It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and yet
it is with diffidence that I allude to them. For a long time, even with
the utmost discretion and reticence, it would have been impossible to make
the facts public, but now the principal person concerned is beyond the
reach of human law, and with due suppression the story may be told in such
fashion as to injure no one. It records an absolutely unique experience in
the career both of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and of myself. The reader will
excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which he might trace
the actual occurrence.
We had been out for one of our evening rambles, Holmes and I, and had
returned about six o'clock on a cold, frosty winter's evening. As Holmes
turned up the lamp the light fell upon a card on the table. He glanced at
it, and then, with an ejaculation of disgust, threw it on the floor. I
picked it up and read:
CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON,
"Who is he?" I asked.
"The worst man in London," Holmes answered, as he sat down and
stretched his legs before the fire. "Is anything on the back of the card?"
I turned it over.
"Will call at 6:30 C. A. M.," I read.
"Hum! He's about due. Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation,
Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo, and see the
slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked,
flattened faces? Well, that's how Milverton impresses me. I've had to do
with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the
repulsion which I have for this fellow. And yet I can't get out of doing
business with him indeed, he is here at my invitation."
"But who is he?"
"I'll tell you, Watson. He is the king of all the blackmailers.
Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and reputation
come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face and a heart of
marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry. The
fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more
savoury trade. His method is as follows: He allows it to be known that he
is prepared to pay very high sums for letters which compromise people of
wealth and position. He receives these wares not only from treacherous
valets or maids, but frequently from genteel ruffians, who have gained the
confidence and affection of trusting women. He deals with no niggard hand.
I happen to know that he paid seven hundred pounds to a footman for a note
two lines in length, and that the ruin of a noble family was the result.
Everything which is in the market goes to Milverton, and there are
hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name. No one knows where
his grip may fall, for he is far too rich and far too cunning to work from
hand to mouth. He will hold a card back for years in order to play it at
the moment when the stake is best worth winning. I have said that he is
the worst man in London, and I would ask you how could one compare the
ruffian, who in hot blood bludgeons his mate, with this man, who
methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in
order to add to his already swollen money-bags?"
I had seldom heard my friend speak with such intensity of feeling.
"But surely," said I, "the fellow must be within the grasp of the law?"
"Technically, no doubt, but practically not. What would it profit a
woman, for example, to get him a few months' imprisonment if her own ruin
must immediately follow? His victims dare not hit back. If ever he
blackmailed an innocent person, then indeed we should have him, but he is
as cunning as the Evil One. No, no, we must find other ways to fight him."
"And why is he here?"
"Because an illustrious client has placed her piteous case in my
hands. It is the Lady Eva Blackwell, the most beautiful debutante of last
season. She is to be married in a fortnight to the Earl of Dovercourt.
This fiend has several imprudent letters imprudent, Watson, nothing
worse which were written to an impecunious young squire in the country.
They would suffice to break off the match. Milverton will send the letters
to the Earl unless a large sum of money is paid him. I have been commis-
sioned to meet him, and to make the best terms I can."
At that instant there was a clatter and a rattle in the street below.
Looking down I saw a stately carriage and pair, the brilliant lamps
gleaming on the glossy haunches of the noble chestnuts. A footman opened
the door, and a small, stout man in a shaggy astrakhan overcoat descended.
A minute later he was in the room.
Charles Augustus Milverton was a man of fifty, with a large,
intellectual head, a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual frozen
smile, and two keen gray eyes, which gleamed brightly from behind broad,
gold-rimmed glasses. There was something of Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in
his appearance, marred only by the insincerity of the fixed smile and by
the hard glitter of those restless and penetrating eyes. His voice was as
smooth and suave as his countenance, as he advanced with a plump little
hand extended, murmuring his regret for having missed us at his first
visit. Holmes disregarded the outstretched hand and looked at him with a
face of granite. Milverton's smile broadened, he shrugged his shoulders,
removed his overcoat, folded it with great deliberation over the back of a
chair, and then took a seat.
"This gentleman?" said he, with a wave in my direction. "Is it
discreet? Is it right?"
"Dr. Watson is my friend and partner."
"Very good, Mr. Holmes. It is only in your client's interests that I
protested. The matter is so very delicate "
"Dr. Watson has already heard of it."
"Then we can proceed to business. You say that you are acting for
Lady Eva. Has she empowered you to accept my terms?"
"What are your terms?"
"Seven thousand pounds."
"And the alternative?"
