by S. Fowler Wright
Note: Also published (marginally varied) as 'The Last Man' on which version S.FW noted 'My title 'Prudence'.'
"It could be made in a backyard shed," the laboratory research worker told his wife. "It requires a combination of three substances, all of them readily procurable - although two of them are of artificial character; and then nothing more than a loop of heated wire. In about two seconds the Earth would have dissolved in a blaze of fire.
"There would be a burst of light in the sky, and then one planet less in a universe which would go on as before."
His wife said: "It would be common prudence to remove such substances from the world."
"It is natural to think so," said the research worker. "But they are so widely distributed, and in such general use, that their complete destruction would be most difficult."
"Then you mean," said his wife, "that if this becomes known it will be in the power of any lunatic or criminal to destroy the human race?"
"Yes. If it should become generally known."
"Which there may be reason to fear?"
"It is impossible not to be apprehensive. It is known now to our Grade A men - that is, to about 30 people."
"Why so many?"
"The possibility of this discovery was first raised at the weekly conference which is attended by all our Grade A men. Several of us worked separately upon it, by experiment to a point, and beyond that by mathematical calculations, which brought us all to the same conclusions.
"This is not a matter which can be tested experimentally. But the conclusion is beyond reasonable doubt."
"Surely," said his wife, "you should wipe such perilous knowledge from your minds."
"We have discussed that already, and we shall do so again at the special meeting tomorrow. There are differences of opinion.
"The trouble is that though the calculations may be destroyed the process and the ingredients are too simple to be put out of mind - especially from such minds as ours."
"Yet," said his wife, "it seems the only sensible thing to do... the best thing with people who object would be to put them in a lethal chamber before they have time to do a mischief which nobody could limit."
Professor Grafton agreed to that. There was no more said, and his wife slept.
But Grafton found that he could not sleep. During the past week he had been imagining what it would be like to live in a world which it was common knowledge that anyone could destroy at an instant's caprice.
The threat of an unscrupulous tongue: "Give me what I demand, or we shall all be gone in the next hour," would be one which the bravest might find it hard to ignore.
Apart from that, how long was it likely that the earth would exist, if such knowledge were once at large?
Mrs. Grafton next morning saw it differently. Men and women tend to marry people who are the compliments rather than the duplicates of themselves. Mrs. Grafton was not enthusiastic about the pursuit of scientific knowledge.
She looked at the cot where a young child slept, and thought of his sister, a year older, in the next room. Then she said: "If it were possible for those thirty scientists to be destroyed before they could give their knowledge to other men, it would be the best thing that could happen now."
Her husband said: "Oh, but, my dear! And think who some of them are. There's Professor Gribstein, and Dr. Thornton, and - "
"I never did like Dr. Thornton." she replied.
At the meeting later in the day there was a heated discussion. It became clear that a substantial minority were unwilling to put the knowledge aside.
One of them even suggested that they should make a public announcement of their discovery, so that they might become a Council of Thirty controlling a world that would crouch around them in fear.
Then the idea came to Grafton's mind. At their next meeting he could be absent. (He could have a bad cold. A real cold. It would be easy to contrive that.) And then: the scentless deadly gas that had been prepared for use in the next war. A herd of two hundred cattle had been destroyed in seventeen seconds by this gas - by a smaller quantity of it than was kept in one little cylinder at the building where they met.
A corrosive acid could be timed to eat through the cylinder wall.
They would not know how they died. Nor, more important, would anyone else.
It was an attractive idea. Even Maud, his kind hearted, sentimental wife, said it was the right thing to do.
So, when the next meeting took place, it was done. Nobody suspected him in the least.
He told Maud, thinking she would approve, as indeed she did.
He said that the power was now in his hands alone, and he must consider what it would be wisest to do.
Maud thought of many things.
She looked again at a sleeping child. Then she did what the occasion required.
In the scientific surroundings where they lived poison was not hard to procure. She gave it
him in his morning coffee.
It was a clear case of suicide. She said he had told her that the 29 deaths that had preceded his own had been due to carelessness on his part. His remorse, she said, had been painful to see.
It was very necessary to avoid suspicion falling upon herself. She had two children for whom to live. And she was aware of the gravity with which the English Law regards the death of a single man - though it seemed to take lightly the killing of millions.