I see from my note-book that it was late in September, 1886, shortly before my departure to Dartmoor with Sir Henry Baskerville, that my attention was first drawn to that curious affair, since termed "The Blackmailing Case," which threatened to involve one of the most revered names in England. Even at this late date, Sherlock Holmes has urged me to spare no pains to conceal the real identity of the personage concerned and, in my recital of the events, I shall certainly do my best to observe his wishes in this matter. Indeed, I am as sensitive as he is to the fact that, owing to the many cases in which we have been concerned over the years, we have been of necessity the depositaries of many strange confidences and secrets which, should they become known to the world, could only arouse scandal and amazement. Our honour is therefore deeply involved and I shall make very sure that no inadvertent word of mine shall point the finger of accusation at any one of those men and women, in high life or in low, who have poured out their troubles to us in our modest Baker Street chambers.
I recall that it was on a late September morning when I was first introduced to the adventure which forms the subject of this narrative. It was a grey, depressing day with a hint of early fog in the air and, having been summoned to a patient in Seaton Place, I was walking back to our lodgings when I became aware of a small street urchin slinking along at my heels. As he drew level I recognized the lad as one of the Baker Street irregulars, as Holmes termed the group of grubby little boys whom he employed on odd occasions to act as his eyes and ears amid the purlieus of the London streets.
"Hullo, Billy," I said.
The lad returned no sign of recognition.
"Got a match, Guv'nor?" he demanded, exhibiting a frayed cigarette-end. I gave him a box and, on handing it back to me, he raised his eyes for an instant to my face. "For God's sake, Doctor," he whispered swiftly, "tell Mr. Holmes to watch out for Footman Boyce." Then, with a surly nod, he slouched on his way.
I was not displeased to be the bearer of this cryptic message to my friend, for it had been apparent to me for some days past from his alternating moods of energy and absorption and his deplorable consumption of tobacco that Holmes was engaged upon a case. Contrary to his usual practice, however, he had not invited me to share his confidences, and I must confess that my sudden precipitation into the affair, irrespective of Holmes's wishes, caused me no small satisfaction.
On entering our sitting-room, I found him lounging in his arm-chair before the fireplace, still clad in his purple dressing-gown, his grey, heavy-lidded eyes staring thoughtfully at the ceiling through a haze of tobacco smoke while one long, thin arm, dangling a letter between its finger-tips, hung down the side of his chair. An envelope, embossed, I noticed, with a coronet, lay on the floor.
"Ah, Watson," he said petulantly. "You are back earlier than I expected."
"Perhaps it is as well for you, Holmes," I replied, a trifle nettled at his tone, and proceeded to give the message with which I had been entrusted. Holmes raised his eyebrows.
"This is most curious," said he. "What can Footman Boyce have to do with the matter?"
"As I know nothing about it, I am hardly in a position to answer your question," I remarked.
"Upon my soul, a distinct touch, Watson!" he replied, with a dry chuckle. "If I have not taken you already into my confidence, my dear fellow, it was not for any lack of faith in you. The affair is, however, of a most delicate nature and I preferred to feel my way a little before inviting your invaluable assistance."
"There is no need for you to explain further," I began warmly.
"Tut, Watson, I have reached a complete impasse. Possibly, it may prove one of those instances where an active mind may overreach, while a merely reflective one, functioning largely on the obvious—" he lapsed into a brooding silence for a moment, then springing to his feet, he strode over to the window.
"I am faced with one of the most dangerous cases of blackmail in all my experience," he cried. "I take it that you are familiar with the name of the Duke of Carringford?"
"You mean the late Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs?"
"But he died some three years ago," I observed.
"Doubtless it will surprise you to learn, Watson, that I am aware of that fact," replied Holmes testily. "But to continue. A few days past I received a note from the duchess, his widow, couched in such urgent terms that I was constrained to comply with her request to call upon her at her house in Portland Place. I found her a woman of more than ordinary intelligence and what you would term beauty, but overwhelmed by the fearsome blow which, striking literally overnight, now threatens her with the complete social and financial destruction of herself and her daughter. And the irony of the situation is the more terrible because her destruction comes from no fault of her own."
"One moment," I interposed, picking up a newspaper from the couch. "There is a reference to the duchess in today's Telegraph, announcing the engagement of her daughter, Lady Mary Gladsdale, to Sir James Fortesque, the cabinet minister."
