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  • Writer's pictureWilliam F. Stratton

The Missing Moves

Updated: Jan 1, 2022

By Frank Neilson

Publication name and date unknown.

I shall always believe that if Robert Maxwell had lost his inherited fortune the world would have gained another Edison. His fine residence was full of strange and bewildering electrical devices. His well-equipped laboratory, into which only Dr. Bell and I were allowed to penetrate, was the repository of many secrets that might have enriched the scientific world. But Maxwell chose to keep his secrets for his own amusement.

I formed the acquaintance of this strange, taciturn genius through the mediumship of Dr. Bell, whose only sister, at this time deceased, had been Maxwell’s wife. As an insanity-expert the doctor had been employed by my clients in an important case involving the distribution of a large estate. A strong intimacy resulted from this association which led to my being received by Maxwell as a friend and companion, a privilege accorded to only the doctor and myself. Electricity, chemistry, and chess, these were Maxwell’s three hobbies, and the greatest of these was chess. I have seen him absorbed for hours in the solution or composition of some intricate problem in that game of games. He was a faithful and highly valued correspondent of several chess-publications, and a member of several chess-clubs. I was no novice at the game, but soon found myself no match in the checkered field for the silent, studious Maxwell.

My professional duties had called me, one rainy evening, into the vicinity of Maxwell’s residence. Returning at a late hour, I passed his house. Observing a light in his study, and knowing that he usually kept late hours, I ascended the steps, rang the bell, and was shortly admitted by a sleepy servant. As I stepped Into the dimly lighted hall I heard a struggle, a choking cry, the fall of a heavy body, and a sound of crashing glass. I rushed into the study whence the sounds came, and beheld there a sight I shall never forget. Prone on his face, near the center of the room, bleeding profusely from a wound in the head, lay the master of the house. The shattered window near him showed how the assailant, in his haste, had escaped. Hastily I lifted the almost lifeless victim, administered such aid as I could and hurried one of the aroused frightened servants after Dr. Bell, who lived near, and who quickly arrived. Under his skillful treatment the flow of blood was soon lessened and the peculiar nature of the wound became apparent. The instrument used was evidently a short, heavy sort of Cuban machete which, along with other weapons of war and chase, had adorned the walls of the study, but which now lay blood-stained on the floor. The weapon, wielded by a powerful arm, had actually severed from the skull a large section of the frontal bone without inflicting any apparent injury to the brain, which lay bare and throbbing under our gaze. The severed section lay attached to the face by the skin at the lower part of the forehead and could be thrown to and fro, the skin acting as a hinge. The unusually projecting forehead of the victim made such a wound possible. I heard the doctor murmur, “wonderful, wonderful,” and in answer to my anxious inquiry, he replied: “It is almost a miracle that the brain is not wounded. He has a powerful constitution and may live. There have been several instances of recovery where the brain itself had been badly wounded. I shall call Dr. Herrington. I prefer not assume all the responsibility in such a case.”

To me it was deeply interesting to watch the rapid, deft work of those two veteran surgeons. All parts of the wound were carefully cleansed, and the detached portion of the skull was replaced and skillfully secured, the wounded man tenderly carried to his bed and left to the care of Doctor Harrington, while Dr. Bell and myself endeavored to find some clew to the identity of the intruder. Under the shattered window, and leading from the house to the street, were the tracks of broad, heavy shoes indistinctly imprinted on the rain-soaked lawn. After reaching the street these tracks were lost in the multitude of others. No clew whatever could we find. As to motive, there could be but one — that of robbery. Maxwell always kept a large sum of money in a safe in his laboratory. Distrust of banks was one of his eccentricities. So far as we knew, he had no enemies. The case was turned over to the police. The best detectives were employed. Time sped on, and the mystery remained unsolved. The patient fought a good fight and was well on the road to recovery when I was called to western states on professional business.

