His Last Bow
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
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His Last Bow. The Wars Service of Sherlock Holmes (LAST) is a short story written by Arthur Conan Doyle first published in The Strand Magazine in september 1917. This is the 48th Sherlock Holmes story. Collected in His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes.
- in The Strand Magazine (september 1917 [UK]) 3 illustrations by Alfred Gilbert
- in Collier's (22 september 1917 [US]) 5 ill. by Frederic Dorr Steele
- in His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes (1917-1928)
- in Adventure World No. 10 (Мир Приключений) (1917 [RU]) as His Last Hit (Его последний удар)
- in Lectures Pour Tous (1 april 1919 [FR]) as Service de guerre, 2 ill. by Richard Wallace
- in La Nouvelle chronique de Sherlock Holmes (june 1922, Pierre Lafitte Romans pour Tous [FR]) as L'Exploit final
- in Dimanche Illustré No. 243 (23 october 1927 [FR]) as L'Éleveur d'abeilles, 2 ill. by Jean Rapeton
- in La Nouvelle chronique de Sherlock Holmes (september 1929, Librairie des Champs-Élysées [FR]) as L'Exploit final
- in The Crowborough Edition of the Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle vol. 20 (1930, Doubleday, Doran & Co. [US])
- Sherlock Holmes aka Altamont
- John H. Watson
- Von Bork
- Baron Von Herling
- Cabinet Minister
- John Bull
- English King
- Duke of York
- Uncle Sam
- Jack James
- Franz Joseph
- Foreign Minister
- Premier Minsiter
- Professor Moriarty
- Colonel Sebastian Moran
- Irene Adler
- King of Bohemia
- Count Von und Zu Grafenstein
- Secret Service
- The Channel
- The Admiralty
- Carlton Terrace
- Schoenbrunn Palace
- Claridge's Hotel
- Scotland Yard
- New York
- South Downs
- America aka Uncle Sam
- Germany (Prussian)
- The second of August 1914 (John H. Watson)
- 2 august 1914 (Jay Finley Christ)
- 2 august 1914 (William Stuart Baring-Gould)
- More chronologists
- 1994 : His Last Bow. Holmes : Clive Merrison. Watson : Michael Williams.
- 1969 : His Last Bow. Holmes : Carleton Hobbs. Watson : Norman Shelley.
- 1960 : Son dernier coup d'archet (FR). Holmes : Georges Descrières. Watson : Pierre Destailles.
- 1932 : His Last Bow. Holmes : Richard Gordon. Watson : Leigh Lovell.
Plot summary (spoiler)
It was nine o'clock at night upon the second of August - the most terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining brightly; and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay. The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great chalk cliff on which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together, talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant fiend looking down in the darkness.
A remarkable man this Von Bork - a man who could hardly be matched among all the devoted agents of the Kaiser. It was his talents which had first recommended him for the English mission, the most important mission of all, but since he had taken it over, those talents had become more and more manifest to the half-dozen people in the world who were really in touch with the truth. One of these was his present companion, Baron Von Herling, the chief secretary of the legation, whose huge 100-horse-power Benz car was blocking the country lane as it waited to waft its owner back to London.
'So far as I can judge the trend of events, you will probably be back in Berlin within the week,' the secretary was saying. 'When you get there, my dear Von Bork, I think you will be surprised at the welcome you will receive. I happen to know what is thought in the highest quarters of your work in this country.' He was a huge man, the secretary, deep, broad, and tall, with a slow, heavy fashion of speech which had been his main asset in his political career.
Von Bork laughed.
'They are not very hard to deceive,' he remarked. 'A more docile, simple folk could not be imagined.'
'I don't know about that,' said the other thoughtfully. 'They have strange limits and one must learn to observe them. It is that surface simplicity of theirs which makes a trap for the stranger. One's first impression is that they are entirely soft. Then one comes suddenly upon something very hard and you know that you have reached the limit, and must adapt yourself to the fact. They have, for example, their insular conventions which simply must be observed.'
'Meaning, 'good form' and that sort of thing?' Von Bork sighed, as one who had suffered much.