"Quite so. There lies the beautifully tempered point in this sword of Damocles." Holmes drew two sheets of paper, pinned together, from the pocket of his dressing-gown and tossed them across to me. "What do you make of those, Watson?" he said.
"One is a copy of a marriage certificate between Henry Corwyn Gladsdale, bachelor, and Franзoise Pelletan, spinster, dated June 12th, 1848 and issued at Valence in France," I observed, glancing through the documents. "The other would appear to be the entry of the same marriage in the Valence church registry. Who was this Henry Gladsdale?"
"He became Duke of Carringford upon the death of his uncle in 1854," said Holmes grimly, "and five years later took to wife the Lady Constance Ellington, at present Duchess of Carringford."
"Then he was a widower."
To my surprise, Holmes drove his fist violently into the palm of his hand. "There is the diabolical cruelty of it, Watson," he cried. "We do not know! Indeed, the duchess is now told for the first time of this secret marriage made in her husband's youth when he was staying on the Continent. She is informed that his first wife is alive and ready if necessary to come forward, that her own marriage is bigamous, her position spurious, and the status of her child illegitimate."
"What, after thirty-eight years! This is monstrous, Holmes!"
"Add to that, Watson, that ignorance is not innocence in the eyes of society or the law. As to the lapse of time, it is claimed that the French wife, after her husband's sudden disappearance, did not associate Mr. Henry Gladsdale with the Duke of Carringford. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that I would engage in an affair of this nature were it not for the introduction of a more sinister element."
"I noticed that in speaking of the first wife coming forward you used the term 'if necessary.' So it is blackmail and doubtless for a large sum of money."
"We are moving in deeper waters, Watson. No money is demanded. The price of silence lies in the duchess' delivery of certain copies of state papers now lying in a sealed box in the strong-room of Lloyds Bank in Oxford Street."
"Not so preposterous. Remember that the late duke was Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs and that it is not unknown for great servants of the Crown to preserve copies of papers and memoranda when the originals themselves are safely lodged in the custody of the State. There are many reasons why a man in the duke's position might keep copies of certain documents which, innocent enough at the time, may become under the changing circumstances of later years matters of utmost gravity if viewed by a foreign, and perhaps unfriendly, government. This unhappy lady is faced with the choice of an act of treason to her country as a price for this marriage certificate or a public exposure followed by the ruination of one of the most revered names in England and the destruction of two innocent women, one of them on the eve of her marriage. And the devil of it is, Watson, that I am powerless to help them."
"Have you seen the originals of these Valence documents?"
"The duchess has seen them and they appear to be perfectly genuine, nor can she doubt her husband's signature."
"It might be a forgery."
"True, but I have already ascertained from Valence that there was a woman of that name living there in 1848, that she married an Englishman and later moved to some other locality."
"But surely, Holmes, a provincial Frenchwoman, if driven to blackmail by the desertion of her husband, would demand money," I protested. "What possible use could she have for copies of state papers?"
"Ah! There you put your finger on it, Watson, and hence my presence in the case. Have you ever heard of Edith von Lammerain?"
"I cannot recall the name."
"She is a remarkable woman," he continued musingly. "Her father was some sort of petty officer in the Russian Black Sea Fleet and her mother kept a tavern in Odessa. By the time that she was twenty, she had fled her home and established herself in Budapest where, overnight, she gained notoriety as the cause of a sabre duel in which both combatants were slain. Later, she married an elderly Prussian Junker who, having borne away his bride to his country estate, upped and died most conveniently within three months from eating a surfeit of turtle-doves stuffed with chestnuts. They must have been interesting, those chestnuts!
"You will take my word for it," he went on, "that for the past year or so the most brilliant functions of the Season, be it London, Paris or Berlin, would be considered incomplete without her presence. If ever a woman was made by Nature for the profession of her choice, then that woman is Edith von Lammerain."
"You mean that she is a spy?"
"Tut, she is as much above a spy as I above the ordinary police-detective. I would put it that I have long suspected her of moving in the highest circles of political intrigue. This, then, is the woman, as clever as she is ambitious and merciless, who, armed with the papers of this secret marriage, now threatens to ruin the Duchess of Carringford and her daughter unless she consents to an act of treason, the results of which may be incalculable in their damage to England." Holmes paused to knock out his pipe into the nearest tea-cup. "And I remain here useless, Watson, useless and helpless to shield an innocent woman who in her agony has turned to me for guidance and protection," he ended savagely.
