Mystery of the Fatal Cipher
by Jacques Futrelle
For the third time Professor Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen-so-called
The Thinking Machine-read the letter. It was spread out in front of him
on the table, and his blue eyes were narrowed to mere slits as he
studied it through his heavy eyeglasses. The young woman who had placed
the letter in his hands, Miss Elizabeth Devan, sat waiting patiently on
the sofa in the little reception room of The Thinking Machine's house.
Her blue eyes were opened wide and she stared as if fascinated at this
man who had become so potent a factor in the solution of intangible
Here is the letter:
To those Concerned:
Tired of it all I seek the end, and am content. Ambition now is
dead; the grave yawns greedily at my feet, and with the labor of my own
hands lost I greet death of my own will, by my own act.
To my son I leave all, and you who maligned me, you who discouraged
me, you may read this and know I punish you thus. It's for him, my son,
I dared in life and dare dead your everlasting anger, not alone that
you didn't speak but that you cherished secret, and my ears are locked
forever against you. My vault is my resting place.
On the brightest and dearest page of life I wrote (7) my love for
him. Family ties, binding as the Bible itself, bade me give all to my
Good-bye. I die.
“Under just what circumstances did this letter come into your
possession, Miss Devan?” The Thinking Machine asked. “Tell me the full
story; omit nothing.”
The scientist sank back into his chair with his enormous yellow head
pillowed comfortably against the cushion and his long, steady fingers
pressed tip to tip. He didn't even look at his pretty visitor. She had
come to ask for information; he was willing to give it, because it
offered another of those abstract problems which he always found
interesting. In his own field-the sciences-his fame was worldwide. This
concentration of a brain which had achieved so much on more material
things was perhaps a sort of relaxation.
Miss Devan had a soft, soothing voice, and as she talked it was
broken at times by what seemed to be a sob. Her face was flushed a
little, and she emphasized her points by a quick clasping and
unclasping of her daintily gloved hands.
“My father, or rather my adopted father, Pomeroy Stockton, was an
inventor,” she began. “We lived in a great, old-fashioned house in
Dorchester. We have lived there since I was a child. When I was only
five or six years old, I was left an orphan and was adopted by Mr.
Stockton, then a man of forty years. I am now twenty-three. I was
raised and cared for by Mr. Stockton, who always treated me as a
daughter. His death, therefore, was a great blow to me.
“Mr. Stockton was a widower with only one child of his own, a son,
John Stockton, who is now about thirty-one years old. He is a man of
irreproachable character, and has always, since I first knew him, been
religiously inclined. He is the junior partner in a great commercial
company, Dutton &Stockton, leather men. I suppose he has an immense
fortune, for he gives largely to charity, and is, too, the active head
of a large Sunday school.
“Pomeroy Stockton, my adopted father, almost idolized this son,
although there was in his manner toward him something akin to fear.
Close work had made my father querulous and irritable. Yet I don't
believe a better hearted man ever lived. He worked most of the time in
a little shop, which he had installed in a large back room on the
ground floor of the house. He always worked with the door locked. There
were furnaces, moulds, and many things that I didn't know the use of.”
“I know who he was,” said The Thinking Machine. “He was working to
re-discover the secret of hardened copper-a secret which was lost in
Egypt. I knew Mr. Stockton very well by reputation. Go on.”
“Whatever it was he worked on,” Miss Devan resumed, “he guarded it
very carefully. He would permit no one at all to enter the room. I have
never seen more than a glimpse of what was in it. His son particularly
I have seen barred out of the shop a dozen times and every time there
was a quarrel to follow.
“Those were the conditions at the time Mr. Stockton first became
ill, six or seven months ago. At that time he double-locked the doors
of his shop, retired to his rooms on the second floor, and remained
there in practical seclusion for two weeks or more. These rooms
adjoined mine, and twice during that time I heard the son and the
father talking loudly, as if quarreling. At the end of the two weeks,
Mr. Stockton returned to work in the shop and shortly afterward the
son, who had also lived in the house, took apartments in Beacon Street
and removed his belongings from the house.
“From that time up to last Monday-this is Thursday-I never saw the
son in the house. On Monday the father was at work as usual in the
shop. He had previously told me that the work he was engaged in was
practically ended and he expected a great fortune to result from it.
About 5 o'clock in the afternoon on Monday the son came to the house.
No one knows when he went out. It is a fact, however, that Father did
not have dinner at the usual time, 6:30. I presumed he was at work, and
did not take time for his dinner. I have known him to do this many
For a moment the girl was silent and seemed to be struggling with
some deep grief which she could not control.
“And next morning?” asked The Thinking Machine gently.
“Next morning,” the girl went on, “Father was found dead in the
workshop. There were no marks on his body, nothing to indicate at first
the manner of death. It was as if he had sat in his chair beside one of
the furnaces and had taken poison and died at once. A small bottle of
what I presume to be prussic acid was smashed on the floor, almost
beside his chair. We discovered him dead after we had rapped on the
door several times and got no answer. Then Montgomery, our butler,
smashed in the door, at my request. There we found Father.
“I immediately telephoned to the son, John Stockton, and he came to
the house. The letter you now have was found in my father's pocket. It
was just as you see it. Mr. Stockton seemed greatly agitated and
started to destroy the letter. I induced him to give it to me, because
instantly it occurred to me that there was something wrong about all of
it. My father had talked too often to me about the future, what he
intended to do and his plans for me. There may not be anything wrong.
The letter may be just what it purports to be. I hope it is-oh-I hope
it is. Yet everything considered—”
“Was there an autopsy?” asked The Thinking Machine.
“No. John Stockton's actions seemed to be directed against any
investigation. He told me he thought he could do certain things which
would prevent the matter coming to the attention of the police. My
father was buried on a death certificate issued by a Dr. Benton, who
has been a friend of John Stockton since their college days. In that
way the appearance of suicide or anything else was covered up
“Both before and after the funeral John Stockton made me promise to
keep this letter hidden or else destroy it. In order to put an end to
this I told him I had destroyed the letter. This attitude on his part,
the more I thought of it, seemed to confirm my original idea that it
had not been suicide. Night after night I thought of this, and finally
decided to come to you rather than to the police. I feel that there is
some dark mystery behind it all. If you can help me now—”
“Yes, yes,” broke in The Thinking Machine. “Where was the key to the
workshop? In Pomeroy's pocket? In his room? In the door?”
