The tavern dining-room had been cleared of all its furniture save one six-foot pine table and a chair. This table was against one end of the room; the chair was on it; Sherlock Holmes, stately, imposing, impressive, sat in the chair. The public stood. The room was full. The tobacco-smoke was dense, the stillness profound.
The Extraordinary Man raised his hand to command additional silence; held it in the air a few moments; then, in brief, crisp terms he put forward question after question, and noted the answers with "Um-ums," nods of the head, and so on. By this process he learned all about Flint Buckner, his character, conduct, and habits, that the people were able to tell him. It thus transpired that the Extraordinary Man's nephew was the only person in the camp who had a killing-grudge against Flint Buckner. Mr. Holmes smiled compassionately upon the witness, and asked, languidly:
"Do any of you gentlemen chance to know where the lad Fetlock Jones was at the time of the explosion?"
A thunderous response followed:
"In the billiard-room of this house!"
"Ah. And had he just come in?"
"Been there all of an hour!"
"Ah. It is about--about--well, about how far might it be to the scene of the explosions."
"All of a mile!"
"Ah. It isn't much of an alibi, 'tis true, but--"
A storm-burst of laughter, mingled with shouts of "By jiminy, but he's chain-lightning!" and "Ain't you sorry you spoke, Sandy?" shut off the rest of the sentence, and the crushed witness drooped his blushing face in pathetic shame. The inquisitor resumed:
"The lad Jones's somewhat distant connection with the case" (laughter) "having been disposed of, let us now call the eye-witnesses of the tragedy, and listen to what they have to say."
He got out his fragmentary clues and arranged them on a sheet of cardboard on his knee. The house held its breath and watched.
"We have the longitude and the latitude, corrected for magnetic variation, and this gives us the exact location of the tragedy. We have the altitude, the temperature, and the degree of humidity prevailing --inestimably valuable, since they enable us to estimate with precision the degree of influence which they would exercise upon the mood and disposition of the assassin at that time of the night."
(Buzz of admiration; muttered remark, "By George, but he's deep.") He fingered his clues. "And now let us ask these mute witnesses to speak to us.
"Here we have an empty linen shot-bag. What is its message? This: that robbery was the motive, not revenge. What is its further message? This: that the assassin was of inferior intelligence--shall we say light-witted, or perhaps approaching that? How do we know this? Because a person of sound intelligence would not have proposed to rob the man Buckner, who never had much money with him. But the assassin might have been a stranger? Let the bag speak again. I take from it this article. It is a bit of silver-bearing quartz. It is peculiar. Examine it, please--you--and you--and you. Now pass it back, please. There is but one lode on this coast which produces just that character and color of quartz; and that is a lode which crops out for nearly two miles on a stretch, and in my opinion is destined, at no distant day, to confer upon its locality a globe-girdling celebrity, and upon its two hundred owners riches beyond the dreams of avarice. Name that lode, please."
"The Consolidated Christian Science and Mary Ann!" was the prompt response.
A wild crash of hurrahs followed, and every man reached for his neighbor's hand and wrung it, with tears in his eyes; and Wells-Fargo Ferguson shouted, "The Straight Flush is on the lode, and up she goes to a hunched and fifty a foot--you hear me!"
When quiet fell, Mr. Holmes resumed:
"We perceive, then, that three facts are established, to wit: the assassin was approximately light-witted; he was not a stranger; his motive was robbery, not revenge. Let us proceed. I hold in my hand a small fragment of fuse, with the recent smell of fire upon it. What is its testimony? Taken with the corroborative evidence of the quartz, it reveals to us that the assassin was a miner. What does it tell us further? This, gentlemen: that the assassination was consummated by means of an explosive. What else does it say? This: that the explosive was located against the side of the cabin nearest the road--the front side--for within six feet of that spot I found it.
"I hold in my fingers a burnt Swedish match--the kind one rubs on a safety-box. I found it in the road, six hundred and twenty-two feet from the abolished cabin. What does it say? This: that the train was fired from that point. What further does it tell us? This: that the assassin was left-handed. How do I know this? I should not be able to explain to you, gentlemen, how I know it, the signs being so subtle that only long experience and deep study can enable one to detect them. But the signs are here, and they are reinforced by a fact which you must have often noticed in the great detective narratives--that all assassins are left-handed."