"It is indeed a most infamous business," I said. "But, if Billy's message refers to it, then there is a footman involved."
"Well, I confess that I am deeply puzzled by that message," Holmes replied, staring down thoughtfully at the stream of hansoms and carriages passing beneath out window. "Incidentally, the gentleman known as Footman Boyce is not a lackey, my dear Watson, though he takes his nickname, I believe, from the circumstance that he commenced his career as a man-servant. He is in fact the leader of the second most dangerous gang of slashers and racing-touts in London. I doubt that he bears me much goodwill, for it was largely owing to my efforts that he received two years on that Rockmorton horse-doping affair. But blackmail is out of his line and I cannot see—" Holmes broke off sharply and craning his neck peered down into the street. "By Jove, it is the man himself!" he ejaculated. "And coming here, unless I am much mistaken. Perhaps it would be as well, Watson, if you concealed yourself behind the bedroom door," he added with a chuckle as, crossing to the fireplace, he threw himself into his chair. "Mr. Footman Boyce is not among those whose conversational eloquence is encouraged by the presence of a witness."
There came a jangle from the bell below and as I slipped into the bedroom I caught the creak of heavy steps upon the stairs followed by a knock and Holmes's summons to enter.
Through the crack in the door I had a glimpse of a stout man with a red, good-natured face and bushy whiskers, clad in a check overcoat and sporting a brown bowler hat, gloves and a heavy malacca cane. I had expected a type far different from this vulgar, comfortable person whose appearance was more in keeping with a country yeoman until, as he stared at Holmes from the threshold of our sitting-room, I had a good view of his eyes. They were round as two glittering beads, very bright and hard, with that dreadful suggestion of stillness that belongs to the eyes of venomous reptiles.
"We must have a word, Mr. Holmes," he said in a shrill voice curiously at variance with that portly body. "Really, we must have a word. May I take a seat?"
"I would prefer that we both stand," came my friend's stern reply.
"Well, well." The man turned his great red face slowly round the room. "You're very snug here, very comfortable and snug and lacking nothing, I'll be bound, in the way of home cooking by that respectable woman who opened the door to me. Why deprive her of a good lodger, Mr. Sherlock Holmes?"
"I am not contemplating a change of address."
"Ah, but there are others who might contemplate it for you. 'Let be,' says I, 'Mr. Holmes is a nice-looking gent.' 'Maybe' says others, 'if his nose wasn't a little too long for the rest of his features, so that it is forever sticking itself into affairs that are no concern of his.' "
"You interest me profoundly. By the way, Boyce, you must have received pressing orders to have brought you up from Brighton at a moment's notice."
The cherubic smile faded from the ruffian's face. "How the devil do you know where I've come from!" he shrilled.
"Tut, man, today's Southern Cup racing-programme is peeping out of your pocket. However, as I am a trifle fastidious in my choice of company, kindly come to the point and put a close to this interview."
Boyce's lips curled back suddenly like the grin of some ill-conditioned dog.
"I'll put a close to something more than that, you nosey-parking busybody, if you get up to anymore of your flash tricks," he snarled. "Keep out of Madame's business or—" he paused significantly, his beady little eyes fixed immovably upon my friend's face—"or you'll be sorry you were ever born, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," he concluded softly.
Holmes chuckled and rubbed his hands.
"This is really most satisfactory," said he. "So you come from Madame von Lammerain?"
"Dear me, what indiscretion!" cried Boyce, his left hand sliding stealthily to his malacca cane. "I had hoped that you would take a word of warning, but instead you make free with the names of other folk. And so—" in an instant he had whipped off the hollow body of the stick, leaving in his other hand the grip and the long, evil razor-blade that was attached to it "—and so, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I must make good my words."
"To which I trust, Watson, that you have paid the attention they deserve," remarked Holmes.
"Certainly!" I replied loudly.
Footman Boyce stopped in his tracks and then, as I emerged from the bedroom armed with a heavy brass candlestick, he leapt for the sitting-room door. On the threshold, he turned for a moment toward us, his little eyes flaming evilly in his great crimson face while a flood of foul imprecations poured from his lips.
