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The Face and the Mask/A New Explosive


IX. A NEW EXPLOSIVE

The French Minister of War sat in his very comfortable chair in his own private yet official room, and pondered over a letter he had received. Being Minister of War, he was naturally the most mild, the most humane, and least quarrelsome man in the Cabinet. A Minister of War receives many letters that, as a matter of course, he throws into his waste basket, but this particular communication had somehow managed to rivet his attention. When a man becomes Minister of War he learns for the first time that apparently the great majority of mankind are engaged in the manufacture or invention of rifles, gunpowders, and devices of all kinds for the destruction of the rest of the world.

That morning, the Minister of War had received a letter which announced to him that the writer of it had invented an explosive so terrible that all known destructive agencies paled before it. As a Frenchman, he made the first offer of his discovery to the French Government. It would cost the Minister nothing, he said, to make a test which would corroborate his amazing claims for the substance, and the moment that test was made, any intelligent man would recognize the fact that the country which possessed the secret of this destructive compound would at once occupy an unassailable position in a contentious world.

The writer offered personally to convince the Minister of the truth of his assertions, provided they could go to some remote spot where the results of the explosion would do no damage, and where they would be safe from espionage. The writer went on very frankly to say that if the Minister consulted with the agents of the police, they would at once see in this invitation a trap for the probable assassination of the Minister. But the inventor claimed that the Minister's own good sense should show him that his death was desired by none. He was but newly appointed, and had not yet had time to make enemies. France was at peace with all the world, and this happened before the time of the Anarchist demonstrations in Paris. It was but right, the letter went on, that the Minister should have some guarantee as to the bona fides of the inventor. He therefore gave his name and address, and said if the Minister made inquiries from the police, he would find nothing stood in their books against him. He was a student, whose attention, for years, had been given to the subject of explosives. To further show that he was entirely unselfish in this matter, he added that he had no desire to enrich himself by his discovery. He had a private income quite sufficient for his needs, and he intended to give, and not to sell, his secret to France. The only proviso he made was that his name should be linked with this terrible compound, which he maintained would secure universal peace to the world, for, after its qualities were known, no nation would dare to fight with another. The sole ambition of the inventor, said the letter in conclusion, was to place his name high in the list of celebrated French scientists. If, however, the Minister refused to treat with him he would go to other Governments until his invention was taken up, but the Government which secured it would at once occupy the leading position among nations. He entreated the Minister, therefore, for the sake of his country, to make at least one test of the compound.

It was, as I have said, before the time of the Paris explosions, and ministers were not so suspicious then as they are now. The Minister made inquiries regarding the scientist, who lived in a little suburb of Paris, and found that there was nothing against him on the books of the police. Inquiry showed that all he had said about his own private fortune was true. The Minister therefore wrote to the inventor, and named an hour at which he would receive him in his private office.

The hour and the man arrived together. The Minister had had some slight doubts regarding his sanity, but the letter had been so straightforwardly written, and the appearance of the man himself was so kindly and benevolent and intelligent that the doubts of the official vanished.

"I beg you to be seated," said the Minister. "We are entirely alone, and nothing you say will be heard by any one but myself."

"I thank you, Monsieur le Ministre," replied the inventor, "for this mark of confidence; for I am afraid the claims I made in the letter were so extraordinary that you might well have hesitated about granting me an interview."

The Minister smiled. "I understand," he said, "the enthusiasm of an inventor for his latest triumph, and I was enabled thus to take, as it were, some discount from your statements, although I doubt not that you have discovered something that may be of benefit to the War Department."

The inventor hesitated, looking seriously at the great official before him.

"From what you say," he began at last, "I am rather afraid that my letter misled you, for, fearing it would not be credited I was obliged to make my claims so mild that I erred in under-estimating rather than in over-stating them. I have the explosive here in my pocket."

"Ah!" cried the Minister, a shade of pallor coming over his countenance, as he pushed back his chair. "I thought I stated in my note that you were not to bring it."