When I returned, Dr. Bell, by appointment, met me at the Grand Central depot. “He is convalescent,” the doctor reported, “and practically out of danger physically; but I fear for his mind. He can only remember that he had retired for the night but could not sleep. Some brilliant passage at chess kept running through his mind. He arose, partly dressed himself, wrote the game on a sheet with his new ink and was preparing to impress it on his hectograph. From that moment until he recovered consciousness, after the operation, his mind is a blank. I do not allow him to talk of the affair. I fear he will never fully regain his former strength of mind and body. The shock was too great. No, there is yet no clew; but I shall never give up the search. You will, I know, pardon me if I ask you not to see Robert until I give permission. He often asks for you, but if you met he would insist on playing, and at present any mental strain might prove injurious.”

And so a month had passed when we three again sat in the familiar room. Maxwell was greatly pleased to meet me and seemed in high spirits, but often during that evening a wild, frightened expression flitted across his features, his head would droop, his conversation cease, and his hand would be drawn nervously across the high, white forehead, now so cruelly disfigured. At such times I saw the doctor watching him as anxiously as a mother watches her sick child.

At length I arose to depart, but Maxwell demurred. “I have my heart set on at least one game tonight,” he pleaded.

I glanced inquiringly at the doctor, who smiled and nodded acquiescence. The board with its beautiful ivory-pieces was placed by the doctor. Maxwell took the white and played pawn to king’s fourth. I made the same play. He then played pawn to queen’s fourth and I captured the pawn.

He hesitated a moment, played bishop to queen’s third, and I followed with queen’s knight to bishop’s third. He seemed slightly perplexed at this, studied the board intently for several minutes, passed his hand nervously across his forehead, and then slowly moved his king’s pawn to the square occupied by my king's pawn and removed the latter from the board. As I raised my eyes in astonishment, I saw the doctor regarding him with the intentness of an Apache on the trail, at the same time murmuring to me, “Go on.”

More than ever perplexed, but wishing to see the result, as did evidently the doctor, I captured the trespassing pawn with my knight. Maxwell immediately played bishop to knight’s sixth, where it could be captured by either pawn, and, although the pawn remained between his bishop and my king, he cried “Mate!” and, with a smile, threw himself back in his chair, remarking, “Very neat; very neat, indeed. You do not display your usual skill tonight, Neilson. Shall we try another?”

Completely bewildered, I looked at the doctor for my cue. He nodded slightly, without removing his eyes from his patient. I rearranged the pieces, while Maxwell sat with drooping head, apparently abstracted, until I made the first move. Then he straightened up and said: “You play very curiously, my friend. It seems to me that some of your moves were clearly inadmissible. How’s this? You have given me black. Will you turn the board, please?”

Again following the doctor’s instructions, I reversed the board, saying, “I am somewhat absent-minded tonight, I fear. I have a perplexing case in court. But look to your laurels this time.”

Eagerly Maxwell again opened the game with pawn to king’s fourth. I varied my former moves, somewhat, but his moves were exactly as before, and for his fifth move he again placed his bishop on knight’s sixth, over-leaping all obstacles, cried “Mate!” and smiled complacently. “Evidently, Neilson, you are no match for our friend tonight,” the doctor said, laughingly, “and to spare you further humiliation I now declare a truce.”

“One more, doctor,” cried Maxwell, “give him one more chance to retrieve his prestige.”

“No,” the doctor replied, ‘‘I must insist that you play no more tonight, Robert. Now, don’t be stubborn. You must defer to my judgment in matters concerning your health.”

“It is spoken,” said Maxwell, laughing and wheeling his chair away from the table, “but as Neilson stays with us tonight, I shall insist upon a game before he leaves in the morning.”

After a half-hour’s pleasant conversation I retired to the chamber that had been prepared for me. I could not sleep, but lay pondering over my host’s strange actions. His perfectly natural manner when not playing, his erratic and exactly similar moves in both games, the doctor’s watchfulness and anxious curiosity — all these things puzzled me and awakened fears that poor Maxwell’s mind was deranged.

