The Mystery by S. E. White and S. H. Adams - HTML preview
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As they had gathered to hear Ralph Slade's tale, so now the depleted mess of the Wolverine grouped themselves for Percy Darrow's sequel. Slade himself sat directly across from the doctor's assistant. Before him lay a paper covered with jotted notes. Trendon slouched low in the chair on Slade's right. Captain Parkinson had the other side. Convenient to Darrow's hand lay the material for cigarettes. As he talked he rolled cylinder after cylinder, and between sentences consumed them in long, satisfying puffs.
"First you will want to learn of the fate of your friends and shipmates," he began.
"They are dead. One of them, Mr. Edwards, fell to my hands to bury, as you know. He lies beside Handy Solomon. The others we shall probably not see: any one of a score of ocean currents may have swept them far away. The last great glow that you saw was the signal of their destruction. So the work of a great scientist, a potent benefactor of the race, a gentle and kindly old heart, has brought about the death of your friends and of my enemies. The innocent and the guilty ... the murderer with his plunder, the officer following his duty ... one and the same end ... a paltry thing our vaunted science is in the face of such tangled fates." He spoke low and bitterly. Then he squared his shoulders and his manner became businesslike.
"Interrupt me when any point needs clearing up," he said.
"It's a blind trail at best. You've the right to see it as plain as I can make it--with Slade's help. Cut right in with your questions: There'll be plenty to answer and some never will be answered....
"Now let me get this thing laid out clearly in my own mind. You first saw the glow--let me see--"
"Night of June 2d," said Barnett.
"June 2d," agreed Darrow.
"That was the end of Solomon, Thrackles & Co. A very surprising end to them, if they had time to think," he added grimly.
"Surprising enough, from the survivor's viewpoint," said Slade.
"Doubtless. They've had that story from you; I needn't go over it. This ship picked up the Laughing Lass, deserted, and put your first crew aboard. That night, was it not, you saw the second pillar of fire?"
"So your men met their death. Then came the second finding of the empty schooner.... Captain Parkinson, they must have been brave men who faced the unknown terrors of that prodigy."
"They volunteered, sir," said the Captain, with simple pride. Darrow bowed with a suggestion of reverence in the slow movement of his head.
"And that night--or was it two nights later?--you saw the last appearance of the portent. Well, I shall come to that.... Slade has told you how they lived on the beach. With us in the valley it was different. Almost from the first I was alone. The doctor ceased to be a companion. He ceased to be human, almost. A machine, that's what he was. His one human instinct was--well, distrust. His whole force of being was centred on his discovery. It was to make him the foremost scientist of the world; the foremost individual entity of his time--of all time, possibly. Even to outline it to you would take too much time. Light, heat, motive power in incredible degrees and under such control as has never been known: these were to be the agencies at his call. The push of a button, the turn of a screw--oh, he was to be master of such power as no monarch ever wielded! Riches-pshaw! Riches were the least of it. He could create them, practically. But they would be superfluous. Power: unlimited, absolute power was his goal. With his end achieved he could establish an autocracy, a dynasty of science: whatever he chose. Oh, it was a richhued, golden, glowing dream; a dream such as men's souls don't formulate in these stale days--not our kind of men. The Teutonic mysticism--you understand. And it was all true. Oh, quite."
"Do you mean us to understand that he had this power you describe?" asked Captain Parkinson.
"In his grasp. Then comes a practical gentleman with a steel hook. A follower of dreams, too, in his way. Conflicting interests--you know how it is. One well-aimed blow from the more practical dreamer, and the greater vision passes.... I'm getting ahead of myself. Just a moment."
His cigarette glowed fiercely in the dimness before he took up his tale again.
"You all know who Dr. Schermerhorn was. None of you know--I don't know myself, though I've been his factotum for ten years--along how many varied lines of activity that mind played. One of them was the secret of energy: concentrated, resistless energy. Man's contrivances were too puny for him. The most powerful engines he regarded as toys. For a time high explosives claimed his attention. He wanted to harness them. Once he got to the point of practical experiment. You can see the ruins yet: a hole in southern New Jersey. Nobody ever understood how he escaped. But there he was on his feet across a ten-foot fence in a ploughed field--yes, he flew the fence-- and running, running furiously in the opposite direction, when the dust cleared away. Someone stopped him finally. Told him the danger was over. 'Yet, I will not return,' he said firmly, and fainted away. That disgusted him with high explosives. What secrets he discovered he gave to the government. They were not without value, I believe."
"They were not, indeed," corroborated Barnett.
"Next his interest turned to the natural phenomena of high energy. He studied lightning in an open steel network laboratory, with few results save a succession of rheumatic attacks, and an improved electric interrupter, since adopted by one of the great telegraph companies. The former obliged him to stop these experiments, and the invention he considered trivial. Probably the great problem of getting at the secret of energy led him into his attempts to study the mysterious electrical waves radiated by lightning flashes; at any rate he was soon as deep into the subject of electrical science as his countryman, Hertz, had ever been. He used to tell me that he often wondered why he hadn't taken up this line before--the world of energy he now set out to explore, waves in that tremendous range between those we hear and those we see. It was natural that he should then come to the most prominent radio-active elements, uranium, thorium, and radium. But though his knowledge surpassed that of the much-exploited authorities, he was never satisfied with any of his results.
"'Pitchblende; no!' he would exclaim. 'It has not the great power. The mines are not deep enough, yet!'
"Then suddenly the great idea that was to bring him success, and cost him his life, came to him. The bowels of the earth must hold the secret! He took up volcanoes.... Does all this sound foolish? It was not if you knew the man. He was a mighty enthusiast, a born martyr. Not cold-blooded, like the rest of us. The fire was in his veins.... A light, please. Thank you.
