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 outside.
“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 Norwood.”
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, grimly.
“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 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 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 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 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 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 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.