"That will do!" interrupted Holmes sternly. "Incidentally, Boyce, I have wondered more than once how you murdered Madgern, the trainer. No razor was found on you at the time. Now, I know.
The ruddiness faded slowly from the man's features leaving them the colour of dirty putty.
"My God, Mr. Holmes, surely you don't think—only a little joke, sir, among old friends—!" Then, springing through the door, he slammed it behind him and went clattering wildly down the stairs.
My friend laughed heartily. "Well, well. We are hardly likely to be bothered any further by Mr. Footman Boyce," said he. "Nevertheless, the fellow's visit has done me a good turn."
"In what way?"
"It is the first ray of light in my darkness, Watson. What have they to fear from my investigations unless there is something to be discovered? But get your hat and coat and we will call together on this unhappy Duchess of Carringford."
Our visit was a brief one and yet I will long recall the memory of that courageous and still beautiful woman who, through no fault of her own, now stood face to face with the most terrible calamity that fate could have devised. The widow of a great statesman, the bearer of a name revered throughout the country, the mother of a young and lovely girl on the eve of her wedding to a public man and then, overnight, this dreadful discovery of a secret, the publication of which must destroy irrevocably the very fabric of her life and being. Here was enough to justify the extremes of human emotion. Instead, when my friend and I were ushered into the drawing-room of Carringford House in Portland Place, the lady who rose to meet us was as distinguished for the grace of her manner as for the beauty of her complexion and her delicate, serene features. It was only in the dark stains beneath her eyelids and the too brilliant lustre of her hazel-tinted eyes that one sensed the dreadful tensity that was eating its way through her heart.
"You have news for me, Mr. Holmes?" she said calmly enough, but I noticed that one of her long, slim hands flew to her bosom. "The truth cannot be worse than this suspense, so I beg that you will be frank with me."
Holmes bowed. "I have no news as yet, Your Grace," he said gently. "I am here to ask you one question and to make one request."
The duchess sank into a chair and, picking up a fan, fixed her fevered brilliant eyes upon my friend's face. "And these are?"
"The question is one which can be forgiven from a stranger only under the stress of the present circumstances," said Holmes. "You were married for thirty years to the late duke. Was he a man of honourable conduct in his sense of private responsibility as distinct from his moral code? I will ask Your Grace to be very frank with me in your reply."
"Mr. Holmes, during the years of our marriage, we had our quarrels and our disagreements, but never once did I know my husband to stoop to an unworthy action or lower the standard which he had set himself in life. His career in politics was not made the more easy by a sense of honour that would not descend to the artifices of compromise. He was a man whose character was nobler than his position."
"You have told me all that I wished to know," answered Holmes. "Though I do not indulge in emotions of the heart, I am not among those who consider that love makes blind. With a mind of any intelligence, the effect should be the exact opposite, for it must promote the most privileged knowledge of the other's character. Your Grace, we are face to face with necessity and time is not on our side." Holmes leaned forward earnestly. "I must see the original documents of this alleged marriage in Valence."
"It is hopeless, Mr. Holmes!" cried the duchess. "This dreadful woman will never let them out of her hands, save at her own infamous price."
"Then we must summon craft to our aid. You must send her a carefully worded letter, now, conveying the impression that you will be driven to comply with her demands if once you are convinced that the marriage documents are really genuine. Implore her to receive you privately at her house in St. James's Square at eleven o'clock tonight. Will you do this?"
"Anything, save what she asks."
"Good! Then one final point. It is essential that you find some pretext at exactly twenty minutes past eleven to draw her from the library containing the safe in which she keeps these documents."
"But she will take them with her."
"That is of no importance."
"How can you be sure that the safe is in the library?"
"I have a plan of the house, thanks to a small service once rendered to the firm who rented the property to Madame von Lammerain. Furthermore, I have seen it."
"You have seen it!"
"A window was broken mysteriously yesterday morning" smiled Holmes, "and the agents very promptly supplied a glazier. It had occurred to me that there might be advantages."
The Duchess leaned forward, her hand to her heaving breast. "What do you propose to do?" she demanded almost fiercely.
"That is a question in which I must use my own judgement, Your Grace," replied Holmes, springing to his feet. "If I fail, I will do so in a good cause."
