The Adventure Of The Norwood Builder
"From the point of view of the criminal expert," said Mr. Sherlock
Holmes, "London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the
death of the late lamented Professor Moriarty."
"I can hardly think that you would find many decent citizens to agree
with you," I answered.
"Well, well, I must not be selfish," said he, with a smile, as he pushed
back his chair from the breakfast-table. "The community is certainly
the gainer, and no one the loser, save the poor out-of-work specialist,
whose occupation has gone. With that man in the field, one's morning
paper presented infinite possibilities. Often it was only the smallest
trace, Watson, the faintest indication, and yet it was enough to tell me
that the great malignant brain was there, as the gentlest tremors of
the edges of the web remind one of the foul spider which lurks in the
centre. Petty thefts, wanton assaults, purposeless outrage--to the man
who held the clue all could be worked into one connected whole. To the
scientific student of the higher criminal world, no capital in Europe
offered the advantages which London then possessed. But now----" He
shrugged his shoulders in humorous deprecation of the state of things
which he had himself done so much to produce.
At the time of which I speak, Holmes had been back for some months,
and I at his request had sold my practice and returned to share the old
quarters in Baker Street. A young doctor, named Verner, had purchased my
small Kensington practice, and given with astonishingly little demur the
highest price that I ventured to ask--an incident which only explained
itself some years later, when I found that Verner was a distant relation
of Holmes, and that it was my friend who had really found the money.
Our months of partnership had not been so uneventful as he had stated,
for I find, on looking over my notes, that this period includes the case
of the papers of ex-President Murillo, and also the shocking affair of
the Dutch steamship FRIESLAND, which so nearly cost us both our lives.
His cold and proud nature was always averse, however, from anything
in the shape of public applause, and he bound me in the most
stringent terms to say no further word of himself, his methods, or his
successes--a prohibition which, as I have explained, has only now been
Mr. Sherlock Holmes was leaning back in his chair after his whimsical
protest, and was unfolding his morning paper in a leisurely fashion,
when our attention was arrested by a tremendous ring at the bell,
followed immediately by a hollow drumming sound, as if someone were
beating on the outer door with his fist. As it opened there came a
tumultuous rush into the hall, rapid feet clattered up the stair, and an
instant later a wild-eyed and frantic young man, pale, disheveled, and
palpitating, burst into the room. He looked from one to the other of us,
and under our gaze of inquiry he became conscious that some apology was
needed for this unceremonious entry.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Holmes," he cried. "You mustn't blame me. I am nearly
mad. Mr. Holmes, I am the unhappy John Hector McFarlane."
He made the announcement as if the name alone would explain both his
visit and its manner, but I could see, by my companion's unresponsive
face, that it meant no more to him than to me.
"Have a cigarette, Mr. McFarlane," said he, pushing his case across.
"I am sure that, with your symptoms, my friend Dr. Watson here would
prescribe a sedative. The weather has been so very warm these last few
days. Now, if you feel a little more composed, I should be glad if you
would sit down in that chair, and tell us very slowly and quietly who
you are, and what it is that you want. You mentioned your name, as if
I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts
that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I
know nothing whatever about you."
Familiar as I was with my friend's methods, it was not difficult for me
to follow his deductions, and to observe the untidiness of attire, the
sheaf of legal papers, the watch-charm, and the breathing which had
prompted them. Our client, however, stared in amazement.
"Yes, I am all that, Mr. Holmes; and, in addition, I am the most
unfortunate man at this moment in London. For heaven's sake, don't
abandon me, Mr. Holmes! If they come to arrest me before I have finished
my story, make them give me time, so that I may tell you the whole
truth. I could go to jail happy if I knew that you were working for me
"Arrest you!" said Holmes. "This is really most grati--most interesting.
On what charge do you expect to be arrested?"
"Upon the charge of murdering Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of Lower Norwood."
My companion's expressive face showed a sympathy which was not, I am
afraid, entirely unmixed with satisfaction.
"Dear me," said he, "it was only this moment at breakfast that I was
saying to my friend, Dr. Watson, that sensational cases had disappeared
out of our papers."
Our visitor stretched forward a quivering hand and picked up the DAILY
TELEGRAPH, which still lay upon Holmes's knee.
"If you had looked at it, sir, you would have seen at a glance what the
errand is on which I have come to you this morning. I feel as if my name
and my misfortune must be in every man's mouth." He turned it over to
expose the central page. "Here it is, and with your permission I
will read it to you. Listen to this, Mr. Holmes. The headlines are:
'Mysterious Affair at Lower Norwood. Disappearance of a Well Known
Builder. Suspicion of Murder and Arson. A Clue to the Criminal.' That is
the clue which they are already following, Mr. Holmes, and I know that
it leads infallibly to me. I have been followed from London Bridge
Station, and I am sure that they are only waiting for the warrant to
arrest me. It will break my mother's heart--it will break her heart!"
He wrung his hands in an agony of apprehension, and swayed backward and
forward in his chair.
I looked with interest upon this man, who was accused of being the
perpetrator of a crime of violence. He was flaxen-haired and handsome,
in a washed-out negative fashion, with frightened blue eyes, and a
clean-shaven face, with a weak, sensitive mouth. His age may have been
about twenty-seven, his dress and bearing that of a gentleman. From the
pocket of his light summer overcoat protruded the bundle of indorsed
papers which proclaimed his profession.
