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Professor Van Dusen's Problems
Jacques Futrelle



from Cassell's Magazine


"Professor Van Dusen: The Man"

It was absolutely impossible. Twenty-five chess masters from the world at large, foregathered in Boston for the annual championship, unanimously declared it impossible, and unanimity on any given point is an unusual mental condition for chess masters. Not one would concede for an instant that it was within the range of human achievement. Some grew red in the face as they argued it; others smiled loftily and were silent; still others dismissed the matter in a word as wholly absurd.

  A casual remark by the distinguished scientist and logician, Professor Van Dusen, provoked the discussion. He had, in the past, caused bitter disputes by chance remarks; in fact, he had once been a sort of controversial centre of the sciences. It had been due to his modest announcement of a startling and unorthodox hypothesis that he had been asked to vacate the chair of Philosophy in a great university; later that university had been honoured when he accepted its degree of LL.D.

  For a score of years now educational and scientific institutions of the world had amused themselves by crowding degrees upon him. He had initials that stood for things he could not pronounce: degrees from England, Russia, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and Spain. These were expressed recognition of the fact that he was the foremost brain in science. The imprint of his crabbed personality lay heavily on half-a-dozen of its branches. Finally there came a time when argument was respectfully silent in the face of one of his conclusions.

  The remark which had arrayed the chess masters of the world in so formidable and unanimous a dissent was made by Professor Van Dusen in the presence of three other gentlemen of standing. One of these, Dr. Charles Elbert, happened to be a chess enthusiast.

  "Chess is a shameless perversion of the functions of the brain," was Professor Van Dusen's declaration in his perpetually irritated voice. "It is a sheer waste of effort, greater because it is possibly the most difficult of all fixed abstract problems. Of course logic will solve it. Logic will solve any problem — not most of them, but any problem. A thorough understanding of its rules would enable anyone to defeat your greatest chess players. It would be inevitable, just as inevitable as that two and two make four, not sometimes, but always. I don't know chess, because I never do useless things; but I could take a few hours of competent instruction and defeat a man who has devoted his life to it. His mind is cramped — bound down to the logic of chess. Mine is not; mine employs logic in its widest scope."

  Dr. Elbert shook his head vigorously. "It is impossible," he asserted.

  "Nothing is impossible," snapped the scientist. "The human mind can do anything. It is all we have to lift us above the brute creation. For Heaven's sake leave us that."

  "Do you know the purposes of chess — its countless combinations?" asked Dr. Elbert.

  "No," was the crabbed reply. "I know nothing whatever of the game beyond the general purpose which, I understand, is to move certain pieces in certain directions to stop an opponent from moving his King. Is that correct?"

  "Yes," said Dr. Elbert, slowly, "but I never heard it stated just that way before."

  "Then, if that is correct, I maintain that the true logician can defeat the chess expert by the pure mechanical rule of logic. I'll take a few hours some time, acquaint myself with the moves of the pieces, and defeat you to convince you."

  Professor Van Dusen glared savagely into the eyes of Dr. Elbert.

  "Not me," said Dr. Elbert. "You say anyone; you, for instance, might defeat the greatest chess player. Would you be willing to meet the greatest chess player after you 'acquaint' yourself with the game?"

  "Certainly," said the scientist. "I have frequently found it necessary to make a fool of myself to convince people. I'll do it again."

  This, then, was the acrimonious beginning of the discussion which aroused chess masters and brought open dissent from eminent men who had not dared for years to dispute any assertion by the distinguished Professor Van Dusen. It was arranged that at the conclusion of the championships Professor Van Dusen should meet the winner. This happened to be Tschaikowsky, the Russian, who had been chess champion for half a dozen years.

  After this expected result of the tournament, Hillsbury, a noted American master, spent a morning with Professor Van Dusen in the latter's modest apartments on Beacon Hill. He left there with a sadly puzzled face. That afternoon Professor Van Dusen met the Russian champion. The newspapers had said a great deal about the affair, and hundreds were present to witness the game.

