“Spontaneous Combustion” by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: LiteratureKennedy and I had risen early, for we were hustling to get off for a week-end at Atlantic City. Kennedy was tugging at the straps of his grip and re …

Story type: Literature

Kennedy and I had risen early, for we were hustling to get off for a week-end at Atlantic City. Kennedy was tugging at the straps of his grip and remonstrating with it under his breath, when the door opened and a messenger-boy stuck his head in.

“Does Mr. Kennedy live here?” he asked.

Craig impatiently seized the pencil, signed his name in the book, and tore open a night letter. From the prolonged silence that followed I felt a sense of misgiving. I, at least, had set my heart on the Atlantic City outing, but with the appearance of the messenger-boy I intuitively felt that the board walk would not see us that week.

“I’m afraid the Atlantic City trip is off, Walter,” remarked Craig seriously. “You remember Tom Langley in our class at the university? Well, read that.”

I laid down my safety razor and took the message. Tom had not spared words, and I could see at a glance at the mere length of the thing that it must be important. It was from Camp Hang-out in the Adirondacks.

“Dear old K.,” it began, regardless of expense, “can you arrange to come up here by next train after you receive this? Uncle Lewis is dead. Most mysterious. Last night after we retired noticed peculiar odour about house. Didn’t pay much attention. This morning found him lying on floor of living-room, head and chest literally burned to ashes, but lower part of body and arms untouched. Room shows no evidence of fire, but full of sort of oily soot. Otherwise nothing unusual. On table near body siphon of seltzer, bottle of imported limes, and glass for rickeys. Have removed body, but am keeping room exactly as found until you arrive. Bring Jameson. Wire if you cannot come, but make every effort and spare no expense. Anxiously, Tom Langley.”

Craig was impatiently looking at his watch as I hastily ran through the letter.

“Hurry, Walter,” he exclaimed. “We can just catch the Empire State. Never mind shaving–we’ll have a stopover at Utica to wait for the Montreal express. Here, put the rest of your things in your grip and jam it shut. We’ll get something to eat on the train–I hope. I’ll wire we’re coming. Don’t forget to latch the door.”

Kennedy was already half-way to the elevator, and I followed ruefully, still thinking of the ocean and the piers, the bands and the roller chairs.

It was a good ten-hour journey up to the little station nearest Camp Hang-out and at least a two hour ride after that. We had plenty of time to reflect over what this death might mean to Tom and his sister and to speculate on the manner of it. Tom and Grace Langley were relatives by marriage of Lewis Langley, who, after the death of his wife, had made them his proteges. Lewis Langley was principally noted, as far as I could recall, for being a member of some of the fastest clubs of both New York and London. Neither Kennedy nor myself had shared in the world’s opinion of him, for we knew how good he had been to Tom in college and, from Tom, how good he had been to Grace. In fact, he had made Tom assume the Langley name, and in every way had treated the brother and sister as if they had been his own children.

Tom met us with a smart trap at the station, a sufficient indication, if we had not already known, of the “roughing it” at such a luxurious Adirondack “camp” as Camp Hang-out. He was unaffectedly glad to see us, and it was not difficult to read in his face the worry which the affair had already given him.

“Tom; I’m awfully sorry to–” began Craig when, warned by Langley’s look at the curious crowd that always gathers at the railroad station at train time, he cut it short. We stood silently a moment while Tom was arranging the trap for us.

As we swung around the bend in the road that cut off the little station and its crowd of lookers-on, Kennedy was the first to speak. “Tom,” he said, “first of all, let me ask that when we get to the camp we are to be simply two old classmates whom you had asked to spend a few days before the tragedy occurred. Anything will do. There may be nothing at all to your evident suspicions, and then again there may. At any rate, play the game safely–don’t arouse any feeling which might cause unpleasantness later in case you are mistaken.”

“I quite agree with you,” answered Tom. “You wired, from Albany, I think, to keep the facts out of the papers as much as possible. I’m afraid it is too late for that. Of course the thing became vaguely known in Saranac, although the county officers have been very considerate of us, and this morning a New York Record correspondent was over and talked with us. I couldn’t refuse, that would have put a very bad face on it.”

“Too bad,” I exclaimed. “I had hoped, at least, to be able to keep the report down to a few lines in the Star. But the Record will have such a yellow story about it that I’ll simply have to do something to counteract the effect.”

