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 landing.”
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 the straw?”
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, three –”
“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 succeeded.”
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 thefolwll 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 the morning.”
“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 naturallf, 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 thumbmark 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.
“l 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 your turn.”