'Meaning British prejudice in all its queer manifestations. As an example I may quote one of my own worst blunders - I can afford to talk of my blunders, for you know my work well enough to be aware of my successes. It was on my first arrival. I was invited to a week-end gathering at the country house of a Cabinet Minister. The conversation was amazingly indiscreet.'
Von Bork nodded. 'I've been there,' said he dryly.
'Exactly. Well, I naturally sent a rÃ©sumÃ© of the information to Berlin. Unfortunately our good Chancellor is a little heavy-handed in these matters, and he transmitted a remark which showed that he was aware of what had been said. This, of course, took the trail straight up to me. You've no idea the harm that it did me. There was nothing soft about our British hosts on that occasion, I can assure you. I was two years living it down. Now you, with this sporting pose of yours.'
'No, no, don't call it a pose. A pose is an artificial thing. This is quite natural. I am a born sportsman. I enjoy it.'
'Well, that makes it the more effective. You yacht against them, you hunt with them, you play polo, you match them in every game, your four-in-hand takes the prize at Olympia. I have even heard that you go the length of boxing with the young officers. What is the result? Nobody takes you seriously. You are a "good old sport," "quite a decent fellow for a German," a hard-drinking, night-club, knock-abouttown, devil-may-care young fellow. And all the time this quiet country house of yours is the centre of half the mischief in England, and the sporting squire the most astute Secret Service man in Europe. Genius, my dear Von Bork - genius!'
'You flatter me, Baron. But certainly I may claim that my four years in this country have not been unproductive. I've never shown you my little store. Would you mind stepping in for a moment?'
The door of the study opened straight on to the terrace. Von Bork pushed it back, and, leading the way, he clicked the switch of the electric light. He then closed the door behind the bulky form which followed him, and carefully adjusted the heavy curtain over the latticed window. Only when all these precautions had been taken and tested did he turn his sunburned aquiline face to his guest.
'Some of my papers have gone,' said he; 'when my wife and the household left yesterday for Flushing they took the less important with them. I must, of course, claim the protection of the Embassy for the others.'
'Your name has already been filed as one of the personal suite. There will be no difficulties for you or your baggage. Of course, it is just possible that we may not have to go. England may leave France to her fate. We are sure that there is no binding treaty between them.'
'Yes, and Belgium, too.'
Von Bork shook his head. 'I don't see how that could be. There is a definite treaty there. She could never recover from such a humiliation.'
'She would at least have peace for the moment.'
'But her honour?'
'Tut, my dear sir, we live in a utilitarian age. Honour is a mediÃ¦val conception. Besides England is not ready. It is an inconceivable thing, but even our special war tax of fifty millions, which one would think made our purpose as clear as if we had advertised it on the front page of The Times, has not roused these people from their slumbers. Here and there one hears a question. It is my business to find an answer. Here and there also there is an irritation. It is my business to soothe it. But I can assure you that so far as the essentials go - the storage of munitions, the preparation for submarine attack, the arrangements for making high explosives - nothing is prepared. How then can England come in, especially when we have stirred her up such a devil's brew of Irish civil war, window-breaking Furies, and God knows what to keep her thoughts at home?'
'She must think of her future.'
'Ah, that is another matter. I fancy that in the future, we have our own very definite plans about England, and that your information will be very vital to us. It is to-day or to-morrow with Mr. John Bull. If he prefers to-day we are perfectly ready. If it is tomorrow we shall be more ready still. I should think they would be wiser to fight with allies than without them, but that is their own affair. This week is their week of destiny. But you were speaking of your papers.' He sat in the arm-chair with the light shining upon his broad bald head, while he puffed sedately at his-cigar.
The large oak-panelled book-lined room had a curtain hung in the further corner. When this was drawn it disclosed a large brass-bound safe. Von Bork detached a small key from his watch-chain, and after some considerable manipulation of the lock he swung open the heavy door.
'Look!' said he, standing clear, with a wave of his hand.
