Editor C. Arthur
Professor William James Maynard was in
a singularly happy and contented mood as
he strolled down the High Street after a long
and satisfactory interview with the solicitor to
his late cousin, whose sole heir he was.
It was exactly a month by the calendar since
he had murdered this cousin, and everything
had gone most satisfactorily since. The fortune
was proving quite as large as he had expected,
and not even an inquest had been held upon
the dead man. The coroner had decided that
it was not necessary, and the Professor had
agreed with him.
At the funeral the Professor had been the
principal mourner, and the local paper had commented
sympathetically on his evident emotion.
This had been quite genuine, for the Professor
had been fond of his relative, who had always
been very good to him. But still, when an
old man remains obstinately healthy, when
his doctor can say with confidence that he is
good for another twenty years at least, and
when he stands between you and a large fortune
which you need, and of which you can make
much better use in the cause of science and the
pursuit of knowledge, what alternative is there?
It becomes necessary to take steps. Therefore,
the Professor had taken steps.
Looking back to-day on that day a month
ago, and the critical preceding week, the Professor
felt that the steps he had taken had been
as judicious as successful. He had set himself
to solve a problem in higher mathematics. He
had found it easier to solve than many he was
obliged to grapple with in the course of his
A policeman saluted as the Professor passed,
and he acknowledged it with the charming
old world courtesy that made him so popular
a figure in the town. Across the way was the
doctor who had certified the cause of death.
The Professor, passing benevolently on, was
glad he had now enough money to carry out his
projects. He would be able to publish at once
his great work on "The Secondary Variation
of the Differential Calculus," that hitherto had
languished in manuscript. It would make a
sensation, he thought; there was more than one
generally accepted theory he had challenged
or contradicted in it. And he would put in
hand at once his great, his long projected work,
"A History of the Higher Mathematics." It
would take twenty years to complete, it would
cost twenty thousand pounds or more, and it
would breathe into mathematics the new,
vivid life that Bergson's works have breathed
The Professor thought very kindly of the
dead cousin, whose money would provide for
this great work. He wished greatly the dead
man could know to what high use his fortune
Coming towards him he saw the wife of the
vicar of his parish. The Professor was a regular
church-goer. The vicar's wife saw him, too,
and beamed. She and her husband were more
than a little proud of having so well known a
man in their congregation. She held out her
hand and the Professor was about to take it
when she drew it back with a startled movement.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed,
distressed, as she saw him raise his eyebrows.
"There is blood on it."
Her eyes were fixed on his right hand, which
he was still holding out. In fact, on the palm
a small drop of blood showed distinctly against
the firm, pink flesh. Surprised, the Professor
took out his handkerchief and wiped it away.
He noticed that the vicar's wife was wearing
white kid gloves.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she said again.
"It—it startled me somehow. I thought you
must have cut yourself. I hope it's not much?"
"Some scratch, I suppose," he said. "It's
The vicar's wife, still slightly discomposed,
launched out into some parochial matter she
had wished to mention to him. They chatted
a few moments and then parted. The Professor
took an opportunity to look at his hand. He
could detect no sign of any cut or abrasion,
the skin seemed whole everywhere. He looked
at his handkerchief. There was still visible
on it the stain where he had wiped his hand,
and this stain seemed certainly blood.
"Odd!" he muttered as he put the handkerchief
back in his pocket. "Very odd!"
His thoughts turned again to his projected
"A History of the Higher Mathematics," and
he forgot all about the incident till, as it happened
that day month, the first of the month by the
calendar, when he was sitting in his study
with an eminent colleague to whom he was
explaining his great scheme.
"If you are able to carry it out," the colleague
said slowly, "your book will mark an epoch
in human thought. But the cost will be tremendous."
"I estimate it at twenty thousand pounds,"
answered the Professor calmly. "I am fully
prepared to spend twice as much. You know
I have recently inherited forty thousand pounds
from a relative?"
The eminent colleague nodded and looked
"It is magnificent," he said warmly, "magnificent."
He added: "You've cut yourself,
do you know?"
"Cut myself?" the Professor echoed, surprised.
"Yes," answered the eminent colleague,
"there is blood upon your hand—your right
In fact a spot of blood, slightly larger than
that which had appeared before, showed plainly
upon the Professor's right hand. He wiped
it away with his handkerchief, and went on
talking eagerly, for he was deeply interested.