“Yes,” assented Craig. “But–wait. Let’s see the Record story first. The office doesn’t know you’re up here. You can hold up the Star and give us time to look things over, perhaps get in a beat on the real story and set things right. Anyhow, the news is out. That’s certain. We must work quickly. Tell me, Tom, who are at the camp–anyone except relatives?”

“No,” he replied, guardedly measuring his words. “Uncle Lewis had invited his brother James and his niece and nephew, Isabelle and James, junior–we call him Junior. Then there are Grace and myself and a distant relative, Harrington Brown, and–oh, of course, uncle’s physician, Doctor Putnam.”

“Who is Harrington Brown” asked Craig.

“He’s on the other side of the Langley family, on Uncle Lewis’s mother’s side. I think, or at least Grace thinks, that he is quite in love with Isabelle. Harrington Brown would be quite a catch. Of course he isn’t wealthy, but his family is mighty well connected. Oh, Craig,” sighed Langley, “I wish he hadn’t done it–Uncle Lewis, I mean. Why did he invite his brother up here now when he needed to recover from the swift pace of last winter in New York? You know–or you don’t know, I suppose, but you’ll know it now–when he and Uncle Jim got together there was nothing to it but one drink after another. Doctor Putnam was quite disgusted, at least he professed to be, but, Craig,” he lowered his voice to a whisper, as if the very forest had ears, “they’re all alike–they’ve been just waiting for Uncle Lewis to drink himself to death. Oh,” he added bitterly, “there’s no love lost between me and the relatives on that score, I can assure you.”

“How did you find him that morning?” asked Kennedy, as if to turn off this unlocking of family secrets to strangers.

“That’s the worst part of the whole affair,” replied Tom, and even in the dusk I could see the lines of his face tighten. “You know Uncle Lewis was a hard drinker, but he never seemed to show it much. We had been out on the lake in the motor-boat fishing all the afternoon and–well, I must admit both my uncles had had frequent recourse to ‘pocket pistols,’ and I remember they referred to it each time as ‘bait.’ Then after supper nothing would do but fizzes and rickeys. I was disgusted, and after reading a bit went to bed. Harrington and my uncles sat up with Doctor Putnam–according to Uncle Jim–for a couple of hours longer. Then Harrington, Doctor Putnam, and Uncle Jim went to bed, leaving Uncle Lewis still drinking. I remember waking in the night, and the house seemed saturated with a peculiar odour. I never smelt anything like it in my life. So I got up and slipped into my bathrobe. I met Grace in the hall. She was sniffing.

“‘Don’t you smell something burning?’ she asked.

“I said I did and started down-stairs to investigate. Everything was dark, but that smell was all over the house. I looked in each room down-stairs as I went, but could see nothing. The kitchen and dining-room were all right. I glanced into the living-room, but, while the smell was more noticeable there, I could see no evidence of a fire except the dying embers on the hearth. It had been coolish that night, and we had had a few logs blazing. I didn’t examine the room–there seemed no reason for it. We went back to our rooms, and in the morning they found the gruesome object I had missed in the darkness and shadows of the living-room.”

Kennedy was intently listening. “Who found him?” he asked.

“Harrington,” replied Tom. “He roused us. Harrington’s theory is that uncle set himself on fire with a spark from his cigar–a charred cigar butt was found on the floor.”

We found Tom’s relatives a saddened, silent party in the face of the tragedy. Kennedy and I apologised very profusely for our intrusion, but Tom quickly interrupted, as we had agreed, by explaining that he had insisted on our coming, as old friends on whom he felt he could rely, especially to set the matter right in the newspapers.

I think Craig noticed keenly the reticence of the family group in the mystery–I might almost have called it suspicion. They did not seem to know just whether to take it as an accident or as something worse, and each seemed to entertain a reserve toward the rest which was very uncomfortable.

Mr. Langley’s attorney in New York had been notified, but apparently was out of town, for he had not been heard from. They seemed rather anxious to get word from him.

Dinner over, the family group separated, leaving Tom an opportunity to take us into the gruesome living-room. Of course the remains had been removed, but otherwise the room was exactly as it had been when Harrington discovered the tragedy. I did not see the body, which was lying in an anteroom, but Kennedy did, and spent some time in there.

After he rejoined us, Kennedy next examined the fireplace. It was full of ashes from the logs which had been lighted on the fatal night. He noted attentively the distance of Lewis Langley’s chair from the fireplace, and remarked that the varnish on the chair was not even blistered.

