A youth is lying dead in Gray Square, Bloomsbury. Constable Wiseman is at the scene, as is the handsome Frank Merril, nephew of rich John Martin. Also there is May Nuttall, whose father was the best friend Martin ever had. A small, shabby man in an ill-fitting frock coat and large gold rimmed spectacles pulls a newspaper advertisement from the deceased's waistcoat pocket. 'At the Yard,' whispers the constable to Frank, 'we call him The Man who Knows.' (Goodreads)
THE MAN IN THE LABORATORY
The room was a small one, and had been chosen for its remoteness from the dwelling rooms. It had formed the billiard room, which the former owner of Weald Lodge had added to his premises, and John Minute, who had neither the time nor the patience for billiards, had readily handed over this damp annex to his scientific secretary.
Along one side ran a plain deal bench which was crowded with glass stills and test tubes. In the middle was as plain a table, with half a dozen books, a microscope under a glass shade, a little wooden case which was opened to display an array of delicate scientific instruments, a Bunsen burner, which was burning bluely under a small glass bowl half filled with a dark and turgid concoction of some kind.
The face of the man sitting at the table watching this unsavory stew was hidden behind a mica and rubber mask, for the fumes which were being given off by the fluid were neither pleasant nor healthy. Save for a shaded light upon the table and the blue glow of the Bunsen lamp, the room was in darkness. Now and again the student would take a glass rod, dip it for an instant into the boiling liquid, and, lifting it, would allow the liquid drop by drop to fall from the rod on to a strip of litmus paper. What he saw was evidently satisfactory, and presently he turned out the Bunsen lamp, walked to the window and opened it, and switched on an electric fan to aid the process of ventilation.
He removed his mask, revealing the face of a good-looking young man, rather pale, with a slight dark mustache and heavy, black, wavy hair. He closed the window, filled his pipe from the well-worn pouch which he took from his pocket, and began to write in a notebook, stopping now and again to consult some authority from the books before him.
In half an hour he had finished this work, had blotted and closed his book, and, pushing back his chair, gave himself up to reverie. They were not pleasant thoughts to judge by his face. He pulled from his inside pocket a leather case and opened it. From this he took a photograph. It was the picture of a girl of sixteen. It was a pretty face, a little sad, but attractive in its very weakness. He looked at it for a long time, shaking his head as at an unpleasant thought.
There came a gentle tap at the door, and quickly he replaced the photograph in his case, folded it, and returned it to his pocket as he rose to unlock the door.
John Minute, who entered, sniffed suspiciously.
"What beastly smells you have in here, Jasper!" he growled. "Why on earth don't they invent chemicals that are more agreeable to the nose?"
Jasper Cole laughed quietly.
"I'm afraid, sir, that nature has ordered it otherwise," he said.
"Have you finished?" asked his employer.
He looked at the still warm bowl of fluid suspiciously.
"It is all right, sir," said Jasper. "It is only noxious when it is boiling. That is why I keep the door locked."
"What is it?" asked John Minute, scowling down at the unoffending liquor.
"It is many things," said the other ruefully. "In point of fact, it is an experiment. The bowl contains one or two elements which will only mix with the others at a certain temperature, and as an experiment it is successful because I have kept the unmixable elements in suspension, though the liquid has gone cold."
"I hope you will enjoy your dinner, even though it has gone cold," grumbled John Minute.
"I didn't hear the bell, sir," said Jasper Cole. "I'm awfully sorry if I've kept you waiting."
They were the only two present in the big, black-looking dining room, and dinner was as usual a fairly silent meal. John Minute read the newspapers, particularly that portion of them which dealt with the latest fluctuations in the stock market.
"Somebody has been buying Gwelo Deeps," he complained loudly.
Jasper looked up.
"Gwelo Deeps?" he said. "But they are the shares-"
"Yes, yes," said the other testily; "I know. They were quoted at a shilling last week; they are up to two shillings and threepence. I've got five hundred thousand of them; to be exact," he corrected himself, "I've got a million of them, though half of them are not my property. I am almost tempted to sell."
"Perhaps they have found gold," suggested Jasper.
John Minute snorted.
