The Adventure of the Norwood Builder +quot;From the point of view of the criminal expert,+
The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
"From the point of view of the criminal expert," said Mr.
Sherlock Holmes, "London has become a singularly uninterest-
ing 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 commu-
nity 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 possibil-
ities. 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
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
Vemer, 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 Vemer 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 prohi-
bition which, as I have explained, has only now been removed.
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 tremen-
dous ring at the bell, followed immediately by a hollow drum-
ming 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, dishevelled, 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
He made the announcement as if the name alone would ex-
plain both his visit and its manner, but I could seel 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 recog-
nize 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 diffi-
cult for me to follow his deductions, and to observe the untidi-
ness of attire, the sheaf of legal papers, the watch-charm, and the
breathing which had prompted them. Our client, however, stared
"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 outside."
"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
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 apprehen-
sion, 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 endorsed 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 oc-
curred 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 establish-
ment 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. Be-
sides 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
Sherlock Holmes listened with closed eyes and fingertips to-
gether 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 Oidacre, 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 outside.
"Mr. John Hector McFarlane?" said LestMde.
Our unfortunate client rose with a ghastly face.
"I arrest you for the wilful murder of Mr. Jonas Oldacre, of
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
"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,"
"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 astonish-
ment 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 senses 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 witnesscd 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 faithfully.
"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 him --"
"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
"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 this time."
"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 latc 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 explanation.
"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
razor-like 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 occu-
pied 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
"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,"
"Oh, you think so?"
"Well, it is quite possible, but the case is not clear to me
"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 cnminal? 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 docu-
ments 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 the body."
"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
"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
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 before him.
"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 unex-
pected 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 misadventures.
"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 indigna-
tion. 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
"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 Oldacre's 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 than before.
"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 re-
moved, 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 standstill.
"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 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 him-
self, 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
"That is a dangerous argument, my dear Watson. You re-
member 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 in-
dication, my researches must now take the direction of an in-
quiry 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
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 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 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
"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
"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, gentle-
men, 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 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 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 exami-
nation of the hall. Besides, it's not in a very prominent place, as
"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,"
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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 they will
understand how hard it is to throw dust in the eyes of Inspector
"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 house-
keeper of his, whom I should lose no time in adding to your bag,
"I'll take your advice. But how did you know of this place,
"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
"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 recollec-
tion 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 abso-
lutely 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 wait-
ing 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 al-
together, draw this money, and vanish, starting life again
"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 con-
cealed 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.
"That's for a jury to decide," said Lestrade. "Anyhow, we
shall have you on a charge of conspiracy, if not for attempted
"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
"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."
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank