(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., L.L.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S., is a scientist and logician. The popular press made him known as “The Thinking Machine” when, a novice at the game of chess, he challenged and beat a chess master, bringing to bear logic rather than familiarity with the game. He spends much time in his own small laboratory, from which emanate ideas that deeply influence the scientific world. He claims that logic can solve all problems, and his self-confidence is equal to his achievements.

Visiting him one evening, fellow scientists Charles Ransome and Alfred Fielding are irritated by that confidence. Trying to imagine a situation that logic alone cannot master, Ransome mentions prisons, saying that even The Thinking Machine cannot reason his way out from a prison cell. Van Dusen claims that, indeed, he can do so. That same night, Ransome and Fielding arrange for Van Dusen to be imprisoned in death row cell 13 of Chisholm Prison. They deliver him to the warden of that prison. Before being taken to his cell, Van Dusen makes several eccentric, but apparently harmless, requests. He asks that his shoes be polished; he also asks for tooth powder and twenty-five dollars in the form of one five-dollar and two ten-dollar bills. The warden honors the requests, and The Thinking Machine, after being thoroughly searched, is taken to his cell, still promising to rejoin his friends for dinner at the end of one week.

In the days that follow, several events shake the warden’s faith in his escape-proof prison. While Van Dusen talks with jailers and examines his cell in order to plan his escape, he also begins to leave a series of notes, giving them to his jailers or dropping them from his barred windows. He uses part of his white shirt as paper, and he continues to write on white linen even after the warden takes this shirt away. Moreover, The Thinking Machine has found substances to serve as pen and ink, although he took no such materials to the cell. In the notes, Van Dusen includes two five-dollar bills; he entered the cell with only one. The warden arranges a 3:00 a.m. search but finds little more than a dead rat stuck into an old pipe. After the search, The Thinking Machine produces still more small bills and even...

(The entire section is 932 words.)