I was yet awake, and I remember that the great clock in the study above me had just chimed the witching hour of midnight, when someone rapped at my door. Hastily arising I admitted Dr. Bell. He was considerably excited, the first time I had ever seen him so. His hand, grasping a thick, heavy sheet of paper, trembled quite perceptibly. “Neilson,” he said, speaking rapidly, but in a low tone, “do not think me a lunatic when you hear what I have come to say. I may be wrong; probably I am. But if my theory is correct, I have made a discovery that will puzzle the medical fraternity — aye, the scientific world. Will you pass me a glass of water, please? I am slightly feverish. Thanks. Now, to begin at the beginning. About one week before the assault, Robert told me of a peculiar ink he had invented, or, rather, compounded, for use in connection with the hectograph. But I will first explain the nature and use of the hectograph, as it is a recent invention with which few are as yet familiar. It is a copying or duplicating process consisting of a shallow pan filled with an elastic, jelly-like, semi-transparent substance, having the quality of receiving and transmitting any writing impressed on its surface when written with what is known as hectograph-ink. The writing to be duplicated is first written on a good quality of paper with hectograph-ink. That original sheet is then laid, face down, on the hectograph, firmly pressed down, and allowed to remain there for a few minutes. When removed, the hectograph has absorbed the ink, or much of it, and the writing appears, in reverse, of course, upon the surface of the jelly, Now, if blank sheets are pressed on this surface, each sheet when removed is an exact copy of the original. Several hundred copies can thus be made from one original under favorable conditions. Robert used this process for copying games and problems in chess to be sent to the various publications and to his numerous chess-correspondents. Instead of paper, however, he used a fine quality of linen for the last few copies because of its greater durability. These he keeps for further use and reference. He found that the ordinary ink blurs on this linen, and to avoid this he compounded the ink he spoke of. It answered the purpose fully, and is so cohesive and powerful that, if an impression made with it is allowed to remain on the jelly for thirty minutes it is deposited at the bottom of the pan in precisely the same formation as when first impressed on the surface. Now, examine this sheet of paper. It is an original sheet from which copies were to be made.”

I took the paper, and although it was somewhat blurred with what seemed to me blood-stains, I saw at once that it was the record of a game of chess, written in Maxwell’s large, familiar hand, and ran thus:​

I at once saw that “white’s” first four and last moves were the identical plays made by Maxwell that evening.

The doctor continued, “You observe — the same moves, excepting the fifth, sixth and seventh.” I nodded. “You also observe,” he went on, “that the column of Black’s moves is clear and bright, the ink untouched; no impression has yet been taken from it. On the other hand, White’s column is stained with blood and the characters are dim and faint, indicating that an impression has been taken of them. But the fifth, sixth, and seventh moves are somewhat brighter and stronger than the other five, indicating two separate impressions of White’s column.” Again I nodded, silent but deeply interested. “Now,” the doctor continued, leaning forward and lowering his voice almost to a whisper, “comes the astonishing part of my theory. When we dressed poor Robert’s wound I observed a peculiar grouping of very faint, purplish marks upon the exposed portion of the brain. I gave them but little attention and proceeded with the operation. But his peculiar play last night set me to studying seriously on a theory already faintly suggested. Neilson, those marks came from this sheet and were White’s first, second, third, fourth, and eighth moves, just as Robert played them last night. You smile, but, my friend, the finger of Science has as yet but pointed to the border-land of anatomical and psychological knowledge. With all our boasted discoveries we are yet but groping in the dim light of the dawn. I believe that Robert fell in such a position that the exposed brain was pressed on White’s side of that sheet. Some other substance, at the time covered the fifth, sixth, and seventh moves or had previously absorbed them. Otherwise Robert would have played the entire eight moves last night. The idea startles you. You are asking yourself if this theory can possibly be correct. I say, yes. Moreover, I predict that Robert will never play other than those five moves so long as they remain impressed on his brain. If I am correct, the situation is truly astounding — dumbfounding. There is a method of testing my theory, but I would never resort to it simply as a test.”

He arose and paced excitedly to and fro for several minutes. Finally I spoke. “May I ask, doctor, the nature of your test?”