"We must use what time we have," said Holmes. "Watson, would you have
the kindness to take the paper and to read the paragraph in question?"
Underneath the vigorous headlines which our client had quoted, I read
the following suggestive narrative:
"Late last night, or early this morning, an incident occurred at Lower
Norwood which points, it is feared, to a serious crime. Mr. Jonas
Oldacre is a well known resident of that suburb, where he has carried
on his business as a builder for many years. Mr. Oldacre is a bachelor,
fifty-two years of age, and lives in Deep Dene House, at the Sydenham
end of the road of that name. He has had the reputation of being a
man of eccentric habits, secretive and retiring. For some years he has
practically withdrawn from the business, in which he is said to have
massed considerable wealth. A small timber-yard still exists, however,
at the back of the house, and last night, about twelve o'clock, an alarm
was given that one of the stacks was on fire. The engines were soon upon
the spot, but the dry wood burned with great fury, and it was impossible
to arrest the conflagration until the stack had been entirely consumed.
Up to this point the incident bore the appearance of an ordinary
accident, but fresh indications seem to point to serious crime. Surprise
was expressed at the absence of the master of the establishment from
the scene of the fire, and an inquiry followed, which showed that he had
disappeared from the house. An examination of his room revealed that the
bed had not been slept in, that a safe which stood in it was open, that
a number of important papers were scattered about the room, and finally,
that there were signs of a murderous struggle, slight traces of blood
being found within the room, and an oaken walking-stick, which also
showed stains of blood upon the handle. It is known that Mr. Jonas
Oldacre had received a late visitor in his bedroom upon that night, and
the stick found has been identified as the property of this person, who
is a young London solicitor named John Hector McFarlane, junior partner
of Graham and McFarlane, of 426 Gresham Buildings, E. C. The police
believe that they have evidence in their possession which supplies
a very convincing motive for the crime, and altogether it cannot be
doubted that sensational developments will follow.
"LATER.--It is rumoured as we go to press that Mr. John Hector McFarlane
has actually been arrested on the charge of the murder of Mr. Jonas
Oldacre. It is at least certain that a warrant has been issued. There
have been further and sinister developments in the investigation at
Norwood. Besides the signs of a struggle in the room of the unfortunate
builder it is now known that the French windows of his bedroom (which is
on the ground floor) were found to be open, that there were marks as
if some bulky object had been dragged across to the wood-pile, and,
finally, it is asserted that charred remains have been found among the
charcoal ashes of the fire. The police theory is that a most sensational
crime has been committed, that the victim was clubbed to death in his
own bedroom, his papers rifled, and his dead body dragged across to
the wood-stack, which was then ignited so as to hide all traces of the
crime. The conduct of the criminal investigation has been left in
the experienced hands of Inspector Lestrade, of Scotland Yard, who is
following up the clues with his accustomed energy and sagacity."
Sherlock Holmes listened with closed eyes and fingertips together to
this remarkable account.
"The case has certainly some points of interest," said he, in his
languid fashion. "May I ask, in the first place, Mr. McFarlane, how
it is that you are still at liberty, since there appears to be enough
evidence to justify your arrest?"
"I live at Torrington Lodge, Blackheath, with my parents, Mr. Holmes,
but last night, having to do business very late with Mr. Jonas Oldacre,
I stayed at an hotel in Norwood, and came to my business from there. I
knew nothing of this affair until I was in the train, when I read what
you have just heard. I at once saw the horrible danger of my position,
and I hurried to put the case into your hands. I have no doubt that I
should have been arrested either at my city office or at my home. A
man followed me from London Bridge Station, and I have no doubt--Great
heaven! what is that?"
It was a clang of the bell, followed instantly by heavy steps upon the
stair. A moment later, our old friend Lestrade appeared in the doorway.
Over his shoulder I caught a glimpse of one or two uniformed policemen
"Mr. John Hector McFarlane?" said Lestrade.
Our unfortunate client rose with a ghastly face.
"I arrest you for the wilful murder of Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of Lower
McFarlane turned to us with a gesture of despair, and sank into his
chair once more like one who is crushed.
"One moment, Lestrade," said Holmes. "Half an hour more or less can make
no difference to you, and the gentleman was about to give us an account
of this very interesting affair, which might aid us in clearing it up."
"I think there will be no difficulty in clearing it up," said Lestrade,
"None the less, with your permission, I should be much interested to
hear his account."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, it is difficult for me to refuse you anything, for
you have been of use to the force once or twice in the past, and we owe
you a good turn at Scotland Yard," said Lestrade. "At the same time I
must remain with my prisoner, and I am bound to warn him that anything
he may say will appear in evidence against him."
"I wish nothing better," said our client. "All I ask is that you should
hear and recognize the absolute truth."
Lestrade looked at his watch. "I'll give you half an hour," said he.
"I must explain first," said McFarlane, "that I knew nothing of Mr.
Jonas Oldacre. His name was familiar to me, for many years ago my
parents were acquainted with him, but they drifted apart. I was very
much surprised therefore, when yesterday, about three o'clock in the
afternoon, he walked into my office in the city. But I was still more
astonished when he told me the object of his visit. He had in his hand
several sheets of a notebook, covered with scribbled writing--here they
are--and he laid them on my table.