“Really, I don't know,” said Miss Devan. “It hadn't occurred to me.”
“Did Mr. Stockton leave a will?”
“Yes, it is with his lawyer, a Mr. Sloane.”
“Has it been read? Do you know what is in it?”
“It is to be read in a day or so. Judging from the second paragraph
of the letter, I presume he left everything to his son.”
For the fourth time The Thinking Machine read the letter. At its end
he again looked up at Miss Devan.
“Just what is your interpretation of this letter from one end to the
other?” he asked.
“Speaking from my knowledge of Mr. Stockton and the circumstances
surrounding him,” the girl explained, “I should say the letter means
just what it says. I should imagine from the first paragraph that
something he invented had been taken away from him, stolen perhaps. The
second paragraph and the third, I should say, were intended as a rebuke
to certain relatives-a brother and two distant cousins-who had always
regarded him as a crank and took frequent occasion to tell him so. I
don't know a great deal of the history of that other branch of the
family. The last two paragraphs explain themselves except—”
“Except the figure seven,” interrupted the scientist. “Do you have
any idea whatever as to the meaning of that?”
The girl took the letter and studied it closely for a moment.
“Not the slightest,” she said. “It does not seem to be connected
with anything else in the letter.”
“Do you think it possible, Miss Devan, that this letter was written
“I do,” said the girl quickly, and her face flamed. “That's just
what I do think. From the first I have imagined some ghastly, horrible
mystery back of it all.”
“Or, perhaps Pomeroy Stockton never saw this letter at all,” mused
The Thinking Machine. “It may be a forgery?”
“Forgery!” gasped the girl. “Then John Stockton—”
“Whatever it is, forged or genuine,” The Thinking Machine went on
quietly, “it is a most extraordinary document. It might have been
written by a poet. It states things in such a roundabout way. It is not
directly to the point, as a practical man would have written.”
There was silence for several minutes and the girl sat leaning
forward on the table, staring into the inscrutable eyes of the
“Perhaps, perhaps,” she said, “there is a cipher of some sort in
“That is precisely correct,” said The Thinking Machine emphatically.
“There is a cipher in it, and a very ingenious one.”
It was twenty-four hours later that The Thinking Machine sent for
Hutchinson Hatch, reporter, and talked over the matter with him. He had
always found Hatch a discreet, resourceful individual, who was willing
to aid in any way in his power.
Hatch read the letter, which The Thinking Machine had said contained
a cipher, and then the circumstances as related by Miss Devan were
retold to the reporter.
“Do you think it is a cipher?” asked Hatch in conclusion.
“It is a cipher,” replied The Thinking Machine. “If what Miss Devan
has said is correct, John Stockton cannot have said anything about the
affair. I want you to go and talk to him, find out all about him and
what division of the property is made by the will. Does this will give
everything to the son?
“Also find out what personal enmity there is between John Stockton
and Miss Devan, and what was the cause of it. Was there a man in it? If
so, who? When you have done all this, go to the house in Dorchester and
bring me the family Bible, if there is one there. It's probably a big
book. If it is not there, let me know immediately by 'phone. Miss Devan
will, I suppose, give it to you, if she has it.”
With these instructions Hatch went away. Half an hour later he was
in the private office of John Stockton at the latter's place of
business. Mr. Stockton was a man of long visage, rather angular and
clerical in appearance. There was a smug satisfaction about the man
that Hatch didn't quite approve of, and yet it was a trait which found
expression only in a soft voice and small acts of needless courtesy.
A deprecatory look passed over Stockton's face when Hatch asked the
first question, which bore on his relationship with Pomeroy Stockton.
“I had hoped that this matter would not come to the attention of the
press,” said Stockton in an oily, gentle tone. “It is something which
can only bring disgrace upon my poor father's memory, and his has been
a name associated with distinct achievements in the progress of the
world. However, if necessary, I will state my knowledge of the affair,
and invite the investigation which, frankly, I will say, I tried to
“How much was your father's estate?” asked Hatch.
“Something more than a million,” was the reply. “He made most of it
through a device for coupling cars. This is now in use on practically
all the railroads.”
“And the division of this property by will?” asked Hatch.
“I haven't seen the will, but I understand that he left practically
everything to me, settling an annuity and the home in Dorchester on
Miss Devan, whom he had always regarded as a daughter.”
“That would give you then, say, two-thirds or three-quarters of the
“Something like that, possibly $800,000.”
“Where is this will now?”
“I understand in the hands of my father's attorney, Mr. Sloane.”
“When is it to be read?”
“It was to have been read today, but there has been some delay about
it. The attorney postponed it for a few days.”
“What, Mr. Stockton, was the purpose in making it appear that your
father died naturally, when obviously he committed suicide and there is
even a suggestion of something else?” demanded Hatch.
John Stockton sat up straight in his chair with a startled
expression in his eyes. He had been rubbing his hands together
complacently; now he stopped and stared at the reporter.
“Something else?” he asked. “Pray what else?”
Hatch shrugged his shoulders, but in his eyes there lay almost an
“Did any motive ever appear for your father's suicide?”
“I know of none,” Stockton replied. “Yet, admitting that this is
suicide, without a motive, it seems that the only fault I have
committed is that I had a friend report it otherwise and avoided a
“It's just that. Why did you do it?”
“Naturally to save the family name from disgrace. But this something
else you spoke of? Do you mean that anyone else thinks that anything
other than suicide or natural death is possible?”
As he asked the question there came some subtle change over his
face. He leaned forward toward the reporter. All trace of the
sanctimonious smirk about the thin-lipped mouth had gone now.
