. I will do something.”

“And I have no doubt that everything will come right,” Miss Langham assured her. She raised the tear stained face between her hands and printed a kiss on each damp cheek. “And now, my dear, you need repose. Lie down and rest for awhile.”

With the obedience of a child Miss Farrar lay across the berth, and after awhile, with Miss Langham’s hand clasped between her own, closed her red, swollen eyes in sleep.

It was perhaps half an hour later that Miss Langham pressed her call button beside the door. A porter appeared.

“What is the next stop?” she inquired.

“East Newlands,” was the reply.

“Can I send a telegram from there?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Miss Langham gently detached her fingers from the clinging clasp of the sleeping girl, and scribbled a telegram on a blank which the porter offered. It was addressed to J. Charles Wingate, in a small city, just beyond Albany, and said:

Have changed my mind. This is irrevocable. M.

When the train pulled into Albany the following morning Miss Julia Farrar was found dead in her berth, fully dressed, except for her hat. A thirty-two caliber bullet had entered her body just below the left shoulder. Miss Langham herself gave the alarm. When physicians came they agreed that Miss Farrar had been dead for at least two hours.

Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen — The Thinking Machine — absorbed, digested, and assimilated all the known facts in the problem of the private compartment. Instantly that singular, penetrating brain beneath the mop of tangled, straw yellow hair was alive with questions.

“Who is Miss Langham?” was the first query.

“She is the daughter of Daniel Eustace Langham, president of a national bank in his home city,” replied Hutchinson Hatch, reporter. “She and Miss Farrar were classmates in Vassar, and met by accident on the train.”

“Do you know they met by accident?”

“It seems to have been by accident,” the reporter amended. “As a matter of fact, Miss Langham was on the train first — in fact, had engaged the drawing room compartment a couple of days ahead.”

“Does she know — Miss Langham, I mean — know Devore?”

“Very well indeed,” responded the reporter. “A couple of years ago he was rather assiduous in his attentions to her. That was before Devore met Miss Farrar.”

The Thinking Machine turned suddenly in his chair and squinted into the eyes of the newspaper man. Faint corrugations in the domelike brow were swept away.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “An old love affair! How did it come to be broken off?”

“I imagine it was Devore who broke it off,” replied Hatch. “When he met Miss Farrar it resulted in a quick transfer of attentions. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t seem to be a very pleasant sort of person, anyway — spoiled son and sole heir of a man worth millions. You know what that means.”

“And where was Miss Langham going at the time of the tragedy?” inquired the scientist.

“To visit some friends just beyond Albany.”

For a long time The Thinking Machine was silent, while Hatch turned over those vague impressions which the scientist’s manner and words had created.

“That seems to simplify the matter somewhat,” mused The Thinking Machine at last.

“You don’t mean,” blurted Hatch quickly —“you don’t mean that Miss Langham could have had anything to do with Miss Farrar’s death?”

“Why not?” demanded The Thinking Machine coldly.

“But her social position, her wealth, everything, would seem to remove her beyond the range of suspicion,” Hatch protested.

The Thinking Machine regarded him with frank disapproval. “Two and two always make four, Mr. Hatch,” he said shortly. “We have here a motive for the crime — jealousy — and practically exclusive opportunity. Social position and wealth do not deter criminals; they only make them more cunning. In this case two and two make four so obviously that I am surprised Miss Langham wasn’t arrested immediately. Where is she now, by the way?”

“With her father and mother at the Hotel Bellevoir in town here,” Hatch responded. “Immediately after the tragedy was reported she returned here, and her father and mother joined her. She is now suffering from shock, and inaccessible — at least to reporters.”

“Any physician?”

“Dr. Barrow and Dr. Curtis are attending her.”

“I may call on her in person,” remarked The Thinking Machine. “And now about this man Devore? Have you seen him?”

