The Final Day by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

I looked aghast at him. If it had been either Bradford or Lambert, both of whom we had come to know since Kennedy had interested himself in the case, or even Hollins or Kilgore, I should not have been surprised. But Miriam!

“How could she have any connection with the case?” I asked incredulously.

Kennedy did not attempt to explain. “It is a fatal mistake, Walter, for a detective to assume that he knows what anybody would do in any given circumstances. The only safe course for him is to find out what the persons in question did do. People are always doing the unexpected. This is a case of it, as you see. I am merely trying to get back at facts. Come; I think we might as well not stay over night, after all. I should like to drop off on the way back to the city to see Mrs. Godwin.”

As we rode up the hill I was surprised to see that there was no one at the window, nor did any one seem to pay attention to our knocking at the door.

Kennedy turned the knob quickly and strode in.

Seated in a chair, as white as a wraith from the grave, was Mrs. Godwin, staring straight ahead, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.

“What’s the matter?” demanded Kennedy, leaping to her side and grasping her icy hand.

The stare on her face seemed to change slightly as she recognised him.

“Walter–some water–and a little brandy–if there is any. Tell me–what has happened?”

From her lap a yellow telegram had fluttered to the floor, but before he could pick it up, she gasped, “The appeal–it has been denied.” Kennedy picked up the paper. It was a message, unsigned, but not from Kahn, as its wording and in fact the circumstances plainly showed.

“The execution is set for the week beginning the fifth,” she continued, in the same hollow, mechanical voice. “My God–that’s next Monday!”

She had risen now and was pacing the room.

“No! I’m not going to faint. I wish I could. I wish I could cry. I wish I could do something. Oh, those Elmores–they must have sent it. No one would have been so cruel but they.”

She stopped and gazed wildly out of the window at the prison. Neither of us knew what to say for the moment.

“Many times from this window,” she cried, “I have seen a man walk out of that prison gate. I always watch to see what he does, though I know it is no use. If he stands in the free air, stops short, and looks up suddenly, taking a long look at every house–I hope. But he always turns for a quick, backward look at the prison and goes half running down the hill. They always stop in that fashion, when the steel door opens outward. Yet I have always looked and hoped. But I can hope no more–no more. The last chance is gone.”

“No–not the last chance,” exclaimed Craig, springing to her side lest she should fall. Then he added gently, “You must come with me to East Point–immediately.”

“What–leave him here–alone–in the last days? No–no–no. Never. I must see him. I wonder if they have told him yet.”

It was evident that she had lost faith in Kennedy, in everybody, now.

“Mrs. Godwin,” he urged. “Come–you must. It is a last chance.”

Eagerly he was pouring out the story of the discovery of the afternoon by the little detectascope.

“Miriam?” she repeated, dazed. “She–know anything–it can’t be. No–don’t raise a false hope now.”

“It is the last chance,” he urged again. “Come. There is not an hour to waste now.”

There was no delay, no deliberation about Kennedy now. He had been forced out into the open by the course of events, and he meant to take advantage of every precious moment.

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Down the hill our car sped to the town, with Mrs. Godwin still protesting, but hardly realising what was going on. Regardless of tolls, Kennedy called up his laboratory in New York and had two of his most careful students pack up the stuff which he described minutely to be carried to East Point immediately by train. Kahn, too, was at last found and summoned to meet us there also.

Miles never seemed longer than they did to us as we tore over the country from Ossining to East Point, a silent party, yet keyed up by an excitement that none of us had ever felt before.

Impatiently we awaited the arrival of the men from Kennedy’s laboratory, while we made Mrs. Godwin as comfortable as possible in a room at the hotel. In one of the parlours Kennedy was improvising a laboratory as best he could. Meanwhile, Kahn had arrived, and together we were seeking those whose connection with, or interest in, the case made necessary their presence.

It was well along toward midnight before the hasty conference had been gathered; besides Mrs. Godwin, Salo Kahn, and ourselves, the three Elmores, Kilgore, and Hollins.

Strange though it was, the room seemed to me almost to have assumed the familiar look of the laboratory in New York. There was the same clutter of tubes and jars on the tables, but above all that same feeling of suspense in the air which I had come to associate with the clearing up of a case. There was something else in the air, too. It was a peculiar mousey smell, disagreeable, and one which made it a relief to have Kennedy begin in a low voice to tell why he had called us together so hastily.