Before the chair, on the floor where the body had been found, he pointed out to us the peculiar ash-marks for some space around, but it really seemed to me as if something else interested him more than these ash-marks.

We had been engaged perhaps half an hour in viewing the room. At last Craig suddenly stopped.

“Tom,” he said, “I think I’ll wait till daylight before I go any further. I can’t tell with certainty under these lights, though perhaps they show me some things the sunlight wouldn’t show. We’d better leave everything just as it is until morning.”

So we locked the room again and went into a sort of library across the hall.

We were sitting in silence, each occupied with his own thoughts on the mystery, when the telephone rang. It proved to be a long-distance call from New York for Tom himself. His uncle’s attorney had received the news at his home out on Long Island and had hurried to the city to take charge of the estate. But that was not the news that caused the grave look on Tom’s face as he nervously rejoined us.

“That was uncle’s lawyer, Mr. Clark, of Clark & Burdick,” he said. “He has opened uncle’s personal safe in the offices of the Langley estate–you remember them, Craig–where all the property of the Langley heirs is administered by the trustees. He says he can’t find the will, though he knows there was a will and that it was placed in that safe some time ago. There is no duplicate.”

The full purport of this information at once flashed on me, and I was on the point of blurting out my sympathy, when I saw by the look which Craig and Tom exchanged that they had already realised it and understood each other. Without the will the blood-relatives would inherit all of Lewis Langley’s interest in the old Langley estate. Tom and his sister would be penniless.

It was late, yet we sat for nearly an hour longer, and I don’t think we exchanged a half-dozen sentences in all that time. Craig seemed absorbed in thought. At length, as the great hall-clock sounded midnight, we rose as if by common consent.

“Tom,” said Craig, and I could feel the sympathy that welled up in his voice, “Tom, old man, I’ll get at the bottom of this mystery if human intelligence can do it.”

“I know you will, Craig,” responded Tom, grasping each of us by the hand. “That’s why I so much wanted you fellows to come up here.”

Early in the morning Kennedy aroused me. “Now, Walter, I’m going to ask you to come down into the living-room with me, and we’ll take a look at it in the daytime.”

I hurried into my clothes, and together we quietly went down. Starting with the exact spot where the unfortunate man had been discovered, Kennedy began a minute examination of the floor, using his pocket lens. Every few moments he would stop to examine a spot on the rug or on the hardwood floor more intently. Several times I saw him scrape up something with the blade of his knife and carefully preserve the scrapings, each in a separate piece of paper.

Sitting idly by, I could not for the life of me see just what good it did for me to be there, and I said as much. Kennedy laughed quietly.

“You’re a material witness, Walter,” he replied. “Perhaps I shall need you some day to testify that I actually found these spots in this room.”

Just then Tom stuck his head in. “Can I help?” he asked. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going at it so early?”

“No, thanks,” answered Craig, rising from the floor. “I was just making a careful examination of the room before anyone was up so that nobody would think I was too interested. I’ve finished. But you can help me, after all. Do you think you could describe exactly how everyone was dressed that night?”

“Why, I can try. Let me see. To begin with, uncle had on a shooting-jacket–that was pretty well burnt, as you know. Why, in fact, we all had our shooting-jackets on. The ladies were in white.”

Craig pondered a little, but did not seem disposed to pursue the subject further, until Tom volunteered the information that since the tragedy none of them had been wearing their shooting jackets.

“We’ve all been wearing city clothes,” he remarked.

“Could you get your Uncle James and your Cousin Junior to go with you for an hour or two this morning on the lake, or on a tramp in the woods?” asked Craig after a moment’s thought.

“Really, Craig,” responded Tom doubtfully, “I ought to go to Saranac to complete the arrangements for taking Uncle Lewis’s body to New York.”

“Very well, persuade them to go with you. Anything, so long as you keep me from interruption for an hour or two.”

They agreed on doing that, and as by that time most of the family were up, we went in to breakfast, another silent and suspicious meal.

After breakfast Kennedy tactfully withdrew from the family, and I did the same. We wandered off in the direction of the stables and there fell to admiring some of the horses. The groom, who seemed to be a sensible and pleasant sort of fellow, was quite ready to talk, and soon he and Craig were deep in discussing the game of the north country.

“Many rabbits about here?” asked Kennedy at length, when they had exhausted the larger game.