"By Jackson, that's so." said Ham Sandwich, bringing his great hand down with a resounding slap upon his thigh; "blamed if I ever thought of it before."
"Nor I!" "Nor I!" cried several. "Oh, there can't anything escape him --look at his eye!"
"Gentlemen, distant as the murderer was from his doomed victim, he did not wholly escape injury. This fragment of wood which I now exhibit to you struck him. It drew blood. Wherever he is, he bears the telltale mark. I picked it up where he stood when he fired the fatal train," He looked out over the house from his high perch, and his countenance began to darken; he slowly raised his hand, and pointed:
"There stands the assassin!"
For a moment the house was paralyzed with amazement; then twenty voices burst out with:
"Sammy Hillyer? Oh, hell, no! Him? It's pure foolishness!"
"Take care, gentlemen--be not hasty. Observe--he has the blood-mark on his brow."
Hillyer turned white with fright. He was near to crying. He turned this way and that, appealing to every face for help and sympathy; and held out his supplicating hands toward Holmes and began to plead:
"Don't, oh, don't! I never did it; I give my word I never did it. The way I got this hurt on my forehead was--"
"Arrest him, constable!" cried Holmes. "I will swear out the warrant."
The constable moved reluctantly forward--hesitated--stopped.
Hillyer broke out with another appeal. "Oh, Archy, don't let them do it; it would kill mother! You know how I got the hurt. Tell them, and save me, Archy; save me!"
Stillman worked his way to the front, and said:
"Yes, I'll save you. Don't be afraid." Then he said to the house, "Never mind how he got the hurt; it hasn't anything to do with this case, and isn't of any consequence."
"God bless you, Archy, for a true friend!"
"Hurrah for Archy! Go in, boy, and play 'em a knock-down flush to their two pair 'n' a jack!" shouted the house, pride in their home talent and a patriotic sentiment of loyalty to it rising suddenly in the public heart and changing the whole attitude of the situation.
Young Stillman waited for the noise to cease; then he said:
"I will ask Tom Jeffries to stand by that door yonder, and Constable Harris to stand by the other one here, and not let anybody leave the room.
"Said and done. Go on, old man!"
"The criminal is present, I believe. I will show him to you before long, in case I am right in my guess. Now I will tell you all about the tragedy, from start to finish. The motive wasn't robbery; it was revenge. The murderer wasn't light-witted. He didn't stand six hundred and twenty-two feet away. He didn't get hit with a piece of wood. He didn't place the explosive against the cabin. He didn't bring a shot-bag with him, and he wasn't left-handed. With the exception of these errors, the distinguished guest's statement of the case is substantially correct."
A comfortable laugh rippled over the house; friend nodded to friend, as much as to say, "That's the word, with the bark on it. Good lad, good boy. He ain't lowering his flag any!"
The guest's serenity was not disturbed. Stillman resumed:
"I also have some witnesses; and I will presently tell you where you can find some more." He held up a piece of coarse wire; the crowd craned their necks to see. "It has a smooth coating of melted tallow on it. And here is a candle which is burned half-way down. The remaining half of it has marks cut upon it an inch apart. Soon I will tell you where I found these things. I will now put aside reasonings, guesses, the impressive hitchings of odds and ends of clues together, and the other showy theatricals of the detective trade, and tell you in a plain, straightforward way just how this dismal thing happened."
He paused a moment, for effect--to allow silence and suspense to intensify and concentrate the house's interest; then he went on:
"The assassin studied out his plan with a good deal of pains. It was a good plan, very ingenious, and showed an intelligent mind, not a feeble one. It was a plan which was well calculated to ward off all suspicion from its inventor. In the first place, he marked a candle into spaces an inch apart, and lit it and timed it. He found it took three hours to burn four inches of it. I tried it myself for half an hour, awhile ago, up-stairs here, while the inquiry into Flint Buckner's character and ways was being conducted in this room, and I arrived in that way at the rate of a candle's consumption when sheltered from the wind. Having proved his trial candle's rate, he blew it out--I have already shown it to you --and put his inch-marks on a fresh one.
"He put the fresh one into a tin candlestick. Then at the five-hour mark he bored a hole through the candle with a red-hot wire. I have already shown you the wire, with a smooth coat of tallow on it--tallow that had been melted and had cooled.