"Forgive me for not obeying. It is perfectly harmless while in this state. This is one of the peculiarities—a beneficent peculiarity if I may so term it—of this terrible agent. It may be handled with perfect safety, and yet its effects are as inevitable as death," saying which, he took out of his pocket and held up to the light a bottle filled with a clear colorless liquid like water.

"You could pour that on the fire," he said, "with no other effect than to put out the blaze. You might place it under a steam hammer and crush the bottle to powder, yet no explosion would follow. It is as harmless as water in its present condition."

"How, then," said the Minister, "do you deal with it?"

Again the man hesitated.

"I am almost afraid to tell you," he said; "and if I could not demonstrate to your entire satisfaction that what I say is true, it would be folly for me to say what I am about to say. If I were to take this bottle and cut a notch in the cork, and walk with it neck downwards along the Boulevard des Italiens, allowing this fluid to fall drop by drop on the pavement, I could walk in that way in safety through every street in Paris. If it rained that day nothing would happen. If it rained the next or for a week nothing would happen, but the moment the sun came out and dried the moisture, the light step of a cat on any pavement over which I had passed would instantly shatter to ruins the whole of Paris."

"Impossible!" cried the Minister, an expression of horror coming into his face.

"I knew you would say that. Therefore I ask you to come with me to the country, where I can prove the truth of what I allege. While I carry this bottle around with me in this apparently careless fashion, it is corked, as you see with the utmost security. Not a drop of the fluid must be left on the outside of the cork or of the bottle. I have wiped the bottle and cork most thoroughly, and burned the cloth which I used in doing so. Fire will not cause this compound, even when dry, to explode, but the slightest touch will set it off. I have to be extremely careful in its manufacture, so that not a single drop is left unaccounted for in any place where it might evaporate."

The Minister, with his finger-tips together and his eyes on the ceiling, mused for a few moments on the amazing statement he had heard.

"If what you say is true," he began at last, "don't you think it would be more humane to destroy all traces of the experiments by which you discovered this substance, and to divulge the secret to no one? The devastation such a thing would cause, if it fell into unscrupulous hands, is too appalling even to contemplate."

"I have thought of that," said the inventor; "but some one else—the time may be far off or it may be near—is bound to make the discovery. My whole ambition, as I told you in my letter, is to have my name coupled with this discovery. I wish it to be known as the Lambelle Explosive. The secret would be safe with the French Government."

"I am not so sure of that," returned the Minister. "Some unscrupulous man may become Minister of War, and may use his knowledge to put himself in the position of Dictator. An unscrupulous man in the possession of such a secret would be invincible."

"What you say," replied the inventor, "is undoubtedly true; yet I am determined that the name of Lambelle shall go down in history coupled with the most destructive agent the world has ever known, or will know. If the Government of France will build for me a large stone structure as secure as a fortress, I will keep my secret, but will fill that building with bottles like this, and then——"

"I do not see," said the Minister, "that that would lessen the danger, if the unscrupulous man I speak of once became possessed of the keys; and, besides, the mere fact that such a secret existed would put other inventors upon the track, and some one else less benevolent than yourself would undoubtedly make the discovery. You admitted a moment ago that the chances were a future investigator would succeed in getting the right ingredients together, even without the knowledge that such an explosive existed. See what an incentive it would be to inventors all over the world, if it were known that France had in its possession such a fearful explosive! No Government has ever yet been successful in keeping the secret of either a gun or a gunpowder."

"There is, of course," said Lambelle, "much in what you say; but, equally of course, all that you say might have been said to the inventor of gunpowder, for gunpowder in its day was as wonderful as this is now."

Suddenly the Minister laughed aloud.

"I am talking seriously with you on this subject," he exclaimed, "as if I really believed in it. Of course, I may say I do nothing of the kind. I think you must have hypnotized me with those calm eyes of yours into crediting your statements for even a few moments."

"All that I say," said the inventor quietly, "can be corroborated to-morrow. Make an appointment with me in the country, and if it chances to be a calm and sunny day you will no longer doubt the evidence of your own eyes."

"Where do you wish the experiment to be made?" asked the Minister.

"It must be in some wild and desolate region, on a hill-top for preference. There should be either trees or old buildings there that we can destroy, otherwise the full effects can hardly be estimated."