“Oh, yes. I saw one this morning, sir,” replied the groom.

“Indeed?” said Kennedy. “Do you suppose you could catch a couple for me?”

“Guess I could, sir–alive, you mean?”

“Oh, yes, alive–I don’t want you to violate the game laws. This is the closed season, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir, but then it’s all right, sir, here on the estate.”

“Bring them to me this afternoon, or–no, keep them here in the stable in a cage and let me know when you have them. If anybody asks you about them, say they belong to Mr. Tom.”

Craig handed a small treasury note to the groom, who took it with a grin and touched his hat.

“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll let you know when I have the bunnies.”

As we walked slowly back from the stables we caught sight of Tom down at the boat-house just putting off in the motor-boat with his uncle and cousin. Craig waved to him, and he walked up to meet us.

“While you’re in Saranac,” said Craig, “buy me a dozen or so test-tubes. Only, don’t let anyone here at the house know you are buying them. They might ask questions.”

While they were gone Kennedy stole into James Langley’s room and after a few minutes returned to our room with the hunting-jacket. He carefully examined it with his pocket lens. Then he filled a drinking-glass with warm boiled water and added a few pinches of table salt. With a piece of sterilised gauze from Doctor Putnam’s medicine-chest, he carefully washed off a few portions of the coat and set the glass and the gauze soaking in it aside. Then he returned the coat to the closet where he had found it. Next, as silently, he stole into Junior’s room and repeated the process with his hunting-jacket, using another glass and piece of gauze.

“While I am out of the room, Walter,” he said, “I want you to take these two glasses, cover them, and number them and on a slip of paper which you must retain, place the names of the owners of the respective coats. I don’t like this part of it–I hate to play spy and would much rather come out in the open, but there is nothing else to do, and it is much better for all concerned that I should play the game secretly just now. There may be no cause for suspicion at all. In that case I’d never forgive myself for starting a family row. And then again but we shall see.”

After I had numbered and recorded the glasses Kennedy returned, and we went down-stairs again.

“Curious about the will, isn’t it?” I remarked as we stood on the wide verandah a moment.

“Yes,” he replied. “It may be necessary to go back to New York to delve into that part of it before we get through, but I hope not. We’ll wait.”

At this point the groom interrupted us to say that he had caught the rabbits. Kennedy at once hurried to the stable. There he rolled up his sleeves, pricked a vein in his arm, and injected a small quantity of his own blood into one of the rabbits. The other he did not touch.

It was late in the afternoon when Tom returned from town with his uncle and cousin. He seemed even more agitated than usual. Without a word he hurried up from the landing and sought us out.

“What do you think of that?” he cried, opening a copy of the Record, and laying it flat on the library table.

There on the front page was Lewis Langley’s picture with a huge scare-head:


“It’s all out,” groaned Tom, as we bent over to read the account. “And such a story!”

Under the date of the day previous, a Saranac despatch ran:

Lewis Langley, well known as sporting man and club member in New York, and eldest son of the late Lewis Langley, the banker, was discovered dead under the most mysterious circumstances this morning at Camp Hangout, twelve miles from this town.

The Death of “Old Krook” in Dickens’s “Bleak House” or of the victim in one of Marryat’s most thrilling tales was not more gruesome than this actual fact. It is without doubt a case of spontaneous human combustion, such as is recorded beyond dispute in medical and medico-legal text-books of the past two centuries. Scientists in this city consulted for the Record agree that, while rare, spontaneous human combustion is an established fact and that everything in this curious case goes to show that another has been added to the already well-authenticated list of cases recorded in America and Europe. The family refuse to be interviewed, which seems to indicate that the rumours in medical circles in Saranac have a solid basis of fact.

Then followed a circumstantial account of the life of Langley and the events leading up to the discovery of the body–fairly accurate in itself, but highly coloured.

“The Record man must have made good use of his time here,” I commented, as I finished reading the despatch. “And–well, they must have done some hard work in New York to get this story up so completely–see, after the despatch follow a lot of interviews, and here is a short article on spontaneous combustion itself.”

Harrington and the rest of the family had just come in.

“What’s this we hear about the Record having an article?” Harrington asked. “Read it aloud, Professor, so we can all hear it.”

“‘Spontaneous human combustion, or catacausis ebriosus,’” began Craig, “‘is one of the baffling human scientific mysteries. Indeed, there can be no doubt but that individuals have in some strange and inexplicable manner caught fire and been partially or almost wholly consumed.