"'Here is my will,' said he. 'I want you, Mr. McFarlane, to cast it into
proper legal shape. I will sit here while you do so.'
"I set myself to copy it, and you can imagine my astonishment when I
found that, with some reservations, he had left all his property to me.
He was a strange little ferret-like man, with white eyelashes, and when
I looked up at him I found his keen gray eyes fixed upon me with an
amused expression. I could hardly believe my own as I read the terms of
the will; but he explained that he was a bachelor with hardly any living
relation, that he had known my parents in his youth, and that he had
always heard of me as a very deserving young man, and was assured that
his money would be in worthy hands. Of course, I could only stammer
out my thanks. The will was duly finished, signed, and witnessed by
my clerk. This is it on the blue paper, and these slips, as I have
explained, are the rough draft. Mr. Jonas Oldacre then informed me
that there were a number of documents--building leases, title-deeds,
mortgages, scrip, and so forth--which it was necessary that I should see
and understand. He said that his mind would not be easy until the whole
thing was settled, and he begged me to come out to his house at
Norwood that night, bringing the will with me, and to arrange matters.
'Remember, my boy, not one word to your parents about the affair until
everything is settled. We will keep it as a little surprise for
them.' He was very insistent upon this point, and made me promise it
"You can imagine, Mr. Holmes, that I was not in a humour to refuse him
anything that he might ask. He was my benefactor, and all my desire was
to carry out his wishes in every particular. I sent a telegram home,
therefore, to say that I had important business on hand, and that it was
impossible for me to say how late I might be. Mr. Oldacre had told me
that he would like me to have supper with him at nine, as he might not
be home before that hour. I had some difficulty in finding his house,
however, and it was nearly half-past before I reached it. I found
"One moment!" said Holmes. "Who opened the door?"
"A middle-aged woman, who was, I suppose, his housekeeper."
"And it was she, I presume, who mentioned your name?"
"Exactly," said McFarlane.
McFarlane wiped his damp brow, and then continued his narrative:
"I was shown by this woman into a sitting-room, where a frugal supper
was laid out. Afterwards, Mr. Jonas Oldacre led me into his bedroom, in
which there stood a heavy safe. This he opened and took out a mass of
documents, which we went over together. It was between eleven and twelve
when we finished. He remarked that we must not disturb the housekeeper.
He showed me out through his own French window, which had been open all
"Was the blind down?" asked Holmes.
"I will not be sure, but I believe that it was only half down. Yes, I
remember how he pulled it up in order to swing open the window. I could
not find my stick, and he said, 'Never mind, my boy, I shall see a good
deal of you now, I hope, and I will keep your stick until you come back
to claim it.' I left him there, the safe open, and the papers made up
in packets upon the table. It was so late that I could not get back to
Blackheath, so I spent the night at the Anerley Arms, and I knew nothing
more until I read of this horrible affair in the morning."
"Anything more that you would like to ask, Mr. Holmes?" said Lestrade,
whose eyebrows had gone up once or twice during this remarkable
"Not until I have been to Blackheath."
"You mean to Norwood," said Lestrade.
"Oh, yes, no doubt that is what I must have meant," said Holmes, with
his enigmatical smile. Lestrade had learned by more experiences than he
would care to acknowledge that that brain could cut through that which
was impenetrable to him. I saw him look curiously at my companion.
"I think I should like to have a word with you presently, Mr. Sherlock
Holmes," said he. "Now, Mr. McFarlane, two of my constables are at
the door, and there is a four-wheeler waiting." The wretched young man
arose, and with a last beseeching glance at us walked from the room. The
officers conducted him to the cab, but Lestrade remained.
Holmes had picked up the pages which formed the rough draft of the will,
and was looking at them with the keenest interest upon his face.
"There are some points about that document, Lestrade, are there not?"
said he, pushing them over.
The official looked at them with a puzzled expression.
"I can read the first few lines and these in the middle of the second
page, and one or two at the end. Those are as clear as print," said
he, "but the writing in between is very bad, and there are three places
where I cannot read it at all."
"What do you make of that?" said Holmes.
"Well, what do YOU make of it?"
"That it was written in a train. The good writing represents stations,
the bad writing movement, and the very bad writing passing over points.
A scientific expert would pronounce at once that this was drawn up on a
suburban line, since nowhere save in the immediate vicinity of a great
city could there be so quick a succession of points. Granting that his
whole journey was occupied in drawing up the will, then the train was an
express, only stopping once between Norwood and London Bridge."
Lestrade began to laugh.
"You are too many for me when you begin to get on your theories, Mr.
Holmes," said he. "How does this bear on the case?"
"Well, it corroborates the young man's story to the extent that the
will was drawn up by Jonas Oldacre in his journey yesterday. It is
curious--is it not?--that a man should draw up so important a document
in so haphazard a fashion. It suggests that he did not think it was
going to be of much practical importance. If a man drew up a will which
he did not intend ever to be effective, he might do it so."
"Well, he drew up his own death warrant at the same time," said
"Oh, you think so?"
"Well, it is quite possible, but the case is not clear to me yet."
