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Title: Below Zero
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1201061h.html
Language: English
Date first posted: February 2012
Date most recently updated: February 2012

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Below Zero

by

Fred M White


ILLUSTRATED BY FRANK GILLETT


Published in The Windsor Magazine, Vol. XLVI, Jul 1917, pp 137-142


LORD RAYBURN turned the letter over in his hand, and a smile crept into those piercing eyes of his, for the great scientist permitted himself to be pleased.

"Now, this is a remarkable thing, Hayter," he said to his chief assistant. "Here is actually a letter from my great antagonist, Miguel del Viantes. He proposes to come and see me. I take it that this is an admission that all these years he has been attacking me unjustly."

George Hayter smiled behind his hand. He was well acquainted with the jealousies and bitter bickerings of scientists the world over, and there was not anywhere a scientist who was not aware of the deadly rivalry between Lord Rayburn and the eminent Spaniard. The fact that they had never met, and that they did not even know one another by sight, made little difference. Therefore Hayter listened discreetly.

"He wants to come and see me," the great man went on. "He says he is going to South America on an experimental mission, of which, of course, he says nothing, but he hints that possibly he may not return. It is his way of holding out the olive branch, I suppose. Anyway, he wants to see me, and, unless I wire him to the contrary, he will motor down here this afternoon. As the visit is entirely private—you will understand why he doesn't want people to know he has been here—you had better arrange for him to leave his car in the lane at the end of the shrubbery, and come here across the garden, through the conservatory. As he drives his own car, this should be easily managed. Then you can bring him here, and leave us alone together. You had better take the afternoon off, and come back about five o'clock. I am relying on your discretion, Hayter."

"Of course," Hayter murmured. "Does Del Viantes say what he is coming for?"

"Well, yes. He is deeply interested in those freezing experiments of mine. I gather that he particularly wants to have a look at the diamond that we are experimenting upon. But he does not say any more than that."

Hayter gave the desired assurance and vanished, leaving the great scientist to his own not unpleasant thoughts. This business was, in a way, the crowning glory of his career. It was soothing to his vanity to know that the great rival whom he had never seen was voluntarily seeking his advice—the advice of the man whom he had been attacking in the scientific press for years. The mere fact that the Spaniard was coming down to Tulham Place secretly made little or no difference.

So the pleased smile was still on Rayburn's face as he turned his back upon the laboratory and walked into the conservatory beyond. Both these buildings jutted out from the side of the house on to a sloping bank which led to a famous rose-garden, and the foundation consisted of a series of tanks and vaults, specially constructed, and something like a huge aquarium, in which Rayburn's freezing experiments were constantly going on. For Rayburn was a rich man, the head of an old family, and, apart from the estate, which would go elsewhere when he died, had a small fortune of his own, which he spent on his research work. And this small fortune would some day pass to his confidential assistant, George Hayter.

But Rayburn was thinking nothing of that at the moment. He wandered round the conservatory amongst his magnificent collection of orchids, of which he was, perhaps, more proud than of his scientific discoveries. He had an almost passionate love for those glorious blooms, and every hour he could spare from his life's work he spent amongst them.

He was still wandering, like some gigantic bee, from flower to flower, when a couple of hours later the far door of the conservatory opened, and from the concrete roofs beyond, which were approached by a flight of steps, Hayter appeared with a tall, thin, foreign-looking man in his wake. The stranger came forward with a smile behind his gold-rimmed glasses, and held out a thin, brown hand.

"May I have the honour, my lord?" he asked.

"Oh, certainly, certainly," said the flattered Rayburn. "This is an historic meeting, Señor Viantes. I quite appreciate the broad spirit that brought you here, and I am only too delighted to ignore the past in the interests of our mistress, the Goddess of Science. Yes, I think you can go, Hayter. I don't think the señor and myself are likely to come to blows."

Hayter discreetly smiled and vanished. With his best manner Rayburn turned to his visitor. He was a very great gentleman, and, when he chose, his manner was as irreproachable as his scientific knowledge.

"I bid you welcome, señor," he said, "and I do hope you are in no great hurry."

"I sail to-morrow," Del Viantes explained.

"Oh, indeed. I trust that, at any rate, you can give me an hour or two. Now, are these flowers anything in your line? I am very proud of my orchids—in fact, I think I value them more than any possession I have. Every moment of my spare time is occupied in here. There is not a collector in the world who does not write to me when he has found anything new—at least, amongst the class of orchids in which I am interested."

