“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 somethirig 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 passed. Mr. McFarlane had left his hat, and to the best of her belief his stick, in the hall. She 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 affairs.
“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 had 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 defi
nitely established. Advise you to abandon case.
“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 twoedged 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 to-day.”
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, Mr. Holmes.”
“You certainly have the air of something unusual having occurred,” said Holmes.
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 laughter.
“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 cocksure, 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 if it.” Holmes was outwardly calm, but his whole body gave a wriggle of suppressed excitement as he spoke.
“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 there yesterday?”
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 sitting-room.”
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 the sunshine.”
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 interrupted him.
“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.”