  There was a little murmur of astonishment when Professor Van Dusen appeared. He was slight, to the point of childishness, and his thin shoulders seemed to droop beneath the weight of his enormous head. He wore a No. 8 hat. His brow rose straight and dome-like, and a heavy shock of long yellow hair gave him almost a grotesque appearance. The eyes were narrow slits of blue squinting eternally through thick glasses; the face was small, clean shaven, and white, with the pallor of the student; his lips made a perfectly straight line; his hands were remarkable for their whiteness, their flexibility, and for the length of the slender fingers. One glance showed that physical development had never entered into the schedule of the scientist's fifty years of life.

  The Russian smiled as he sat down at the chess table. He felt that he was humouring a crank. The other masters were grouped near by, curiously expectant. Professor Van Dusen began the game, opening with a Queen's gambit. At his fifth move, made without the slightest hesitation, the smile left the Russian's face. At the tenth the masters grew tensely eager. The Russian champion was playing for honour now. Professor Van Dusen's fourteenth move was King's castle to Queen's four.

  "Check," he announced.

  After a long study of the board the Russian protected his King with a knight. Professor Van Dusen noted the play, then leaned back in his chair with finger tips pressed together. His eyes left the board, and dreamily studied the ceiling. For at least fifteen minutes there was no sound, no movement, then:

  "Mate in fifteen moves," he said quietly.

  There was a quick gasp of astonishment. It took the practised eyes of the masters several minutes to verify the announcement. But the Russian champion saw, and leaned back in his chair a little white and dazed. He was not astonished; he was helplessly floundering in a maze of incomprehensible things. Suddenly he arose and grasped the slender hand of his conqueror.

  "You have never played chess before?" he asked.


  "Mon Dieu! You are not a man; you are a brain — a machine — a thinking machine."

  "It is a child's game," said the scientist abruptly. There was no note of exultation in his voice; it was still the irritable, impersonal tone which was habitual.

  This, then, was Professor Van Dusen. This is how he came to be known to the world at large as The Thinking Machine. The Russian's phrase had been applied to the scientist as a title by a newspaper reporter, Hutchinson Hatch. It had stuck.


"The First Problem"

That strange, seemingly inexplicable chain of circumstances which had to do with the mysterious disappearance of a famous actress, Miss Irene Wallack, from her dressing-room in a Springfield theatre during a performance, while the echo of tumultuous appreciation still rang in her ears was perhaps the first problem not purely scientific that The Thinking Machine was ever asked to solve. The scientist's aid was enlisted in this baffling case by Hutchinson Hatch, reporter.

  "But I am a scientist, a logician," The Thinking Machine had protested. "I know nothing whatever of crime."

  "No one knows that a crime has been committed," the reporter hastened to say. "There is something far beyond the ordinary in this affair. A woman has disappeared, evaporated into thin air in the hearing, almost in sight, of her friends. The police can make nothing of it. It is a problem for a greater mind than theirs."

  Professor Van Dusen waved the newspaper man to a seat, and himself sank back into a great cushioned chair in which his diminutive figure seemed even more child-like than it really was.

  "Tell me the story," he said petulantly. "All of it."

  "Miss Wallack is thirty years old, and beautiful," the reporter began. "As an actress she has won recognition not only in this country, but in England. You may have read something of her in the daily papers, and if ——"

  "I never read the papers," the other interrupted curtly. "Go on."

  "She is unmarried, and so far as anyone knows, had no immediate intention of changing her condition," Hatch resumed, staring curiously at the thin face of the scientist. "I presume she had admirers — most beautiful women of the stage have — but she is one whose life has been perfectly good, whose record is an open book. I tell you this because it might have a bearing on your conclusion as to a possible reason for her disappearance.

  "Now for the actual circumstances of that disappearance. Miss Wallack has been playing in Shakespearean repertoire. Last week she was in Springfield. On Saturday night, which concluded her engagement there, she appeared as Rosalind in As You Like It. The house was crowded. She played the first two acts amid great enthusiasm, and this despite the fact that she was suffering intensely from headache, to which she was subject at times. After the second act she returned to her dressing-room, and just before the curtain went up for the third the stage-manager called her. She replied that she would be out immediately. There seems no possible shadow of a doubt but that it was her voice.

  "Rosalind does not appear in the third act until the curtain has been up for six minutes. When Miss Wallack's cue came she did not answer it. The stage-manager rushed to her door and again called her. There was no answer. Then, fearing that she might have fainted, he went in. She was not there. A hurried search was made without result, and the stage-manager finally was compelled to announce to the audience that the sudden illness of the star would make it impossible to finish the performance.