"We chased volcanoes. There was a theory under it all. He believed that volcanic emanations are caused by a mighty and uncomprehended energy, something that achieves results ascribable neither to explosions nor heat, some eternal, inner source.... Radium, if you choose, only he didn't call it that. Radium itself, as known to our modern scientists, he regarded as the harmless plaything of people with time hanging heavy on their hands. He wasn't after force in pin-point quantities: he wanted bulk results. Yet I believe that, after all, what he sought was a sort of higher power of radium. The phenomena were related. And he had some of that concentrated essence of pitchblende in the chest when we started. Oh, not much: say about twenty thousand dollars' worth. Maybe thirty. For use? No; rather for comparison, I judge.
"Yes, we chased volcanoes. I became used to camping between sample hells of all known varieties. I got so that the fumes of a sulphur match seemed like a draught of pure, fresh air. Wherever any of the earth's pimples showed signs of coming to a head, there were we, taking part in the trouble. By and by the doctor got so thoroughly poisoned that he had to lay off. Back to Philadelphia we came. There an aged seafaring person, temporarily stranded, mulcted the Professor of a dollar--an undertaking that required no art--and in the course of his recital touched upon yonder little cesspool of infernal iniquities. An uncharted volcanic island: one that he could have all for his own; you may guess whether Dr. Schermerhorn was interested.
"'That iss for which we haf so-long-in-vain sought, Percy,' he said to me in his quaint, link-chain style of speech. 'A leedle prifate volcano- laboratory to ourselves to have. Totally unknown: undescribed, not-on-the- chart-to-be-found. To-morrow we start. I make a list of the things-to- get.'
"He began his list, as I remember, with three dozen undershirts, a gallon of pennyroyal for insect bites, a box of assorted fish hooks, thirty pounds of tea, and a case of carpet tacks. When I hadn't anything else to worry over, I used to lie awake at night and speculate on the purpose of those carpet tacks. He had something in mind: if there was anything on which he prided himself, it was his practical bent. But the list never got any further: it ceased short of one page in the ledger, as you may have noticed. I outfitted by telegraph on the way across the continent.
"The doctor didn't ask me whether I'd go. He took it for granted. That's probably why I didn't back out. Nor did I tell him that the three life insurance companies which had foolishly and trustingly accepted me as a risk merely on the strength of a good constitution were making frantic efforts to compromise on the policies. They felt hurt, those companies: my healthy condition had ceased to appeal to them. What's a good constitution between earthquakes? No, there was no use telling the doctor. It would only have worried him. Besides, I didn't believe that the island was there. I thought it was a myth of that stranded ancient mariner's imagination. When it rose to sight at the proper spot, none were more astounded than the bad risk who now addresses you.
"Yet, I must say for the island that it came handsomely up to specifications. Down where you were, Slade. you didn't get a real insight into its disposition. But in back of us there was any kind of action for your money. Geysers, hell-spouts, fuming fissures, cunning little craterlets with half-portions of molten lava ready to serve hot; more gases than you could create in all the world's chemical laboratories: in fact, everything to make the place a paradise for Old Nick--and Dr. Schermerhorn. He brought along in his precious chest, besides the radium, some sort of raw material: also, as near as I could make out, a sort of cage or guardianship scheme for his concentrated essence of cussedness, when he should get it out of the volcano.
"In the first seven months he puttered around the little fumers, with an occasional excursion up to the main crater. It was my duty to follow on and drag him away when he fell unconscious. Sometimes I would try to get him before he was quite gone. Then he would become indignant, and fight me. Perhaps that helped to lose me his confidence. More and more he withdrew into himself. There were days when he spoke no word to me. It was lonely. Do you know why I used to visit you at the beach, Slade? I suppose you thought I was keeping watch on you. It wasn't that, it was loneliness. In a way, it hurt me, too: for one couldn't help but be fond of the old boy; and at times it seemed as if he weren't quite himself. Pardon me, if I may trouble you for the matches? Thanks....
"Matters went very wrong at times: the doctor fumed like his little craters; growled out long-winded, exhaustive German imprecations: wouldn't even eat. Then again the demon of work would drive him with thong and spur: he would rush to his craters, to his laboratories, to his ledger for the purpose of entering unintelligible commentaries. He had some peculiar contrivance, like a misshapen retort, with which he collected gases from the craterlets. Whenever I'd hear one of those smash, I knew it was a bad day.
"Meantime, the volcano also became--well, what you might call temperamental.
"It got to be a year and a quarter--a year and a half. I wondered whether we should ever get away. My tobacco was running short. And the bearing of the men was becoming fidgetty. My visits to the beach became quite interesting--to me. One day the doctor came running out of his laboratory with so bright a face that I ventured to ask him about departure.
"'Not so long, now, Percy,' he said, in his old, kind manner. 'Not so long. The first real success. It iss made. We have yet under-entire- control to bring it, but it iss made.'
"'And about time, sir,' said I. 'If we don't do something soon we may have trouble with the men.'
"'So?' said he in surprise. 'But they could do nothing. Nothing.' He wagged his great head confidently. 'We are armed.'
"'Oh, yes, armed. So are they.'
"'We are armed,' he repeated obstinately. 'Such as no man was ever armed, are we armed.'
"He checked himself abruptly and walked away. Well, I've since wondered what would have happened had the men attacked us. It would have been worth seeing, and--and surprising. Yes: I'm quite certain it would have been surprising. Perhaps, too, I might have learned more of the Great Secret ... and yet, I don't know. It's all dark ... a hint here ... theory ... mere glints of light.... Where did I put.... Ah, thank you."