For some time he made no answer. Then, again seating himself and endeavoring to subdue his excitement, he said, “I will answer your question by asking another. Suppose we were to again expose that part of the brain and impress on it in the proper position and with the same ink, those missing moves. Suppose, then, that when fully recovered from this second operation, the patient should play all of White’s moves in their proper order. Would my theory be proved?”

“It would at least be supported by rather strong circumstantial evidence,” I said, hesitatingly, “but surely, doctor, you have no thought of resorting to so dangerous an experiment?”

“Not as an experiment. Certainly not. But as a last resort it may become necessary. Possibly you do not know what a fascination the game of chess possesses for certain natures. From a casual amusement it grows into a fixed habit; from a fixed habit it often becomes a vice. I have seen more than one man neglect his family, and his social duties to brood and puzzle day after day over the infinite combinations of the game, until his mental faculties failed and the victim sank into the obscurity of the asylum. For years I have seen this fatal passion growing on Robert, and absorbing more and more of his time and thought. In his present condition he dimly realizes that something is wrong with his play. In his waking and sleeping hours I have heard him muttering over those moves. He worries constantly, and the worry grows and preys on him. It must cease. Now that I have this sheet, I shall try to teach him to grasp the game in its entirety. If I fail there I have but one resort left. Rut I have interfered with your rest and I beg your pardon. You have a long journey before you tomorrow. If anything unusual occurs I shall inform you. Good-night.”

Two weeks later, while in the west, I received from the doctor a short letter letter informing me that he and Dr. Herrington had found the proposed operation necessary and had performed it; that the patient had rallied nicely and was recovering rapidly; that Dr. Herrington had consented to the operation with the greatest reluctance and scouted his theory, and that the final test would be deferred until my return, which was impatiently awaited. My business detained me much longer than I had anticipated, but when I again rang the familiar bell it was Dr. Bell himself who admitted me. He greeted me cordially and gave me the welcome information that Maxwell was in better health and spirits than when I left, but was impatient to again cross swords with me.

“Doctor,” I said, as we turned toward the study, “it is somewhat presumptuous in me to question your theory in this case. It is within the bounds of your profession and entirely outside mine. But when we consider that the dreams of the healthiest persons are often on the subject uppermost in his mind at the moment of falling asleep, may we not suspect some analogy between such a fact and the facts in this case? Perhaps Maxwell’s thoughts, at the moment of receiving the blow, were concentrated upon an analysis and variation of those five moves to the exclusion of the three missing ones. The action of the brain was arrested at that point. On its partial recovery it took up its work where it had left off, but for some occult reason was unable to proceed or throw off those last conditions, a situation that time and increased strength might have remedied.”

“Why, then, did he make no attempt to play those possible variations?” the doctor exclaimed, impatiently. “And why did he refuse to play Black’s moves? They must necessarily enter into any variation. And you forget that there were sounds and evidences of a struggle before the blow was struck, so that those were not his last thoughts before unconsciousness. But why waste time and words when the answer awaits us? Come.”

I found Dr. Herrington with the patient. Maxwell did, indeed, look better than when I last saw him. Yet I could discern the same strange gaze, and, as before, the hand often passed nervously over the marred forehead.

It was but a short time until we again smiled at each other across the mimic field of war. The two physicians were seated at my right, and as Maxwell adjusted his pieces, Dr. Bell laid on my knee the sheet he had brought to my room. Again Maxwell opened the game with pawn to king’s fourth. Following the text, I answered with pawn to queen’s' knight’s third. He instantly followed with pawn to queen’s fourth, and the game progressed as written down to the fifth move. Here was the critical point, and here Maxwell hesitated, his hand poised over the pieces. The two doctors almost arose from their chairs. I myself tingled with nervousness. A moment of intense suspense; then the poised hand descended on the queen, pushed her to rook’s fifth, and Maxwell murmured “check.” Dr. Bell arose, walked to the window, came back and stood behind his patient. Amazed, I proceeded with pawn to king’s knight’s third and my opponent quietly took pawn with pawn. Here, Herrington could conceal his agitation no longer and he joined Dr. Bell. I placed my knight on king’s bishop’s third and my pawn was immediately captured, discovering check. As I captured queen with knight, Maxwell announced mate, played bishop to knight’s sixth, and settled back in his chair triumphantly.