The light shone vividly into the opened safe, and the secretary of the Embassy gazed with an absorbed interest at the rows of stuffed pigeon-holes with which it was furnished. Each pigeon-hole had its label, and his eyes as he glanced along them read a long series of such titles as 'Fords,' 'Harbour-defences,' 'Aeroplanes,' 'Ireland,' 'Egypt,' 'Portsmouth forts,' 'The Channel,' 'Rosyth,' and a score of others. Each compartment was bristling with papers and plans.
'Colossal!' said the secretary. Putting down his cigar he softly clapped his fat hands.
'And all in four years, Baron. Not such a bad show for the hard-drinking, hard-riding country squire. But the gem of my collection is coming and there is the setting all ready for it.' He pointed to a space over which 'Naval Signals' was printed.
'But you have a good dossier there already.'
'Out of date and waste paper. The Admiralty in some way got the alarm and every code has been changed. It was a blow, Baron - the worst set-back in my whole campaign. But thanks to my cheque-book and the good Altamont all will be well to-night.'
The Baron looked at his watch, and gave a guttural exclamation of disappointment.
'Well, I really can wait no longer. You can imagine that things are moving at present in Carlton Terrace and that we have all to be at our posts. I had hoped to be able to bring news of your great coup. Did Altamont name no hour?'
Von Bork pushed over a telegram.
'Will come without fail to-night and bring new sparking plugs. - ALTAMONT.'
'Sparking plugs, eh?'
'You see he poses as a motor expert and I keep a full garage. In our code everything likely to come up is named after some spare part. If he talks of a radiator it is a battleship, of an oil-pump a cruiser, and so on. Sparking plugs are naval signals.'
'From Portsmouth at midday,' said the secretary, examining the superscription. 'By the way, what do you give him?'
'Five hundred pounds for this particular job. Of course he has a salary as well.'
'The greedy rogue. They are useful, these traitors, but I grudge them their blood-money.'
'I grudge Altamont nothing. He is a wonderful worker. If I pay him well, at least he delivers the goods, to use his own phrase. Besides he is not a traitor. I assure you that our most pan-Germanic Junker is a sucking dove in his feelings towards England as compared with a real bitter Irish-American.'
'Oh, an Irish-American?'
'If you heard him talk you would not doubt it. Sometimes I assure you I can hardly understand him. He seems to have declared war on the King's English as well as on the English King. Must you really go? He may be here any moment.'
'No. I'm sorry, but I have already overstayed my time. We shall expect you early to-morrow, and when you get that signal-book through the little door on the Duke of York's steps you can put a triumphant Finis to your record in England. What! Tokay!' He indicated a heavily sealed dust-covered bottle which stood with two high glasses upon a salver.
'May I offer you a glass before your journey?'
'No, thanks. But it looks like revelry.'
'Altamont has a nice taste in wines, and he took a fancy to my Tokay. He is a touchy fellow, and needs humouring in small things. I have to study him, I assure you.' They had strolled out on to the terrace again, and along it to the further end where at a touch from the Baron's chauffeur the great car shivered and chuckled. 'Those are the lights of Harwich, I suppose,' said the secretary, pulling on his dust coat. 'How still and peaceful it all seems. There may be other lights within the week, and the English coast a less tranquil place! The heavens, too, may not be quite so peaceful if all that the good Zeppelin promises us comes true. By the way, who is that?'
Only one window showed a light behind them; in it there stood a lamp, and beside it, seated at a table, was a dear old ruddy-faced woman in a country cap. She was bending over her knitting and stopping occasionally to stroke a large black cat upon a stool beside her.
'That is Martha, the only servant I have left.'
The secretary chuckled.
'She might almost personify Britannia,' said he, 'with her complete self-absorption and general air of comfortable somnolence. Well, au revoir, Von Bork!' - with a final wave of his hand he sprang into the car, and a moment later the two golden cones from the headlights shot forward through the darkness. The secretary lay back in the cushions of the luxurious limousine, with his thoughts so full of the impending European tragedy that he hardly observed that as his car swung round the village street it nearly passed over a little Ford coming in the opposite direction.
