Mental Processes of Professor Wix
Is homicide ever justified? Mrs. Mackay raises an interesting point in this absorbing mystery story, which is different from any you have ever read.
ISABEL ECCLESTONE MACKAY
PROFESSOR WIX sat motionless on his laboratory stool and stared intently, yet abstractedly, at the contents of the test tube in front of him. For the last five minutes he had known that he was not alone in the room. Just five minutes ago he had given vent to the soft “aha” which meant that something had been accomplished, and had rested the test tube upon the table.
It was in this pause of suspended attention that he had become conscious of that other presence. But experimental work, such as the professor’s, demands reactions at once quick and steady. He had given no slightest sign of his knowledge and had acted exactly as if he had not had it. He had sat down upon the stool and gazed at the test tube. Anyone, knowing his habits, would expect just this.
He was accustomed to staring for quite long periods at small objects. It was his method of concentrating — a habit.
And that the intruder was one who knew his habits the professor did not doubt.
Therefore there was no hurry.
With his eyes, as it were, at the back of his head, the professor allowed his mind to search the room.
The intruder was probably, indeed almost surely, behind those partially unpacked cases in the left corner. The slight, involuntary
sound which had attracted his attention had come from that direction. The professor had intended to finish with the boxes and to have them removed. But he had been very completely occupied.
Who would the intruder be? The answer to this seemed fairly easy. No ordinary thief or spy would find the professor’s laboratory attractive. Only someone who knew. And Marsden was the only man who knew. The intruder was almost certainly Marsden. The professor snapped his thumb joint—a habit of his when satisfied with a logical conclusion.
How had Marsden obtained entrance? Probably by the simplest of ways, a skeleton key. The professor had intended to have the lock in the laboratory changed after he had dismissed Marsden. But he had been so very much occupied. Besides he had not been really afraid of Marsden. He had dismissed him from his employment and from his mind at the same time.
“Tut, tut!” thought the professor to himself vexedly. He had probably undervalued Marsden—a tactical mistake. For Marsden had known that their work was moving toward something definite, and Marsden was a man of devouring curiosity—to say nothing of other attributes. The professor had fully intended to take pre-
cautions. But, having been busy he hadn’t taken them.
Again the eyes of the professor’s mind swept the room. The formula lay, neatly tabulated, on the shelf which was often used as a desk, directly under the writing light. With Marsden behind the packing cases, it was well within his range of vision. He could copy it without
Suddenly the puzzlement was wiped out of the professor's face by the oncoming shock of another feeling.
moving from his hiding place. But it was not quite complete. That would be what Marsden was waiting for —although he must know that the little there remained to add was unimport-
ant, that all which was really necessary was already on the paper. Therefore if, in any way, he should fancy himself discovered and take alarm— he wouldn’t need to wait.
Stay, though, that was going too fast. Murder was probably not in Marsden’s program at all. A moment’s unhurried consideration convinced the professor that it was not. Marsden was a careful man. He would run no unnecessary risks. All that he wanted was the formula. The professor, satisfied, cracked his thumb joint.
Well, of course, Marsden couldn’t be allowed to have the formula. Therefore the problem lay along those lines. Something would have to be done about it. But what?
The obvious thing would be to kill Marsden-—to kill him, that is, now, at once, thus preserving the formula from any possible violation. Professor Wix could think without difficulty of three ways at least by which this could be accomplished. But they were all rather painful ways and they all meant a body, and inquests, and general upset. The professor was a humane man and he hated upsets. Eesides, he was not absolutely sure that Marsden had the formula.
To make sure would involve seeing and speaking with Marsden without alarming him. He must be withdrawn from behind the packing cases without allowing him. to know that his presence there had ever been suspected. The professor gave himself two minutes to think this out and suddenly cracked his thumb. Then he arose briskly, as was his wont upon finishing a meditation, and went directly to the shelf where the formula lay. He added the missing notes in his neat and legible hand. Leaving the sheet where it was he crossed the room to the house telephone and, through it, directed Barker, his man, to make connection with central. This done, he called the number of Marsden’s house. He did not look at the packing case as he called it, but in the moment's delay
which followed his whole body seemed to become an ear which listens. Ah! There it was—that slight sound of rustled paper—someone, unable to control a movement, had brushed against the paper packing which protruded from the half-opened cases. As there was not a breath of moving air in the room, the inference was conclusive.