“‘Some have attributed it to gases in the body, such as carbureted hydrogen. Once it was noted at the Hotel Dieu in Paris that a body on being dissected gave forth a gas which was inflammable and burned with a bluish flame. Others have attributed the combustion to alcohol. A toper several years ago in Brooklyn and New York used to make money by blowing his breath through a wire gauze and lighting it. Whatever the cause, medical literature records seventy-six cases of catacausis in two hundred years.

“‘The combustion seems to be sudden and is apparently confined to the cavities, the abdomen, chest, and head. Victims of ordinary fire accidents rush hither and thither frantically, succumb from exhaustion, their limbs are burned, and their clothing is all destroyed. But in catacausis they are stricken down without warning, the limbs are rarely burned, and only the clothing in contact with the head and chest is consumed. The residue is like a distillation of animal tissue, grey and dark, with an overpoweringly fetid odour. They are said to burn with a flickering stifled blue flame, and water, far from arresting the combustion, seems to add to it. Gin is particularly rich in inflammable, empyreumatic oils, as they are called, and in most cases it is recorded that the catacausis took place among gin-drinkers, old and obese.

“‘Within the past few years cases are on record which seem to establish catacausis beyond doubt. In one case the heat was so great as to explode a pistol in the pocket of the victim. In another, a woman, the victim’s husband was asphyxiated by the smoke. The woman weighed, one hundred and eighty pounds in life, but the ashes weighed only twelve pounds: In all these cases the proof of spontaneous combustion seems conclusive.’”

As Craig finished reading, we looked blankly, horrified, at one another. It was too dreadful to realise.

“What do you think of it, Professor” asked James Langley, at length. “I’ve read somewhere of such cases, but to think of its actually happening–and to my own brother. Do you really think Lewis could have met his death in this terrible manner?”

Kennedy made no reply. Harrington seemed absorbed in thought. A shudder passed over us as we thought about it. But, gruesome as it was, it was evident that the publication of the story in the Record had relieved the feelings of the family group in one respect–it at least seemed to offer an explanation. It was noticeable that the suspicious air with which everyone had regarded everyone else was considerably dispelled.

Tom said nothing until the others had withdrawn. “Kennedy,” he burst out, then, “do you believe that such combustion is absolutely spontaneous? Don’t you believe that something else is necessary to start it?”

“I’d rather not express an opinion just yet, Tom,” answered Craig carefully. “Now, if you can get Harrington and Doctor Putnam away from the house for a short time, as you did with your uncle and cousin this morning, I may be able to tell you something about this case soon.”

Again Kennedy stole into another bedroom, and returned to our room with a hunting-jacket. Just as he had done before, he carefully washed it off with the gauze soaked in the salt solution and quickly returned the coat, repeating the process with Doctor Putnam’s coat and, last, that of Tom himself. Finally he turned his back while I sealed the glasses and marked and recorded them on my slip.

The next day was spent mainly in preparations for the journey to New York with the body of Lewis Langley. Kennedy was very busy on what seemed to me to be preparations for some mysterious chemical experiments. I found myself fully occupied in keeping special correspondents from all over the country at bay.

That evening after dinner we were all sitting in the open summer house over the boat-house. Smudges of green pine were burning and smoking on little artificial islands of stone near the lake shore, lighting up the trees on every side with a red glare. Tom and his sister were seated with Kennedy and myself on one side, while some distance from us Harrington was engaged in earnest conversation with Isabelle. The other members of the family were further removed. That seemed typical to me of the way the family group split up.

“Mr. Kennedy,” remarked Grace in a thoughtful, low tone, “what do you make of that Record article?”

“Very clever, no doubt,” replied Craig.

“But don’t you think it strange about the will?”

“Hush,” whispered Tom, for Isabelle and Harrington had ceased talking and might perhaps be listening.

Just then one of the servants came up with a telegram.

Tom hastily opened it and read the message eagerly in the corner of the summer house nearest one of the glowing smudges. I felt instinctively that it was from his lawyer. He turned and beckoned to Kennedy and myself.

“What do you think of that?” he whispered hoarsely.

We bent over and in the flickering light read the message:

New York papers full of spontaneous combustion story. Record had exclusive story yesterday, but all papers to-day feature even more. Is it true? Please wire additional details at once. Also immediate instructions regarding loss of will. Has been abstracted from safe. Could Lewis Langley have taken it himself? Unless new facts soon must make loss public or issue statement Lewis Langley intestate.