“Miss Devan has produced the letter found on your father at death
and has said—” began the reporter.
“Elizabeth! Miss Devan!” exclaimed John Stockton. He arose suddenly,
paced several times across the room, then stopped in front of the
reporter. “She gave me her word of honor that she would not make the
existence of that letter known.”
“But she has made it public,” said Hatch. “And further she intimates
that your father's death was not even what it appeared to be, suicide.”
“She's crazy, man, crazy,” said Stockton in deep agitation. “Who
could have killed my father? What motive could there have been?”
There was a grim twitching of Hatch's lips.
“Was Miss Devan legally adopted by your father?” he asked,
“In that event, disregarding other relatives, doesn't it seem
strange even to you that he gives three-quarters of the estate to
you-you have a fortune already-and only a small part to Miss Devan, who
“That's my father's business.”
There was a pause. Stockton was still pacing back and forth.
Finally he sank down in his chair at the desk, and sat for a moment
looking at the reporter.
“Is that all?” he asked.
“I should like to know, if you don't mind telling me, what direct
cause there is for ill feeling between Miss Devan and you?”
“There is no ill feeling. We merely never got along well together.
My father and I have had several arguments about her for reasons which
it is not necessary to go into.”
“Did you have such an argument on the night before your father was
“I believe there was something said about her.”
“What time did you leave the shop that night?”
“About 10 o'clock.”
“And you had been in the room with your father since afternoon, had
“How did you come to neglect that?”
“My father was explaining a recent invention he had perfected, which
I was to put on the market.”
“I suppose the possibility of suicide or his death in any way had
not occurred to you?”
“No, not at all. We were making elaborate plans for the future.”
Possibly it was some prejudice against the man's appearance which
made Hatch so dissatisfied with the result of the interview. He felt
that he had gained nothing, yet Stockton had been absolutely frank, as
it seemed. There was one last question.
“Have you any recollection of a large family Bible in your father's
house?” he asked.
“I have seen it several times,” Stockton said.
“Is it still there?”
“So far as I know, yes.”
That was the end of the interview, and Hatch went straight to the
house in Dorchester to see Miss Devan. There, in accordance with
instructions from The Thinking Machine, he asked for the family Bible.
“There was one here the other day,” said Miss Devan, “but it has
“Since your father's death?” asked Hatch.
“Yes, the next day.”
“Have you any idea who took it?”
“John Stockton! Why did he take it?” blurted Hatch.
There was a little resigned movement of the girl's hands, a movement
which said, “I don't know.”
“He told me, too,” said Hatch indignantly, “that he thought the
Bible was still here.”
The girl drew close to the reporter and laid one white hand on his
sleeve. She looked up into his eyes and tears stood in her own. Her
“John Stockton has that book,” she said. “He took it away from here
the day after my father died, and he did it for a purpose. What, I
“Are you absolutely positive he has it?” asked Hatch
“I saw it in his room, where he had hidden it,” replied the girl.
Hatch laid the results of the interviews before the scientist at the
Beacon Hill home. The Thinking Machine listened without comment up to
that point where Miss Devan had said she knew the family Bible to be in
the son's possession.
“If Miss Devan and Stockton do not get along well together, why
should she visit Stockton's place at all?” demanded The Thinking
“I don't know,” Hatch replied, “except that she thinks he must have
had some connection with her father's death, and is investigating on
her own account. What has this Bible to do with it anyway?”
“It may have a great deal to do with it,” said The Thinking Machine
enigmatically. “Now, the thing to do is to find out if the girl told
the truth and if the Bible is in Stockton's apartment. Now, Mr. Hatch,
I leave that to you. I would like to see that Bible. If you can bring
it to me, well and good. If you can't bring it, look at and study the
seventh page for any pencil marks in the text, anything whatever. It
might be even advisable, if you have the opportunity, to tear out that
page and bring it to me. No harm will be done, and it can be returned
in proper time.”
Perplexed wrinkles were gathering on Hatch's forehead as he
listened. What had page 7 of a Bible to do with what seemed to be a
murder mystery? Who had said anything about a Bible, anyway? The letter
left by Stockton mentioned a Bible, but that didn't seem to mean
anything. Then Hatch remembered that same letter carried a figure seven
in parentheses which had apparently nothing to do and no connection
with any other part of the letter. Hatch's introspective study of the
affair was interrupted by The Thinking Machine.
“I shall await your report here, Mr. Hatch. If it is what I expect,
we shall go out late to-night on a little voyage of discovery.
Meanwhile see that Bible and tell me what you find.”
Hatch found the apartments of John Stockton on Beacon Street without
any difficulty. In a manner best known to himself he entered and
searched the place. When he came out there was a look of chagrin on his
face as he hurried to the house of The Thinking Machine nearby.
“Well?” asked the scientist.
“I saw the Bible,” said Hatch.
“And page 7?”
“Was torn out, missing, gone,” replied the reporter.
“Ah,” exclaimed the scientist. “I thought so. To-night we will make
the little trip I spoke of. By the way, did you happen to notice if
John Stockton had or used a fountain pen?”
“I didn't see one,” said Hatch.
“Well, please see for me if any of his employees have ever noticed
one. Then meet me here to-night at 10 o'clock.”
Thus Hatch was dismissed. A little later he called casually on
Stockton again. There, by inquiries, he established to his own
satisfaction that Stockton did not own a fountain pen. Then with
Stockton himself he took up the matter of the Bible again.
“I understand you to say, Mr. Stockton,” he began in his smoothest
tone, “that you knew of the existence of a family Bible, but you did
not know if it was still at the Dorchester place.”
“That's correct,” said Stockton.
“How is it then,” Hatch resumed, “that that identical Bible is now
at your apartments, carefully hidden in a box under a sofa?”
Mr. Stockton seemed to be amazed. He arose suddenly and leaned over
toward the reporter with hands clenched. There was a glitter of what
might have been anger in his eyes.
“What do you know about this? What are you talking about?” he
“I mean that you had said you did not know where this book was, and
meanwhile have it hidden. Why?”