TT WAS Mrs. Marsden’s voice which came over the ^ wire. The professor asked if Mr. Marsden were at home. As he had expected, the answer was that Marsden was at home but very specially engaged with an experiment. Mrs. Marsden was sorry but he had given instructions not to be disturbed. The professor appeared disappointed. He frowned at the telephone. “It is Wix speaking, Mrs. Marsden,’’ he said. "I wished to see your husband particularly—something important. You 'don’t think—?” Apparently Mrs. Marsden’s instructions had beenimperative. for the professor hung up the receiver with an irritated bang. He stood for a moment in thought. Would this be sufficient? He was inclined to think it would. He knew Marsden. The man possessed an inordinate curiosity. Hearing, in his place behind the packing boxes, that he. Professor Wix, desired to communicate something of importance, he would never rest until he had learned what it was. It was now the professor’s part to provide the opportunity. Making use of the house telephone, he summoned Barker, his man. While waiting for Barker he picked up the formula and placed it, apparently, in the small safe in the wall where he kept all his documents, and the combination of which he had intended to have changed after Marsden went, only that he had been so occupied.
No one, he felt sure, not the most argus-eyed observer, could tell that the formula he placed there was not the formula he had picked up from the shelf. In his youth Professor Wix had been locally famous for “parlor tricks.” and he still knew quite well how to make the quickness of the hand deceive the eye.
The stage was now set. The professor cracked his* thumb joint. When Barker came:
“Have I eaten any supper. Barker?” he asked.
“Nothing since lunch, sir,” replied Barker.
T was afraid so. Bring me a glass of milk, some lettuce and brown bread—wait, though, better place them on the table in the den. The air here is vitiated. Afterwards you may go to bed. Lock the house but not the laboratory. I shall be returning here and will attend to that myself.”
Barker respectfully withdrew and Professor Wix, after emptying and washing out a test tube, followed him leisurely.
IN THE den he made the lettuce and brown bread into A sandwiches and ate them with relish, sipping the milk. He had small fear that his plan would miscarry. It was too logical. Already Marsden would have taken advantage of his absence to emerge from behind the boxes. In the possible event of his not already having copied the formula, he would naturally open the wall safe and copy the formula left there. This he could not do without first moving the paper and, in placing it in the safe, the professor had not failed to arrange that he might know if the paper had been moved. If Marsden copied the wrong formula it meant that he did not have the right one, and no harm was done. If, on the other hand, Marsden already had the formula, he would not go near the wall safe. He was a careful man. He would simply let himself out of the door and wait, returning presently in the guise of a belated caller summoned by the professor’s telephone call.
^ ery satisfactory—Mrs. Marsden would of course believe that her husband was still occupied with his experiment. Barker would be in bed. No one would know of Marsden’s nocturnal visit save Marsden himself and Professor Wix.
A very simple and satisfactory arrangement.
As the professor finished his sandwiches he allowed his mind to dwell with mild wonder upon how he had come to be so mistaken in Marsden. He had known him for an intelligent man and a clever assistant. Not the creative mind, of course, but so few men have the creative mind. Marsden had possessed a brain remarkably quick at seizing ideas and expert at putting things together— providing the professor with exactly the kind of help he required. But he had originated nothing—the originality had come from Professor Wix. He, the professor, had been quite satisfied to have it so. And he had been quite satisfied with Marsden until the day of their discussion regarding the grey powder. On that day the professor had discovered that Marsden lacked something besides the creative mind—he lacked what the professor called “the sense of social responsibility.”
Now the sense of social responsibility was a sense which Professor Wix had very strongly. He held that no man can, or dare, live unto himself; that all men, and especially all scientists, live for the good of the world at large. That, to make the matter a practical one, whenever a scientist in his experiments discovers anything which will benefit the body social his discovery is no longer his own property—it belongs to the world he works for. While, if, on the other hand, he stumbles across anything which threatens the peace or safety of this larger world
he is equally bound to suppress this knowledge, no matter what personal fame or fortune might accrue to himself as its discoverer. The professor had no illusions as to what happens when a lighted match is placed within reach of a child playing with a bomb.
The grey powder had been, in a sense, a minor discovery, a mere by-product, but its nature was such that the professor deemed it unsafe as a plaything for a still childish world. He had followed his usual course, under such circumstances, and burned the formula. Marsden had been amazed and indignant and it had been this amazement and indignation which had told the professor that his assistant’s ideas and ideals were not his. He had put some leading questions.
“What would you have done in my place, Marsden?” he asked.
MARSDEN, who had seen some of the experiments with the grey powder without knowing its composition, had been voluble in reply. He had pointed out various ways in which the powder might have been used commercially with great advantage. He had computed its value in extravagant terms.
“Yes,” agreed the professor. “But consider the other side.” And he, in his turn, had pointed out the manifest dangers of placing a subtle and practically untraceable drug acting directly upon the brain cells, upon a more or less open market. Man, he argued, was in no fit case to be trusted with any such weapon against his fellow man. He had explained, in detail, what effect even a grain of this powder would have upon the ordinary human. “It would mean,” he said, “a practical annihilation of the ego. All continuity in the brain processes would be interrupted. The outward semblance would be that of a mild stroke of apoplexy but the inward devastation would, in a very short time, be complete and irreparable. The man would be as man no longer—just a disconnected jumble of odds and ends.”
