The gale had blown itself out next day, but it was a bitter morning when we started upon our journey. We saw the cold winter sun rise over the dreary marshes of the Thames and the long, sullen reaches of the river, which I shall ever associate with our pursuit of the Andaman Islander in the earlier days of our career. After a long and weary journey, we alighted at a small station some miles from Chatham. While a horse was being put into a trap at the local inn, we snatched a hurried breakfast, and so we were all ready for business when we at last arrived at Yoxley Old Place. A constable met us at the garden gate.
“Well, Wilson, any news?”
“No reports of any stranger seen?”
“No, sir. Down at the station they are certain that no stranger either came or went yesterday.”
“Have you had inquiries made at inns and lodgings?”
“Yes, sir: there is no one that we cannot account for.”
“Well, it’s only a reasonable walk to Chatham. Anyone might stay there or take a train without being observed. This is the garden path of which I spoke, Mr. Holmes. I’ll pledge my word there was no mark on it yesterday.”
“On which side were the marks on the grass?”
“This side, sir. This narrow margin of grass between the path and the flower-bed. I can’t see the traces now, but they were clear to me then.”
“Yes, yes: someone has passed along,” said Holmes, stooping over the grass border. “Our lady must have picked her steps carefully, must she not, since on the one side she would leave a track on the path, and on the other an even clearer one on the soft bed?”
“Yes, sir, she must have been a cool hand.”
I saw an intent look pass over Holmes’s face.
“You say that she must have come back this way?”
“Yes, sir, there is no other.”
“On this strip of grass?”
“Certainly, Mr. Holmes.”
“Hum! It was a very remarkable performance—very remarkable. Well, I think we have exhausted the path. Let us go farther. This garden door is usually kept open, I suppose? Then this visitor had nothing to do but to walk in. The idea of murder was not in her mind, or she would have provided herself with some sort of weapon, instead of having to pick this knife off the writing-table. She advanced along this corridor, leaving no traces upon the cocoanut matting. Then she found herself in this study. How long was she there? We have no means of judging.”
“Not more than a few minutes, sir. I forgot to tell you that Mrs. Marker, the housekeeper, had been in there tidying not very long before—about a quarter of an hour, she says.”
“Well, that gives us a limit. Our lady enters this room, and what does she do? She goes over to the writing-table. What for? Not for anything in the drawers. If there had been anything worth her taking, it would surely have been locked up. No, it was for something in that wooden bureau. Halloa! what is that scratch upon the face of it? Just hold a match, Watson. Why did you not tell me of this, Hopkins?”
The mark which he was examining began upon the brass-work on the right-hand side of the keyhole, and extended for about four inches, where it had scratched the varnish from the surface.
“I noticed it, Mr. Holmes, but you’ll always find scratches round a keyhole.”
“This is recent, quite recent. See how the brass shines where it is cut. An old scratch would be the same colour as the surface. Look at it through my lens. There’s the varnish, too, like earth on each side of a furrow. Is Mrs. Marker there?”
A sad-faced, elderly woman came into the room.
“Did you dust this bureau yesterday morning?”
“Did you notice this scratch?”
“No, sir, I did not.”
“I am sure you did not, for a duster would have swept away these shreds of varnish. Who has the key of this bureau?”
“The Professor keeps it on his watch-chain.”
“Is it a simple key?”
“No, sir, it is a Chubb’s key.”
“Very good. Mrs. Marker, you can go. Now we are making a little progress. Our lady enters the room, advances to the bureau, and either opens it or tries to do so. While she is thus engaged, young Willoughby Smith enters the room. In her hurry to withdraw the key, she makes this scratch upon the door. He seizes her, and she, snatching up the nearest object, which happens to be this knife, strikes at him in order to make him let go his hold. The blow is a fatal one. He falls and she escapes, either with or without the object for which she has come. Is Susan, the maid, there? Could anyone have got away through that door after the time that you heard the cry, Susan?”
“No sir, it is impossible. Before I got down the stair, I’d have seen anyone in the passage. Besides, the door never opened, or I would have heard it.”
“That settles this exit. Then no doubt the lady went out the way she came. I understand that this other passage leads only to the professor’s room. There is no exit that way?”
“We shall go down it and make the acquaintance of the professor. Halloa, Hopkins! this is very important, very important indeed. The professor’s corridor is also lined with cocoanut matting.”
“Well, sir, what of that?”
“Don’t you see any bearing upon the case? Well, well. I don’t insist upon it. No doubt I am wrong. And yet it seems to me to be suggestive. Come with me and introduce me.”
We passed down the passage, which was of the same length as that which led to the garden. At the end was a short flight of steps ending in a door. Our guide knocked, and then ushered us into the professor’s bedroom.