“Have you seen the Bible in my rooms?” asked Stockton.
“I have,” said the reporter coolly.
Now a new determination came into the face of the merchant. The
oiliness of his manner was gone, the sanctimonious smirk had been
obliterated, the thin lips closed into a straight, rigid line.
“I shall have nothing further to say,” he declared almost fiercely.
“Will you tell me why you tore out the seventh page of the Bible?”
Stockton stared at him dully, as if dazed for a moment. All the
color left his face. There came a startling pallor instead. When next
he spoke, his voice was tense and strained.
“Is-is-the seventh page missing?”
“Yes,” Hatch replied. “Where is it?”
“I'll have nothing further to say under any circumstances. That's
With not the slightest idea of what it might mean or what bearing it
had on the matter, Hatch had brought out statements which were wholly
at variance with facts. Why was Stockton so affected by the statement
that page seven was gone? Why had the Bible been taken from the
Dorchester home? Why had it been so carefully hidden? How did Miss
Devan know it was there?
These were only a few of the questions that were racing through the
reporter's mind. He did not seem to be able to grasp anything tangible.
If there were a cipher hidden in the letter, what was it? What bearing
did it have on the case?
Seeking a possible answer to some of these questions, Hatch took a
cab and was soon back at the Dorchester house. He was somewhat
surprised to see The Thinking Machine standing on the stoop waiting to
be admitted. The scientist took his presence as a matter of course.
“What did you find out about Stockton's fountain pen?” he asked.
“I satisfied myself that he had not owned a fountain pen, at least
recently enough for the pen to have been used in writing that letter. I
presume that's what inquiries in that direction mean.”
The two men were admitted to the house and after a few minutes Miss
Devan entered. She understood when The Thinking Machine explained that
they merely wished to see the shop in which Mr. Stockton had been found
“And also if you have a sample of Mr. Stockton's handwriting,” asked
“It's rather peculiar,” Miss Devan explained, “but I doubt if there
is an authentic sample in existence large enough, that is, to be
compared with that letter. He had a certain amount of correspondence,
but this I did for him on the typewriter. Occasionally he would prepare
an article for a scientific paper, but these were also dictated to me.
He has been in the habit of doing so for years.”
“This letter seems to be all there is?”
“Of course his signature appears to checks and in other places. I
can produce some of those for you. I don't think, however, that there
is the slightest doubt that he wrote this letter. It is his
“I suppose he never used a fountain pen?” asked The Thinking
“Not that I know of,” the girl replied. “I have one,” and she took
it out of a little gold fascinator she wore at her bosom.
The scientist pressed the point of the pen against his thumb nail,
and a tiny drop of blue ink appeared. The letter was written in black.
The Thinking Machine seemed satisfied.
“And now the shop,” he suggested.
Miss Devan led the way through the long wide hall to the back of the
building. There she opened a door, which showed signs of having been
battered in, and admitted them. Then, at the request of The Thinking
Machine, she rehearsed the story in full, showed him where Stockton had
been found, where the prussic acid had been broken, and how the
servant, Montgomery, had broken in the door at her request.
“Did you ever find the key to the door?”
“No. I can't imagine what became of it.”
“Is this room precisely as it was when the body was found? That is,
has anything been removed from it?”
“Nothing,” replied the girl.
“Have the servants taken anything out? Did they have access to this
“They have not been permitted to enter it at all. The body was
removed and the fragments of the acid bottle were taken away, but
“Have you ever known of pen and ink being in this room?”
“I hadn't thought of it.”
“You haven't taken them out since the body was found, have you?”
“I-I-er-have not,” the girl stammered.
Miss Devan left the room, and for an hour Hatch and The Thinking
Machine conducted the search.
“Find a pen and ink,” The Thinking Machine instructed.
They were not found.
At midnight, which was six hours later, The Thinking Machine and
Hutchinson Hatch were groping through the cellar of the Dorchester
house by the light of a small electric lamp which shot a straight beam
aggressively through the murky, damp air. Finally the ray fell on a
tiny door set in the solid wall of the cellar.
There was a slight exclamation from The Thinking Machine, and this
was followed immediately by the sharp, unmistakable click of a revolver
somewhere behind them in the dark.
“Down, quick,” gasped Hatch, and with a sudden blow he dashed aside
the electric light, extinguishing it. Simultaneously with this there
came a revolver shot, and a bullet was buried in the wall behind
The reverberation of the pistol shot was still ringing in Hatch's
ears when he felt the hand of The Thinking Machine on his arm, and then
through the utter blackness of the cellar came the irritable voice of
“To your right, to your right,” it said sharply.
Then, contrary to this advice Hatch felt the scientist drawing him
to the left. In another moment there came a second shot, and by the
flash Hatch could see that it was aimed at a point a dozen feet to the
right of the point where they had been when the first shot was fired.
The person with the revolver had heard the scientist and had been
Firmly the scientist drew Hatch on until they were almost to the
cellar steps. There, outlined against a dim light which came down the
stairs, they could see a tall figure peering through the darkness
toward a spot opposite where they stood. Hatch saw only one thing to do
and did it. He leaped forward and landed on the back of the figure,
bearing the man to the ground. An instant later his hand closed on the
revolver and he wrested it away.
“All right,” he sang out. “I've got it.”
The electric light which he had dashed from the hand of The Thinking
Machine gleamed again through the cellar and fell upon the face of John
Stockton, helpless and gasping in the hands of the reporter.
“Well?” asked Stockton calmly. “Are you burglars or what?”
“Let's go upstairs to the light,” suggested The Thinking Machine.
It was under these peculiar circumstances that the scientist came
face to face for the first time with John Stockton. Hatch introduced
the two men in a most matter-of-fact tone and restored to Stockton the
revolver. This was suggested by a nod of the scientist's head. Stockton
laid the revolver on a table.
“Why did you try to kill us?” asked The Thinking Machine.
“I presumed you were burglars,” was the reply. “I heard the noise
down stairs and came down to investigate.”
“I thought you lived on Beacon Street,” said the scientist.