Von Bork walked slowly back to the study when the last gleams of the motor lamps had faded into the distance. As he passed he observed that his old housekeeper had put out her lamp and retired. It was a new experience to him, the silence and darkness of his widespread house, for his family and household had been a large one. It was a relief to him, however, to think that they were all in safety and that, but for that one old woman who had lingered in the kitchen, he had the whole place to himself. There was a good deal of tidying up to do inside his study and he set himself to do it, until his keen, handsome face was flushed with the heat of the burning papers. A leather valise stood beside his table, and into this he began to pack very neatly and systematically the precious contents of his safe. He had hardly got started with the work, however, when his quick ears caught the sound of a distant car. Instantly he gave an exclamation of satisfaction, strapped up the valise, shut the safe, locked it, and hurried out on to the terrace. He was just in time to see the lights of a small car come to a halt at the gate. A passenger sprang out and advanced swiftly towards him, while the chauffeur, a heavily built, elderly man, with a grey moustache, settled down, like one who resigns himself to a long vigil.
'Well?' asked Von Bork eagerly, running forward to meet his visitor.
For answer the man waved a small brown-paper parcel triumphantly above his head.
'You can give me the glad hand to-night, Mister,' he cried. 'I'm bringing home the bacon at last.'
'Same as I said in my cable. Every last one of them, semaphore, lamp code, Marconi — a copy, mind you, not the original. That was too dangerous. But it's the real goods, and you can lay to that.' He slapped the German upon the shoulder with a rough familiarity from which the other winced.
'Come in,' he said. 'I'm all alone in the house. I was only waiting for this. Of course a copy is better than the original. If an original were missing they would change the whole thing. You think it's all safe about the copy?'
The Irish-American had entered the study and stretched his long limbs from the arm-chair. He was a tall, gaunt man of sixty, with clear-cut features and a small goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance to the caricatures of Uncle Sam. A halfsmoked, sodden cigar hung from the corner of his mouth, and as he sat down he struck a match and relit it. 'Making ready for a move?' he remarked as he looked round him. 'Say, Mister,' he added, as his eyes fell upon the safe from which the curtain was now removed, 'you don't tell me you keep your papers in that?'
'Gosh, in a wide-open contraption like that! And they reckon you to be some spy. Why a Yankee crook would be into that with a can-opener. If I'd known that any letter of mine was goin' to lie loose in a thing like that I'd have been a mug to write to you at all.'
'It would puzzle any crook to force that safe,' Von Bork answered. 'You won't cut that metal with any tool.'
'But the lock?'
'No, it's a double combination lock. You know what that is?'
'Search me,' said the American.
'Well, you need a word as well as a set of figures before you can get the lock to work.' He rose and showed a double-radiating disc round the keyhole. 'This outer one is for the letters, the inner one for the figures.'
'Well, well, that's fine.'
'So it's not quite as simple as you thought. It was four years ago that I had it made, and what do you think I chose for the word and figures?'
'It's beyond me.'
'Well, I chose August for the word, and 1914 for the figures, and here we are.'
The American's face showed his surprise and admiration.
'My, but that was smart! You had it down to a fine thing.'
'Yes, a few of us even then-could have guessed the date. Here it is, and I'm shutting down to-morrow morning.'
'Well, I guess you'll have to fix me up also. I'm not staying in this goldarned country all on my lonesome. In a week or less from what I see, John Bull will be on his hind legs and fair ramping. I'd rather watch him from over the water.'
'But you're an American citizen?'
'Well, so was Jack James an American citizen, but he's doing time in Portland all the same. It cuts no ice with a British copper to tell him you're an American citizen. "It's British law and order over here," says he. By the way, Mister, talking of Jack James, it seems to me you don't do much to cover your men.'
'What do you mean?' Von Bork asked sharply.
'Well, you are their employer, ain't you? It's up to you to see that they don't fall down. But they do fall down, and when did you ever pick them up? There's James-'
'It was James's own fault. You know that yourself. He was too self-willed for the job.'
'James was a bonehead - I give you that. Then there was Hollis.'
'The man was mad.'
'Well, he went a bit woozy towards the end. It's enough to make a man bughouse when he has to play a part from morning to night with a hundred guys all ready to set the coppers wise to him. But now there is Steiner-'
Von Bork started violently, and his ruddy face turned a shade paler.