Tom looked blankly at Kennedy, and then at his sister, who was sitting alone. I thought I could read what was passing in his mind. With all his faults Lewis Langley had been a good foster-parent to his adopted children. But it was all over now if the will was lost.

“What can I do?” asked Tom hopelessly. “I have nothing to reply to him.”

“But I have,” quietly returned Kennedy, deliberately folding up the message and handing it back. “Tell them all to be in the library in fifteen minutes. This message hurries me a bit, but I am prepared. You will have something to wire Mr. Clark after that.” Then he strode off toward the house, leaving us to gather the group together in considerable bewilderment.

A quarter of an hour later we had all assembled in the library, across the hall from the room in which Lewis Langley had been found. As usual Kennedy began by leaping straight into the middle of his subject.

“Early in the eighteenth century;” he commenced slowly, “a woman was found burned to death. There were no clues, and the scientists of that time suggested spontaneous combustion. This explanation was accepted. The theory always has been that the process of respiration by which the tissues of the body are used up and got rid of gives the body a temperature, and it has seemed that it may be possible, by preventing the escape of this heat, to set fire to the body.”

We were leaning forward expectantly, horrified by the thought that perhaps, after all, the Record was correct.

“Now,” resumed Kennedy, his tone changing, “suppose we try a little experiment–one that was tried very convincingly by the immortal Liebig. Here is a sponge. I am going to soak it in gin from this bottle, the same that Mr. Langley was drinking from on the night of the–er–the tragedy.”

Kennedy took the saturated sponge and placed it in an agate-iron pan from the kitchen. Then he lighted it. The bluish flame shot upward, and in tense silence we watched it burn lower and lower, till all the alcohol was consumed. Then he picked up the sponge and passed it around. It was dry, but the sponge itself had not been singed.

“We now know,” he continued, “that from the nature of combustion it is impossible for the human body to undergo spontaneous ignition or combustion in the way the scientific experts of the past century believed. Swathe the body in the thickest of non-conductors of heat, and what happens? A profuse perspiration exudes, and before such an ignition could possibly take place all the moisture of the body would have to be evaporated. As seventy-five per cent or more of the body is water, it is evident that enormous heat would be necessary–moisture is the great safeguard. The experiment which I have shown you could be duplicated with specimens of human organs preserved for years in alcohol in museums. They would burn just as this sponge–the specimen itself would be very nearly uninjured by the burning of the alcohol.”

“Then, Professor Kennedy, you maintain that my brother did not meet his death by such an accident” asked James Langley.

“Exactly that, sir,” replied Craig. “One of the most important aspects of the historic faith in this phenomenon is that of its skilful employment in explaining away what would otherwise appear to be convincing circumstantial evidence in cases of accusations of murder.”

“Then how do you explain Mr. Langley’s death?” demanded Harrington. “My theory of a spark from a cigar may be true, after all.”

“I am coming to that in a moment,” answered Kennedy quietly. “My first suspicion was aroused by what not even Doctor Putnam seems to have noticed. The skull of Mr. Langley, charred and consumed as it was, seemed to show marks of violence. It might have been from a fracture of the skull or it might have been an accident to his remains as they were being removed to the anteroom. Again, his tongue seemed as though it was protruding. That might have been natural suffocation, or it might have been from forcible strangulation. So far I had nothing but conjecture to work on. But in looking over the living-room I found near the table, on the hardwood floor, a spot–just one little round spot. Now, deductions from spots, even if we know them to be blood, must be made very carefully. I did not know this to be a blood-spot, and so was very careful at first.

“Let us assume it was a blood-spot, however. What did it show? It was just a little regular round spot, quite thick. Now, drops of blood falling only a few inches usually make a round spot with a smooth border. Still the surface on which the drop falls is quite as much a factor as the height from which it falls. If the surface is rough the border may be irregular. But this was a smooth surface and not absorbent. The thickness of a dried blood-spot on a non-absorbent surface is less the greater the height from which it has fallen. This was a thick spot. Now if it had fallen, say, six feet, the height of Mr. Langley, the spot would have been thin–some secondary spatters might have been seen, or at least an irregular edge around the spot. Therefore, if it was a blood-spot, it had fallen only one or two feet. I ascertained next that the lower part of the body showed no wounds or bruises whatever.