“I do, but I came here to-night on a little business, which is all
my own, and happened to hear you. What were you doing in the cellar?”
“How long have you been here?”
“Five or ten minutes.”
“Have you a key to this house?”
“I have had one for many years. What is all this, anyway? How did
you get in this house? What right had you here?”
“Is Miss Devan in the house to-night?” asked The Thinking Machine,
entirely disregarding the other's questions.
“I don't know. I suppose so.”
“You haven't seen her, of course?”
“And you came here secretly without her knowledge?”
Stockton shrugged his shoulders and was silent. The Thinking Machine
raised himself on the chair on which he had been sitting and squinted
steadily into Stockton's eyes. When he spoke it was to Hatch, but his
gaze did not waver.
“Arouse the servants, find where Miss Devan's room is, and see if
anything has happened to her,” he directed.
“I think that will be unwise,” broke in Stockton quickly.
“If I may put it on personal grounds,” said Stockton, “I would ask
as a favor that you do not make known my visit here, or your own for
that matter, to Miss Devan.”
There was a certain uneasiness in the man's attitude, a certain
eagerness to keep things away from Miss Devan that spurred Hatch to
instant action. He went out of the room hurriedly and ten minutes later
Miss Devan, who had dressed quickly, came into the room with him. The
servants stood outside in the hall, all curiosity. The closed door
barred them from knowledge of what was happening.
There was a little dramatic pause as Miss Devan entered and Stockton
arose from his seat. The Thinking Machine glanced from one to the
other. He noted the pallor of the girl's face and the frank
embarrassment of Stockton
“What is it?” asked Miss Devan, and her voice trembled a little.
“Why are you all here? What has happened?”
“Mr. Stockton came here to-night,” The Thinking Machine began
quietly, “to remove the contents from the locked vault in the cellar.
He came without your knowledge and found us ahead of him. Mr. Hatch and
myself are here in the course of our inquiry into the matter which you
placed in my hands. We also came without your knowledge. I considered
this best. Mr. Stockton was very anxious that his visit should be kept
from you. Have you anything to say now?”
The girl turned on Stockton with magnificent scorn. Accusation was
in her very attitude. Her small hand was pointed directly at Stockton
and into his face there came a strange emotion, which he struggled to
“Murderer! Thief!” the girl almost hissed.
“Do you know why he came?” asked The Thinking Machine.
“He came to rob the vault, as you said,” said the girl, fiercely.
“It was because my father would not give him the secret of his last
invention that this man killed him. How he compelled him to write that
letter I don't know.”
“Elizabeth, for God's sake what are you saying?” asked Stockton with
“His greed is so great that he wanted all of my father's estate,”
the girl went on impetuously. “He was not content that I should get
even a small part of it.”
“Elizabeth, Elizabeth!” said Stockton, as he leaned forward with his
head in his hands.
“What do you know about this secret vault?” asked the scientist.
“I-I-have always thought there was a secret vault in the cellar,”
the girl explained. “I may say I know there was one because those
things my father took the greatest care of were always disposed of by
him somewhere in the house. I can imagine no other place than the
There was a long pause. The girl stood rigid, staring down at the
bowed figure of Stockton with not a gleam of pity in her face. Hatch
caught the expression and it occurred to him for the first time that
Miss Devan was vindictive. He was more convinced than ever that there
had been some long-standing feud between these two. The Thinking
Machine broke the long silence.
“Do you happen to know, Miss Devan, that page seven of the Bible
which you found hidden in Mr. Stockton's place is missing?”
“I didn't notice,” said the girl.
Stockton had arisen with the words and now stood with white face and
“Did you ever happen to see a page seven in that Bible?” the
“I don't recall.”
“What were you doing in my rooms?” demanded Stockton of the girl.
“Why did you tear out page seven?” asked The Thinking Machine.
Stockton thought the question was addressed to him and turned to
answer. Then he saw it was unmistakably a question to Miss Devan and
turned again to her.
“I didn't tear it out,” exclaimed Miss Devan. “I never saw it. I
don't know what you mean.”
The Thinking Machine made an impatient gesture with his hands; his
next question was to Stockton.
“Have you a sample of your father's handwriting?'“
“Several,” said Stockton. “Here are three or four letters from him.”
Miss Devan gasped a little as if startled and Stockton produced the
letters and handed them to The Thinking Machine. The latter glanced
over two of them.
“I thought, Miss Devan, you said your father always dictated his
letters to you?”
“I did say so,” said the girl. “I didn't know of the existence of
“May I have these?” asked The Thinking Machine.
“Yes. They are of no consequence.”
“Now let's see what is in the secret vault,” the scientist went on.
He arose and led the way again into the cellar, lighting his path
with the electric bulb. Stockton followed immediately behind, then came
Miss Devan, her white dressing gown trailing mystically in the dim
light, and last came Hatch. The Thinking Machine went straight to that
spot where he and Hatch had been when Stockton had fired at them. Again
the rays of the light revealed the tiny door set into the wall of the
cellar. The door opened readily at his touch; the small vault was
Intent on his examination of this, The Thinking Machine was
oblivious for a moment to what was happening. Suddenly there came again
a pistol shot, followed instantly by a woman's scream.
“My God, he's killed himself. He's killed himself.”
It was Miss Devan's voice.
When The Thinking Machine flashed his light back into the gloom of
the cellar, he saw Miss Devan and Hatch leaning over the prostrate
figure of John Stockton. The latter's face was perfectly white save
just at the edge of the hair, where there was a trickle of red. In his
right hand he clasped a revolver.
“Dear me! Dear me!” exclaimed the scientist. “What is it?'“
“Stockton shot himself,” said Hatch, and there was excitement in his
On his knees the scientist made a hurried examination of the wounded
man, then suddenly-it may have been inadvertently-he flashed the light
in the face of Miss Devan.
“Where were you?” he demanded quickly.
“Just behind him,” said the girl. “Will he die? Is it fatal?”
“Hopeless,” said the scientist. “Let's get him upstairs.”