'What about Steiner?'
'Well, they've got him, that's all. They raided his store last night, and he and his papers are all in Portsmouth gaol. You'll go off and he, poor devil, will have to stand the racket, and lucky if he gets off with his life. That's why I want to get over the water as soon as you do.'
Von Bork was a strong, self-contained man, but it was easy to see that the news had shaken him.
'How could they have got on to Steiner?' he muttered. 'That's the worst blow yet.'
'Well, you nearly had a worse one, for I believe they are not far off me.'
'You don't mean that!'
'Sure thing. My landlady down Fratton way had some inquiries, and when I heard of it I guessed it was time for me to hustle. But what I want to know, Mister, is how the coppers know these things? Steiner is the fifth man you've lost since I signed on with you, and I know the name of the sixth if I don't get a move on. How do you explain it, and ain't you ashamed to see your men go down like this?'
Von Bork flushed crimson.
'How dare you speak in such a way!'
'If I didn't dare things, Mister, I wouldn't be in your service. But I'll tell you straight what is in my mind. I've heard that with you German politicians when an agent has done his work you are not sorry to see him put away.'
Von Bork sprang to his feet.
'Do you dare to suggest that I have given away my own agents!'
'I don't stand for that, Mister, but there's a stool pigeon or a cross somewhere, and it's up to you to find out where it is. Anyhow I am taking no more chances. It's me for little Holland, and the sooner the better.'
Von Bork had mastered his anger.
'We have been allies too long to quarrel now at the very hour of victory,' he said. 'You've done splendid work and taken risks and I can't forget it. By all means go to Holland, and you can get a boat from Rotterdam to New York. No other line will be safe a week from now. I'll take that book and pack it with the rest.'
The American held the small parcel in his hand, but made no motion to give it up.
'What about the dough?' he asked.
'The boodle. The reward. The Â£500. The gunner turned damned nasty at the last, and I had to square him with an extra hundred dollars or it would have been nitsky for you and me. "Nothin' doin'!" says he, and he meant it too, but the last hundred did it. It's cost me two hundred pound from first to last, so it isn't likely I'd give it up without gettin' my wad.'
Von Bork smiled with some bitterness. 'You don't seem to have a very high opinion of my honour,' said he, 'you want the money before you give up the book.'
'Well, Mister, it is a business proposition.'
'All right. Have your way.' He sat down at the table and scribbled a cheque, which he tore from the book, but he refrained from handing it to his companion. 'After all, since we are to be on such terms, Mr. Altamont,' said he, 'I don't see why I should trust you any more than you trust me. Do you understand?' he added, looking back over his shoulder at the American. 'There's the cheque upon the table. I claim the right to examine that parcel before you pick the money up.'
The American passed it over without a word. Von Bork undid a winding of string and two wrappers of paper. Then he sat gazing for a moment in silent amazement at a small blue book which lay before him. Across the cover was printed in golden letters Practical Handbook of Bee Culture. Only for one instant did the master spy glare at this strangely irrelevant inscription. The next he was gripped at the back of his neck by a grasp of iron, and a chloroformed sponge was held in front of his writhing face.
'Another glass, Watson!' said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, as he extended the bottle of Imperial Tokay.
The thick-set chauffeur, who had seated himself by the table, pushed forward his glass with some eagerness.
'It is a good wine, Holmes.'
'A remarkable wine, Watson. Our friend upon the sofa has assured me that it is from Franz Joseph's special cellar at the Schoenbrunn Palace. Might I trouble you to open the window, for chloroform vapour does not help the palate.'
The safe was ajar, and Holmes standing in front of it was removing dossier after dossier, swiftly examining each, and then packing it neatly in Von Bork's valise. The German lay upon the sofa sleeping stertorously with a strap round his upper arms and another round his legs.
'We need not hurry ourselves, Watson. We are safe from interruption. Would you mind touching the bell. There is no one in the house except old Martha, who has played her part to admiration. I got her the situation here when first I took the matter up. Ah, Martha, you will be glad to hear that all is well.'