“I shall start,” announced Kennedy, “at the point where the state left off–with the proof that Mr. Godwin died of conine, or hemlock poisoning. Conine, as every chemist knows, has a long and well-known history. It was the first alkaloid to be synthesised. Here is a sample, this colourless, oily fluid. No doubt you have noticed the mousey odour in this room. As little as one part of conine to fifty thousand of water gives off that odour–it is characteristic.

“I have proceeded with extraordinary caution in my investigation of this case,” he went on. “In fact, there would have been no value in it, otherwise, for the experts for the people seem to have established the presence of conine in the body with absolute certainty.”

He paused and we waited expectantly.

“I have had the body exhumed and have repeated the tests. The alkaloid which I discovered had given precisely the same results as in their tests.”

My heart sank. What was he doing–convicting the man over again?

“There is one other test which I tried,” he continued, “but which I can not take time to duplicate tonight. It was testified at the trial that conine, the active principle of hemlock, is intensely poisonous. No chemical antidote is known. A fifth of a grain has serious results; a drop is fatal. An injection of a most minute quantity of real conine will kill a mouse, for instance, almost instantly. But the conine which I have isolated in the body is inert!”

It came like a bombshell to the prosecution, so bewildering was the discovery.

“Inert?” cried Kilgore and Hollins almost together. “It can’t be. You are making sport of the best chemical experts that money could obtain. Inert? Read the evidence–read the books.”

“On the contrary,” resumed Craig, ignoring the interruption, “all the reactions obtained by the experts have been duplicated by me. But, in addition, I tried this one test which they did not try. I repeat: the conine isolated in the body is inert.”

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We were too perplexed to question him.

“Alkaloids,” he continued quietly, “as you know, have names that end in ‘in’ or ‘ine’–morphine, strychnine, and so on. Now there are two kinds of alkaloids which are sometimes called vegetable and animal. Moreover, there is a large class of which we are learning much which are called the ptomaines–from ptoma, a corpse. Ptomaine poisoning, as every one knows, results when we eat food that has begun to decay.

“Ptomaines are chemical compounds of an alkaloidal nature formed in protein substances during putrefaction. They are purely chemical bodies and differ from the toxins. There are also what are called leucomaines, formed in living tissues, and when not given off by the body they produce auto-intoxication.

“There are more than three score ptomaines, and half of them are poisonous. In fact, illness due to eating infected foods is much more common than is generally supposed. Often there is only one case in a number of those eating the food, due merely to that person’s inability to throw off the poison. Such cases are difficult to distinguish. They are usually supposed to be gastro- enteritis. Ptomaines, as their name shows, are found in dead bodies. They are found in all dead matter after a time, whether it is decayed food or a decaying corpse.

“No general reaction is known by which the ptomaines can be distinguished from the vegetable alkaloids. But we know that animal alkaloids always develop either as a result of decay of food or of the decay of the body itself.”

At one stroke Kennedy had reopened the closed case and had placed the experts at sea.

“I find that there is an animal conine as well as the true conine,” he hammered out. “The truth of this matter is that the experts have confounded vegetable conine with cadaveric conine. That raises an interesting question. Assuming the presence of conine, where did it come from?”

He paused and began a new line of attack. “As the use of canned goods becomes more and more extensive, ptomaine poisoning is more frequent. In canning, the cans are heated. They are composed of thin sheets of iron coated with tin, the seams pressed and soldered with a thin line of solder. They are filled with cooked food, sterilised, and closed. The bacteria are usually all killed, but now and then, the apparatus does not work, and they develop in the can. That results in a ‘blown can’–the ends bulge a little bit. On opening, a gas escapes, the food has a bad odour and a bad taste. Sometimes people say that the tin and lead poison them; in practically all cases the poisoning is of bacterial, not metallic, origin. Mr. Godwin may have died of poisoning, probably did. But it was ptomaine poisoning. The blown cans which I have discovered would indicate that.”

I was following him closely, yet though this seemed to explain a part of the case, it was far from explaining all.