"I have a place in the country," said the Minister, "which is wild and desolate and unprofitable enough. There are some useless stone buildings, not on a hill-top, but by the edge of a quarry which has been unworked for many years. There is no habitation for several miles around. Would such a spot be suitable?"

"Perfectly so. When would it be convenient for you to go?"

"I will leave with you to-night," said the Minister, "and we can spend the day to-morrow experimenting."

"Very well," answered Lambelle, rising when the Minister had told him the hour and the railway station at which they should meet.

That evening, when the Minister drove to the railway station in time for his train, he found Lambelle waiting for him, holding, by a leash, two sorry-looking dogs.

"Do you travel with such animals as these?" asked the Minister.

"The poor brutes," said Lambelle, with regret in his voice, "are necessary for our experiments. They will be in atoms by this time to- morrow."

The dogs were put into the railway-van, and the inventor brought his portmanteau with him into the private carriage reserved for the use of the Minister.

The place, as the Minister of War had said, was desolate enough. The stone buildings near the edge of the deserted quarry were stout and strong, although partly in ruins.

"I have here with me in my portmanteau," said Lambelle, "some hundreds of metres of electric wire. I will attach one of the dogs by this clip, which we can release from a distance by pressing an electric button. The moment the dog escapes he will undoubtedly explode the compound."

The insulated wire was run along the ground to a distant elevation. The dog was attached by the electric clip, and chained to a doorpost of one of the buildings. Lambelle then carefully uncorked his bottle, holding it at arm's length from his person. The Minister looked on with strange interest as Lambelle allowed the fluid to drip in a semicircular line around the chained dog. The inventor carefully re-corked the bottle, wiped it thoroughly with a cloth he had with him, and threw the cloth into one of the deserted houses.

They waited near, until the spots caused by the fluid on the stone pavement in front of the house had disappeared.

"By the time we reach the hill," said Lambelle, "it will be quite dry in this hot sun."

As they departed towards the elevation, the forlorn dog howled mournfully, as if in premonition of his fate.

"I think, to make sure," said the inventor, when they reached the electrical apparatus, "that we might wait for half an hour."

The Minister lit a cigarette, and smoked silently, a strange battle going on in his mind. He found himself believing in the extraordinary claims made by the inventor, and his thought dwelt on the awful possibilities of such an explosive.

"Will you press the electric lever?" asked Lambelle quietly. "Remember that you are inaugurating a new era."

The Minister pressed down the key, and then, putting his field-glass to his eye, he saw that the dog was released, but the animal sat there scratching its ear with its paw. Then, realizing that it was loose, it sniffed for a moment at the chain. Finally, it threw up its head and barked, although the distance was too great for them to hear any sound. The dog started in the direction the two men had gone, but, before it had taken three steps, the Minister was appalled to see the buildings suddenly crumble into dust, and a few moments later the thunder of the rocks falling into the deserted quarry came toward them. The whole ledge had been flung forwards into the chasm. There was no smoke, but a haze of dust hovered over the spot.

"My God!" cried the Minister. "That is awful!"

"Yes," said Lambelle quietly; "I put more of the substance on the flagging than I need to have done. A few drops would have answered quite as well, but I wanted to make sure. You were very sceptical, you know."

The Minister looked at him. "I beg of you, M. Lambelle, never to divulge this secret to the Government of France, or to any other power. Take the risk of it being discovered in the future. I implore you to reconsider your original intention. If you desire money, I will see that you get what you want from the secret funds."

Lambelle shrugged his shoulders.

"I have no desire for money," he said; "but what you have seen will show you that I shall be the most famous scientist of the century. The name of Lambelle will be known till the end of the world."

"But, my God, man!" said the Minister, "the end of the world is here the moment your secret is in the possession of another. With you or me it would be safe: but who can tell the minds of those who may follow us? You are putting the power of the Almighty into the hands of a man."

Lambelle flushed with pride as the pale-faced Minister said this.

"You speak the truth!" he cried, "it is the power of Omnipotence."

"Then," implored the Minister, "reconsider your decision."

