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ANONYMOUS

A MODERN ALCHEMIST

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RGL e-Book Cover 2017



First published in Answers, the Amalgamated Press, London, Jan 25, 1909
Reprinted under syndication, e.g. in
Manawatu Times, New Zealand, March 3, 1909 (this version)

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-02-09
Produced by Roy Glashan

The text of this book is in the public domain in Australia.
All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

Click here for more Sexton Blake stories



I.

MR. JERVIS returned from Leeds on Monday afternoon, and on Monday night he sent off twenty copies of the following advertisement, which duly appeared in as many London and provincial newspapers on Wednesday morning:—


JOHN WELFORD.—Twenty pounds will be paid for the present address, if living, or proof of death, if dead, of John Welford, who was born at Leeds in 1882; and whose father, William Welford, emigrated to New South Wales in 1883. Apply, Jervis and Co., Solicitors, Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, W.C.


When Mr. Jervis reached his office on Wednesday morning he found a telegram awaiting him. It had been, "handed in" at the Commercial Road Post Office, Milltown, at 9.35 a.m., and ran as follows:


JUST SEEN YOUR ADVERTISEMENT. I AM THE JOHN WELFORD REFERRED TO. MY PRESENT ADDRESS IS 27, BRIDGE STREET, MILLTOWN.— JOHN WELFORD.


As the case was an important one, involving a sum of over 70,000, Mr. Jervis decided not to write to Welford, but to go and see him. Two hours later, accordingly, he was on his way to Milltown.

Bridge Street proved to be a narrow back street leading out of Commercial Road.

"Does Mr. Welford live here!" asked Mr. Jervis of the elderly woman who opened the door of No. 27 in answer to his knock, and whose name, he afterwards learned, was Mrs. Barr.

"He lodges here," corrected Mrs. Barr; "but he isn't in at present, and he won't be in before seven o'clock."

Mr. Jervis had foreseen the possibility of having to spend the night in Milltown, and had brought a hastily-packed portmanteau with him. He drove to the Royal Hotel, engaged a bedroom, and returned to Bridge Street about half-past seven.

Welford had not yet returned. Whilst waiting for him, Mr. Jervis took advantage of the opportunity to question Mrs. Barr about her lodger.

"He's a very nice, steady young fellow," she said, "but I can't tell you much about him, as he's only been lodging here a little over a fortnight.

"Where did he lodge before he came here?"

"I don't know; but it wasn't in Milltown."

"How do you know?"

"I had advertised for a lodger, and he answered the advertisement. When he came he said he was a stranger to Milltown, and had only arrived that morning. He said he had seen my advertisement in The Post, and that was why he had come to me."

"Had he any luggage with him?"

"One bag and a small tin trunk."

"Then Mr. Welford isn't what—er—you might call well off?".

"He's very poor, I should say; though he paid me a month in advance, like a gentleman."

"Did he say why he had come to Milltown?"

"Yes, He said he had got employment in the town."

"Of what kind?"

"I don't know. When I asked him, he laughed, and said that his employer was an eccentric old gentleman, who had made his swear that he wouldn't tell anybody in Milltown who his employer was or what his work was."

"And do you mean to say that Welford has been lodging here for over a fortnight and you don't know what his employment is?"

"It's a fact! All I know is that he leaves here every morning at half-past nine, and comes back for supper about seven o'clock, Why he is so late tonight I can't imagine."

"He left here this morning, as usual, at half-past nine."

"Yes," said Mrs. Barr. "But he'll be in directly, no doubt, and then he'll be able to tell you all you want to know."

But Mrs. Barr was mistaken. Welford was not "in directly." As a matter of fact, he had not returned when Mr. Jervis left at ten o'clock, and he had not returned when Mr. Jervis called again at nine o'clock oh Thursday morning.