The unconscious man was lifted and with Hatch leading was again
taken to the room which they had left only a few minutes before. Hatch
stood by helplessly while The Thinking Machine, in his capacity of
physician, made a more minute examination of the wound. The bullet mark
just above the right temple was almost bloodless; around it there were
the unmistakeable marks of burned powder.
“Help me just a moment, Miss Devan,” requested The Thinking Machine,
as he bound an improvised handkerchief bandage about the head. Miss
Devan tied the final knots of the bandage and The Thinking Machine
studied her hands closely as she did so. When the work was completed he
turned to her in a most matter of fact way.
“Why did you shoot him?” he asked.
“I-I—” stammered the girl, “I didn't shoot him, he shot himself.”
“How come those powder marks on your right hand?”
Miss Devan glanced down at her right hand, and the color which had
been in her face faded as if by magic. There was fear, now, in her
“I-I don't know,” she stammered. “Surely you don't think that I—”
“Mr. Hatch, 'phone at once for an ambulance and then see if it is
possible to get Detective Mallory here immediately. I shall give Miss
Devan into custody on the charge of shooting this man.”
The girl stared at him dully for a moment and then dropped back into
a chair with dead white face and fear-distended eyes. Hatch went out,
seeking a telephone, and for a time Miss Devan sat silent, as if dazed.
Finally, with an effort, she aroused herself and facing The Thinking
Machine defiantly, burst out:
“I didn't shoot him. I didn't, I didn't. He did it himself.”
The long, slender fingers of The Thinking Machine closed on the
revolver and gently removed it from the hand of the wounded man.
“Ah, I was mistaken,” he said suddenly, “he was not as badly wounded
as I thought. See! He is reviving.”
“Reviving,” exclaimed Miss Devan. “Won't he die, then?'“
“Why?” asked The Thinking Machine sharply.
“It seems so pitiful, almost a confession of guilt,” she hurriedly
exclaimed. “Won't he die?”
Gradually the color was coming back into Stockton's face. The
Thinking Machine bending over him, with one hand on the heart, saw the
eyelids quiver and then slowly the eyes opened. Almost immediately the
strength of the heart beat grew perceptibly stronger. Stockton stared
at him a moment, then wearily his eyelids drooped again.
“Why did Miss Devan shoot you?” The Thinking Machine demanded.
There was a pause and the eyes opened for the second time. Miss
Devan stood within range of the glance, her hands outstretched
entreatingly toward Stockton.
“Why did she shoot you?” repeated The Thinking Machine.
“She-did-not,” said Stockton slowly. “I-did-it-myself.”
For an instant there was a little wrinkle of perplexity on the brow
of The Thinking Machine and then it passed.
“Purposely?” he asked.
“I did it myself.”
Again the eyes closed and Stockton seemed to be passing into
unconsciousness. The Thinking Machine glanced up to find an infinite
expression of relief on Miss Devan's face. His own manner changed;
became almost abject, in fact, as he turned to her again.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I made a mistake.”
“Will he die?”
“No, that was another mistake. He will recover.”
Within a few moments a City Hospital ambulance rattled up to the
door and John Stockton was removed. It was with a feeling of pity that
Hatch assisted Miss Devan, now almost in a fainting condition, to her
room. The Thinking Machine had previously given her a slight stimulant.
Detective Mallory had not answered the call by 'phone.
The Thinking Machine and Hatch returned to Boston. At the Park
Street subway they separated, after The Thinking Machine had given
certain instructions. Hatch spent most of the following day carrying
out these instructions. First he went to see Dr. Benton, the physician
who issued the death certificate on which Pomeroy Stockton was buried.
Dr. Benton was considerably alarmed when the reporter broached the
subject of his visit. After a time he talked freely of the case.
“I have known John Stockton since we were in college together,” he
said, “and I believe him to be one of the few really good men I know. I
can't believe otherwise. Singularly enough, he is also one of the few
good men who has made his own fortune. There is nothing hypocritical
“Immediately after his father was found dead, he 'phoned to me and I
went out to the house in Dorchester. He explained then that it was
apparent Pomeroy Stockton had committed suicide. He dreaded the
disgrace that public knowledge would bring on an honored name, and
asked me what could be done. I suggested the only thing I knew-that was
the issuance of a death certificate specifying natural causes-heart
disease, I said. This act was due entirely to my friendship for him.
“I examined the body and found a trace of prussic acid on Pomeroy's
tongue. Beside the chair on which he sat a bottle of prussic acid had
been broken. I made no autopsy, of course. Ethically I may have sinned,
but I feel that no real harm has been done. Of course, now that you
know the real facts my entire career is at stake.”
“There is no question in your mind but what it was suicide?” asked
“Not the slightest. Then, too, there was the letter, which was found
in Pomeroy Stockton's pocket. I saw that and if there had been any
doubt then it was removed. This letter, I think, was then in Miss
Devan's possession. I presume it is still.”
“Do you know anything about Miss Devan?”
“Nothing, except that she is an adopted daughter, who for some
reason retained her own family name. Three or four years ago she had a
little love affair, to which John Stockton objected. I believe he was
the cause of it being broken off. As a matter of fact, I think at one
time he was himself in love with her and she refused to accept him as a
suitor. Since that time there has been some slight friction, but I know
nothing of this except in a general way from what he has said to me.”
Then Hatch proceeded to carry out the other part of The Thinking
Machine's instructions. This was to see the attorney in whose
possession Pomeroy Stockton's will was supposed to be and to ask him
why there had been a delay in the reading of the will.
Hatch found the attorney, Frederick Sloane, without difficulty.
Without reservation Hatch laid all the circumstances as he knew them
before Mr. Sloane. Then came the question of why the will had not been
read. Mr. Sloane, too, was frank.
“It's because the will is not now in my possession,” he said. “It
has either been mislaid, lost, or possibly stolen. I did not care for
the family to know this just now, and delayed the reading of the will
while I made a search for it. Thus far I have found not a trace. I
haven't even the remotest idea where it is.”