  "The curtain was lowered, and the search resumed. Every nook and corner back of the footlights was gone over. The stage-door keeper, William Meegan, had seen no one go out. He and a policeman had been standing at the stage-door talking for at least twenty minutes. It is, therefore, conclusive that Miss Wallack did not leave by the stage-door. The only other way it was possible to leave the stage was over the footlights. Of course she didn't go that way. Yet no trace of her has been found. Where is she?"

  "The windows?" asked The Thinking Machine.

  "The stage is below street level," Hatch explained. "The window of her dressing-room, room A, is small, and barred with iron. It opens into an air shaft that goes straight up for ten feet, and that is covered with an iron grating fixed in the granite. The other windows on the stage are not only inaccessible, but are also barred with iron. She could not have approached either of these windows without being seen by other members of the company or the stage hands."

  "Under the stage?" suggested the scientist.

  "Nothing," the reporter went on. "It is a large cemented basement, which was vacant. It was searched, because there was, of course, a chance that Miss Wallack might have become temporarily unbalanced, and wandered down there. There was even a search made of the 'flies' — that is, the galleries over the stage, where the men who work the drop-curtains are stationed."

  "How was Miss Wallack dressed at the time of her disappearance?"

  "In doublet and hose — that is, tights," the newspaper man responded. "She wears that costume for the second act until practically the end of the play."

  "Was all her street clothing in her room?"

  "Yes, everything, spread across an unopened trunk of costumes. It was all as if she had left the room to answer her cue — all in order, even to an open box of chocolate-cream on her table."

  "No sign of a struggle, nor any noise heard?"


  "Nor trace of blood?"


  "Her maid? Did she have one?"

  "Oh, yes. I neglected to tell you that the maid, Gertrude Manning, had gone home immediately after the first act. She grew suddenly ill, and was excused."

  The Thinking Machine turned his squint eyes on the reporter for the first time.

  "Ill?" he repeated. "What was the matter?"

  "That I can't say," replied the reporter.

  "Where is she now?"

  "I don't know. Everyone forgot all about her in the excitement about Miss Wallack."

  "What kind of chocolate-cream was it?"

  "I'm afraid I don't know that either."

  "Where was it bought?"

  The reporter shrugged his shoulders; that was something else he didn't know. The Thinking Machine shot out the questions aggressively, staring meanwhile steadily at Hatch, who squirmed uncomfortably.

  "Where is the chocolate now?" demanded the scientist; and again Hatch shrugged his shoulders.

  "How much did Miss Wallack weigh?"

  The reporter was willing to guess at this. He had seen her half a dozen times.

  "Between a hundred and thirty and a hundred and forty," he ventured.

  "Does there happen to be a hypnotist connected with the company?"

  "I don't know," Hatch replied.

  The Thinking Machine waved his slender hands impatiently; he was annoyed.

  "It is perfectly absurd, Mr. Hatch," he expostulated, "to come to me with only a few facts, and ask advice. If you had all the facts I might be able to do something, but this ——"

  The newspaper man was nettled. In his own profession he was accredited a man of discernment and acumen. He resented the tone, the manner, even the seemingly trivial questions which the other asked.

  "I don't see," he began, "that the chocolate, even if it had been poisoned, as I imagine you think possible, or a hypnotist, could have had anything to do with Miss Wallack's disappearance. Certainly neither poison nor hypnotism would have made her invisible."

  "Of course you don't see," blazed The Thinking Machine. "If you did you wouldn't have come to me. When did this thing happen?"

  "Saturday night, as I said," the reporter informed him a little more humbly. "It closed the engagement in Springfield. Miss Wallack was to have appeared here in Boston to-night."

  "When did she disappear — by the clock, I mean?"

  "Oh," said the reporter. "The stage-manager's time-slip shows that the curtain for the third act went up at 9.41 — he spoke to her, say, one minute before, or at 9.40. The action of the play before she appears in the third act takes six minutes, therefore ——"

  "In precisely seven minutes a woman, weighing more than 130 pounds, certainly not dressed for the street, disappeared completely from her dressing-room. It is now 5.18 Monday afternoon. I think we may solve this crime within a few hours."

  "Crime?" Hatch repeated eagerly. "Do you imagine there is a crime then?"