As the day wore on, and there was still no sign of Welford's return, Mr. Jervis became alarmed. Eventually, he communicated with the police, but this was of little use, for at the end of forty-eight hours they had not only failed to solve the mystery of Welford's disappearance, but they had equally failed to discover what his employment was.


II.

AND so, on Saturday afternoon, Mr. Jervis wired for Sexton Blake. Mr. Jervis met Sexton Blake at the station, and, as they drove to Bridge Street, the lawyer explained to the detective how and why he was interested in the case.

"About ten days ago," he said, "I received a letter from a firm of solicitors in Sydney, for whom I have acted before, informing me that one of their clients, named William Welford, had died intestate, leaving a fortune of over seventy thousand pounds. From papers found in his house after his death, they said, it appeared that he was a native of Leeds, and had emigrated to Australia in 1883. They requested me, therefore, to make enquiries in Leeds, and ascertain if he had any relatives who were entitled to the money.

"I went down to Leeds," he continued, "and, with much trouble, discovered these facts: William Welford married in 1881, and in 1882 his wife presented him with a son, who was christened John. She died a few weeks later; and in 1883 Welford emigrated to Australia, leaving his baby-son in the charge of an aged couple named Dudley. He promised to send them money from time to time to pay for the upbringing of the child, but he never did so. In fact, after he left Leeds, nothing more was heard of him by Mr. and Mrs. Dudley.

"I further ascertained," he went on, "that the Dudleys left Leeds in 1887, taking Welford's son with them. But nobody knew where they went, or whether they were now alive or dead. Consequently, on my return to London last Monday, I sent out this advertisement, which appeared in all the leading London and provincial papers on Wednesday morning."

When Sexton Blake had read the advertisement Mr. Jervis showed him Welford's telegram, and told him of his interview with Mrs. Barr, and his subsequent interview with the local police.

"So that's how the matter stands at present," he concluded. "John Welford is evidently William Welford's son, and, as such, the legal heir to his father's money. We know that he left Leeds, in 1887, with the Dudleys; but from that date until three weeks ago his history is a blank. All we know is that he came to lodge with Mrs. Barr three weeks ago; that he told her he had obtained employment in the town with an eccentric old gentleman, who had made him swear that he would not divulge the nature of his employment; and that every day he left, has lodgings at half-past nine in the morning, and returned at seven o'clock in the evening."

Mr. Jervis had scarcely finished speaking when the hansom drew up at 27, Bridge Street. Here the detective questioned and cross-questioned Mrs. Barr, without, however, eliciting any more information than she had already given to Mr. Jervis and the police. He then requested her to show him the room—a combined bedroom and sitting-room—which Welford had occupied. For a time his examination yielded no result, Presently, however, the detective made a discovery which appeared to afford him the liveliest satisfaction.

Hanging behind the door was a shabby tweed jacket. On the front of it were several stains, and on one of the sleeves was a daub of green paint. In one of the side-pockets was a match-box containing a few wax vestas. In the ticket-pocket were four old tramway tickets.

"Here are three invaluable clues," said Sexton Blake, as he laid the coat, the matchbox, and the tickets on the table. "This smudge of paint on the coat-sleeve might possibly prove to be a fourth clue, if only we knew its origin."

"I can tell you all about that," said Mrs. Barr, "When-Mr. Welford came here, three weeks ago, he was wearing that coat, and he wore it every day up to last Tuesday. When he came home last Tuesday, he showed me that daub of paint, and he told me he had accidentally knocked up against a newly-painted lamp-post outside his employer's house."

This information so obviously increased the detective's satisfaction that Mr. Jervis was fain to demand an explanation.

The detective laughed.

"You will agree with me," he said, "that, before we can hope to unravel the mystery of Welford's disappearance, we must first know what his occupation was, and where he went to when he left his lodgings at half-past nine every morning?"

"Of course!"