“He was the first man the police wanted to see,” explained the reporter. “They have already made him account for his every move on the night of the murder. Of course, a motive in his case would be obvious — anger, revenge, jealousy, anything.”

“And where was he between, say, midnight and breakfast that night?”

“He says he was asleep at home.”

“He says!” snapped The Thinking Machine abruptly. “Don’t you know?”

“Not of my knowledge.”

“Well, find out!” was the curt instruction. “That isn’t one of the things that we can be at all uncertain about.”

Hatch opened his eyes again. Here were two lines of investigation laid out by the scientist, either one of which might, if pursued to a logical conclusion, convict a person of wealth and position of a terrible crime.

“And Miss Farrar’s family?” continued The Thinking Machine mercilessly. “Where were her father and brother that night?”

“Surely you can’t believe that —”

“I never believe anything, Mr. Hatch, until I know it. I merely wanted to know where they were; for on that side too it is possible to conceive a motive for Miss Farrar’s death.”

“There has been no inquiry in that direction at all,” explained the bewildered reporter. “I’ll begin one.”

Then for a time The Thinking Machine sat with fingertips pressed idly together, squinting blankly at the ceiling.

“While a motive is never absolutely essential to the solution of any criminal problem,” he observed after awhile, “it will frequently indicate a line of investigation. Now, in the usual case when a motive appears the solution is inevitable. But this case differs from the usual case in that we have too many motives — three excellent ones that we know — a jealous woman, a suitor discarded on the eve of his wedding, and perhaps a vengeful father or brother. And beyond those there are other possibilities.”

Hatch went about his business with turbulent, troubled thoughts — a vague sense of treading on dangerous ground — while The Thinking Machine turned to the telephone. Five minutes later he picked up his hat and went to the Hotel Bellevoir.

“Did Dr. Curtis telephone you?” he inquired of the clerk.

“Yes. Is this Mr. Van Dusen?”

The Thinking Machine bobbed his head, and was ushered into Miss Langham’s apartments.

Pallid as the sheets, resistlessly inert, the girl lay staring upward as if fascinated by the brilliant scintillating point which floated backward and forward rhythmically before her eyes as The Thinking Machine slowly waved his arm. It was like some weird exorcism, some uncanny incantation, but it compelled attention.

“Watch it closely, please!”

The scientist’s tone was low, almost a whisper, yet it carried a command. The swing of his arm shortened gradually, almost imperceptibly, and slowly the bright spot passed upward in little erratic circles until it was directly before her eyes. And there it stopped for a moment. After awhile it moved on again, still farther upward, in a straight line, until the girl was aware of a queerly strained feeling in her eyes. It paused again, then very, very slowly began to move round and round.

After awhile the fascination in the girl’s eyes gave way to a vacant staring, and the pupils distended, as a mist crept over them. Slowly, slowly, the swing of the bright spot decreased, until at last it hung motionless, suspended in air, between the slim fingers of the scientist. Thus for a time, and the vacant staring became glassy — dead. Then the bright spot was withdrawn, materializing as the lower part of the bowl of a silver spoon which The Thinking Machine laid on the table beside him. One hand passed over the girl’s white face once. The long fingers lingered caressingly on the lids, and pressed them together.

The Thinking Machine passed round from the head of the couch where the girl lay and took a seat, with his hand on her wrist. The pulse fluttered a little, but he nodded his head as if satisfied.

“You are on a train — in a private compartment,” he said, still in a voice that was almost a whisper.

“Yes,” breathed the girl. It was nearly inaudible.

“A young woman is sleeping there.”

“Yes,” came the sigh again.

“You hate her.”

“No.”

It was a flat, unequivocal denial, and the dreamy, sighing tone hardened suddenly. Again The Thinking Machine pressed his fingers down on her eyelids, and sat silent for a time.

“You dislike her,” he suggested.

“No,” the girl denied once more dreamily. “She and I were —” and the phrase drifted off into intangible incoherency.