He did not think of the matter again till just
as he was getting into bed, when he noticed a
red stain upon his handkerchief. He frowned
and examined his hand carefully. There was
no sign of any wound or cut from which the
blood could have come, and he frowned again.
"Very odd!" he muttered.
A calendar hanging on the wall reminded
him that it was the first of the month.
The days passed, the incident faded from his
memory, and four weeks later he came down
one morning to breakfast in an unusually good
temper. There was a certain theory he had
worked on the night before he meant to write
to a friend about. It seemed to him his demonstration
had been really brilliant, and then,
also, he was already planning out with great
success the details of the scheme for his great
He was making an excellent breakfast, for
his appetite was always good, and, needing
some more cream, he rang the bell. The maid
appeared, he showed her the empty jug, and as
she took it she dropped it with a sudden cry,
smashing it to pieces on the floor. Very pale,
she stammered out:
"Beg pardon, sir, your hand—there is blood
upon your hand."
In fact, on the Professor's right hand there
showed a drop of blood, perceptibly larger this
time than before. The Professor stared at it
stupidly. He was sure it had not been there a
moment before, and he noticed by the heading
of the newspaper at the side of his plate that
this was the first of the month.
With a hasty movement of his napkin he
wiped the drop of blood away. The maid, still
apologising, began to pick up the pieces of the
jug she had broken; but the Professor had no
further appetite for his breakfast. He silenced
her with a gesture, and, leaving a piece of toast
half-eaten on his plate, he got up and went into
All this was trivial, absurd even. Yet somehow
it disturbed him. He got out a magnifying
glass and examined his hand under it. There
was nothing to account for the presence of the
drop of blood he and the maid had seen. It
occurred to him that he might have cut himself
in shaving; but when he looked in the mirror
he could find no trace of even the slightest
He decided that, though he had not been
aware of it, his nerves must be a little out of
order. That was disconcerting. He had not
taken his nerves into consideration for the simple
reason that he had never known that he possessed
any. He made up his mind to treat himself
to a holiday in Switzerland. One or two difficult
ascents might brace him up a bit.
Three days later he was in Switzerland, and
a few days later again he was on the summit
of a minor but still difficult peak. It had been
an exhilarating climb, and he had enjoyed it.
He said something laughingly to the head guide
to the effect that climbing was good sport and
a fine test for the nerves. The head guide agreed,
and added politely that if the nerves of monsieur
the Professor had shown signs of failing on the
lower glacier, for example, they might all have
been in difficulties. The Professor thrilled with
pleasure at the head guide's implied praise.
He was glad to know on such good authority
that his nerves were all right, and the incidents
that had driven him there began to fade in his
Nevertheless, he found himself watching the
calendar with a certain interest, and when he
woke on the morning of the first day of the
next month he glanced quickly at his right
hand. There was nothing there.
He dressed and spent, as he had planned, a
quiet day, busy with his correspondence. His
spirits rose as the day passed. He was still
watchful, but more confident; and, after dinner,
though he had meant to go straight to his room,
he agreed to join in a suggested game of bridge.
They were cutting for partners when one of the
ladies who was to take part in the game dropped
with a little cry the card she had just lifted.
"Oh, there is blood upon your hand," she
cried, "on your right hand, Professor!"
Upon the Professor's right hand there showed
now a drop of blood, larger still then those other
three had been. Yet the very moment before
it had not been there. The Professor put down
his cards without a word, and left the room,
going straight upstairs.
The drop of blood was still standing on his
hand. He soaked it up carefully with some
cotton-wool he had, and was not surprised to
find beneath no sign or trace of any cut or wound.
The cotton-wool he made up carefully into a
parcel and addressed it to an analytical chemist
he knew, inclosing with it a short note.
He rang the bell, sent the parcel to the post,
and then he got out pen and paper and set
himself to solve this problem, as in his life he
had solved so many others.
Only this time it seemed somehow as though
the data were insufficient.
Idly his pen traced upon the paper in front
of him a large X, the sign of the unknown
But how, in this case, to find out what was
the unknown quantity? His hand, his firm
and steady hand, shook so that he could no
longer hold his pen. He rang the bell again
and ordered a stiff whisky-and-soda. He was
a man of almost ascetic habits, but to-night
he felt that he needed some stimulant.
Neither did he sleep very well.
The next day he returned to England. Almost
at once he went to see his friend, the analytical
chemist, to whom he had sent the parcel from
"Mammalian blood," pronounced the chemist,
"probably human—rather a curious thing about
"What's that?" asked the Professor.