"My dear sir, it is painful for me to discuss it, but if the money is
not paid on the 14th, there certainly will be no marriage on the 18th."
His insufferable smile was more complacent than ever.
Holmes thought for a little.
"You appear to me," he said, at last, "to be taking matters too much
for granted. I am, of course, familiar with the contents of these letters.
My client will certainly do what I may advise. I shall counsel her to tell
her future husband the whole story and to trust to his generosity."
"You evidently do not know the Earl," said he.
From the baffled look upon Holmes's face, I could see clearly that he did.
"What harm is there in the letters?" he asked.
"They are sprightly very sprightly," Milverton answered. "The lady
was a charming correspondent. But I can assure you that the Earl of
Dovercourt would fail to appreciate them. How-ever, since you think
otherwise, we will let it rest at that. It is purely a matter of business.
If you think that it is in the best interests of your client that these
letters should be placed in the hands of the Earl, then you would indeed
be foolish to pay so large a sum of money to regain them." He rose and
seized his astrakhan coat.
Holmes was gray with anger and mortification.
"Wait a little," he said. "You go too fast. We should certainly make
every effort to avoid scandal in so delicate a matter."
Milverton relapsed into his chair.
"I was sure that you would see it in that light," he purred.
"At the same time," Holmes continued, "Lady Eva is not a wealthy
woman. I assure you that two thousand pounds would be a drain upon her
resources, and that the sum you name is utterly beyond her power. I beg,
therefore, that you will moderate your demands, and that you will return
the letters at the price I indicate, which is, I assure you, the highest
that you can get."
Milverton's smile broadened and his eyes twinkled humorously.
"I am aware that what you say is true about the lady's resources,"
said he. "At the same time you must admit that the occasion of a lady's
marriage is a very suitable time for her friends and relatives to make
some little effort upon her behalf. They may hesitate as to an acceptable
wedding present. Let me assure them that this little bundle of letters
would give more joy than all the candelabra and butter-dishes in London."
"It is impossible," said Holmes.
"Dear me, dear me, how unfortunate!" cried Milverton, taking out a
bulky pocketbook. "I cannot help thinking that ladies are ill-advised in
not making an effort. Look at this!" He held up a little note with a
coat-of-arms upon the envelope. "That belongs to well, perhaps it is
hardly fair to tell the name until to-morrow morning. But at that time it
will be in the hands of the lady's husband. And all because she will not
find a beggarly sum which she could get by turning her diamonds into
paste. It is such a pity! Now, you remember the sudden end of the engage-
ment between the Honourable Miss Miles and Colonel Dorking? Only two days
before the wedding, there was a paragraph in the Morning Post to say that
it was all off. And why? It is almost incredible, but the absurd sum of
twelve hundred pounds would have settled the whole question. Is it not
pitiful? And here I find you, a man of sense, boggling about terms, when
your client's future and honour are at stake. You surprise me, Mr. Holmes."
"What I say is true," Holmes answered. "The money cannot be found.
Surely it is better for you to take the substantial sum which I offer than
to ruin this woman's career, which can profit you in no way?"
"There you make a mistake, Mr. Holmes. An exposure would profit me
indirectly to a considerable extent. I have eight or ten similar cases
maturing. If it was circulated among them that I had made a severe example
of the Lady Eva, I should find all of them much more open to reason. You
see my point?"
Holmes sprang from his chair.
"Get behind him, Watson! Don't let him out! Now, sir, let us see the
contents of that notebook."
Milverton had glided as quick as a rat to the side of the room and
stood with his back against the wall.
"Mr. Holmes, Mr. Holmes," he said, turning the front of his coat and
exhibiting the butt of a large revolver, which projected from the inside
pocket. "I have been expecting you to do something original. This has been
done so often, and what good has ever come from it? I assure you that I am
armed to the teeth, and I am perfectly prepared to use my weapons, knowing
that the law will support me. Besides, your supposition that I would bring
the letters here in a notebook is entirely mistaken. I would do nothing so
foolish. And now, gentlemen, I have one or two little interviews this
evening, and it is a long drive to Hamp-stead." He stepped forward, took
up his coat, laid his hand on his revolver, and turned to the door. I
picked up a chair, but Holmes shook his head, and I laid it down again.
With a bow, a smile, and a twinkle, Milverton was out of the room, and a
few moments after we heard the slam of the carriage door and the rattle of
the wheels as he drove away.