We were making our adieux when the duchess laid her hand on my friend's arm.
"If you examine these terrible documents and convince yourself that they are genuine, will you remove them?" she asked.
There was a hint of concern under Holmes's austere manner as he looked at her. "No," he said quietly.
"You are right!" she cried. "I would not have them taken. A hideous wrong must be righted, whatever the cost to myself. It is only when I think of my daughter that all the courage goes from my heart."
"It is because I recognize that courage," said Holmes very gently, "that I warn you to prepare for the worst."
During the remainder of the day, my friend was in his most restless mood. He smoked incessantly until the atmosphere of our sitting-room was hardly bearable and, having exhausted all the daily newspapers, he threw the lot of them into the coal-scuttle and set himself to pacing up and down with his hands clasped behind his back and his thin, eager face thrust out before him. Then he came to the fireplace and, leaning his elbow on the mantelpiece, looked down at me as I lounged in my chair.
"Are you game to commit a serious breach of the law, Watson?" he asked.
"Most certainly, Holmes, in an honourable cause."
"It is hardly fair on you, my dear fellow," he cried, "for it will go hard with us if we are caught on that woman's premises."
"But what is the use?" I demurred. "We cannot conceal the truth."
"Admittedly. If this is the truth. I must see those original documents."
"Then there would appear to be no alternative," I observed.
"None that I can see," said he, thrusting his fingers into the Persian slipper and drawing out a handful of black shag which he proceeded to stuff untidily into his pipe. "Well, Watson, a lengthy sojourn in jail will enable me at least to catch up in my studies of Oriental plant poisons in the organic blood-stream and for you to bring yourself up to date on these inoculation theories of Louis Pasteur."
And there we left it, while the dusk deepened into night and Mrs. Hudson bustled in to poke the fire and light the gas jets.
It was at Holmes's suggestion that we dined out. "The corner table at Fratti's, I think," he chuckled, "and a bottle of Montrachet '67. If this should prove to be our last evening of respectability, at least let us be comfortable."
My watch showed me that it was after eleven o'clock when our hansom deposited us at the corner of Charles II Street. It was a moist, chill night with a hint of fog in the air that hung round the street-lamps in dim yellow haloes and glistened on the cape of the policeman who slowly passed us by, switching his bull's-eye lantern into the porticoes of the dark silent houses.
Entering St. James's Square, we had followed the pavement around to the western side when Holmes laid his hand upon my arm and pointed to a lighted window in the faзade of the great house that reared above us.
"It is the light of the drawing-room," he murmured. "We have not a moment to lose."
With a swift glance along the empty pavement, he sprang for the top of the wall abutting the mansion and, pulling himself up by his hands, he dropped out of sight while I followed quickly at his heels. As far as I could judge through the darkness, we were standing in one of those dreary plots of grass and grimy struggling laurels that form the garden of the average "town house" and in consequence stood already on the wrong side of the law. Reminding myself that our purpose was, at least, an honourable one, I followed Holmes's figure along the flank of the house until he halted beneath a line of three tall windows. Then, in answer to his whisper, I lent him a back and in an instant he was crouching on the sill with his pale face outlined against the dark glass and his hands busy with the catch. A moment later, the window swung silently open, I had caught his outstretched fingers and, with a heave, I found myself in the room beside him.
"The library," Holmes breathed in my ear. "Keep behind the window-curtains."
Though we were enveloped in a darkness smelling faintly of calfskin and old leather, I was conscious of a sense of space about me. The silence was profound, save for the measured ticking of a grandfather clock in the depth of the room. Perhaps five minutes had dragged by when there came a sound from somewhere within the house followed by steps and a soft murmur of voices. A line of light gleamed for an instant beneath the edge of a door, vanished and, after a pause of some moments; slowly reappeared. I caught the sound of swift footfalls, the line of light grew brighter. Then the door was flung open and a woman, carrying a lamp in her hand, entered the room.
Though time tends to erase the sharp outline of past events, I recall as though it were but yesterday my first view of Edith von Lammerain.
Above the rays of an oil-lamp, I beheld an ivory-tinted face with dark, sombre eyes and a beautiful, scarlet, remorseless mouth. Her hair, piled high upon her head and of a raven blackness, was set with a spray of osprey plumes clasped with rubies and beneath her bare neck and shoulders a magnificent gown of black sequins flashed and shimmered against the darkness.