"Not clear? Well, if that isn't clear, what COULD be clear? Here is a
young man who learns suddenly that, if a certain older man dies, he will
succeed to a fortune. What does he do? He says nothing to anyone, but
he arranges that he shall go out on some pretext to see his client that
night. He waits until the only other person in the house is in bed, and
then in the solitude of a man's room he murders him, burns his body in
the wood-pile, and departs to a neighbouring hotel. The blood-stains in
the room and also on the stick are very slight. It is probable that he
imagined his crime to be a bloodless one, and hoped that if the
body were consumed it would hide all traces of the method of his
death--traces which, for some reason, must have pointed to him. Is not
all this obvious?"
"It strikes me, my good Lestrade, as being just a trifle too obvious,"
said Holmes. "You do not add imagination to your other great qualities,
but if you could for one moment put yourself in the place of this young
man, would you choose the very night after the will had been made to
commit your crime? Would it not seem dangerous to you to make so very
close a relation between the two incidents? Again, would you choose an
occasion when you are known to be in the house, when a servant has let
you in? And, finally, would you take the great pains to conceal the
body, and yet leave your own stick as a sign that you were the criminal?
Confess, Lestrade, that all this is very unlikely."
"As to the stick, Mr. Holmes, you know as well as I do that a criminal
is often flurried, and does such things, which a cool man would avoid.
He was very likely afraid to go back to the room. Give me another theory
that would fit the facts."
"I could very easily give you half a dozen," said Holmes. "Here for
example, is a very possible and even probable one. I make you a free
present of it. The older man is showing documents which are of evident
value. A passing tramp sees them through the window, the blind of which
is only half down. Exit the solicitor. Enter the tramp! He seizes a
stick, which he observes there, kills Oldacre, and departs after burning
"Why should the tramp burn the body?"
"For the matter of that, why should McFarlane?"
"To hide some evidence."
"Possibly the tramp wanted to hide that any murder at all had been
"And why did the tramp take nothing?"
"Because they were papers that he could not negotiate."
Lestrade shook his head, though it seemed to me that his manner was less
absolutely assured than before.
"Well, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, you may look for your tramp, and while you
are finding him we will hold on to our man. The future will show which
is right. Just notice this point, Mr. Holmes: that so far as we know,
none of the papers were removed, and that the prisoner is the one man in
the world who had no reason for removing them, since he was heir-at-law,
and would come into them in any case."
My friend seemed struck by this remark.
"I don't mean to deny that the evidence is in some ways very strongly
in favour of your theory," said he. "I only wish to point out that
there are other theories possible. As you say, the future will decide.
Good-morning! I dare say that in the course of the day I shall drop in
at Norwood and see how you are getting on."
When the detective departed, my friend rose and made his preparations
for the day's work with the alert air of a man who has a congenial task
"My first movement Watson," said he, as he bustled into his frockcoat,
"must, as I said, be in the direction of Blackheath."
"And why not Norwood?"
"Because we have in this case one singular incident coming close to the
heels of another singular incident. The police are making the mistake of
concentrating their attention upon the second, because it happens to
be the one which is actually criminal. But it is evident to me that the
logical way to approach the case is to begin by trying to throw some
light upon the first incident--the curious will, so suddenly made, and
to so unexpected an heir. It may do something to simplify what followed.
No, my dear fellow, I don't think you can help me. There is no prospect
of danger, or I should not dream of stirring out without you. I trust
that when I see you in the evening, I will be able to report that I have
been able to do something for this unfortunate youngster, who has thrown
himself upon my protection."
It was late when my friend returned, and I could see, by a glance at his
haggard and anxious face, that the high hopes with which he had started
had not been fulfilled. For an hour he droned away upon his violin,
endeavouring to soothe his own ruffled spirits. At last he flung
down the instrument, and plunged into a detailed account of his
"It's all going wrong, Watson--all as wrong as it can go. I kept a bold
face before Lestrade, but, upon my soul, I believe that for once the
fellow is on the right track and we are on the wrong. All my instincts
are one way, and all the facts are the other, and I much fear that
British juries have not yet attained that pitch of intelligence when
they will give the preference to my theories over Lestrade's facts."
"Did you go to Blackheath?"
"Yes, Watson, I went there, and I found very quickly that the late
lamented Oldacre was a pretty considerable blackguard. The father was
away in search of his son. The mother was at home--a little, fluffy,
blue-eyed person, in a tremor of fear and indignation. Of course, she
would not admit even the possibility of his guilt. But she would not
express either surprise or regret over the fate of Oldacre. On
the contrary, she spoke of him with such bitterness that she was
unconsciously considerably strengthening the case of the police for, of
course, if her son had heard her speak of the man in this fashion, it
would predispose him towards hatred and violence. 'He was more like a
malignant and cunning ape than a human being,' said she, 'and he always
was, ever since he was a young man.'
"'You knew him at that time?' said I.
"'Yes, I knew him well, in fact, he was an old suitor of mine. Thank
heaven that I had the sense to turn away from him and to marry a
better, if poorer, man. I was engaged to him, Mr. Holmes, when I heard a
shocking story of how he had turned a cat loose in an aviary, and I was
so horrified at his brutal cruelty that I would have nothing more to
do with him.' She rummaged in a bureau, and presently she produced a
photograph of a woman, shamefully defaced and mutilated with a knife.