"Why," his friend answered, "I was able
to identify the distinctive bacillus——" He
named the rare bacillus of an unusual and obscure
disease. And this disease was that from which
the Professor's cousin had died.
The professor was a man interested in all
phenomena. In other circumstances he would
have observed keenly that which now occurred,
when the hair of his head underwent a curious
involuntary stiffening and bristling process that
in popular but sufficiently accurate terms, might
be described as "standing on end." But at
the moment he was in no state for scientific
He got out of the house somehow. He said
he did not feel well, and his friend, the chemist,
agreed that his holiday in Switzerland did not
seem to have done him much good.
The Professor went straight home and shut
himself up in his study. It was a fine room,
ranged all round with books. On the shelves
nearest to his hand stood volumes on mathematics,
the theory of mathematics, the study of mathematics,
pure mathematics, applied mathematics.
But there was not any one of these books that
told him anything about such a thing as this.
Though, it is true, there were many references
in them, here and there, to X, the unknown
The Professor took his pen and wrote a large
X upon the sheet of paper in front of him.
"An unknown quantity!" he muttered. "An
The days passed peacefully. Nothing was
out of the ordinary except that the Professor
developed an odd trick of continually glancing
at his right hand. He washed it a good
deal, too. But the first of the month was not
On the last day of the month he told his housekeeper
that he was feeling a little unwell. She
was not surprised, for she had thought him looking
ill for some time past. He told her he would
probably spend the next day in bed for a thorough
rest, and she agreed that that would be a very
good idea. When he was in his own room and
had undressed, he bandaged his right hand with
care, tying it up carefully and thoroughly with
three or four of his large linen handkerchiefs.
"Whatever comes, shall now show," he said
He stayed in bed accordingly the next day.
His housekeeper was a little uneasy about him.
He ate nothing and his eyes were strangely
bright and feverish. She overheard him once
muttering something to himself about "the
unknown quantity," and that made her think
that he had been working too hard.
She decided he must see the doctor. The
Professor refused peremptorily. He declared
he would be quite well again in the morning.
The housekeeper, an old servant, agreed, but
sent for the doctor all the same; and when he
had come the Professor felt he could not refuse
to see him without appearing peculiar. And
he did not wish to appear peculiar. So he saw
the doctor, but declared there was nothing much
the matter, he merely felt a little unwell and out
of sorts and tired.
"You have hurt your hand?" the doctor
asked, noticing how it was bandaged.
"I cut it slightly—a trifle," the Professor
"Yes," the doctor answered, "I see there
is blood on it."
"What?" the Professor stammered.
"There is blood upon your hand," the doctor
The Professor looked. In fact, a deep, wide
stain showed crimson upon the bandages in
which he had swathed his hand. Yet he knew
that the moment before the linen had been fair
and white and clean.
"It is nothing," he said quickly, hiding his
hand beneath the bed clothes.
The doctor, a little puzzled, took his leave,
but had not gone ten yards when the housekeeper
flew screaming after him. It seemed she
had heard a fall, and when she had gone into
the Professor's bedroom she had found him lying
there dead upon the hearthrug. There was
a razor in his hand, and there was a ghastly
gash across his throat.
The doctor went back at a run, but there was
nothing he or any man could do. One thing
he noticed, with curiosity, was that the bandage
had been torn away from the dead man's hand
and that oddly enough there seemed to be on
the hand no sign of any cut or wound. There
was a large solitary drop of blood on the palm,
at the root of the thumb; but, of course, that
was no great wonder, for the wound the dead
man had dealt himself had bled freely.
Apparently death had not been quite instantaneous,
for with a last effort the Professor
seemed to have traced an X upon the floor in
his own blood with his forefinger. The doctor
mentioned this at the inquest—the coroner
had decided at once that in this case an inquest
was certainly necessary—and he suggested that
it showed the Professor had worked too hard
and was suffering from overwork which had
disturbed his mental balance.
The coroner took the same view, and in his
short address to the jury adduced the incident
as proof of a passing mental disturbance.
"Very probably," said the coroner, "there
was some problem that had worried him, and that
he was still endeavouring to work out. As
you are aware, gentlemen, the sign X is used
to symbolise the unknown quantity."
An appropriate verdict was accordingly
returned, and the Professor was duly interred
in the same family vault as that in which so
short a time previously his cousin had been
laid to rest.