  Professor Van Dusen did not heed the question. Instead he rose and paced back and forth across the reception-room half a dozen times, his hands behind his back, and his eyes cast down. At last he stopped and faced the reporter, who had also risen.

  "Miss Wallack's company, I presume, with the baggage, is now in Boston," he said. "See every male member of the company, talk to them, and particularly study their eyes. Don't overlook anyone, however humble. Also find out what became of the box of chocolate, and if possible how many pieces are out of it. Then report here to me. Miss Wallack's safety may depend upon your speed and accuracy."

  Hatch was frankly startled.

  "How ——" he began.

  "Don't stop to talk — hurry," commanded The Thinking Machine. "I will have a cab waiting when you come back. We must get to Springfield."

  The newspaper man rushed away to obey orders. He did not understand them at all. Studying men's eyes was not in his line, but he obeyed nevertheless. An hour and a half later he returned, to be thrust unceremoniously into a waiting cab by The Thinking Man. The cab rattled away toward South Station, where the two men caught a train, just about to move out for Springfield. Once settled in their seats, the scientist turned to Hatch, who was nearly suffocating with suppressed information.

  "Well?" he asked.

  "I found out several things," the reporter burst out. "First, Miss Wallack's leading man, Langdon Mason, who has been in love with her for three years, bought the chocolate at Schuyler's in Springfield, early Saturday evening, before he went to the theatre. He told me so himself, rather reluctantly, but I — I made him say it."

  "Ah!" exclaimed The Thinking Machine. It was a most unequivocal ejaculation. "How many pieces are out of the box?"

  "Only three," explained Hatch. "Miss Wallack's things were packed into the open trunk in her dressing-room, the chocolate with them. I induced the manager ——"

  "Yes, yes, yes," interrupted The Thinking Machine impatiently. "What sort of eyes has Mason? What colour?"

  "Blue, frank in expression, nothing unusual at all," said the reporter.

  "And the others?"

  "I didn't quite know what you meant by studying their eyes, so I got a set of photographs. I thought perhaps they might help."

  "Excellent! Excellent!" commented The Thinking Machine. He shuffled the pictures through his fingers, stopping now and then to study one and to read the name printed below.

  "Is that the leading man?" he asked at last, and handed one to Hatch.


  Professor Van Dusen did not speak again. The train pulled up at Springfield at 9.20. Hatch followed the scientist out of the station and, without a word, into a cab.

  "Schuyler's shop," commanded The Thinking Machine. "Hurry."

  The cab rushed off through the night. Ten minutes later it stopped before a brilliantly lighted confectionery shop. The Thinking Machine led the way inside, and approached the girl behind the chocolate counter.

  "Will you please tell me if you remember this man's face?" he asked as he produced Mason's photograph.

  "Oh, yes, I remember him," the girl replied. "He's an actor."

  "Did he buy a small box of chocolates of you early on Saturday evening?" was the next question.

  "Yes. I recall it because he seemed to be in a hurry — in fact, I believe he said he was anxious to get to the theatre to pack."

  "And do you recall that this man ever bought chocolates here?" asked the scientist. He produced another photograph, and handed it to the girl. She studied it a moment, while Hatch craned his neck, vainly, to see.

  "I don't recall that he ever did," the girl answered finally.

  The Thinking Machine turned away abruptly and disappeared into a public telephone booth. He remained there for five minutes, then rushed out to the cab again, with Hatch following closely.

  "City Hospital," he commanded.

  Again the cab dashed away. Hatch was dumb; there seemed to be nothing to say. The Thinking Machine was plainly pursuing some definite line of inquiry, yet the reporter did not know what. The case was getting kaleidoscopic. This impression was strengthened when he found himself standing beside The Thinking Machine in City Hospital conversing with the House Surgeon, Dr. Carlton.

  "Is there a Miss Gertrude Manning here?" was the scientist's first question.

  "Yes," replied the surgeon. "She was brought here Saturday night suffering from ——"

  "Strychnine poisoning, yes, I know," interrupted the other. "Picked up in the street, probably. I am a physician. If she is well enough I should like to ask her a couple of questions."

  Dr. Carlton agreed, and Professor Van Dusen, still followed faithfully by Hatch, was ushered into the ward where Miss Wallack's maid lay pallid and weak. The Thinking Machine picked up her hand, and his slender finger rested for a minute on her pulse. He nodded as if satisfied.