"Very well," said Sexton Blake. "Let us first deal with the question of where he went to every morning. Here are four old tramway tickets. They are all for the same route—from Commercial Road to Western Park. When you find four old tramway tickets in a man's pocket, all for the same route, it is safe to assume that the man in whose pocket the tickets are found has been a pretty frequent traveller by that route.

"We may, take it as proved, therefore," he continued, "that Welford was in the habit of travelling by the trams which run from Commercial Road to Western Park. Mrs. Barr has told us that he never went out in the evenings after he returned from business. What is the obvious deduction?"

"That Welford used the trams as a means of getting to and from the place where he was employed," said Mr. Jervis. "That is to say, when he left here, he walked as far as Commercial Road, and took a tram from there to Western Park."

"Not necessarily to Western Park. He may not have journeyed all the way to Western Park. He may have alighted from the tram before it reached thu Park."

"He may have done so, but we have no proof that he did."

"Excuse me, we have. Look at our second clue—this matchbox. It bears, as you see, by way of advertisement, the name and address of a tobacconist in Cemetery Road."

The detective turned to Mrs. Barr.

"It is a long time since I was last in Milltown," he said, "but, if I remember rightly, the trams from Commercial Road to Western Park run along Western Road, and Cemetery Road is one of the streets leading out of Western Road, about half a milo on this side of the Park."

"That is so," said Mrs. Barr.

"Well, now," said Sexton Blake, turning to Mr. Jervis again, "if Welford purchased this box of matches, as he evidently did, at a tobacconist's shop in Cemetery Road, it is a fair deduction, I think, that he was in the habit of alighting from the tram before it reached the Park, and turning down Cemetery Road. You agree?"

"Yes."

"Then, in our efforts to find out where Welford went to every morning, we have now traced him as far as Cemetery Road. Can we trace him any farther? I think we can."

He pointed to the smudge of paint on the coat-sleeve.

"Welford told Mrs. Barr on Tuesday night," he said, "that this was due to his having accidentally knocked up against a freshly-painted lamp-post outside his employer's house. If we can find a street or road in the neighborhood of Cemetery Road in which the lamp-posts were newly painted last Tuesday, we shall have found the street in which Welford's employer lives.

"And now for our last clue," he continued, pointing to the stains on the from of the coat.

"This stain is due to iodine. This was been caused by nitric acid, and this, in all probability, by bromide. This smells of ammonia, and this of sulphuretted hydrogen. In a word, all these stains have been caused by chemicals. What is the obvious conclusion? Is it not that Welford's work lay amongst chemicals—in other words, that he was employed in a chemical laboratory?"

The words had scarcely crossed his lips ere Mrs. Barr exclaimed:

"Now I know! I know where he went to! I know who his employer was! Professor Allen, the borough analyst, who is also the professor of chemistry at Milltown College, lives in Junction Road. And Junction Road leads out of Cemetery Road."

"Then we'll pay him a visit," said Sexton Blake to the lawyer, "Come along."


III.

THE lamp-posts in Junction Road had obviously been recently repainted. A policeman informed them that the lamp-posts bad been repainted on the previous Tuesday. He also directed them to the borough analyst's house.

Professor Allen listened to the defective's story with the greatest interest, and also with a twinkle in his eye.

"So," he said, "your clues have led you to the conclusion that I am the eccentric old gentleman who employed Welford and made him swear that he wouldn't reveal the nature of his employment. It is a pity to demolish such an artistically- constructed theory; but, as a matter of fact, I have never seen Welford, and know nothing of him. Moreover, I have no laboratory here, as I do all my work at my office in Commercial Road."

"Then I owe you an apology for troubling you," said Sexton. Blake. "Ail the same, I am none the less convinced that my artistically-constructed theory, as you are pleased to call it, is sound, Welford was undoubtedly employed by somebody who is interested in chemical research, and who lives in this neighborhood. Do you know of anybody answering to that description?"

"Yes. At number ninety-six, over the way, lives poor old Sir Charles Clutton. You remember him, of course? He was once one of our foremost authorities in chemistry.

