On the contrary, she had to admit that she was down near Thor Bridge — that was the scene of the tragedy — about that hour. She couldn’t deny it, for some passing villager had seen her there.”
“That really seems final.”
“And yet, Watson — and yet! This bridge — a single broad span of stone with balustraded sides — carries the drive over the narrowest part of a long, deep, reed-girt sheet of water. Thor Mere it is called. In the mouth of the bridge lay the dead woman. Such are the main facts. But here, if I mistake not, is our client, considerably before his time.”
Billy had opened the door, but the name which he announced was an unexpected one. Mr. Marlow Bates was a stranger to both of us. He was a thin, nervous wisp of a man with frightened eyes and a twitching, hesitating manner — a man whom my own professional eye would judge to be on the brink of an absolute nervous breakdown.
“You seem agitated, Mr. Bates,” said Holmes. “Pray sit down. I fear I can only give you a short time, for I have an appointment at eleven.”
“I know you have,” our visitor gasped, shooting out short sentences like a man who is out of breath. “Mr. Gibson is coming. Mr. Gibson is my employer. I am manager of his estate. Mr. Holmes, he is a villain — an infernal villain.”
“Strong language, Mr. Bates.”
“I have to be emphatic, Mr. Holmes, for the time is so limited. I would not have him find me here for the world. He is almost due now. But I was so situated that I could not come earlier. His secretary, Mr. Ferguson, only told me this morning of his appointment with you.”
“And you are his manager?”
“I have given him notice. In a couple of weeks I shall have shaken off his accursed slavery. A hard man, Mr. Holmes, hard to all about him. Those public charities are a screen to cover his private iniquities. But his wife was his chief victim. He was brutal to her — yes, sir, brutal! How she came by her death I do not know, but I am sure that he had made her life a misery to her. She was a creature of the tropics, a Brazilian by birth, as no doubt you know.”
“No, it had escaped me.”
“Tropical by birth and tropical by nature. A child of the sun and of passion. She had loved him as such women can love, but when her own physical charms had faded — I am told that they once were great — there was nothing to hold him. We all liked her and felt for her and hated him for the way that he treated her. But he is plausible and cunning. That is all I have to say to you. Don’t take him at his face value. There is more behind. Now I‘ll go. No, no, don’t detain me! He is almost due.”
With a frightened look at the clock our strange visitor literally ran to the door and disappeared.
“Well! Well!” said Holmes after an interval of silence. “Mr. Gibson seems to have a nice loyal household. But the warning is a useful one, and now we can only wait till the man himself appears.”
Sharp at the hour we heard a heavy step upon the stairs, and the famous millionaire was shown into the room. As I looked upon him I understood not only the fears and dislike of his manager but also the execrations which so many business rivals have heaped upon his head. If I were a sculptor and desired to idealize the successful man of affairs, iron of nerve and leathery of conscience, I should choose Mr. Neil Gibson as my model. His tall, gaunt, craggy figure had a suggestion of hunger and rapacity. An Abraham Lincoln keyed to base uses instead of high ones would give some idea of the man. His face might have been chiselled in granite, hard-set, craggy, remorseless, with deep lines upon it, the scars of many a crisis. Cold gray eyes, looking shrewdly out from under bristling brows, surveyed us each in turn. He bowed in perfunctory fashion as Holmes mentioned my name, and then with a masterful air of possession he drew a chair up to my companion and seated himself with his bony knees almost touching him.
“Let me say right here, Mr. Holmes,” he began, “that money is nothing to me in this case. You can burn it if it’s any use in lighting you to the truth. This woman is innocent and this woman has to be cleared, and it’s up to you to do it.