  "Miss Manning, can you understand me?" he asked.

  The girl nodded weakly.

  "How many pieces of chocolate did you eat?"

  "Two," she replied. She stared into the face above her with dull eyes.

  Did Miss Wallack eat any of it up to the time you left the theatre?"


  If The Thinking Machine had been in a hurry previously he was racing now. Hatch trailed on dutifully behind, down the stairs and into the cab, whence Professor Van Dusen shouted a word of thanks to Dr. Carlton. This time their destination was the stage-door of the theatre from which Miss Wallack had disappeared.

  The reporter was muddled. He did not know anything very clearly except that three pieces of chocolate were missing from the box. Of these the maid had eaten only two. She had been poisoned. Therefore it seemed reasonable to suppose that if Miss Wallack had eaten the third piece she also would be poisoned. But poison would not make her invisible. At this point the reporter shook his head hopelessly.

  William Meegan, the stage-door keeper, was easily found.

  "Can you inform me, please," began The Thinking Machine, "if Mr. Mason left a box of chocolate with you last Saturday night for Miss Wallack?"

  "Yes," Meegan replied good-naturedly. He was amused at the little man. "Miss Wallack hadn't arrived. Mason brought a box of chocolates for her nearly every night, and usually left it here. I put the one Saturday night on the shelf here."

  "Did Mr. Mason come to the theatre before or after the others on Saturday night?"

  "Before," replied Meegan. "He was unusually early, presumably to pack."

  "And the other members of the company coming in stop here, I imagine, to get their letters?" and the scientist squinted up at the correspondence box above the shelf.


  The Thinking Machine drew a long breath. Up to this time there had been little perplexed wrinkles in his brow. Now they disappeared.

  "Now, please," he went on, "was any package or box of any kind taken from the stage on Saturday night between nine and eleven o'clock?"

  "No," said Meegan, positively. "Nothing at all until the company's baggage was removed at midnight."

  "Miss Wallack had two trunks in her dressing room?"

  "Yes. Two whacking big ones, too."

  "How do you know?"

  "Because I helped put 'em in, and helped take 'em out," replied Meegan sharply. "What's it to you?"

  Suddenly The Thinking Machine turned and ran out to the cab, with Hatch, his shadow, close behind.

  "Drive, drive as fast as you know how to the nearest long distance telephone," the scientist instructed the cabby. "A woman's life is at stake.

+ = + = +

  Half an hour later Professor Van Dusen and Hutchinson Hatch were on a train rushing back to Boston. The Thinking Machine had been in the telephone booth for fifteen minutes. When he came out Hatch had asked several questions, to which the scientist vouchsafed no answer. They were perhaps thirty minutes out of Springfield before the scientist showed any disposition to talk. Then he began, without preliminary, much as if he were resuming a former conversation.

  "Of course if Miss Wallack didn't leave the stage at the theatre she was there," he said. "We will admit that she did not become invisible. The problem therefore was to find her on the stage. The fact that no violence was used against her was conclusively proven by half a dozen instances. No one heard her scream, there was no struggle, no trace of blood. Ergo, we assume in the beginning that she must have consented to the first steps which led to her disappearance. Remember her attire was wholly unsuited to the street.

  "Now let's shape a hypothesis which will fit all the circumstances. Miss Wallack has a severe headache. Hypnotic influence will cure headaches. Was there a hypnotist to whom Miss Wallack would have submitted herself? Assume there was. Then would that hypnotist take advantage of his control to place her in a cataleptic condition? Assume a motive, and he would. Then, how would he dispose of her?

  "From this point questions radiate in all directions. We will confine ourselves to the probable, granting for the moment that this hypothesis — the only one which fits all the circumstances — is correct. Obviously a hypnotist would not have attempted to get her out of the dressing-room. What remains? One of the two trunks in her room."

  Hatch gasped.

  "You mean you think it possible that she was hypnotised and placed in that second truck, the one that was strapped and locked?" he asked.

  "It's the only thing that could have happened," said The Thinking Machine emphatically, "therefore that is just what did happen."

  "Why, it's horrible," exclaimed Hatch. "A live woman in a trunk for forty-eight hours? Even if she were alive then, she must be dead now."