“Then followed,” he hurried on, “the development of the usual ptomaines in the body itself. These, I may say, had no relation to the cause of death itself. The putrefactive germs began their attack. Whatever there may have been in the body before, certainly they produced a cadaveric ptomaine conine. For many animal tissues and fluids, especially if somewhat decomposed, yield not infrequently compounds of an oily nature with a mousey odour, fuming with hydrochloric acid and in short, acting just like conine. There is ample evidence, I have found, that conine or a substance possessing most, if not all, of its properties is at times actually produced in animal tissues by decomposition. And the fact is, I believe, that a number of cases have arisen, in which the poisonous alkaloid was at first supposed to have been discovered which were really mistakes.”

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The idea was startling in the extreme. Here was Kennedy, as it were, overturning what had been considered the last word in science as it had been laid down by the experts for the prosecution, opinions so impregnable that courts and juries had not hesitated to condemn a man to death.

“There have been cases,” Craig went on solemnly, “and I believe this to be one, where death has been pronounced to have been caused by wilful administration of a vegetable alkaloid, which toxicologists would now put down as ptomaine-poisoning cases. Innocent people have possibly already suffered and may in the future. But medical experts–” he laid especial stress on the word–“are much more alive to the danger of mistake than formerly. This was a case where the danger was not considered, either through carelessness, ignorance, or prejudice.

“Indeed, ptomaines are present probably to a greater or less extent in every organ which is submitted to the toxicologist for examination. If he is ignorant of the nature of these substances, he may easily mistake them for vegetable alkaloids. He may report a given poison present when it is not present. It is even yet a new line of inquiry which has only recently been followed, and the information is still comparatively small and inadequate.

“It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, for the chemist to state absolutely that he has detected true conine. Before he can do it, the symptoms and the post-mortem appearance must agree; analysis must be made before, not after, decomposition sets in, and the amount of the poison found must be sufficient to experiment with, not merely to react to a few usual tests.

“What the experts asserted so positively, I would not dare to assert. Was he killed by ordinary ptomaine poisoning, and had conine, or rather its double, developed first in his food along with other ptomaines that were not inert? Or did the cadaveric conine develop only in the body after death? Chemistry alone can not decide the question so glibly as the experts did. Further proof must be sought Other sciences must come to our aid.”

I was sitting next to Mrs. Godwin. As Kennedy’s words rang out, her hand, trembling with emotion, pressed my arm. I turned quickly to see if she needed assistance. Her face was radiant. All the fees for big cases in the world could never have compensated Kennedy for the mute, unrestrained gratitude which the little woman shot at him.

Kennedy saw it, and in the quick shifting of his eyes to my face, I read that he relied on me to take care of Mrs. Godwin while he plunged again into the clearing up of the mystery.

“I have here the will–the second one,” he snapped out, turning and facing the others in the room.

Craig turned a switch in an apparatus which his students had brought from New York. From a tube on the table came a peculiar bluish light.

“This,” he explained, “is a source of ultraviolet rays. They are not the bluish light which you see, but rays contained in it which you can not see.

“Ultraviolet rays have recently been found very valuable in the examination of questioned documents. By the use of a lens made of quartz covered with a thin film of metallic silver, there has been developed a practical means of making photographs by the invisible rays of light above the spectrum–these ultraviolet rays. The quartz lens is necessary, because these rays will not pass through ordinary glass, while the silver film acts as a screen to cut off the ordinary light rays and those below the spectrum. By this means, most white objects are photographed black and even transparent objects like glass are black.

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“I obtained the copy of this will, but under the condition from the surrogate that absolutely nothing must be done to it to change a fibre of the paper or a line of a letter. It was a difficult condition. While there are chemicals which are frequently resorted to for testing the authenticity of disputed documents such as wills and deeds, their use frequently injures or destroys the paper under test. So far as I could determine, the document also defied the microscope.

“But ultraviolet photography does not affect the document tested in any way, and it has lately been used practically in detecting forgeries. I have photographed the last page of the will with its signatures, and here it is. What the eye itself can not see, the invisible light reveals.”

He was holding the document and the copy, just an instant, as if considering how to announce with best effect what he had discovered.

“In order to unravel this mystery,” he resumed, looking up and facing the Elmores, Kilgore, and Hollins squarely, “I decided to find out whether any one had had access to that closet where the will was hidden. It was long ago, and there seemed to be little that I could do. I knew it was useless to look for fingerprints.