For a moment she stood as though listening and then, closing the door behind her, she swept down the great room, her tall, slim shadow trailing behind her and the lamp in her hand casting a dim, spectral glow along the book-lined walls.
I do not know whether it was the rustle of the curtain that reached her ears but, as Holmes stepped out into the room, she was round in an instant and, holding the lamp above her head so that the rays fell in our direction, she stood quite still and looked at us. There was not a trace of fear upon her ivory face, but only fury and venom in the dark eyes that glared at us across that great, silent chamber.
"Who are you?" she hissed. "What do you want?"
"Five minutes of your time, Madame von Lammerain," rejoined Holmes softly.
"So! You know my name. If you are not burglars, then what is it you seek? It would amuse me to hear before I raise the house."
Holmes pointed to her left hand. "I am here to examine those papers," said he, "and I warn you that I mean to do so. I beg that you will not make it necessary to prevent an outcry."
She thrust her hand behind her, her eyes blazing in her face.
"You ruffian!" she cried. "Now I understand! You are Her saintly Grace's hired burglar." Then, with a swift movement, she craned forward, the lamp out-held before her and, as she looked intently at my friend, I saw her expression of fury change into one of incredulity. A smile, as exultant as it was menacing, dawned slowly in her eyes.
"Mr. Sherlock Holmes!" she breathed.
There was a touch of mortification in Holmes's manner as he turned away and lit the candles on an ormolu side-table.
"The possibility of recognition had already occurred to me, madame," said he.
"This will earn you five years," she cried, with a flash of of her white teeth.
"Perhaps. In that case, I must have my money's worth. The documents!"
"Do you imagine that you will accomplish anything by stealing them? I have copies and a dozen witnesses to their contents," she laughed throatily. "I had imagined you to be a clever man," she went on. "Instead, I find a fool, a bungler, a common thief!"
"We shall see." He held out his hand and, with a sneer and a shrug, she resigned the documents to him. "I rely on you, Watson," my friend remarked quietly, stepping across to the side-table, "to prevent any collusion between Madame von Lammerain and the bell-rope."
Beneath the glow of the candles, he read through the documents and then, holding them up against the light, he studied them intently, his lean, cadaverous profile cut in black silhouette against the luminous yellow parchment. Then he looked at me and my heart sank at the chagrin in his face.
"The watermark is English, Watson," he stated quietly. "But as paper of this make and quality was imported into France on a large scale fifty years ago, this does not help us. Alas, I fear the worst."
And I knew that he was thinking not of his own unenviable position but of the anxious, courageous woman in whose cause he had risked his own liberty.
Madame von Lammerain indulged in a little peal of laughter.
"Too much success has gone to your head, Mr. Holmes," she jeered. "But this time you have blundered, as you will find to your cost."
My friend had spread the papers immediately below the candle-flames and was bending over them again when I saw that a sudden change had taken place in his expression. The chagrin and annoyance that had clouded his face had gone, and in their place was a look of intense concentration. His long nose seemed almost to smell the paper as he stooped over it. When he straightened himself at last, I caught a gleam of excitement from his deep-set eyes.
"What do you make of this, Watson?" said he, as I hastened to his side. He pointed to the writing that inscribed the details on both documents.
"It is a very legible hand," I said.
"The ink, man, the ink!" he cried impatiently.
"Well, it is black ink," I remarked, leaning over his shoulder. "But I fear that there is little to help us in that. I can show you a dozen old letters from my father written in a similar medium."
Holmes chuckled and rubbed his hands together. "Excellent,'Watson, excellent!" he cried. "Now, kindly examine the name and the signature of Henry Corwyn Gladsdale on the marriage certificate. And now, look at the entry of his name in the page from the Valence register."
"They appear to be perfectly in order, and the signature is the same in both cases."
"Quite so. But the ink?"
"There is a shade of blue in it. Yes, certainly it is ordinary blue-black indigo ink. What then?"
"Every word in both documents is written in black ink, with the exception of the bridegroom's name and signature. Does not this strike you as curious?"
"Curious, perhaps, but by no means inexplicable. Gladsdale was probably in the habit of using his own waistcoat-inkpot."