“You have a revolver in your traveling bag.”

“Yes.”

The petulant, crabbed face of The Thinking Machine lighted suddenly, exultantly. But when he spoke again it was in the same whispering monotone. “You always carry a revolver when traveling.”

“No.”

“Your revolver is thirty-two caliber.”

“I don’t know.”

“The sleeping woman loves the man you love.”

“Yes.”

“She is at your mercy; therefore you will kill her.”

“No, no, no!”

There was a sudden horror in the voice, a strange, convulsive working of the face, and the eyelids fluttered. Thrice The Thinking Machine passed his hands over her face, and she became calm again.

“You are back in your own apartments at the Hotel Bellevoir,” he continued after a minute.

“Yes,” she answered readily.

“Your revolver is in the traveling bag.”

“No.”

The Thinking Machine glanced quickly round the room, and again his eyes settled on the pallid face.

“It is in the dressing table.”

“Yes.”

With set, inscrutable face, the scientist arose and went to the table. In the drawer lay a handsomely mounted weapon. He picked it up, examined it closely as he whirled the barrel in his fingers, and then replaced it, after which he returned to the girl.

“You have fainted,” he said. “You will return to consciousness in a moment.”

He leaned forward and blew gently into the closed eyes, and the girl sighed. Thrice he did this, then a trace of color appeared in the face, and she raised her eyelids. For an instant she stared into the drawn face of the scientist.

“Why, I must have fainted,” she said.

Hutchinson Hatch burst into the laboratory, where The Thinking Machine was at work, with an air of excitement which caused the eminent scientist to turn and squint at him in disapproval.

“That man Devore lied about where —” he began.

“Just a moment, Mr. Hatch,” interrupted The Thinking Machine curtly. “Did you see the sleeping car in which Miss Farrar was killed?”

“Yes,” replied the reporter, and, somewhat abashed, sat down.

“I suppose the windows were all screened, as is usually the case?”

“Why, I suppose so,” was the reply.

“Was there any hole of any sort in the screen of the window in the private compartment?”

“Oh, I see what you mean. Shot from the outside. No, there was no hole.”

The brow of the scientist had been smooth and unruffled as the summer sea; but now the minute corrugations which Hatch knew so well appeared again, and he sat silent for a time.

“When you came in you started to say —” he remarked at last.

“That Devore lied as to where he was the night Miss Farrar was killed,” Hatch hastened to explain. “He said he was at home in bed. I have the word of two servants that he was not, and have learned that he was at Troy that night.”

“Well?” inquired the scientist impassively.

“Troy is just a short distance from Albany,” the reporter rushed on. “The train had to pass so near there, don’t you see, that Devore might have boarded it, and —”

He paused. The Thinking Machine arose suddenly, and paced back and forth across the room twice.

“Why was he in Troy?” he asked.

“It was some sort of dinner — a stag affair, I imagine — the night before the day of the wedding,” said Hatch.

“And I dare say young Farrar, Miss Farrar’s brother, was with him?”

“Yes, he was. You didn’t give me time.”

The Thinking Machine passed into the adjoining room, and Hatch heard the telephone bell. Fifteen minutes later he came out.

“Devore and Farrar spent the night — that is from midnight until eight o’clock in the morning of the murder — in adjoining rooms at a hotel in Troy,” explained the scientist. “They were asleep there. So that makes the affair perfectly clear.”

“Perfectly clear?” exclaimed Hatch. “Perfectly clear? I don’t see how you make that out, when —”

The Thinking Machine started out, with Hatch following. They went straight to the Hotel Bellevoir, and sent their cards to Langham. He was staring blankly at a telegram when they entered. He recognized The Thinking Machine by name as a physician who had called on his daughter.

“Your daughter is engaged to be married, isn’t she, Mr. Langham?” inquired the scientist.

“Yes, she was,” he replied wonderingly. “Why?”