'That is my own photograph,' she said. 'He sent it to me in that state,
with his curse, upon my wedding morning.'
"'Well,' said I, 'at least he has forgiven you now, since he has left
all his property to your son.'
"'Neither my son nor I want anything from Jonas Oldacre, dead or alive!'
she cried, with a proper spirit. 'There is a God in heaven, Mr. Holmes,
and that same God who has punished that wicked man will show, in His own
good time, that my son's hands are guiltless of his blood.'
"Well, I tried one or two leads, but could get at nothing which would
help our hypothesis, and several points which would make against it. I
gave it up at last and off I went to Norwood.
"This place, Deep Dene House, is a big modern villa of staring brick,
standing back in its own grounds, with a laurel-clumped lawn in front
of it. To the right and some distance back from the road was the
timber-yard which had been the scene of the fire. Here's a rough plan
on a leaf of my notebook. This window on the left is the one which opens
into Oldacre's room. You can look into it from the road, you see. That
is about the only bit of consolation I have had to-day. Lestrade was
not there, but his head constable did the honours. They had just found a
great treasure-trove. They had spent the morning raking among the ashes
of the burned wood-pile, and besides the charred organic remains they
had secured several discoloured metal discs. I examined them with
care, and there was no doubt that they were trouser buttons. I even
distinguished that one of them was marked with the name of 'Hyams,' who
was Oldacres tailor. I then worked the lawn very carefully for signs and
traces, but this drought has made everything as hard as iron. Nothing
was to be seen save that some body or bundle had been dragged through
a low privet hedge which is in a line with the wood-pile. All that, of
course, fits in with the official theory. I crawled about the lawn with
an August sun on my back, but I got up at the end of an hour no wiser
"Well, after this fiasco I went into the bedroom and examined that also.
The blood-stains were very slight, mere smears and discolourations, but
undoubtedly fresh. The stick had been removed, but there also the marks
were slight. There is no doubt about the stick belonging to our client.
He admits it. Footmarks of both men could be made out on the carpet,
but none of any third person, which again is a trick for the other
side. They were piling up their score all the time and we were at a
"Only one little gleam of hope did I get--and yet it amounted to
nothing. I examined the contents of the safe, most of which had been
taken out and left on the table. The papers had been made up into sealed
envelopes, one or two of which had been opened by the police. They were
not, so far as I could judge, of any great value, nor did the bank-book
show that Mr. Oldacre was in such very affluent circumstances. But it
seemed to me that all the papers were not there. There were allusions to
some deeds--possibly the more valuable--which I could not find. This, of
course, if we could definitely prove it, would turn Lestrade's argument
against himself, for who would steal a thing if he knew that he would
shortly inherit it?
"Finally, having drawn every other cover and picked up no scent, I tried
my luck with the housekeeper. Mrs. Lexington is her name--a little,
dark, silent person, with suspicious and sidelong eyes. She could tell
us something if she would--I am convinced of it. But she was as close as
wax. Yes, she had let Mr. McFarlane in at half-past nine. She wished
her hand had withered before she had done so. She had gone to bed at
half-past ten. Her room was at the other end of the house, and she could
hear nothing of what had passed. Mr. McFarlane had left his hat, and to
the best of her had been awakened by the alarm of fire. Her poor, dear
master had certainly been murdered. Had he any enemies? Well, every man
had enemies, but Mr. Oldacre kept himself very much to himself, and only
met people in the way of business. She had seen the buttons, and was
sure that they belonged to the clothes which he had worn last night.
The wood-pile was very dry, for it had not rained for a month. It burned
like tinder, and by the time she reached the spot, nothing could be seen
but flames. She and all the firemen smelled the burned flesh from
inside it. She knew nothing of the papers, nor of Mr. Oldacre's private
"So, my dear Watson, there's my report of a failure. And yet--and yet--"
he clenched his thin hands in a paroxysm of conviction--"I KNOW it's all
wrong. I feel it in my bones. There is something that has not come out,
and that housekeeper knows it. There was a sort of sulky defiance in her
eyes, which only goes with guilty knowledge. However, there's no good
talking any more about it, Watson; but unless some lucky chance comes
our way I fear that the Norwood Disappearance Case will not figure in
that chronicle of our successes which I foresee that a patient public
will sooner or later have to endure."
"Surely," said I, "the man's appearance would go far with any jury?"
"That is a dangerous argument my dear Watson. You remember that terrible
murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in '87? Was there
ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday-school young man?"
"It is true."
"Unless we succeed in establishing an alternative theory, this man is
lost. You can hardly find a flaw in the case which can now be presented
against him, and all further investigation has served to strengthen it.
By the way, there is one curious little point about those papers which
may serve us as the starting-point for an inquiry. On looking over the
bank-book I found that the low state of the balance was principally due
to large checks which have been made out during the last year to Mr.
Cornelius. I confess that I should be interested to know who this
Mr. Cornelius may be with whom a retired builder has such very large
transactions. Is it possible that he has had a hand in the affair?
Cornelius might be a broker, but we have found no scrip to correspond
with these large payments. Failing any other indication, my researches
must now take the direction of an inquiry at the bank for the gentleman
who has cashed these checks. But I fear, my dear fellow, that our
case will end ingloriously by Lestrade hanging our client, which will
certainly be a triumph for Scotland Yard."