"They are rarely beautiful," Viantes said, with a touch of real enthusiasm. "It is a charming hobby, and I can quite understand how it fascinates you. But, alas, I am a poor man, and have no money to spend on anything. But that plant over yonder is extraordinarily beautiful."

"Ah, you have hit upon the gem of my collection; you have a real eye for the beautiful. Now, this is an orchid of the class Gynandria Monandria. That is a marsh orchid from South Africa, and the only one of its kind yet discovered. I prefer them to the epiphytes, exquisite as they are. And "that, of course, is a cypripedium.'"

As Rayburn spoke, he laid his hand almost lovingly on a long spike of bloom that shot upwards a foot or more in height in a series of shaded mauve blossoms with centres and cups graded away to the hue of virgin gold. The exquisite mass clung to the stem and trembled like a cloud of butterflies. Over it Rayburn hung with the rapt adoration of a mother bending over the cradle of her child.

"I am glad you can understand my enthusiasm," he said. "These blooms are almost sacred to me. Ah!"

As Rayburn spoke, his foot seemed to slip on the damp tiles of the conservatory, and as he jerked forward he touched the stem of the plant, and the topmost spray of blossoms broke off as if they had been severed with a knife. He whitened, with an expression almost of pain on his face, then recovered himself and forced a smile to his lips.

"Take that little spray," he said, "and put it in your buttonhole as a memento of the occasion. But I would not willingly have done that to oblige an emperor."

Viantes slipped the spray into his buttonhole and followed his host through the laboratory.

"Pray be seated," Rayburn said. "We have an hour or two before us, and are not in the least likely to be interrupted—in fact, I have respected your wishes to the letter. As you suggested, not a soul knows you are here, except my assistant, and I have sent him off for the afternoon. Your little car is in the lane, I presume, and nobody is likely to notice it there—in fact, the lane leads to nowhere, and is hardly used once a month—and therefore this meeting is as secret as it can be. I am not likely to mention it, unless you give me permission to do so, though perhaps some day this meeting may be historic. But that is for you to say, señor."

"I am profoundly grateful," Viantes murmured. "How deeply grateful I cannot say in words, but I think my presence here is a practical expression of my confidence."

"The feeling is mutual," Rayburn smiled. "And now pray tell me what I can do for you?"

The Spaniard hesitated just for a moment. "To be quite candid, my lord," he said, "I came down here consumed with curiosity to see that diamond which I understand you are experimenting upon. It is no secret, of course, because the scientific papers have been discussing it for weeks. Am I to understand that you claim to remove a flaw in a superimposed diamond by freezing it so many degrees below zero?"

"Well, I think so," Rayburn said cautiously. "But I am not far enough in my experiments yet to speak with any confidence. Still, I have seen enough to encourage me."

"It is a very valuable stone, I presume."

"Very," Ray burn said—"a matter of twenty thousand pounds, I suppose. If I succeed, it will be worth at least three times as much, and if I fail, no harm is done."

"But," Viantes suggested, "you might damage it. It might fly into a thousand fragments if it was subjected to a very intense cold. What of that, my lord?"

"Then, in that case, I shall be the loser," Rayburn smiled. "I should have to find that sum of money, which, between ourselves, would absorb my private means, because, when I die, this place of mine and my income must go to my successor. And my assistant would be all the poorer, which would be very hard upon him, seeing that he knows of my intentions, and that he is going to be married very shortly."

As Rayburn finished, he rose to his feet and, unlocking a drawer in his writing-desk, produced a great diamond. It was a magnificent stone, and as it lay winking and sparkling on the table, Viantes' eyes narrowed behind his spectacles, and his mouth quivered like that of a cat stalking a bird.

"A wonderful gem!" he murmured.

"Yes, a royal gem. Now, it was lent to me by a firm of Court jewellers for the purpose of my experiment. You must understand that it is what is called a superimposed stone—that is, two layers placed one upon another, and joined by spirit gum or something of that kind, much as they join a series of glasses from which telescopic lenses are ground. Originally the diamond was much bigger; but it met with an accident— a fracture in the centre—so that it was necessary to split the stone in two and join it up again. Of course, this detracted from the value, but only an expert could tell and discern the tiny spot of moisture that was created in the process. Now, my idea, as you know, is literally to burn out that moisture by frost, and therefore, in one of my tanks which lie out yonder beyond the conservatory, I propose to subject the stone to a freezing process a hundred degrees below zero; and when that is done, I am sanguine that the flaw will have vanished. If you have another half-hour or so to spare—"

The sentence was never finished, for the Spaniard was on to Rayburn like a flash, as the latter bent over the table, a knife gleamed in the air, and the great man collapsed to the floor, stricken between the shoulders to the heart, and lay there dead without a single sound.