“So I used what we detectives now call the law of suggestion. I questioned closely one who was in touch with all those who might have had such access. I hinted broadly at seeking fingerprints which might lead to the identity of one who had entered the house unknown to the Godwins, and placed a document where private detectives would subsequently find it under suspicious circumstances.

“Naturally, it would seem to one who was guilty of such an act, or knew of it, that there might, after all, be finger-prints. I tried it. I found out through this little tube, the detectascope, that one really entered the room after that, and tried to wipe off any supposed finger-prints that might still remain. That settled it. The second will was a forgery, and the person who entered that room so stealthily this afternoon knows that it is a forgery.”

As Kennedy slapped down on the table the film from his camera, which had been concealed, Mrs. Godwin turned her now large and unnaturally bright eyes and met those of the other woman in the room.

“Oh–oh–heaven help us–me, I mean!” cried Miriam, unable to bear the strain of the turn of events longer. “I knew there would be retribution–I knew–I knew–“

Mrs. Godwin was on her feet in a moment.

“Once my intuition was not wrong though all science and law was against me,” she pleaded with Kennedy. There was a gentleness in her tone that fell like a soft rain on the surging passions of those who had wronged her so shamefully. “Professor Kennedy, Miriam could not have forged–“

Kennedy smiled. “Science was not against you, Mrs. Godwin. Ignorance was against you. And your intuition does not go contrary to science this time, either.”

It was a splendid exhibition of fine feeling which Kennedy waited to have impressed on the Elmores, as though burning it into their minds.

“Miriam Elmore knew that her brothers had forged a will and hidden it. To expose them was to convict them of a crime. She kept their secret, which was the secret of all three. She even tried to hide the finger-prints which would have branded her brothers.

“For ptomaine poisoning had unexpectedly hastened the end of old Mr. Godwin. Then gossip and the ‘scientists’ did the rest. It was accidental, but Bradford and Lambert Elmore were willing to let events take their course and declare genuine the forgery which they had made so skilfully, even though it convicted an innocent man of murder and killed his faithful wife. As soon as the courts can be set in motion to correct an error of science by the truth of later science, Sing Sing will lose one prisoner from the death house and gain two forgers in his place.”

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Mrs. Godwin stood before us, radiant. But as Kennedy’s last words sank into her mind, her face clouded.

“Must–must it be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?” she pleaded eagerly. “Must that grim prison take in others, even if my husband goes free?”

Kennedy looked at her long and earnestly, as if to let the beauty of her character, trained by its long suffering, impress itself on his mind indelibly.

He shook his head slowly.

“I’m afraid there is no other way, Mrs. Godwin,” he said gently taking her arm and leaving the others to be dealt with by a constable whom he had dozing in the hotel lobby.

“Kahn is going up to Albany to get the pardon–there can be no doubt about it now,” he added. “Mrs. Godwin, if you care to do so, you may stay here at the hotel, or you may go down with us on the midnight train as far as Ossining. I will wire ahead for a conveyance to meet you at the station. Mr. Jameson and I must go on to New York.”

“The nearer I am to Sanford now, the happier I shall be,” she answered, bravely keeping back the tears of happiness.

The ride down to New York, after our train left Ossining, was accomplished in a day coach in which our fellow passengers slept in every conceivable attitude of discomfort.

Yet late, or rather early, as it was, we found plenty of life still in the great city that never sleeps. Tired, exhausted, I was at least glad to feel that finally we were at home.

“Craig,” I yawned, as I began to throw off my clothes, “I’m ready to sleep a week.”

There was no answer.

I looked up at him almost resentfully. He had picked up the mail that lay under our letter slot and was going through it as eagerly as if the clock registered P.M. instead of A.M.

“Let me see,” I mumbled sleepily, checking over my notes, “how many days have we been at it?”

I turned the pages slowly, after the manner in which my mind was working.

“It was the twenty-sixth when you got that letter from Ossining,” I calculated, “and to-day makes the thirtieth. My heavens–is there still another day of it? Is there no rest for the wicked?”

Kennedy looked up and laughed.

He was pointing at the calendar on the desk before him.

“There are only thirty days in the month,” he remarked slowly.

“Thank the Lord,” I exclaimed. “I’m all in!”

He tipped his desk-chair back and bit the amber of his meerchaum contemplatively.

“But to-day is the first,” he drawled, turning the leaf on the calendar with just a flicker of a smile.

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