Holmes sat motionless by the fire, his hands buried deep in his
trouser pockets, his chin sunk upon his breast, his eyes fixed upon the
glowing embers. For half an hour he was silent and still. Then, with the
gesture of a man who has taken his decision, he sprang to his feet and
passed into his bedroom. A little later a rakish young workman, with a
goatee beard and a swagger, lit his clay pipe at the lamp before
descending into the street. "I'll be back some time, Watson," said he, and
vanished into the night. I understood that he had opened his campaign
against Charles Augustus Milverton, but I little dreamed the strange shape
which that campaign was destined to take.
For some days Holmes came and went at all hours in this attire, but
beyond a remark that his time was spent at Hamp-stead, and that it was not
wasted, I knew nothing of what he was doing. At last, however, on a wild,
tempestuous evening, when the wind screamed and rattled against the
windows, he returned from his last expedition, and having removed his
disguise he sat before the fire and laughed heartily in his silent inward
"You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?"
"You'll be interested to hear that I'm engaged."
"My dear fellow! I congrat "
"To Milverton's housemaid."
"Good heavens, Holmes!"
"I wanted information, Watson."
"Surely you have gone too far?"
"It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising business,
Escott, by name. I have walked out with her each evening, and I have
talked with her. Good heavens, those talks! However, I have got all I
wanted. I know Milverton's house as I know the palm of my hand."
"But the girl, Holmes?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"You can't help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best
you can when such a stake is on the table. How-ever. I rejoice to say that
I have a hated rival, who will certainly cut me out the instant that my
back is turned. What a splendid night it is!"
"You like this weather?"
"It suits my purpose. Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton's house
I had a catching of the breath, and my skin went cold at the words,
which were slowly uttered in a tone of concentrated resolution. As a flash
of lightning in the night shows up in an instant every detail of a wild
landscape, so at one glance I seemed to see every possible result of such
an action the detection, the capture, the honoured career ending in
irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying at the mercy of
the odious Milverton.
"For heaven's sake, Holmes, think what you are doing," I cried.
"My dear fellow, I have given it every consideration. I am never
precipitate in my actions, nor would I adopt so energetic and, indeed, so
dangerous a course, if any other were possible. Let us look at the matter
clearly and fairly. I suppose that you will admit that the action is
morally justifiable, though technically criminal. To burgle his house is
no more than to forcibly take his pocketbook an action in which you
were prepared to aid me."
I turned it over in my mind.
"Yes," I said, "it is morally justifiable so long as our object is to
take no articles save those which are used for an illegal purpose."
"Exactly. Since it is morally justifiable, I have only to consider
the question of personal risk. Surely a gentleman should not lay much
stress upon this, when a lady is in most desperate need of his help?"
"You will be in such a false position."
"Well, that is part of the risk. There is no other possible way of
regaining these letters. The unfortunate lady has not the money, and there
are none of her people in whom she could confide. To-morrow is the last
day of grace, and unless we can get the letters to-night, this villain
will be as good as his word and will bring about her ruin. I must,
therefore, abandon my client to her fate or I must play this last card.
Between ourselves, Watson, it's a sporting duel between this fellow
Milverton and me. He had, as you saw, the best of the first exchanges, but
my self-respect and my reputation are concerned to fight it to a finish."
"Well, I don't like it, but I suppose it must be," said I.
"When do we start?"
"You are not coming."
"Then you are not going," said I. "I give you my word of honour
and I never broke'it in my life that I will take a cab straight to the
police-station and give you away, unless you let me share this adventure
"You can't help me."
"How do you know that? You can't tell what may happen. Anyway, my
resolution is taken. Other people besides you have self-respect, and even
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped me on
"Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared this same room
for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by sharing the same
cell. You know, Watson, I don't mind confessing to you that I have always
had an idea that I would have made a highly efficient criminal. This is
the chance of my lifetime in that direction. See here!" He took a neat
little leather case out of a drawer, and opening it he exhibited a number
of shining instruments. "This is a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit,
with nickel-plated jemmy, diamond-tipped glass-cutter, adapt-able keys,
and every modern improvement which the march of civilization demands.
Here, too, is my dark lantern. Everything is in order. Have you a pair of
"I have rubber-soled tennis shoes."
"Excellent! And a mask?"
"I can make a couple out of black silk."
"I can see that you have a strong, natural turn for this sort of
thing. Very good, do you make the masks. We shall have some cold supper
before we start. It is now nine-thirty. At eleven we shall drive as far as
Church Row. It is a quarter of an hour's walk from there to Appledore
Towers. We shall be at work before midnight. Milverton is a heavy sleeper,
and retires punctually at ten-thirty. With any luck we should be back here
by two, with the Lady Eva's letters in my pocket."