I do not know how far Sherlock Holmes took any sleep that night, but
when I came down to breakfast I found him pale and harassed, his bright
eyes the brighter for the dark shadows round them. The carpet round his
chair was littered with cigarette-ends and with the early editions of
the morning papers. An open telegram lay upon the table.
"What do you think of this, Watson?" he asked, tossing it across.
It was from Norwood, and ran as follows:
Important fresh evidence to hand. McFarlane's guilt definitely
established. Advise you to abandon case. LESTRADE.
"This sounds serious," said I.
"It is Lestrade's little cock-a-doodle of victory," Holmes answered,
with a bitter smile. "And yet it may be premature to abandon the case.
After all, important fresh evidence is a two-edged thing, and may
possibly cut in a very different direction to that which Lestrade
imagines. Take your breakfast, Watson, and we will go out together and
see what we can do. I feel as if I shall need your company and your
moral support today."
My friend had no breakfast himself, for it was one of his peculiarities
that in his more intense moments he would permit himself no food, and I
have known him presume upon his iron strength until he has fainted from
pure inanition. "At present I cannot spare energy and nerve force for
digestion," he would say in answer to my medical remonstrances. I was
not surprised, therefore, when this morning he left his untouched
meal behind him, and started with me for Norwood. A crowd of morbid
sightseers were still gathered round Deep Dene House, which was just
such a suburban villa as I had pictured. Within the gates Lestrade met
us, his face flushed with victory, his manner grossly triumphant.
"Well, Mr. Holmes, have you proved us to be wrong yet? Have you found
your tramp?" he cried.
"I have formed no conclusion whatever," my companion answered.
"But we formed ours yesterday, and now it proves to be correct, so you
must acknowledge that we have been a little in front of you this time,
"You certainly have the air of something unusual having occurred," said
Lestrade laughed loudly.
"You don't like being beaten any more than the rest of us do," said he.
"A man can't expect always to have it his own way, can he, Dr. Watson?
Step this way, if you please, gentlemen, and I think I can convince you
once for all that it was John McFarlane who did this crime."
He led us through the passage and out into a dark hall beyond.
"This is where young McFarlane must have come out to get his hat
after the crime was done," said he. "Now look at this." With dramatic
suddenness he struck a match, and by its light exposed a stain of blood
upon the whitewashed wall. As he held the match nearer, I saw that it
was more than a stain. It was the well-marked print of a thumb.
"Look at that with your magnifying glass, Mr. Holmes."
"Yes, I am doing so."
"You are aware that no two thumb-marks are alike?"
"I have heard something of the kind."
"Well, then, will you please compare that print with this wax impression
of young McFarlane's right thumb, taken by my orders this morning?"
As he held the waxen print close to the blood-stain, it did not take
a magnifying glass to see that the two were undoubtedly from the same
thumb. It was evident to me that our unfortunate client was lost.
"That is final," said Lestrade.
"Yes, that is final," I involuntarily echoed.
"It is final," said Holmes.
Something in his tone caught my ear, and I turned to look at him. An
extraordinary change had come over his face. It was writhing with inward
merriment. His two eyes were shining like stars. It seemed to me that
he was making desperate efforts to restrain a convulsive attack of
"Dear me! Dear me!" he said at last. "Well, now, who would have thought
it? And how deceptive appearances may be, to be sure! Such a nice young
man to look at! It is a lesson to us not to trust our own judgment, is
it not, Lestrade?"
"Yes, some of us are a little too much inclined to be cock-sure, Mr.
Holmes," said Lestrade. The man's insolence was maddening, but we could
not resent it.
"What a providential thing that this young man should press his right
thumb against the wall in taking his hat from the peg! Such a very
natural action, too, if you come to think of it." Holmes was outwardly
calm, but his whole body gave a wriggle of suppressed excitement as he
"By the way, Lestrade, who made this remarkable discovery?"
"It was the housekeeper, Mrs. Lexington, who drew the night constable's
attention to it."
"Where was the night constable?"
"He remained on guard in the bedroom where the crime was committed, so
as to see that nothing was touched."
"But why didn't the police see this mark yesterday?"
"Well, we had no particular reason to make a careful examination of the
hall. Besides, it's not in a very prominent place, as you see."
"No, no--of course not. I suppose there is no doubt that the mark was
Lestrade looked at Holmes as if he thought he was going out of his mind.
I confess that I was myself surprised both at his hilarious manner and
at his rather wild observation.
"I don't know whether you think that McFarlane came out of jail in the
dead of the night in order to strengthen the evidence against himself,"
said Lestrade. "I leave it to any expert in the world whether that is
not the mark of his thumb."
"It is unquestionably the mark of his thumb."
"There, that's enough," said Lestrade. "I am a practical man, Mr.
Holmes, and when I have got my evidence I come to my conclusions. If
you have anything to say, you will find me writing my report in the
Holmes had recovered his equanimity, though I still seemed to detect
gleams of amusement in his expression.
"Dear me, this is a very sad development, Watson, is it not?" said he.
"And yet there are singular points about it which hold out some hopes
for our client."
"I am delighted to hear it," said I, heartily. "I was afraid it was all
up with him."