“But you are not sure of that,” said Marsden impatiently. “You have never tried it.”
“Nevertheless I am sure,” said Professor Wix.
“The sale of it would have to be controlled, then,” said Marsden. “Would you do away with anaesthetics because drug taking is generally dangerous?”
“The grey powder is not an anaesthetic,” pointed out the professor. “It is a—horror. Let us forget that it ever existed. And hope that no one may resurrect its ashes.” He did not think it necessary to add that, while destroying the formula, he had saved a sample of the powder. It was quite safe with him, and, before he died, he would destroy that, too. Fortunate, very fortunate, he thought, that it had been he and not Marsden who had discovered it. For Marsden had plainly no social conscience. Marsden, he felt sure, would let hell loose upon the world if by so doing he might add a cubit to his stature. Therefore it behooved him, Professor Wix, to keep all knowledge of possible hells very carefully to himself. And presently he had told Marsden that he no longer required an assistant. It annoyed him to be constantly careful.
They had parted in seeming friendliness. Rather than hurt Marsden’s feelings, the professor had not at once engaged another assistant. He was safer without one anyway for a time, for his more important investigations seemed on the verge of yielding certain unexpected things—such as, for instance, the Thing which was now embodied in the formula which might, or might not, be now in Marsden’s breast pocket.
The Thing had no name. Its inventor in his own mind, referred to it merely as “X”—or, “one might call it ‘exit’, ” he had mused once, humorously, “as that is what it well might mean to a considerable portion of the human race.” He had chanced upon the idea while in hot pursuit of something else, and for sheer love of discovery had not been able to refrain from following it. All knowledge, in itself, was good. And Professor Wix was hungry for knowledge. But it was largely because he had seen the possibility of perfecting “X” that he had let Marsden go. Now, it appeared, that Marsden had seen the possibility, too. He must have kept a very careful watch—Marsden. Fortunate, most fortunate, that the man hadn’t a ghost of creative ability. Even his plan for stealing the formula was imitative in the extreme.
The professor finished his milk and came out of his reverie. It was time to return to the laboratory. In a very few moments he would know whether or not Marsden had the proper formula. It was necessary to consider the next point. If he had the proper formula— what? ,
Forcible recovery would be the natural thing. But the professor looked at his unmuscular arms and smiled. Barker’s arms, he knew, were just as useless. Whereas Marsden had the trained muscles of an athlete. In any kind of struggle there could be but one issue. Surrender at the point of a revolver might be possible. But it was taking a chance. Also, even if there were no chance and the recovery of the written formula certain, the problem of Marsden himself would remain. The formula was not too intricate to remember and Marsden had an excellent memory.
The professor stared intently at a crumb on his knee. Then he brushed off the crumb, snapped his thumb joint and arose. He looked carefully around the sparsely furnished room. He even opened the one door and looked out. Then he went leisurely to the desk and sought for something in a drawer which had not seemed to be a drawer until he opened it. Finding what he sought, he turned out the light and returned, still without haste, to the laboratory.
THERE was not much to do there. Merely some straightening up. He yawned as he worked—the picture of a weary old man whose day’s work has been a long one. The laboratory door had been left slightly ajar to air the room, and Marsden, looking in, saw him so.
“Why— good night, Professor,” said Marsden, scarcely tapping on the door. “My wife said you wanted to see me—something important—so although it is rather late-” “Ah—Marsden!” cried the Professor in surprise. “I’d given up any idea of you. Your wife was so positive. But come in, come in! It’s true I did want to see you. Though no doubt you’ll think me an impatient old nuisance to have dragged you out at this time of night.”
Marsden laughed. “There’s reason I’ll be bound.” He was a very well set-up middle aged man with the sort of head which novelists refer to as “leonine,” and large icy blue eyes.
“Yes, yes,” said the professor a little fussily. "Yes, of course. The fact is, Marsden, I’ve got it.”
“Which?” asked Marsden with a broad grin.
The professor looked taken aback.
“Oh, I thought—I was under the impression that you had some idea—before you left, you know there were some indications of—”
“Oh—that one!” broke in Marsden as if impatient of the old man’s preamble. “The thing which was going to smash us all up and bury the pieces? Well, that won’t help you pay the rent—until the next war.”
“Oh, good gracious, Marsden, don’t joke about it,” besought the professor nervously. “Of course I’m not going to leave the thing lying around. That’s why 1 sent for you to-night. Do you remember pretending to disbelieve me when I told you that if I ever perfected the idea I should burn it?”
“Not you,” said Marsden cheerfully. “Why man, someone’s got to discover these secrets some day. I don’t mind telling you I’m working on something myself.”