"With labor--very hard labor, I should say--he struggled up through the stiff chaparral that clothes the steep hillside back of Flint Buckner's place, tugging an empty flour-barrel with him. He placed it in that absolutely secure hiding-place, and in the bottom of it he set the candlestick. Then he measured off about thirty-five feet of fuse--the barrel's distance from the back of the cabin. He bored a hole in the side of the barrel--here is the large gimlet he did it with. He went on and finished his work; and when it was done, one end of the fuse was in Buckner's cabin, and the other end, with a notch chipped in it to expose the powder, was in the hole in the candle--timed to blow the place up at one o'clock this morning, provided the candle was lit about eight o'clock yesterday evening--which I am betting it was--and provided there was an explosive in the cabin and connected with that end of the fuse--which I am also betting there was, though I can't prove it. Boys, the barrel is there in the chaparral, the candle's remains are in it in the tin stick; the burnt-out fuse is in the gimlet-hole, the other end is down the hill where the late cabin stood. I saw them all an hour or two ago, when the Professor here was measuring off unimplicated vacancies and collecting relics that hadn't anything to do with the case."
He paused. The house drew a long, deep breath, shook its strained cords and muscles free and burst into cheers. "Dang him!" said Ham Sandwich, "that's why he was snooping around in the chaparral, instead of picking up points out of the P'fessor's game. Looky here--he ain't no fool, boys."
"No, sir! Why, great Scott--"
But Stillman was resuming:
"While we were out yonder an hour or two ago, the owner of the gimlet and the trial candle took them from a place where he had concealed them--it was not a good place--and carried them to what he probably thought was a better one, two hundred yards up in the pine woods, and hid them there, covering them over with pine needles. It was there that I found them. The gimlet exactly fits the hole in the barrel. And now--"
The Extraordinary Man interrupted him. He said, sarcastically:
"We have had a very pretty fairy tale, gentlemen--very pretty indeed. Now I would like to ask this young man a question or two."
Some of the boys winced, and Ferguson said:
"I'm afraid Archy's going to catch it now."
The others lost their smiles and sobered down. Mr. Holmes said:
"Let us proceed to examine into this fairy tale in a consecutive and orderly way--by geometrical progression, so to speak--linking detail to detail in a steadily advancing and remorselessly consistent and unassailable march upon this tinsel toy fortress of error, the dream fabric of a callow imagination. To begin with, young sir, I desire to ask you but three questions at present--at present. Did I understand you to say it was your opinion that the supposititious candle was lighted at about eight o'clock yesterday evening?"
"Yes, sir--about eight."
"Could you say exactly eight?"
"Well, no, I couldn't be that exact."
"Um. If a person had been passing along there just about that time, he would have been almost sure to encounter that assassin, do you think?"
"Yes, I should think so."
"Thank you, that is all. For the present. I say, all for the present."
"Dern him, he's laying for Archy," said Ferguson.
"It's so," said Ham Sandwich. "I don't like the look of it."
Stillman said, glancing at the guest, "I was along there myself at half-past eight--no, about nine."
"In-deed? This is interesting--this is very interesting. Perhaps you encountered the assassin?"
"No, I encountered no one."
"Ah. Then--if you will excuse the remark--I do not quite see the relevancy of the information."
"It has none. At present. I say it has none--at present."
He paused. Presently he resumed: "I did not encounter the assassin, but I am on his track, I am sure, for I believe he is in this room. I will ask you all to pass one by one in front of me--here, where there is a good light--so that I can see your feet."
A buzz of excitement swept the place, and the march began, the guest looking on with an iron attempt at gravity which was not an unqualified success. Stillman stooped, shaded his eyes with his hand, and gazed down intently at each pair of feet as it passed. Fifty men tramped monotonously by--with no result. Sixty. Seventy. The thing was beginning to look absurd. The guest remarked, with suave irony:
"Assassins appear to be scarce this evening."
The house saw the humor if it, and refreshed itself with a cordial laugh. Ten or twelve more candidates tramped by--no, danced by, with airy and ridiculous capers which convulsed the spectators--then suddenly Stillman put out his hand and said:
"This is the assassin!"