Holmes and I put on our dress-clothes, so that we might appear to be
two theatre-goers homeward bound. In Oxford Street we picked up a hansom
and drove to an address in Hampstead. Here we paid off our cab, and with
our great coats buttoned up, for it was bitterly cold, and the wind seemed
to blow through us, we walked along the edge of the heath.
"It's a business that needs delicate treatment," said Holmes. "These
documents are contained in a safe in the fellow's study, and the study is
the ante-room of his bed-chamber. On the other hand, like all these stout,
little men who do themselves well, he is a plethoric sleeper. Agatha
that's my fiancee says it is a joke in the servants' hall that it's
impossible to wake the master. He has a secretary who is devoted to his
interests, and never budges from the study all day. That's why we are
going at night. Then he has a beast of a dog which roams the garden. I met
Agatha late the last two evenings, and she locks the brute up so as to
give me a clear run. This is the house, this big one in its own grounds.
Through the gate now to the right among the laurels. We might put on
our masks here, I think. You see, there is not a glimmer of light in any
of the windows, and everything is working splendldly."
With our black silk face-coverings, which turned us into two of the
most truculent figures in London, we stole up to the silent, gloomy house.
A sort of tiled veranda extended along one side of it, lined by several
windows and two doors.
"That's his bedroom," Holmes whispered. "This door opens straight
into the study. It would suit us best, but it is bolted as well as locked,
and we should make too much noise getting in. Come round here. There's a
greenhouse which opens into the drawing-room."
The place was locked, but Holmes removed a circle of glass and turned
the key from the inside. An instant afterwards he had closed the door
behind us, and we had become felons in the eyes of the law. The thick,
warm air of the conservatory and the rich, choking fragrance of exotic
plants took us by the throat. He seized my hand in the darkness and led me
swiftly past banks of shrubs which brushed against our faces. Holmes had
remarkable powers, carefully cultivated, of seeing in the dark. Still
holding my hand in one of his, he opened a door, and I was vaguely
conscious that we had entered a large room in which a cigar had been
smoked not long before. He felt his way among the furniture, opened
another door, and closed it behind us. Putting out my hand I felt several
coats hanging from the wall, and I understood that I was in a passage. We
passed along it, and Holmes very gently opened a door upon the right-hand
side. Something rushed out at us and my heart sprang into my mouth, but I
could have laughed when I realized that it was the cat. A fire was burning
in this new room, and again the air was heavy with tobacco smoke. Holmes
entered on tiptoe, waited for me to follow, and then very gently closed
the door. We were in Milverton's study, and a portiere at the farther side
showed the entrance to his bedroom.
It was a good fire, and the room was illuminated by it. Near the door
I saw the gleam of an electric switch, but it was unnecessary, even if it
had been safe, to turn it on. At one side of the fireplace was a heavy
curtain which covered the bay window we had seen from outside. On the
other side was the door which communicated with the veranda. A desk stood
in the centre, with a turning-chair of shining red leather. Opposite was a
large bookcase, with a marble bust of Athene on the top. In the corner,
between the bookcase and the wall, there stood a tall, green safe, the
firelight flashing back from the polished brass knobs upon its face.
Holmes stole across and looked at it. Then he crept to the door of the
bedroom, and stood with slanting head listening intently. No sound came
from within. Meanwhile it had struck me that it would be wise to secure
our retreat through the outer door, so I examined it. To my amazement, it
was neither locked nor bolted. I touched Holmes on the arm, and he turned
his masked face in that direction. I saw him start, and he was evidently
as surprised as I.
"I don't like it," he whispered, putting his lips to my very ear. "I
can't quite make it out. Anyhow, we have no time to lose."
"Can I do anything?"
"Yes, stand by the door. If you hear anyone come, bolt it on the
inside, and we can get away as we came. If they come the other way, we can
get through the door if our job is done, or hide behind these window
curtains if it is not. Do you understand?"