The professor sighed.
“Yes—I know. But what other people do is not my responsibility. And I was perfectly in earnest in what I told you. I have perfected the ‘X’ formula and I do intend to destroy it. I wanted you to know it. To see me do it.”
But Professor Wix, still fussily, went over to the wall safe and opened it. If his face was a shade paler as he looked in, Marsden could not see it. Neither could he know that he held his breath a moment as he noted that the false formula had not been touched.
Marsden, then, had not needed to open the safe. The true formula must be lying, neatly copied,-in Marsden’s pocket. And the memory of it must be registered somewhere in Marsden’s brain. The professor cracked his thumb.
He extracted the false formula from the safe with meticulous care.
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“I am not going to show it to you, Marsden,” he said, “because I know that for a younger man there may be a certain temptation ... I am going to burn it as quickly as possible ...” With fingers which he permitted to tremble slightly, the scientist held the bit of paper over an open gas flame. It flared up and was gone.
( Marsden looked immensely impressed. “But,” he said, “you could make another formula, of course.”
“I sha’n’t do it, though,” said the other simply. “What I have done is symbolical. ‘X’ will never trouble the world through me . . . Come, though, don’t look so glum ... I have had the pleasure of discovery. That is a great deal. I feel like a conqueror to-night—although I have destroyed my conquest.”
“I suppose I must not tell you what I think of you,” said Marsden, “because if I did I should use an impolite word.” “Fool?” queried the professor.
“Then let us celebrate my folly,” suggested the professor. “I have a bottle handy somewhere. Wash yourself a glass, will you?”
MARSDEN, never averse to a drink, washed himself a glass. The professor extracted a bottle. He talked cheerfully as he filled the glasses—as conjurors prattle while they do their tricks. No one would have noticed the few flakes of grey powder which drifted down into Marsden’s glass and immediately disappeared.
“To the welfare of humanity!” toasted Professor Wix.
“To the pursuit of knowledge!” toasted Marsden.
They both drank.
Marsden set down his glass and roamed around the once familiar room. He began to speak several times and stopped without finishing his sentences. Finally he sat down in a chair as if physically lax.
“Headache?” asked the professor. Marsden did not answer. He sat still staring blankly at his hands. The professor waited for a few moments and then crossed over to him.
“I want to go through your pockets,” he said briskly.
Marsden made no objection. He seemed to take no interest in his pockets, nor in anything at all. The professor ran through the breast pocket quickly. Then he went through it more carefully. Then he went through every other pocket— once, twice, with constantly increasing care. Then he straightened up and his face was very puzzled.
“It isn’t there,” he murmured, half aloud. “Now where could it possibly be?” He examined the lining of Mars-
den’s hat, he examined his shoes. He searched between the linings of his clothing. Marsden made no objection. Several times he began to say something but what he said had no relation to any particular subject and he did not finish his sentences.
Suddenly the puzzlement was wiped out of the professor’s face by the oncoming shock of another feeling. He slipped back Marsden’s pocket book which he was examining for the third time, and stood very still, staring. It would have seemed, had there been any to notice, that he had to drag his eyes back to the figure in the chair.
But work such as Professor Wix’s prepares the mind for many eventualities. He raised his thumb to crack it, then, without doing so, went quickly to the phone. Barker had left him connected with central as he always did when he went to bed.
The professor called the number of Marsden’s house. “This is Wix speaking—” he began.
“Oh, yes, Professor!” came back Mrs. Marsden’s voice cheerfully. “Hasn’t Tom got there yet? He finished his work sooner than he expected, so I gave him your message and he started right off.”
There was the smallest of pauses before the professor spoke again, steadily:
“Yes, Mrs. Marsden—that is what I wanted to tell you. Your husband has just arrived. I am'sorry to say that he— well, I am worried about his condition. I do not wish to alarm you . . . but has Mr. Marsden ever had a slight stroke?”
There was a gasp on the wire.
“No . . . but, his father! . . . you don’t mean . .
“I can’t say,” the professor's tone was grave. “Will you come over at once? I will ring up Dr. Norton immediately . . . better bring your family physician also . . . ”
He hung up the receiver.
FOR a moment he stared at it. The habit of staring at small objects held. Then, without haste, he washed the glasses from which the toast had been drunk and poured a little more of the contents of the bottle into the bottom of each glass. Not that there would be any trace anyway, but it is as well to be careful. He also rang up Dr. Morton as he had promised.
Then, and not till then, did he move the packing cases which stood in the corner beside the reading light
A large tabby cat stirred sleepily, hunched itself and, springing out, rubbed herself luxuriously against the professor's trousers.
“Ah!” breathed the professor. And he cracked his thumb.
Then he lifted the tabby and set her gently down outside. He was a humane man.