“What does the will provide?” asked Hatch.
“It leaves the bulk of the estate to John Stockton, settles an
annuity of $5,000 a year on Miss Devan, gives her the Dorchester house,
and specifically cuts off other relatives whom Pomeroy Stockton once
accused of stealing an invention he made. The letter, found after Mr.
“You knew of that letter, too?” Hatch interrupted.
“Oh, yes, this letter confirms the will, except, in general terms,
it also cuts off Miss Devan.”
“Would it not be to the interest of the other immediate relatives of
Stockton, those who were specifically cut off, to get possession of
that will and destroy it?”
“Of course it might be, but there has been no communication between
the two branches of the family for several years. That branch lives in
the far West and I have taken particular pains to ascertain that they
could not have had anything to do with the disappearance of the will.”
With these new facts in his possession, Hatch started to report to
The Thinking Machine. He had to wait half an hour or so. At last the
scientist came in.
“I've been attending an autopsy,” he said.
“An autopsy? Whose?”
“On the body of Pomeroy Stockton.”
“Why, I had thought he had been buried.”
“No, only placed in a receiving vault. I had to call the attention
of the Medical Examiner to the case in order to get permission to make
an autopsy. We did it together.”
“What did you find?” asked Hatch.
“What did you find?” asked The Thinking Machine, in turn.
Briefly Hatch told him of the interview with Dr. Benton and Mr.
Sloane. The scientist listened without comment and at the end sat back
in his big chair squinting at the ceiling.
“That seems to finish it,” he said. “These are the questions which
were presented: First, In what manner did Pomeroy Stockton die? Second,
If not suicide, as appeared, what motive was there for anything else?
Third, If there was a motive, to whom does it lead? Fourth, What was in
the cipher letter? Now, Mr. Hatch, I think I may make all of it clear.
There was a cipher in the letter-what may be described as a cipher in
five, the figure five being the key to it.
“First, Mr. Hatch,” The Thinking Machine resumed, as he drew out and
spread on a table the letter which had been originally placed in his
hands by Miss Devan, “the question of whether there was a cipher in
this letter was to be definitely decided.
“There are a thousand different kinds of ciphers. One of them, which
we will call the arbitrary cipher, is excellently illustrated in Poe's
story, 'The Gold Bug'. In that cipher, a figure or symbol is made to
represent each letter of the alphabet.
“Then, there are book ciphers, which are, perhaps, the safest of all
ciphers, because without a clue to the book from which words may be
chosen and designated by numbers, no one can solve it.
“It would be useless for me to go into this matter at any length, so
let us consider this particular letter as a cipher possibility. A
careful study of the letter develops three possible starting points.
The first of these is the general tone of the letter. It is not a
direct, straight-away statement such as a man about to commit suicide
would write unless he had a purpose-that is, a purpose beyond the mere
apparent meaning of the letter itself. Therefore we will suppose there
was another purpose hidden behind a cipher.
“The second starting point is that offered by the absence of one
word. You will see that the word 'in' should appear between the word
'cherished' and 'secret'. This, of course, may have been an oversight
in writing, the sort of thing anyone might do. But further down we find
the third starting point.
“This is the figure seven in parentheses. It apparently has no
connection whatever with what precedes or follows. It could not have
been an accident. Therefore what did it mean? Was it a crude outward
indication of a hurriedly constructed cipher?
“I took the figure seven at first to be a sort of key to the entire
letter, always presuming there was a cipher. I counted seven words down
from that figure and found the word 'binding'. Seven words from that
down made the next word 'give'. Together the two words seemed to mean
“I stopped there and started back. The seventh word up is 'and'. The
seventh word from 'and', still counting backward, seemed meaningless. I
pursued that theory of seven all the way through the letter and found
only a jumble of words. It was the same way counting seven letters.
These letters meant nothing unless each letter was arbitrarily taken to
represent another letter. This immediately led to intricacies. I
believe always in exhausting simple possibilities first, so I started
“Now what word nearest to the seven meant anything when taken
together with it? Not 'family', not 'Bible', not 'son', as the vital
words appear from the seven down. Going up from the seven, I did find a
word which applied to it and meant something. That was the word 'page'.
I had immediately 'page seven'. 'Page' was the fifth word up from the
“What was the next fifth word, still going up? This was 'on'. Then I
had 'on page seven'-connected words appearing in order, each being the
fifth from the other. The fifth word down from seven I found was
'family'; the next fifth word was 'Bible'; thus, 'on page seven family
“It is unnecessary to go further into the study I made of the
cipher. I worked upward from the seven, taking each fifth word until I
had all the cipher words. I have underscored them here. Read the words
underscored and you have the cipher.”
Hatch took the letter marked as follows:
To those Concerned:
Tired of it all I seek the end, and am content. Ambition is dead;
the grave yawns greedily at my feet, and with the labor of my own hands
lost I greet death of my own will, by my own act.
To my son I leave all, and you who maligned me, you who discouraged
me, you may read this and know I punish you thus. It's for him, my son,
I dared in life and dare dead your everlasting anger, not alone that
you didn't speak, but that you cherished secret, and my ears are locked
forever against you. My vault is my resting place.
On the brightest and dearest page of life I wrote (7) my love for
him. Family ties, binding as the Bible itself, bade me give all to my
Good-bye. I die.
Slowly Hatch read this:
“I am dead at the hands of my son. You who read punish him. I dare
not speak. Secret locked vault on page 7 family Bible.”
“Well, by George!” exclaimed the reporter. It was a tribute to The
Thinking Machine, as well as an expression of amazement at what he
“You see,” explained The Thinking Machine, “if the word 'in' had
appeared between 'cherished' and 'secret', as it would naturally have
done, it would have lost the order of the cipher, therefore it was
purposely left out.”
“It's enough to send Stockton to the electric chair,” said Hatch.
“It would be if it were not a forgery,” said the scientist testily.
“A forgery,” gasped Hatch. “Didn't Pomeroy Stockton write it?”
“Surely not John Stockton?”