* * * * *

It was nearly six o'clock before Hayter, feeling a little uneasy, knocked at the laboratory door without receiving any reply. He flew round to the back of the house, with the idea of approaching the laboratory by a flight of steps leading up to the big tanks with their concrete tops. The motor-car in the lane had disappeared, and this only added to Hayter's uneasiness. It was nearly dark now, so that Hayter noticed nothing except that the lid over the manhole of one of the great freezing tanks had not been slipped back, and this he hastily readjusted.

"I suppose I am to blame for that," he murmured. "Well, it doesn't so very much matter."

Just by the conservatory door lay a spray of three or four blooms of the priceless Gynandria Monandria. Hayter stooped and mechanically placed it in his buttonhole.

"Now, how did that precious treasure get here?" he asked himself. "Lord Rayburn would as soon have cut off his own hand as given away one of those beloved children of his."

He forced the catch on the conservatory door and hastened into the laboratory. A moment later he was bending over the dead body of his chief with that calm, self-centred feeling that comes to most of us in the presence of sudden and unexpected death. There were certain things to be done, and Hayter went about them quite methodically. Then his eye caught sight of the open drawer with the key still in it, and with a strange suspicion in his mind he searched in the little cotton-wool nest for the big diamond which ought to have been there.

Five minutes later he had aroused the household and was holding Scotland Yard at the other end of the telephone, and barely half an hour afterwards he was telling his story to an inspector of police.

"Let me have that again, Mr. Hayter," Inspector Jones said. "I want to be quite clear. Señor Viantes came down here, at his own suggestion, to meet a man who has been his greatest enemy for the last twenty years."

"You have seen the letter," Hayter said curtly.

"Oh, yes. Now, what sort of a man is this Spanish scientist? As mad as most of them, I suppose?"

"Madmen don't steal historic diamonds," Hajter said. "I don't want to teach you your business, Inspector, but that man stole the diamond, and probably at the same time dropped the spray of orchid which I have in my buttonhole, and which I picked up, as I told you, outside the conservatory door when I was forcing it. To my mind, the thing is quite plain. Lord Kayburn has been murdered, and the murderer escaped in his car, which he brought down here alone for the purpose of getting away quickly. Now, it seems to me that it is up to you to go back to London and interview Señor Viantes without the slightest delay. That is my opinion."

"Perhaps you are right," the Inspector conceded. "And as you saw the Spaniard, you had better come along."

It was quite late in the evening before Hayter and Inspector Jones found themselves in Bloomsbury, face to face with the Spanish scientist in the latter's sitting-room. But directly Hayter entered the room his face fell.

"There is some mistake here, I am afraid," he murmured. "If this is Señor Viantes, then I have never seen him before. It was not he who called upon Lord Rayburn."

"That is very good of you, sir," said the slight man with the piercing grey eyes who stood confronting his intruder. "A policeman was here just now who refused to believe my identity. I am Miguel del Viantes, as I can bring a dozen people to prove, and I have been in London all day. Do you think I would stoop to go near Lord Rayburn? A clever man, no doubt, but a humbug, sir, and a good bit of a charlatan."

"I don't think we need go into that," Hayter said coolly. "And you, sir, are prejudiced, in any case. Still, Lord Rayburn has been murdered and robbed of a valuable diamond, and as you are apparently the gentleman you claim to be, we are wasting our time here. What do you say. Inspector?"

There was no more to be said, and nothing to be done but to make as graceful an exit as possible and lose no time in seeking a clue elsewhere.

But the days went on till a month had elapsed, and no trace had been found of the clever criminal who had so cunningly made use of the Spaniard to commit a successful crime and get away clearly with his prize. And it was by no means a pleasant month for Hayter, either. He was cognisant of the fact that he was being dogged and watched, and there were many signs that the police held him under suspicion.

For practically everything depended upon his uncorroborated testimony. Nobody had seen the murderer but himself, no one had ever seen the slightest trace of the car, and as to the letter which the Spaniard was supposed to have written, that might easily have been forged by anybody. And, again, the diamond had vanished. It would take all the dead man's fortune to make the loss of it good, so that all Hayter's dreams of a happy and comfortable marriage had vanished into thin air.