“A beautiful little game,” he exclaimed, “You probably expected me to play — why, what’s the matter? Have you three seen a ghost?”

“Quite the contrary,” said Dr. Bell, quickly. “We see our patient, not yet out of the shadow of the valley, playing with all his old brilliancy, and I suspect that our faces betray our surprise and satisfaction. But do not overtax your strength, Robert. You had better play no more tonight.”

“One more, doctor; one more. I feel quite strong. One more, and I bow to your behest.”

“One more be it then, but only one,” the doctor replied, and as Maxwell again eagerly seized the white pieces, he whispered, “Vary your moves.”

Again Maxwell opened with the same attack, and although I followed the doctor’s suggestion and played a totally different defense, he persistently followed the text, apparently unconscious of all obstacles, and at the eighth move played bishop to knight’s sixth, called “mate,” made a few complimentary remarks to me, wheeled his chair to its accustomed place at the grate, and turned the conversation to other subjects.

We three conspirators were nervously anxious to be alone together, but scarcely a half-hour had passed when I received an urgent message requiring my immediate presence at my office. The next morning found me fifty miles up the river. I dined at Newburg and took the night express back to the city. To complete the business I was then engaged on it was necessary that I see the proprietor of a certain second-rate hotel not far from the Grand Central, and although the night was far advanced I determined to go to him at once. And now follows, perhaps, the strangest part of this strange experience. Dusty and travel-stained I stepped to the washroom, and as I passed the large mirror I mechanically glanced into it. What I saw there paralyzed me for an instant as might an electric shock. Then I turned and inspected the cuff of a “shabby genteel” who was carefully adjusting his tie. Within two minutes I was in telephone communication with police headquarters and in twenty minutes my man was in custody and on his way to jail. What did I see in the mirror? Write a few words in ink, heavily, on a clean sheet. Take a fresh blotting-pad and absorb the writing. Hold that pad before a mirror and see how legibly the writing is reflected. On the mirrored image of the linen-cuff on the left wrist of the culprit these characters stood forth, as clear to me as “proof of holy writ”:

I had found the missing moves and the missing man. In the office of the Inspector I examined the cuff. It was frayed with wear and washing, but the powerful ink had refused to “out,” and there were the familiar characters, in reverse, of course, and absolutely unintelligible to the uninitiated. When he realized how strong the proof was the fellow confessed. He had been a clerk in a wholesale grain-house, had “played” the markets, became more and more involved, used his firm’s money, and saw ruin and imprisonment before him. One evening he had gone with a friend to a chess-club, saw Maxwell, and learned of his eccentric habit of keeping large sums of money in his house. In his desperate situation he formed the resolve suggested by this information. When he entered the house the lights were extinguished, but before he could find the safe Maxwell arose, turned on the lights, and began work at his table. My entrance frightened the amateur-burglar, and as he rushed toward the window, his only means of escape, Maxwell seized him. In his terror he snatched the weapon from the wall and struck the blow. He remembered that during the struggle Maxwell had hurled him against the table and that his left arm had rested on it. He had afterward noticed the stains on the cuff but had given them no special attention.

I may add that he served his time, was a model convict, and after his release vanished from my knowledge. Dr. Bell, of course, was overjoyed at the arrest. Maxwell heard of it with wondering eyes and puzzled gaze, and said but little.

Poor fellow, he has never recovered, and he still plays the same game and ever with the same zest. He never knew of the doctor’s theory or real reason for the second operation. The doctor, realizing the failure of his experiment, in atonement gave up his practice and is devoting his life to Maxwell. But he still insists on the correctness of his theory. I have long since ceased puzzling my brain over the question. Possibly the strange play of Maxwell’s was only one of those startling coincidences that sometimes appear in this mysterious life. What surgeons and psychologists may think of my story I know not, neither do I care. I know that, with the exception of names, I have related the facts as they occurred. More learned brains than mine may solve the riddle.

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