“Well, who then?”
“Miss Devan!” Hatch repeated in amazement. “Then, Miss Devan killed
“No, he died a natural death.”
Hatch's head was whirling. A thousand questions demanded an
immediate answer. He stared mouth agape at The Thinking Machine. All
his ideas of the case were tumbling about him. Nothing remained.
“Briefly, here is what happened,” said The Thinking Machine.
“Pomeroy Stockton died a natural death of heart disease. Miss Devan
found him dead, wrote this letter, put it in his pocket, put a drop of
prussic acid on his tongue, smashed the bottle of acid, left the room,
locked the door, and next day had it broken down.
“It was she who shot John Stockton. It was she who tore out page
seven of that family Bible, and then hid the book in Stockton's room.
It was she who in some way got hold of the will. She either has it or
destroyed it. It was she who took advantage of her aged benefactor's
sudden death to further as weird and inhuman a plot against another as
a woman can devise. There is nothing on God's earth as bad as a bad
woman, and nothing as good as a good one. I think that has been said
“But as to this case,” Hatch interrupted. “How? what? why?”
“I read the cipher within a few hours after I got the letter,”
replied The Thinking Machine. “Naturally I wanted to find out then who
and what this son was.
“I had Miss Devan's story, of course-a story of disagreement between
father and son, quarreling and all that. It was also a story which
showed a certain underlying animosity despite Miss Devan's cleverness.
She had so mingled fact with fiction that it was not altogether easy to
weed out the truth, therefore I believed what I chose.
“Miss Devan's idea, as expressed to me, was that the letter was
written under coercion. Men who are being murdered don't write cipher
letters as intricate as that; and men who are committing suicide have
no obvious reasons for writing such letters. The line 'I dare not
speak' was silly. Pomeroy Stockton was not a prisoner. If he had feared
a conspiracy to kill him why shouldn't he speak?
“All these things were in my mind when I asked you to see Stockton.
I was particularly anxious to hear what he had to say as to the family
Bible. And yet I may say I knew that page seven had been torn out of
the book and was then in Miss Devan's possession.
“I may say, too, that I knew that the secret vault was empty.
Whatever these two things contained, supposing she wrote the cipher,
had been removed or she would not have called attention to them in this
cipher. I had an idea that she might have written it from the mere fact
that it was she who first called my attention to the possibility of a
“Assuming then that the cipher was a forgery, that she wrote it,
that it directly accused John Stockton, that she brought it to me, I
had fairly conclusive proof that if Pomery Stockton had been murdered
she had had a hand in it. John Stockton's motive in trying to suppress
the fact of a suicide, as he thought it, was perfectly clear. It was,
as he said, to avoid disgrace. Such things are done frequently.
“From the moment you told him of the possibility of murder, he
suspected Miss Devan. Why? Because, above all, she had the opportunity,
because she wanted the bulk of the estate, because there was some
animosity against John Stockton.
“This now proves to have been a broken-off love affair. John
Stockton broke it off. He himself had loved Miss Devan. She had refused
him. Later, when he broke off the love affair, she hated him.
“Her plan for revenge was almost diabolical. It was intended to give
her full revenge and the estate at the same time. She hoped, she knew,
that I would read that cipher. She planned that it would send John
Stockton to the electric chair.”
“Horrible!” commented Hatch with a little shudder.
“It was a fear that this plan might go wrong that induced her to try
to kill Stockton by shooting him. The cellar was dark, but she forgot
that ninety-nine revolvers out of a hundred leave slight powder stains
on the hand of the person who fires them. Stockton said that she did
not shoot him, because of that inexplicable loyalty which some men show
to a woman they love or have loved.
“Stockton made his secret visit to the house that night to get what
was in that vault without her knowledge. He knew of its existence. His
father had probably told him. The thing that appeared on page seven of
the family Bible was in all probability the copper hardening process he
was perfecting. I should think it had been written there in invisible
ink. John Stockton knew this was there. His father told him. If his
father told it, Miss Devan probably overheard it. She knew it, too.
“Now the actual circumstances of the death. The girl must have had
and used a key to the work room. After John Stockton left the house
that Monday night she entered that room. She found his father dead of
heart disease. The autopsy proved this.
“Then the whole scheme was clear to her. She forged that cipher
letter-as Pomeroy Stockton's secretary she probably knew the
handwriting better than anyone else in the world-placed it in his
pocket, and the rest of it you know.”
“But the Bible in John Stockton's room?” asked Hatch.
“Was placed there by Miss Devan,” replied The Thinking Machine. “It
was a part of the general scheme to hopelessly implicate Stockton. She
is a clever woman. She showed that when she produced the fountain pen,
having carefully filled it with blue instead of black ink.”
“What was in the locked vault?”
“That I can only conjecture. It is not impossible that the inventor
had only part of the formula he so closely guarded written on the Bible
leaf and the other part of it in that vault, together with other
“I may add that the letters which John Stockton had were not forged.
They were written without Miss Devan's knowledge. There was a vast
difference in the handwriting of the cipher letter which she wrote and
those others which the father wrote.
“Of course it is obvious that the missing will is now, or was, in
Miss Devan's possession. How she got it, I don't know. With that out of
the way and this cipher unravelled apparently proving the son's guilt,
at least half, possibly all, of the estate would have gone to her.”
Hatch lighted a cigarette thoughtfully and was silent for a moment.
“What will be the end of it all?” he asked. “Of course, I understand
that John Stockton will recover.”
“The result will be that the world will lose a great scientific
achievement-the secret of hardening copper, which Pomeroy Stockton had
rediscovered. I think it safe to say that Miss Devan has burned every
scrap of this.”
“But what will become of her?”
“She knows nothing of this. I believe she will disappear before
Stockton recovers. He wouldn't prosecute anyway. Remember he loved her
John Stockton was convalescent two weeks later, when a nurse in the
City Hospital placed an envelope in his hands. He opened it and a
little cloud of ashes filtered through his fingers onto the bed
clothing. He sank back on his pillow, weeping.