"I would hardly go so far as to say that, my dear Watson. The fact is
that there is one really serious flaw in this evidence to which our
friend attaches so much importance."
"Indeed, Holmes! What is it?"
"Only this: that I KNOW that that mark was not there when I examined the
hall yesterday. And now, Watson, let us have a little stroll round in
With a confused brain, but with a heart into which some warmth of hope
was returning, I accompanied my friend in a walk round the garden.
Holmes took each face of the house in turn, and examined it with great
interest. He then led the way inside, and went over the whole building
from basement to attic. Most of the rooms were unfurnished, but none the
less Holmes inspected them all minutely. Finally, on the top corridor,
which ran outside three untenanted bedrooms, he again was seized with a
spasm of merriment.
"There are really some very unique features about this case, Watson,"
said he. "I think it is time now that we took our friend Lestrade into
our confidence. He has had his little smile at our expense, and perhaps
we may do as much by him, if my reading of this problem proves to be
correct. Yes, yes, I think I see how we should approach it."
The Scotland Yard inspector was still writing in the parlour when Holmes
"I understood that you were writing a report of this case," said he.
"So I am."
"Don't you think it may be a little premature? I can't help thinking
that your evidence is not complete."
Lestrade knew my friend too well to disregard his words. He laid down
his pen and looked curiously at him.
"What do you mean, Mr. Holmes?"
"Only that there is an important witness whom you have not seen."
"Can you produce him?"
"I think I can."
"Then do so."
"I will do my best. How many constables have you?"
"There are three within call."
"Excellent!" said Holmes. "May I ask if they are all large, able-bodied
men with powerful voices?"
"I have no doubt they are, though I fail to see what their voices have
to do with it."
"Perhaps I can help you to see that and one or two other things as
well," said Holmes. "Kindly summon your men, and I will try."
Five minutes later, three policemen had assembled in the hall.
"In the outhouse you will find a considerable quantity of straw," said
Holmes. "I will ask you to carry in two bundles of it. I think it will
be of the greatest assistance in producing the witness whom I require.
Thank you very much. I believe you have some matches in your pocket
Watson. Now, Mr. Lestrade, I will ask you all to accompany me to the top
As I have said, there was a broad corridor there, which ran outside
three empty bedrooms. At one end of the corridor we were all marshalled
by Sherlock Holmes, the constables grinning and Lestrade staring at
my friend with amazement, expectation, and derision chasing each other
across his features. Holmes stood before us with the air of a conjurer
who is performing a trick.
"Would you kindly send one of your constables for two buckets of water?
Put the straw on the floor here, free from the wall on either side. Now
I think that we are all ready."
Lestrade's face had begun to grow red and angry. "I don't know whether
you are playing a game with us, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said he. "If you
know anything, you can surely say it without all this tomfoolery."
"I assure you, my good Lestrade, that I have an excellent reason for
everything that I do. You may possibly remember that you chaffed me a
little, some hours ago, when the sun seemed on your side of the hedge,
so you must not grudge me a little pomp and ceremony now. Might I ask
you, Watson, to open that window, and then to put a match to the edge of
I did so, and driven by the draught a coil of gray smoke swirled down
the corridor, while the dry straw crackled and flamed.
"Now we must see if we can find this witness for you, Lestrade. Might
I ask you all to join in the cry of 'Fire!'? Now then; one, two,
"Fire!" we all yelled.
"Thank you. I will trouble you once again."
"Just once more, gentlemen, and all together."
"Fire!" The shout must have rung over Norwood.
It had hardly died away when an amazing thing happened. A door suddenly
flew open out of what appeared to be solid wall at the end of the
corridor, and a little, wizened man darted out of it, like a rabbit out
of its burrow.
"Capital!" said Holmes, calmly. "Watson, a bucket of water over the
straw. That will do! Lestrade, allow me to present you with your
principal missing witness, Mr. Jonas Oldacre."
The detective stared at the newcomer with blank amazement. The latter
was blinking in the bright light of the corridor, and peering at us
and at the smouldering fire. It was an odious face--crafty, vicious,
malignant, with shifty, light-gray eyes and white lashes.
"What's this, then?" said Lestrade, at last. "What have you been doing
all this time, eh?"
Oldacre gave an uneasy laugh, shrinking back from the furious red face
of the angry detective.
"I have done no harm."
"No harm? You have done your best to get an innocent man hanged. If it
wasn't for this gentleman here, I am not sure that you would not have
The wretched creature began to whimper.
"I am sure, sir, it was only my practical joke."
"Oh! a joke, was it? You won't find the laugh on your side, I promise
you. Take him down, and keep him in the sitting-room until I come. Mr.
Holmes," he continued, when they had gone, "I could not speak before the
constables, but I don't mind saying, in the presence of Dr. Watson,
that this is the brightest thing that you have done yet, though it is a
mystery to me how you did it. You have saved an innocent man's life,
and you have prevented a very grave scandal, which would have ruined my
reputation in the Force."
Holmes smiled, and clapped Lestrade upon the shoulder.
"Instead of being ruined, my good sir, you will find that your
reputation has been enormously enhanced. Just make a few alterations in
that report which you were writing, and they will understand how hard it
is to throw dust in the eyes of Inspector Lestrade."
"And you don't want your name to appear?"