"I have labored too long," said Lambelle, "to forego my triumph now. You are convinced at last, I see. Now then, tell me: will you, as Minister of France, secure for your country this greatest of all inventions?"

"Yes," answered the Minister; "no other power must be allowed to obtain the secret. Have you ever written down the names of the ingredients?"

"Never," answered Lambelle.

"Is it not possible for any one to have suspected what your experiments were? If a man got into your laboratory—a scientific man—could he not, from what he saw there, obtain the secret?"

"It would be impossible," said Lambelle. "I have been too anxious to keep the credit for myself, to leave any traces that might give a hint of what I was doing."

"You were wise in that," said the Minister, drawing a deep breath. "Now let us go and look at the ruins."

As they neared the spot the official's astonishment at the extraordinary destruction became greater and greater. The rock had been rent as if by an earthquake, to the distance of hundreds of yards.

"You say," said the Minister, "that the liquid is perfectly safe until evaporation takes place."

"Perfectly," answered Lambelle. "Of course one has to be careful, as I told you, in the use of it. You must not get a drop on your clothes, or leave it anywhere on the outside of the bottle to evaporate."

"Let me see the stuff."

Lambelle handed him the bottle.

"Have you any more of this in your laboratory?"

"Not a drop."

"If you wished to destroy this, how would you do it?"

"I should empty the bottle into the Seine. It would flow down to the sea, and no harm would be done."

"See if you can find any traces of the dog," said the Minister. "I will clamber down into the quarry, and look there."

"You will find nothing," said Lambelle confidently.

There was but one path by which the bottom of the quarry could be reached. The Minister descended by this until he was out of sight of the man above; then he quickly uncorked the bottle, and allowed the fluid to drip along the narrowest part of the path which faced the burning sun. He corked the bottle, wiped it carefully with his handkerchief, which he rolled into a ball, and threw into the quarry. Coming up to the surface again, he said to the mild and benevolent scientist: "I cannot find a trace of the dog."

"Nor can I," said Lambelle. "Of course when you can hardly find a sign of the building it is not to be expected that there should be any remnants of the dog."

"Suppose we get back to the hill now and have lunch," said the Minister.

"Do you wish to try another experiment?"

"I would like to try one more after we have had something to eat. What would be the effect if you poured the whole bottleful into the quarry and set it off?"

"Oh, impossible!" cried Lambelle. "It would rend this whole part of the country to pieces. In fact, I am not sure that the shock would not be felt as far as Paris. With a very few drops I can shatter the whole quarry."

"Well, we'll try that after lunch. We have another dog left."

When an hour had passed, Lambelle was anxious to try his quarry experiment.

"By-and-by," he said, "the sun will not be shining in the quarry, and then it will be too late."

"We can easily wait until to-morrow, unless you are in a hurry."

"I am in no hurry," rejoined the inventor. "I thought perhaps you might be, with so much to do."

"No," replied the official. "Nothing I shall do during my administration will be more important than this."

"I am glad to hear you say so," answered Lambelle; "and if you will give me the bottle again I will now place a few drops in the sunny part of the quarry."

The Minister handed him the bottle, apparently with some reluctance.

"I still think," he said, "that it would be much better to allow this secret to die. No one knows it at present but yourself. With you, as I have said, it will be safe, or with me; but think of the awful possibilities of a disclosure."

"Every great invention has its risks," said Lambelle firmly. "Nothing would induce me to forego the fruits of my life-work. It is too much to ask of any man."

"Very well," said the Minister. "Then let us be sure of our facts. I want to see the effects of the explosive on the quarry."

"You shall," said Lambelle, as he departed.

"I will wait for you here," said the Minister, "and smoke a cigarette."

When the inventor approached the quarry, leading the dog behind him, the Minister's hand trembled so that he was hardly able to hold the field-glass to his eye. Lambelle disappeared down the path. The next instant the ground trembled even where the Minister sat, and a haze of dust arose above the ruined quarry.

Some moments after the pallid Minister looked over the work of destruction, but no trace of humanity was there except himself.

"I could not do otherwise," he murmured, "It was too great a risk to run."