"If there is gold in the Gwelo Deeps there are diamonds on the downs," he said scornfully. "By the way, the other five hundred thousand shares belong to May."
Jasper Cole raised his eyebrows as much in interrogation as in surprise.
John Minute leaned back in his chair and manipulated his gold toothpick.
"May Nuttall's father was the best friend I ever had," he said gruffly. "He lured me into the Gwelo Deeps against my better judgment We sank a bore three thousand feet and found everything except gold."
He gave one of his brief, rumbling chuckles.
"I wish that mine had been a success. Poor old Bill Nuttall! He helped me in some tight places."
"And I think you have done your best for his daughter, sir."
"She's a nice girl," said John Minute, "a dear girl. I'm not taken with girls." He made a wry face. "But May is as honest and as sweet as they make them. She's the sort of girl who looks you in the eye when she talks to you; there's no damned nonsense about May."
Jasper Cole concealed a smile.
"What the devil are you grinning at?" demanded John Minute.
"I also was thinking that there was no nonsense about her," he said.
John Minute swung round.
"Jasper," he said, "May is the kind of girl I would like you to marry; in fact, she is the girl I would like you to marry."
"I think Frank would have something to say about that," said the other, stirring his coffee.
"Frank!" snorted John Minute. "What the devil do I care about Frank? Frank has to do as he's told. He's a lucky young man and a bit of a rascal, too, I'm thinking. Frank would marry anybody with a pretty face. Why, if I hadn't interfered-"
Jasper looked up.
"Never mind," growled John Minute.
As was his practice, he sat a long time over dinner, half awake and half asleep. Jasper had annexed one of the newspapers, and was reading it. This was the routine which marked every evening of his life save on those occasions when he made a visit to London. He was in the midst of an article by a famous scientist on radium emanation, when John Minute continued a conversation which he had broken off an hour ago.
"I'm worried about May sometimes."
Jasper put down his paper.
"I am worried. Isn't that enough?" growled the other. "I wish you wouldn't ask me a lot of questions, Jasper. You irritate me beyond endurance."
"Well, I'll take it that you're worried," said his confidential secretary patiently, "and that you've good reason."
"I feel responsible for her, and I hate responsibilities of all kinds. The responsibilities of children-"
He winced and changed the subject, nor did he return to it for several days.
Instead he opened up a new line.
"Sergeant Smith was here when I was out, I understand," he said.
"He came this afternoon-yes."
"Did you see him?"
"What did he want?"
"He wanted to see you, as far as I could make out. You were saying the other day that he drinks."
"Drinks!" said the other scornfully. "He doesn't drink; he eats it. What do you think about Sergeant Smith?" he demanded.
"I think he is a very curious person," said the other frankly, "and I can't understand why you go to such trouble to shield him or why you send him money every week."
"One of these days you'll understand," said the other, and his prophecy was to be fulfilled. "For the present, it is enough to say that if there are two ways out of a difficulty, one of which is unpleasant and one of which is less unpleasant, I take the less unpleasant of the two. It is less unpleasant to pay Sergeant Smith a weekly stipend than it is to be annoyed, and I should most certainly be annoyed if I did not pay him."
He rose up slowly from the chair and stretched himself.
"Sergeant Smith," he said again, "is a pretty tough proposition. I know, and I have known him for years. In my business, Jasper, I have had to know some queer people, and I've had to do some queer things. I am not so sure that they would look well in print, though I am not sensitive as to what newspapers say about me or I should have been in my grave years ago; but Sergeant Smith and his knowledge touches me at a raw place. You are always messing about with narcotics and muck of all kinds, and you will understand when I tell you that the money I give Sergeant Smith every week serves a double purpose. It is an opiate and a prophy-"
"Prophylactic," suggested the other.
"That's the word," said John Minute. "I was never a whale at the long uns; when I was twelve I couldn't write my own name, and when I was nineteen I used to spell it with two n's."
He chuckled again.
"Opiate and prophylactic," he repeated, nodding his head. "That's Sergeant Smith. He is a dangerous devil because he is a rascal."
"Constable Wiseman-" began Jasper.
"Constable Wiseman," snapped John Minute, rubbing his hand through his rumpled gray hair, "is a dangerous devil because he's a fool. What has Constable Wiseman been here about?"