"Not at all. The work is its own reward. Perhaps I shall get the credit
also at some distant day, when I permit my zealous historian to lay out
his foolscap once more--eh, Watson? Well, now, let us see where this rat
has been lurking."
A lath-and-plaster partition had been run across the passage six feet
from the end, with a door cunningly concealed in it. It was lit within
by slits under the eaves. A few articles of furniture and a supply of
food and water were within, together with a number of books and papers.
"There's the advantage of being a builder," said Holmes, as we came
out. "He was able to fix up his own little hiding-place without any
confederate--save, of course, that precious housekeeper of his, whom I
should lose no time in adding to your bag, Lestrade."
"I'll take your advice. But how did you know of this place, Mr. Holmes?"
"I made up my mind that the fellow was in hiding in the house. When I
paced one corridor and found it six feet shorter than the corresponding
one below, it was pretty clear where he was. I thought he had not the
nerve to lie quiet before an alarm of fire. We could, of course, have
gone in and taken him, but it amused me to make him reveal himself.
Besides, I owed you a little mystification, Lestrade, for your chaff in
"Well, sir, you certainly got equal with me on that. But how in the
world did you know that he was in the house at all?"
"The thumb-mark, Lestrade. You said it was final; and so it was, in a
very different sense. I knew it had not been there the day before. I pay
a good deal of attention to matters of detail, as you may have observed,
and I had examined the hall, and was sure that the wall was clear.
Therefore, it had been put on during the night."
"Very simply. When those packets were sealed up, Jonas Oldacre got
McFarlane to secure one of the seals by putting his thumb upon the soft
wax. It would be done so quickly and so naturally, that I daresay the
young man himself has no recollection of it. Very likely it just so
happened, and Oldacre had himself no notion of the use he would put it
to. Brooding over the case in that den of his, it suddenly struck him
what absolutely damning evidence he could make against McFarlane by
using that thumb-mark. It was the simplest thing in the world for him to
take a wax impression from the seal, to moisten it in as much blood as
he could get from a pin-prick, and to put the mark upon the wall during
the night, either with his own hand or with that of his housekeeper.
If you examine among those documents which he took with him into
his retreat, I will lay you a wager that you find the seal with the
thumb-mark upon it."
"Wonderful!" said Lestrade. "Wonderful! It's all as clear as crystal, as
you put it. But what is the object of this deep deception, Mr. Holmes?"
It was amusing to me to see how the detective's overbearing manner had
changed suddenly to that of a child asking questions of its teacher.
"Well, I don't think that is very hard to explain. A very deep,
malicious, vindictive person is the gentleman who is now waiting us
downstairs. You know that he was once refused by McFarlane's mother?
You don't! I told you that you should go to Blackheath first and Norwood
afterwards. Well, this injury, as he would consider it, has rankled
in his wicked, scheming brain, and all his life he has longed for
vengeance, but never seen his chance. During the last year or two,
things have gone against him--secret speculation, I think--and he finds
himself in a bad way. He determines to swindle his creditors, and for
this purpose he pays large checks to a certain Mr. Cornelius, who is, I
imagine, himself under another name. I have not traced these checks
yet, but I have no doubt that they were banked under that name at some
provincial town where Oldacre from time to time led a double existence.
He intended to change his name altogether, draw this money, and vanish,
starting life again elsewhere."
"Well, that's likely enough."
"It would strike him that in disappearing he might throw all pursuit off
his track, and at the same time have an ample and crushing revenge upon
his old sweetheart, if he could give the impression that he had been
murdered by her only child. It was a masterpiece of villainy, and he
carried it out like a master. The idea of the will, which would give
an obvious motive for the crime, the secret visit unknown to his own
parents, the retention of the stick, the blood, and the animal remains
and buttons in the wood-pile, all were admirable. It was a net from
which it seemed to me, a few hours ago, that there was no possible
escape. But he had not that supreme gift of the artist, the knowledge
of when to stop. He wished to improve that which was already perfect--to
draw the rope tighter yet round the neck of his unfortunate victim--and
so he ruined all. Let us descend, Lestrade. There are just one or two
questions that I would ask him."
The malignant creature was seated in his own parlour, with a policeman
upon each side of him.
"It was a joke, my good sir--a practical joke, nothing more," he whined
incessantly. "I assure you, sir, that I simply concealed myself in order
to see the effect of my disappearance, and I am sure that you would not
be so unjust as to imagine that I would have allowed any harm to befall
poor young Mr. McFarlane."
"That's for a jury to decide," said Lestrade. "Anyhow, we shall have you
on a charge of conspiracy, if not for attempted murder."
"And you'll probably find that your creditors will impound the banking
account of Mr. Cornelius," said Holmes.
The little man started, and turned his malignant eyes upon my friend.
"I have to thank you for a good deal," said he. "Perhaps I'll pay my
debt some day."
Holmes smiled indulgently.
"I fancy that, for some few years, you will find your time very fully
occupied," said he. "By the way, what was it you put into the wood-pile
besides your old trousers? A dead dog, or rabbits, or what? You won't
tell? Dear me, how very unkind of you! Well, well, I daresay that a
couple of rabbits would account both for the blood and for the charred
ashes. If ever you write an account, Watson, you can make rabbits serve
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