Holmes rushed to a writing-desk in the window and, after rummaging for an instant, returned with a quill and inkstand in his hand.
"Would you say that this is the same colour?" he asked, dipping the quill and making a mark or two on the edge of the document.
"It is identical," I confirmed.
"Quite so. And the ink in this pot is blue-black indigo."
Madame von Lammerain, who had been standing ha the background darted suddenly for the bell-rope but, before she had time to pull it, Holmes's voice rang through the room.
"You have my word for it that if you touch that bell, you are ruined," he said sternly.
She paused with her hand upon the rope.
"What mockery is this!" she sneered. "Are you suggesting that Henry Gladsdale signed his marriage documents at my desk? Why, you fool, everybody uses ink of that description."
"Largely true. But these documents are dated June 12th, 1848."
"Well, what of that!"
"I fear that you have been guilty of a small error, Madame von Lammerain. The black ink that contains indigo was not invented until 1856."
There was something terrible in the beautiful face that glared at us across the circle of candlelight.
"You lie!" she hissed.
Holmes shrugged. "The veriest amateur chemist can prove it," said he, as he picked up the papers and placed them carefully in his cape pocket. "These are, of course, the perfectly genuine marriage documents of Franзoise Pelletan," he continued. "But the real name of the bridegroom has been erased both in the certificate and in the page from the Valence church register and the name of Henry Corwyn Gladsdale substituted in its place. I have no doubt that, should the need arise, an examination under the microscope would show traces of the erasure.
"The ink itself is, however, conclusive proof and represents but another example that it is on the small, easily committed error, rather than on any basic flaw in the conception, that most intricate plans crash to their ruin as the mighty vessel on the small but fatal point of rock. As for you, madame, when I consider the full implications of your scheme against a defenceless woman, I am hard put to it to recall a more cold-blooded ruthlessness."
"What are you to insult a woman!"
"In scheming to destroy another should she refuse you her husband's secret papers, you have surrendered the prerogatives of a woman," he replied bitterly.
She looked at us with an evil smile on her waxen face. "At least, you shall pay for it," she promised. "You have broken the law."
"True, and by all means pull the bell," said Sherlock Holmes. "My poor defence will be the provocation of forgery, attempted blackmail and—mark the word—espionage. Indeed, as a measure of tribute to your gifts, I shall allow you exactly one week in which to leave this country. After then, the authorities will be warned against you."
There was a moment of tense stillness, and then without a word Edith von Lammerain raised her white, shapely arm and pointed silently towards the door.
It was past eleven o'clock next morning and the breakfast things had not yet been cleared from the table. Sherlock Holmes, who had returned from an early excursion, had discarded his frock-coat for an old smoking-jacket, and now lounged in front of the fire cleaning the stems of his pipes with a long, thin bodkin that had originally come into his possession under circumstances with which I do not propose to harrow my readers.
"You have seen the duchess?" I enquired.
"I have, and put her in possession of all the facts. Purely as a precautionary measure, she is lodging the documents inscribed with her husband's forged signature, together with my statement of the case, in the hands of the family lawyers. But she has nothing more to fear from Edith von Lammerain."
"Owing to you, my dear fellow," I cried warmly.
"Well, well, Watson. The case was simple enough and the work its own reward."
I glanced at him keenly.
"You look a bit fine-drawn, Holmes," I remarked. "You should get away into the country for a few days."
"Later on, perhaps. But I cannot leave town until Madame has departed from these shores, for she is a person of singular address."
"That is a very fine pearl which you are wearing in your cravat. I do not remember seeing it before."
My friend picked up two letters from the mantelpiece and tossed them across to me. "They arrived while you were absent on your round," said he.
The one, which bore the address of Carringford House, ran thus:
"To your chivalry, to your courage, a woman owes her all, and such a debt is beyond reward. Let this pearl, the ancient symbol of Faith, be the token of the life that you have given back to me. I shall not forget."
The other, which had neither address nor signature, ran:
"We shall meet again, Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I shall not forget."
"It is all in the point of view," chuckled Holmes, "and I have yet to meet the two women who look from the same angle."
Then, throwing himself into his chair, he reached out lazily for his most obnoxious pipe.
At the present instant one of the most revered names in England is being besmirched by a blackmailer and only I can stop a disastrous scandal.
FROM "THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES."
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