"For the last five years," he continued, "Sir Charles has been undoubtedly mad, though not mad enough to warrant his being put under restraint. Two years ago he built himself a laboratory at the back of his house, with iron-barred windows, steel-plated doors, burglar-alarms, and all the rest of it; and rumour has it that he spends all his time in trying to discover the Philosopher's Stone and the Elixir of Life."

"A modern alchemist!" said Sexton Blake, with a laugh.

"Exactly. His household consists of himself and an old housekeeper; and regularly, about once a month, he advertises for a confidential assistant, who—But I'll show you one of his advertisements."

A moment later he produced the following advertisement for the detective's inspection:


WANTED. A well-qualified assistant for research work in important chemical investigation. Must be prepared to take oath of secrecy. Liberal salary. Apply by letter only in first instance to Sir Charles Clutton, F.R.S., 96, Junction Road, Milltown.


"To my certain knowledge," said Professor Allen, "he has had ten assistants in the last twelve months, but all of them have left him, after a few weeks' employment, on account of his insane behaviour."

"Thank you! Now we'll go across and interview Sir Charles Clutton," said Sexton Blake.


IV.

SIR CHARLES was not at home. He had left for London on Wednesday night. Such was the information vouchsafed by his housekeeper at No. 96.

"Perhaps you can tell us what we wish to know," said Sexton Blake. "We have called to enquire about a young fellow named Welford. You recognise the name, I see. Am I right in supposing he was Sir Charles' assistant?"

"Yes," replied the housekeeper; "but Sir Charles dismissed him on Wednesday evening, in consequence of a quarrel they had had."

"Do you know what they quarrelled about?"

"I don't. I was out shopping at the time. When I went out, Sir Charles and Mr. Welford were in the laboratory; but when I came back Mr. Welford had gone, the laboratory was locked up and in darkness, and Sir Charles was in his bedroom, packing his portmanteau.

"He was very excited and strange in his manner," she continued. "I asked him why he was packing his bag, and he said he was going up to London to hunt for a new assistant, as Mr. Welford and he had quarrelled, and he had dismissed him on the spot."

"So you didn't actually see Mr. Welford leave?" said Sexton: Blake.

"No."

"Have you ever been into the laboratory since Sir Charles went away?"

"No. In the first place, Sir Charles has the key, and, in the second place, he doesn't allow anybody but himself and his assistant to go into the laboratory."

The detective turned to Mr. Jervis.

"Welford was here on Wednesday evening," he said. "Nobody saw him leave. He and Sir Charles quarrelled, and immediately afterwards Sir Charles departed for London, leaving no address. Nobody has been into the laboratory since. Our course is clear, I think?"

The lawyer nodded. His face was very white.

"We'd better have a policeman," he said.

The policeman whom they had previously questioned was still at the end of the road. He listened to their story, and accompanied them to the laboratory—a prison-like building in a secluded corner of the grounds at the back of the house. And here, on bursting open the door, they found John Welford—not dead, as they had feared—not even seriously injured—but half dead with cold and hunger.

The explanation was simple. Sir Charles, in Welford's words, had been "madder than ever" on Wednesday evening, and, amongst other things, had conceived the idea that Welford was trying to rob him of his precious formula for the manufacture of the Elixir of Life! Angered by Welford's amused denial of this charge, he had struck him a blow which had momentarily stunned him. Then, in a mad fit of terror, fully believing that he had murdered his assistant, he had locked up the laboratory and had fled to London, where he was subsequently discovered, living under an assumed name, in a third-class hotel in Bloomsbury. He is now in an asylum.

The iron-barred windows and the steel-plated door had prevented Welford getting out; whilst the distance of the building from the house had prevented his shouts being heard. He had thus been kept a prisoner, without food and drink, from Wednesday evening until Saturday night. That he would have perished of starvation if it had not been for Sexton Blake admits of little doubt.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.