“Tracks of blood such as are left by dragging a bleeding body differ very greatly from tracks of arterial blood which are left when the victim has strength to move himself. Continuing my speculations, supposing it to be a blood-spot, what did it indicate? Clearly that Mr. Langley was struck by somebody on the head with a heavy instrument, perhaps in another part of the room, that he was choked, that as the drops of blood oozed from the wound on his head, he was dragged across the floor, in the direction of the fireplace–“

“But, Professor Kennedy,” interrupted Doctor Putnam, “have you proved that the spot was a blood-spot? Might it not have been a paint-spot or something of that sort?”

Kennedy had apparently been waiting for just such a question.

“Ordinarily, water has no effect on paint,” he answered. “I found that the spot could be washed off with water. That is not all. I have a test for blood that is so delicately sensitive that the blood of an Egyptian mummy thousands of years old will respond to it. It was discovered by a German scientist, Doctor Uhlenhuth, and was no longer ago than last winter applied in England in connection with the Clapham murder. The suspected murderer declared that stains on his clothes were only spatters of paint, but the test proved them to be spatters of blood. Walter, bring in the cage with the rabbits.”

I opened the door and took the cage from the groom, who had brought it up from the stable and stood waiting with it some distance away.

“This test is very simple, Doctor Putnam,” continued Craig, as I placed the cage on the table and Kennedy unwrapped the sterilised test-tubes. “A rabbit is inoculated with human blood, and after a time the serum that is taken from the rabbit supplies the material for the test.

“I will insert this needle in one of these rabbits which has been so inoculated and will draw off some of the serum, which I place in this test-tube to the right. The other rabbit has not been inoculated. I draw off some of its serum and place that tube here on the left–we will call that our ‘control tube.’ It will check the results of our tests.

“Wrapped up in this paper I have the scrapings of the spot which I found on the floor–just a few grains of dark, dried powder. To show how sensitive the test is, I will take only one of the smallest of these minute scrapings. I dissolve it in this third tube with distilled water. I will even divide it in half, and place the other half in this fourth tube.

“Next I add some of the serum of the uninoculated rabbit to the half in this tube. You observe, nothing happens. I add a little of the serum of the inoculated rabbit to the other half in this other tube. Observe how delicate the test is–“

Kennedy was leaning forward, almost oblivious of the rest of us in the room, talking almost as if to himself. We, too, had riveted our eyes on the tubes.

As he added the serum from the inoculated rabbit, a cloudy milky ring formed almost immediately in the hitherto colourless, very dilute blood-solution.

“That,” concluded Craig, triumphantly holding the tube aloft, “that conclusively proves that the little round spot on the hardwood floor was not paint, was not anything in this wide world but blood.”

No one in the room said a word, but I knew there must have been someone there who thought volumes in the few minutes that elapsed.

“Having found one blood-spot, I began to look about for more, but was able to find only two or three traces where spots seemed to have been. The fact is that the blood spots had been apparently carefully wiped up. That is an easy matter. Hot water and salt, or hot water alone, or even cold water, will make quite short work of fresh blood-spots–at least to all outward appearances. But nothing but a most thorough cleaning can conceal them from the Uhlenhuth test, even when they are apparently wiped out. It is a case of Lady Macbeth over again, crying in the face of modern science, ‘Out, out, damned spot.’

“I was able with sufficient definiteness to trace roughly a course of blood-spots from the fireplace to a point near the door of the living-room. But beyond the door, in the hall, nothing.”

“Still,” interrupted Harrington, “to get back to the facts in the case. They are perfectly in accord either with my theory of the cigar or the Record’s of spontaneous combustion. How do you account for the facts?”

“I suppose you refer to the charred head, the burned neck, the upper chest cavity, while the arms and legs were untouched?”

“Yes, and then the body was found in the midst of combustible furniture that was not touched. It seems to me that even the spontaneous-combustion theory has considerable support in spite of this very interesting circumstantial evidence about blood-spots. Next to my own theory, the combustion theory seems most in harmony with the facts.”

“If you will go over in your mind all the points proved to have been discovered–not the added points in the Record story–I think you will agree with me that mine is a more logical interpretation than spontaneous combustion,” reasoned Craig. “Hear me out and you will see that the facts are more in harmony with my less fanciful explanation. No, someone struck Lewis Langley down either in passion or in cold blood, and then, seeing what he had done, made a desperate effort to destroy the evidence of violence. Consider my next discovery.”