"Fetlock Jones, by the great Sanhedrim!" roared the crowd; and at once let fly a pyrotechnic explosion and dazzle and confusion of stirring remarks inspired by the situation.
At the height of the turmoil the guest stretched out his hand, commanding peace. The authority of a great name and a great personality laid its mysterious compulsion upon the house, and it obeyed. Out of the panting calm which succeeded, the guest spoke, saying, with dignity and feeling:
"This is serious. It strikes at an innocent life. Innocent beyond suspicion! Innocent beyond peradventure! Hear me prove it; observe how simple a fact can brush out of existence this witless lie. Listen. My friends, that lad was never out of my sight yesterday evening at any time!"
It made a deep impression. Men turned their eyes upon Stillman with grave inquiry in them. His face brightened, and he said:
"I knew there was another one!" He stepped briskly to the table and glanced at the guest's feet, then up at his face, and said: "You were with him! You were not fifty steps from him when he lit the candle that by and by fired the powder!" (Sensation.) "And what is more, you furnished the matches yourself!"
Plainly the guest seemed hit; it looked so to the public. He opened his mouth to speak; the words did not come freely.
"This--er--this is insanity--this--"
Stillman pressed his evident advantage home. He held up a charred match.
"Here is one of them. I found it in the barrel--and there's another one there."
The guest found his voice at once.
"Yes--and put them there yourself!"
It was recognized a good shot. Stillman retorted.
"It is wax--a breed unknown to this camp. I am ready to be searched for the box. Are you?"
The guest was staggered this time--the dullest eye could see it. He fumbled with his hands; once or twice his lips moved, but the words did not come. The house waited and watched, in tense suspense, the stillness adding effect to the situation. Presently Stillman said, gently:
"We are waiting for your decision."
There was silence again during several moments; then the guest answered, in a low voice:
"I refuse to be searched."
There was no noisy demonstration, but all about the house one voice after another muttered:
"That settles it! He's Archy's meat."
What to do now? Nobody seemed to know. It was an embarrassing situation for the moment--merely, of course, because matters had taken such a sudden and unexpected turn that these unpractised minds were not prepared for it, and had come to a standstill, like a stopped clock, under the shock. But after a little the machinery began to work again, tentatively, and by twos and threes the men put their heads together and privately buzzed over this and that and the other proposition. One of these propositions met with much favor; it was, to confer upon the assassin a vote of thanks for removing Flint Buckner, and let him go. But the cooler heads opposed it, pointing out that addled brains in the Eastern states would pronounce it a scandal, and make no end of foolish noise about it. Finally the cool heads got the upper hand, and obtained general consent to a proposition of their own; their leader then called the house to order and stated it--to this effect: that Fetlock Jones be jailed and put upon trial.
The motion was carried. Apparently there was nothing further to do now, and the people were glad, for, privately, they were impatient to get out and rush to the scene of the tragedy, and see whether that barrel and the other things were really there or not.
But no--the break-up got a check. The surprises were not over yet. For a while Fetlock Jones had been silently sobbing, unnoticed in the absorbing excitements which had been following one another so persistently for some time; but when his arrest and trial were decreed, he broke out despairingly, and said:
"No! it's no use. I don't want any jail, I don't want any trial; I've had all the hard luck I want, and all the miseries. Hang me now, and let me out! It would all come out, anyway--there couldn't anything save me. He has told it all, just as if he'd been with me and seen it--I don't know how he found out; and you'll find the barrel and things, and then I wouldn't have any chance any more. I killed him; and you'd have done it too, if he'd treated you like a dog, and you only a boy, and weak and poor, and not a friend to help you."
"And served him damned well right!" broke in Ham Sandwich. "Looky here, boys--"
From the constable: "Order! Order, gentlemen!"
A voice: "Did your uncle know what you was up to?"
"No, he didn't."
"Did he give you the matches, sure enough?"
"Yes, he did; but he didn't know what I wanted them for."
"When you was out on such a business as that, how did you venture to risk having him along--and him a detective? How's that?"
The boy hesitated, fumbled with his buttons in an embarrassed way, then said, shyly:
"I know about detectives, on account of having them in the family; and if you don't want them to find out about a thing, it's best to have them around when you do it."
The cyclone of laughter which greeted this native discharge of wisdom did not modify the poor little waif's embarrassment in any large degree.