It was a very large chamber, lined with innumerable volumes, which had overflowed from the shelves and lay in piles in the corners, or were stacked all round at the base of the cases. The bed was in the centre of the room, and in it, propped up with pillows, was the owner of the house. I have seldom seen a more remarkable-looking person. It was a gaunt, aquiline face which was turned towards us, with piercing dark eyes, which lurked in deep hollows under overhung and tufted brows. His hair and beard were white, save that the latter was curiously stained with yellow around his mouth. A cigarette glowed amid the tangle of white hair, and the air of the room was fetid with stale tobacco smoke. As he held out his hand to Holmes, I perceived that it was also stained with yellow nicotine.
“A smoker, Mr. Holmes?” said he, speaking in well-chosen English, with a curious little mincing accent. “Pray take a cigarette. And you, sir? I can recommend them, for I have them especially prepared by Ionides, of Alexandria. He sends me a thousand at a time, and I grieve to say that I have to arrange for a fresh supply every fortnight. Bad, sir, very bad, but an old man has few pleasures. Tobacco and my work—that is all that is left to me.”
Holmes had lit a cigarette and was shooting little darting glances all over the room.
“Tobacco and my work, but now only tobacco,” the old man exclaimed. “Alas! what a fatal interruption! Who could have foreseen such a terrible catastrophe? So estimable a young man! I assure you that, after a few months’ training, he was an admirable assistant. What do you think of the matter, Mr. Holmes?”
“I have not yet made up my mind.”
“I shall indeed be indebted to you if you can throw a light where all is so dark to us. To a poor bookworm and invalid like myself such a blow is paralyzing. I seem to have lost the faculty of thought. But you are a man of action—you are a man of affairs. It is part of the everyday routine of your life. You can preserve your balance in every emergency. We are fortunate, indeed, in having you at our side.”
Holmes was pacing up and down one side of the room whilst the old professor was talking. I observed that he was smoking with extraordinary rapidity. It was evident that he shared our host’s liking for the fresh Alexandrian cigarettes.
“Yes, sir, it is a crushing blow,” said the old man. “That is my MAGNUM OPUS—the pile of papers on the side table yonder. It is my analysis of the documents found in the Coptic monasteries of Syria and Egypt, a work which will cut deep at the very foundation of revealed religion. With my enfeebled health I do not know whether I shall ever be able to complete it, now that my assistant has been taken from me. Dear me! Mr. Holmes, why, you are even a quicker smoker than I am myself.”
“I am a connoisseur,” said he, taking another cigarette from the box—his fourth—and lighting it from the stub of that which he had finished. “I will not trouble you with any lengthy cross-examination, Professor Coram, since I gather that you were in bed at the time of the crime, and could know nothing about it. I would only ask this: What do you imagine that this poor fellow meant by his last words: ‘The professor—it was she’?”
The professor shook his head.
“Susan is a country girl,” said he, “and you know the incredible stupidity of that class. I fancy that the poor fellow murmured some incoherent delirious words, and that she twisted them into this meaningless message.”
“I see. You have no explanation yourself of the tragedy?”
“Possibly an accident, possibly—I only breathe it among ourselves—a suicide. Young men have their hidden troubles—some affair of the heart, perhaps, which we have never known. It is a more probable supposition than murder.”
“But the eyeglasses?”
“Ah! I am only a student—a man of dreams. I cannot explain the practical things of life. But still, we are aware, my friend, that love-gages may take strange shapes. By all means take another cigarette. It is a pleasure to see anyone appreciate them so. A fan, a glove, glasses—who knows what article may be carried as a token or treasured when a man puts an end to his life? This gentleman speaks of footsteps in the grass, but, after all, it is easy to be mistaken on such a point. As to the knife, it might well be thrown far from the unfortunate man as he fell. It is possible that I speak as a child, but to me it seems that Willoughby Smith has met his fate by his own hand.”
Holmes seemed struck by the theory thus put forward, and he continued to walk up and down for some time, lost in thought and consuming cigarette after cigarette.
“Tell me, Professor Coram,” he said, at last, “what is in that cupboard in the bureau?”
“Nothing that would help a thief. Family papers, letters from my poor wife, diplomas of universities which have done me honour. Here is the key. You can look for yourself.”
Holmes picked up the key, and looked at it for an instant, then he handed it back.
“No, I hardly think that it would help me,” said he. “I should prefer to go quietly down to your garden, and turn the whole matter over in my head. There is something to be said for the theory of suicide which you have put forward. We must apologize for having intruded upon you, Professor Coram, and I promise that we won’t disturb you until after lunch. At two o’clock we will come again, and report to you anything which may have happened in the interval.”
Holmes was curiously distrait, and we walked up and down the garden path for some time in silence.