  The reporter shuddered a little, and gazed curiously at the inscrutable face of his companion. He saw no pity, no horror there; there was merely the reflection of brain workings.

  "It does not necessarily follow that she is dead," explained The Thinking Machine. "If she ate that third piece of chocolate before she was hypnotised she is probably dead. If it were placed in her mouth after she was in a cataleptic condition the chances are that she is not dead. The chocolate would not melt, and her system could not absorb the poison."

  "But she would be suffocated — her bones would be broken by the rough handling of the trunk — there are a hundred possibilities," the reporter suggested.

  "A person in a cataleptic condition is singularly impervious to injury," replied the scientist. "There is, of course, a chance of suffocation, but a great deal of air may enter a trunk."

  "And the chocolate?" Hatch asked.

  "Yes, the chocolate. We know that two pieces of chocolate nearly killed the maid. Yet Mr. Mason admitted having bought it. This admission indicated that this poisoned chocolate is not the chocolate he bought. Is Mr. Mason a hypnotist? No. He hasn't the eyes. His picture tells me that. We know that Mr. Mason did buy chocolate for Miss Wallack on several occasions. We know that sometimes he left it with the stage-door keeper. We know that members of the company stopped there for their letters. We instantly see that it was possible for one to take away that box and substitute poisoned chocolate.

  "Madness and the cunning of madness lie at the back of all this. It was a deliberate attempt to murder Miss Wallack, due, perhaps, to unrequited or hopeless infatuation. It began with the poisoned chocolate, and that failing, went to a point immediately following the moment when the stage-manager last spoke to the actress. The hypnotist was probably in her room then."

  "Is Miss Wallack still in the trunk?" Hatch asked at last.

  "No," replied The Thinking Machine. "She is out now, dead or alive — I am inclined to believe alive."

  "And the man?"

  "I will turn him over to the police in half an hour after we reach Boston."

  From South Station the scientist and Hatch were driven immediately to the police headquarters. Detective Mallory, whom Hatch knew well, received them.

  "We got your 'phone from Springfield," he began.

  "Was she dead?" interrupted the scientist.

  "No," Mallory replied. "She was unconscious when we took her out of the trunk, but no bones were broken. She is badly bruised. The doctor says she's hypnotised."

  "Was the piece of chocolate taken from her mouth?"

  "Yes, a chocolate-cream. It hadn't melted."

  "I'll come back here in a few minutes and awake her," said The Thinking Machine. "Come with us now, and get the man."

  Wonderingly the detective entered the cab, and the three were driven to a big hotel a dozen streets away. Before they entered The Thinking Machine handed a photograph to Mallory, who studied it under an electric light.

  "That man is upstairs with several others," explained the scientist. "Pick him out, and get behind him when we enter the room. He may attempt to shoot. Don't touch him until I say so."

  In a large room on the fifth floor manager Stanfield had assembled the Irene Wallack company. There were no preliminaries when Professor Van Dusen entered. He squinted comprehensively about him, then went straight to Langdon Mason, staring deeply into his eyes for a moment.

  "Were you on the stage in the third act of your play before Miss Wallack was to appear — I mean the play last Saturday night?" he asked.

  "I was," Mason replied, "for at least three minutes."

  "Mr. Stanfield, is that correct?"

  "Yes," replied the manager.

  There was a long tense silence, broken only by the steps of Mallory as he walked toward a distant corner of the room. A faint flush crept into Mason's face as he realised that the questions were almost an accusation. He started to speak, but the steady, impassive voice of The Thinking Machine stopped him.

  "Mr. Mallory, take your prisoner," it said.

  Instantly there was a fierce, frantic struggle, and those present turned to see Detective Mallory with his great arms locked about Stanley Wightman, the melancholy Jacques of As You Like It. By a sudden movement Mallory threw Wightman and manacled his hands, then looked up to find The Thinking Machine peering over his shoulder into the eyes of the prostrate man.

  "Yes; he's a hypnotist," the scientist remarked in self-satisfied conclusion. "It always tells in the pupils of the eyes."

+ = + = +

  Miss Wallack was aroused, told a story almost identical with that of The Thinking Machine, and three months later resumed her tour. And meanwhile Stanley Wightman, whose brooding over a hopeless love for her made a maniac of him, raves and shrieks the lines of Jacques in the seclusion of a padded cell. Mental experts pronounce him incurable.