“And she was, I believe, on her way to visit some friends in a small city just beyond Albany when this — this unhappy event occurred?”

“Yes,” Langham assented again.

“Perhaps the family of the man to whom she was betrothed?”

Again Langham assented.

“And what is the man of this man, please?”

“J. Charles Wingate,” was the reply. “I’ve just got a telegram from him. Here it is.”

The Thinking Machine glanced at the yellow slip of paper. The message was dated at New York city, and said tersely:

Wedding impossible. I cannot explain. WINGATE.

“It’s an outrage,” declared Langham.

“It’s a confession,” remarked The Thinking Machine.

“When we remove Miss Langham as a possibility,” The Thinking Machine told Hatch and Detective Mallory, “we inevitably bring the murder of Miss Farrar down to a man. And I may say that I personally demonstrated Miss Langham’s innocence by a little experiment in mechanical hypnotism. She confessed that she had a revolver on the train. But her revolver was a twenty-two caliber, and the bullet that killed Miss Farrar was a thirty-two. So there was no further need to consider her.

“I also removed Devore by establishing an alibi for him even after he had lied to the police as to his whereabouts on the night of the crime. Why he lied doesn’t appear, and is of no consequence now. I proved his whereabouts conclusively by telephone, and at the same time proved the whereabouts of Miss Farrar’s brother, thus eliminating both at the same time. Then what?

“Everyone had presumed — and I also did at first — that the person who killed Miss Farrar was in the private compartment with her. And yet, if that was true, why didn’t the shot awake Miss Langham? When I knew that she was innocent the logic of the thing indicated that the shot came from the outside.

“It was a warm night, and we shall suppose the window was open. Was the screen in it? It did not have a hole in it; so I presumed it was not. Then the possibilities became infinite. The first thing to do was dispose of Devore and Miss Farrar’s brother. I did that. Both you gentlemen recall, I dare say, the peculiar circumstances surrounding the murder of the young woman in a box at the opera? Yes. Instantly that came to me — perhaps the wrong woman had been killed. If so, we must look for a motive for the murder of Miss Langham.

“Well, we know that there had once been a love affair between Miss Langham and Devore. Was it possible that, despite her engagement to another man, Miss Langham still loved Devore? — that she learned Miss Farrar’s story, and then and there decided to jilt the man to whom she was engaged, because of this love for Devore, who was now, by the act of Miss Farrar, cast aside? If so, would she have telegraphed to him this change of mind? If we suppose that she was expecting to meet him in a few hours — in other words, visit his family — we can imagine her telegraphing from the train, while her intention was to go no further than Albany, where she would turn back.

“That hypothesis made the entire matter perfectly clear. She did telegraph her decision to J. Charles Wingate, and a motive for her murder was instantly created — revenge. Now, he probably knew what train she was on, that she had taken the private compartment in a certain sleeping car on that train, and it is not only possible but probable that he took a train to meet it.

“Some time between the moment he received the telegram and met the train on which she was a passenger he resolved upon murder. The method? What better than firing through the window while the train was standing at some small station? The shot might not attract attention, particularly as the sleeping car was the last on the train, and it was, say, four o’clock in the morning. He did fire through the window; therefore the shot, being outside, did not disturb Miss Langham, already accustomed to the roar and clatter of the train. Wingate merely looked in, saw a woman asleep, and fired. He did not know that he had killed the wrong woman, perhaps, until the matter got into the newspapers.”

There was a long silence. Detective Mallory and Hatch exchanged glances; then the detective turned to The Thinking Machine.

“And where is Wingate?” he inquired.

“Mr. Langham received a telegram from him dated at New York,” was the reply. “I imagine it was sent on the eve of his flight, perhaps abroad. I should advise, anyway, that a watch be kept on the steamers as they arrive on the other side.”

And eight days later J. Charles Wingate was arrested as he walked down the gangplank of a steamer at Liverpool. He had gone over in the steerage.

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