Kennedy placed the five glasses which I had carefully sealed and labelled on the table before us.

“The next step,” he said, “was to find out whether any articles of clothing in the house showed marks that might be suspected of being blood-spots. And here I must beg the pardon of all in the room for intruding in their private wardrobes. But in this crisis it was absolutely necessary, and under such circumstances I never let ceremony stand before justice.

“In these five glasses on the table I have the washings of spots from the clothing worn by Tom, Mr. James Langley, Junior, Harrington Brown, and Doctor Putnam. I am not going to tell you which is which–indeed I merely have them marked, and I do not know them myself. But Mr. Jameson has the marks with the names opposite on a piece of paper in his pocket. I am simply going to proceed with the tests to see if any of the stains on the coats were of blood.”

Just then Doctor Putnam interposed. “One question, Professor Kennedy. It is a comparatively easy thing to recognise a blood-stain, but it is difficult, usually impossible, to tell whether the blood is that of a man or of an animal. I recall that we were all in our hunting-jackets that day, had been all day. Now, in the morning there had been an operation on one of the horses at the stable, and I assisted the veterinary from town. I may have got a spot or two of blood on my coat from that operation. Do I understand that this test would show that?”

“No,” replied Craig, “this test would not show that. Other tests would, but not this. But if the spot of human blood were less than the size of a pin-head, it would show–it would show if the spot contained even so little as one twenty-thousandth of a gram of albumin. Blood from a horse, a deer, a sheep, a pig, a dog, could be obtained, but when the test was applied the liquid in which they were diluted would remain clear. No white precipitin, as it is called, would form. But let human blood, ever so diluted, be added to the serum of the inoculated rabbit, and the test is absolute.”

A death-like silence seemed to pervade the room. Kennedy slowly and deliberately began to test the contents of the glasses. Dropping into each, as he broke the seal, some of the serum of the rabbit, he waited a moment to see if any change occurred.

It was thrilling. I think no one could have gone through that fifteen minutes without having it indelibly impressed on his memory. I recall thinking as Kennedy took each glass, “Which is it to be, guilt or innocence, life or death?” Could it be possible that a man’s life might hang on such a slender thread? I knew Kennedy was too accurate and serious to deceive us. It was not only possible, it was actually a fact.

The first glass showed no reaction. Someone had been vindicated.

The second was neutral likewise–another person in the room had been proved innocent.

The third–no change. Science had released a third.

The fourth–

Almost it seemed as if the record in my pocket burned–spontaneously–so intense was my feeling. There in the glass was that fatal, telltale white precipitate.

“My God, it’s the milk ring!” whispered Tom close to my ear.

Hastily Kennedy dropped the serum into the fifth. It remained as clear as crystal.

My hand trembled as it touched the envelope containing my record of the names.

“The person who wore the coat with that blood-stain on it,” declared Kennedy solemnly, “was the person who struck Lewis Langley down, who choked him and then dragged his scarcely dead body across the floor and obliterated the marks of violence in the blazing log fire. Jameson, whose name is opposite the sign on this glass?”

I could scarcely tear the seal to look at the paper in the envelope. At last I unfolded it, and my eye fell on the name opposite the fatal sign. But my mouth was dry, and my tongue refused to move. It was too much like reading a death-sentence. With my finger on the name I faltered an instant.

Tom leaned over my shoulder and read it to himself. “For Heaven’s sake, Jameson,” he cried, “let the ladies retire before you read the name.”

“It’s not necessary,” said a thick voice. “We quarrelled over the estate. My share’s mortgaged up to the limit, and Lewis refused to lend me more even until I could get Isabelle happily married. Now Lewis’s goes to an outsider–Harrington, boy, take care of Isabelle, fortune or no fortune. Good–“

Someone seized James Langley’s arm as he pressed an automatic revolver to his temple. He reeled like a drunken man and dropped the gun on the floor with an oath.

“Beaten again,” he muttered. “Forgot to move the ratchet from ‘safety’ to ‘fire.’”

Like a madman he wrenched himself loose from us, sprang through the door, and darted upstairs. “I’ll show you some combustion!” he shouted back fiercely.

Kennedy was after him like a flash. “The will!” he cried.

We literally tore the door off its hinges and burst into James Langley’s room. He was bending eagerly over the fireplace. Kennedy made a flying leap at him. Just enough of the will was left unburned to be admitted to probate.

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