Still, he was allowed to go on with his research work at Tulham Place, and, indeed, he had had more than one plain hint to the effect that he had better stay there for the present. Inspector Jones had been mightily curious on the subject of what he called the clue of the broken orchid, coupled with the fact that the body of Rayburn had been found by his chief assistant, who had also discovered the fact that the diamond was missing.

And so matters drifted on till the end of November without the slightest clue to the identity of the real culprit. Who he was, and whence he came, no one knew, though Del Viantes had hinted vaguely at a foreign assistant who had been in his employ for some little time, and had been discharged for flagrant dishonesty.

It was a fine morning at the end of November when Hayter was interrupted in the laboratory by the entrance of one of his mechanics.

"Sorry to trouble you, sir," he said, "but aren't you going to open Number Three Tank to-day? It's been frozen for the last three months at two hundred below zero, and that bacteria must be ready now. Shall I get on with it, sir?"

"Perhaps you had better," Hayter said languidly. "Draw the slide back from the roof and take the iron shutters down from the front pf the tank. Let the light play on it as much as possible. I'll come along presently."

The assistant vanished only to return, a quarter of an hour later, with starting eyes and a peculiar green tinge on his cheeks that spoke of some unreasoning terror. He clutched Hayter by the shoulder.

"For Heaven's sake, come along with me, sir!" he said hoarsely. "No, sir, there's nothing wrong with the big tank, but when you see what is inside it "

The slide on the top of the tank that flanked the outer door of the conservatory and the iron shutters had been removed. Now that the light shooe through the roof, and the sunshine glittered on the specially prepared glass front, the ten-thousand-gallon tank revealed itself in the shape of a huge block of ice as clear as crystal.

But Hayter was not thinking of that—he was gazing with protruding eyes and a strange creeping of his spine at an object crystalised in the centre of the ice. It was a human form with hands upraised and grey face congealed into an expression of terror that seemed alive and appealing mutely for assistance. Every limb and feature was as clear as it had been months ago, when the sham Del Viantes, hastening away from Tulham Place, had stepped in the gloom over the open trap-door that Hayter had left, and had thus gone unconsciously to his doom. The weight of his body, no doubt, had carried him through the upper crust of the ice in an early stage of its formation, and his feet had evidently stuck in the foot or so of gelatine at the bottom of the tank.



The man had been dead all these months, without the shadow of a doubt. He looked hideously and repulsively alive as he stood there, like a chrysalis in the centre of a transparent cocoon. Even a spray of orchids in his buttonhole retained their freshness and the delicate shades of mauve and gold.

"Well, I have had some curious experiences in my time," Inspector Jones said, an hour or two later, in somewhat shaky tones, as he stood before the unshuttered tank. "And, anyhow, it's all pretty plain now. Very likely his lordship gave a spray of his orchids to the man who murdered him, and the fellow, in his haste to get away, blundered into the tank. I shall be greatly surprised if we don't put our hands on the diamond, too, before we are through with this business."

It was nearly twelve o'clock the following day before the conditions were favourable for the removal of the unknown murderer from the tank, after which the body was laid on the table in the laboratory. It was Inspector Jones's unpleasant task to go over it in search of the missing treasure, the finding of which would establish Hayter's innocence beyond all doubt. But for a long time there was no sign of the stone, till the Inspector removed the spray of orchids from the dead man's buttonhole.

"Wonderful how they keep their freshness, isn't it?" he asked. "Some time ago I saw a bouquet of flowers that had come all the way from Australia frozen in a block of ice, and they might have been picked the day before. Hullo, here we are!"

As he spoke, the Inspector turned over the spray in his hand, and with a grunt of satisfaction plunged his little finger into the centre of one of the deep cups, and displayed a small round object carefully wrapped in cotton-wool.

"The missing stone," he exclaimed, "beyond the shadow of a doubt. I am glad to have my hands on this, Mr. Hayter, for your sake, because, you see—"

"Yes, I know," Hayter said grimly. "You needn't say any more about that. The man lying there, whoever he is, came down in a little two-seater car. He came alone, because I met him in the lane. What became of the car?"

"Well, that puzzled me, too," Jones admitted. "But, of course, the fellow had a confederate. That sort of robbery was too big a thing for one man. Probably the confederate loitered about till he got alarmed, and went off to save his own skin, as such men always do. But really it doesn't matter. To prove the identity of this criminal will be another question altogether. Personally, I don't believe it ever will be proved."

And, as usual, Inspector Jones was right.


THE END

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