The pleasant old lady had appeared in the doorway. She curtseyed with a smile to Mr. Holmes, but glanced with some apprehension at the figure upon the sofa.
'It is all right, Martha. He has not been hurt at all. 'I am glad of that, Mr. Holmes. According to his lights he has been a kind master. He wanted me to go with his wife to Germany yesterday, but that would hardly have suited your plans, would it, sir?'
'No, indeed, Martha. So long as you were here I was easy in my mind. We waited some time for your signal to-night.'
'It was the secretary, sir.'
'I know. His car passed ours.'
'I thought he would never go. I knew that it would not suit your plans, sir, to find him here.'
'No, indeed. Well, it only meant that we waited half an hour or so until I saw your lamp go out and knew that the coast was clear. You can report to me to-morrow in London, Martha, at Claridge's Hotel.'
'Very good, sir.'
'I suppose you have everything ready to leave.'
'Yes, sir. He posted seven letters to-day. I have the addresses as usual.'
'Very good, Martha. I will look into them tomorrow. Good night. These papers,' he continued, as the old lady vanished, 'are not of very great importance, for, of course, the information which they represent has been sent off long ago to the German Government. These are the originals which could not safely be got out of the country.'
'Then they are of no use.'
'I should not go so far as to say that, Watson. They will at least show our people what is known and what is not. I may say that a good many of these papers have come through me, and I need not add are thoroughly untrustworthy. It would brighten my declining years to see a German cruiser navigating the Solent according to the minefield plans which I have furnished. But you, Watson,' he stopped his work and took his old friend by the shoulders; 'I've hardly seen you in the light yet. How have the years used you? You look the same blithe boy as ever.'
'I feel twenty years younger, Holmes. I have seldom felt so happy as when I got your wire asking me to meet you at Harwich with the car. But you, Holmes - you have changed very little - save for that horrible goatee.'
'These are the sacrifices one makes for one's country, Watson,' said Holmes, pulling at his little tuft. 'To-morrow it will be but a dreadful memory. With my hair cut and a few other superficial changes I shall no doubt reappear at Claridge's to-morrow as I was before this American stunt - I beg your pardon, Watson, my well of English seems to be permanently defiled - before this American job came my way.'
'But you had retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.'
'Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!' He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days, when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.'
'But how did you get to work again?'
'Ah, I have often marvelled at it myself. The Foreign Minister alone I could have withstood, but when the Premier also deigned to visit my humble roof—! The fact is, Watson, that this gentleman upon the sofa was a bit too good for our people. He was in a class by himself. Things were going wrong, and no one could understand why they were going wrong. Agents were suspected or even caught, but there was evidence of some strong and secret central force. It was absolutely necessary to expose it. Strong pressure was brought upon me to look into the matter. It has cost me two years, Watson, but they have not been devoid of excitement. When I say that I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, graduated in an Irish secret society at Buffalo, gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork, who recommended me as a likely man, you will realize that the matter was complex. Since then I have been honoured by his confidence, which has not prevented most of his plans going subtly wrong and five of his best agents being in prison. I watched them, Watson, and I picked them as they ripened. Well, sir, I hope that you are none the worse!'
The last remark was addressed to Von Bork himself, who after much gasping and blinking had lain quietly listening to Holmes's statement. He broke out now into a furious stream of German invective, his face convulsed with passion. Holmes continued his swift investigation of documents while his prisoner cursed and swore.
'Though unmusical, German is the most expressive of all languages,' he observed, when Von Bork had stopped from pure exhaustion. 'Hullo! Hullo!' he added, as he looked hard at the corner of a tracing before putting it in the box. 'This should put another bird in the cage. I had no idea that the paymaster was such a rascal, though I have long had an eye upon him. Mister Von Bork, you have a great deal to answer for.'
The prisoner had raised himself with some difficulty upon the sofa and was staring with a strange mixture of amazement and hatred at his captor.
'I shall get level with you, Altamont,' he said, speaking with slow deliberation, 'if it takes me all my life I shall get level with you!'
'The old sweet song,' said Holmes. 'How often have I heard it in days gone by. It was a favourite ditty of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it. And yet I live and keep bees upon the South Downs.'
'Curse you, you double traitor!' cried the German, straining against his bonds and glaring murder from his furious eyes.
'No, no, it is not so bad as that,' said Holmes, smiling. 'As my speech surely shows you, Mr. Altamont of Chicago had no existence in fact. I used him and he is gone.'
'Then who are you?'
'It is really immaterial who I am, but since the matter seems to interest you, Mr. Von Bork, I may say that this is not my first acquaintance with the members of your family. I have done a good deal of business in Germany in the past, and my name is probably familiar to you.'
'I would wish to know it,' said the Prussian grimly.
'It was I who brought about the separation between Irene Adler and the late King of Bohemia when your cousin Heinrich was the Imperial Envoy. It was I also who saved from murder, by the Nihilist Klopman, Count Von und Zu Grafenstein, who was your mother's elder brother. It was I-'
Von Bork sat up in amazement.
'There is only one man,' he cried.
'Exactly,' said Holmes.
Von Bork groaned and sank back on the sofa. 'And most of that information came through you,' he cried. 'What is it worth? What have I done? It is my ruin for ever!'
'It is certainly a little untrustworthy,' said Holmes. 'It will require some checking, and you have little time to check it. Your admiral may find the new guns rather larger than he expects, and the cruisers perhaps a trifle faster.'
Von Bork clutched at his own throat in despair.
'There are a good many other points of detail which will, no doubt, come to light in good time. But you have one quality which is very rare in a German, Mr. Von Bork, you are a sportsman and you will bear me no ill-will when you realize that you, who have outwitted so many other people, have at last been outwitted yourself. After all, you have done your best for your country, and I have done my best for mine, and what could be more natural? Besides,' he added, not unkindly, as he laid his hand upon the shoulder of the prostrate man, 'it is better than to fall before some more ignoble foe. These papers are now ready, Watson. If you will help me with our prisoner, I think that we may get started for London at once.'
It was no easy task to move Von Bork, for he was a strong and a desperate man. Finally, holding either arm, the two friends walked him very slowly down the garden walk which he had trod with such proud confidence when he received the congratulations of the famous diplomatist only a few hours before. After a short, final struggle he was hoisted, still bound hand and foot, into the spare seat of the little car. His precious valise was wedged in beside him.
'I trust that you are as comfortable as circumstances permit,' said Holmes, when the final arrangements were made. 'Should I be guilty of a liberty if I lit a cigar and placed it between your lips?'
But all amenities were wasted upon the angry German.
'I suppose you realize, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,' said he, 'that if your Government bears you out in this treatment it becomes an act of war.'
'What about your Government and all this treatment?' said Holmes, tapping the valise.
'You are a private individual. You have no warrant for my arrest. The whole proceeding is absolutely illegal and outrageous.'
'Absolutely,' said Holmes.
'Kidnapping a German subject.'
'And stealing his private papers.'
'Well, you realize your position, you and your accomplice here. If I were to shout for help as we pass through the village-'
'My dear sir, if you did anything so foolish you would probably enlarge the too limited titles of our village inns by giving us "The Dangling Prussian" as a sign-post. The Englishman is a patient creature, but at present his temper is a little inflamed and it would be as well not to try him too far. No, Mr. Von Bork, you will go with us in a quiet, sensible fashion to Scotland Yard, whence you can send for your friend Baron Von Herling and see if even now you may not fill that place which he has reserved for you in the ambassadorial suite. As to you, Watson, you are joining up with your old service, as I understand, so London won't be out of your way. Stand with me here upon the terrace, for it may be the last quiet talk that we shall ever have.'
The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling once again the days of the past whilst their prisoner vainly wriggled to undo the bonds that held him. As they turned to the car, Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea, and shook a thoughtful head.
'There's an east wind coming, Watson.'
'I think not, Holmes. It is very warm.'
'Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared. Start her up, Watson, for it's time that we were on our way. I have a cheque for five hundred pounds which should be cashed early, for the drawer is quite capable of stopping it, if he can.'