I nodded, and stood by the door. My first feeling of fear had passed
away, and I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when
we were the defenders of the law instead of its defiers. The high object
of our mission, the consciousness that it was unselfish and chivalrous,
the villainous character of our opponent, all added to the sporting
interest of the adventure. Far from feeling guilty, I rejoiced and exulted
in our dangers. With a glow of admiration I watched Holmes unrolling his
case of instruments and choosing his tool with the calm, scientific
accuracy of a surgeon who performs a delicate operation. I knew that the
opening of safes was a particular hobby with him, and I understood the joy
which it gave him to be confronted with this green and gold monster, the
dragon which held in its maw the reputations of many fair ladies. Turning
up the cuffs of his dress-coat he had placed his overcoat on a chair
Holmes laid out two drills, a jemmy, and several skeleton keys. I stood at
the centre door with my eyes glancing at each of the others, ready for any
emergency, though, indeed, my plans were somewhat vague as to what I
should do if we were interrupted. For half an hour, Holmes worked with
concentrated energy, laying down one tool, picking up another, handling
each with the strength and delicacy of the trained mechanic. Finally I
heard a click, the broad green door swung open, and inside I had a glimpse
of a number of paper packets, each tied, sealed, and inscribed. Holmes
picked one out, but it was hard to read by the flickering fire, and he
drew out his little dark lantern, for it was too dangerous, with Milverton
in the next room, to switch on the electric light. Suddenly I saw him
halt, listen intently, and then in an instant he had swung the door of the
safe to, picked up his coat, stuffed his tools into the pockets, and
darted behind the window curtain, motioning me to do the same.
It was only when I had joined him there that I heard what had alarmed
his quicker senses. There was a noise somewhere within the house. A door
slammed in the distance. Then a confused, dull murmur broke itself into
the measured thud of heavy footsteps rapidly approaching. They were in the
passage outside the room. They paused at the door. The door opened. There
was a sharp snick as the electric light was turned on. The door closed
once more, and the pungent reek of a strong cigar was borne to our
nostrils. Then the footsteps continued backward and forward, backward and
forward, within a few yards of us. Finally there was a creak from a chair,
and the footsteps ceased. Then a key clicked in a lock, and I heard the
rustle of papers.
So far I had not dared to look out, but now I gently parted the
division of the curtains in front of me and peeped through. From the
pressure of Holmes's shoulder against mine, I knew that he was sharing my
observations. Right in front of us, and almost within our reach, was the
broad, rounded back of Milverton. It was evident that we had entirely
miscalculated his movements, that he had never been to his bedroom, but
that he had been sitting up in some smoking or billiard room in the
farther wing of the house, the windows of which we had not seen. His
broad, grizzled head, with its shining patch of baldness, was in the
immediate foreground of our vision. He was leaning far back in the red
leather chair. his legs outstretched, a long, black cigar projecting at an
angle from his mouth. He wore a semi-military smoking jacket,
claret-coloured. with a black velvet collar. In his hand he held a long,
legal document which he was reading in an indolent fashion, blowing rings
of tobacco smoke from his lips as he did so. There was no promise of a
speedy departure in his composed bearing and his comfortable attitude.
I felt Holmes's hand steal into mine and give me a reassuring shake,
as if to say that the situation was within his powers, and that he was
easy in his mind. I was not sure whether he had seen what was only too
obvious from my position, that the door of the safe was imperfectly
closed, and that Milverton might at any moment observe it. In my own mind
I had determined that if I were sure, from the rigidity of his gaze, that
it had caught his eye, I would at once spring out, throw my great coat
over his head, pinion him, and leave the rest to Holmes. But Milverton
never looked up. He was languidly interested by the papers in his hand,
and page after page was turned as he followed the argument of the lawyer.
At least, I thought, when he has finished the document and the cigar he
will go to his room, but before he had reached the end of either, there
came a remarkable development which turned our thoughts into quite another
Several times I had observed that Milverton looked at his watch, and
once he had risen and sat down again, with a gesture of impatience. The
idea, however, that he might have an appointment at so strange an hour
never occurred to me until a faint sound reached my ears from the veranda
outside. Milverton dropped his papers and sat rigid in his chair. The
sound was repeated, and then there came a gentle tap at the door.
Milverton rose and opened it.
"Well," said he, curtly, "you are nearly half an hour late."
So this was the explanation of the unlocked door and of the nocturnal
vigil of Milverton. There was the gentle rustle of a woman's dress. I had
closed the slit between the curtains as Milverton's face had turned in our
direction, but now I ventured very carefully to open it once more. He had
resumed his seat, the cigar still projecting at an insolent angle from the
corner of his mouth. In front of him, in the full glare of the electric
light, there stood a tall, slim, dark woman, a veil over her face, a
mantle drawn round her chin. Her breath came quick and fast, and every
inch of the lithe figure was quivering with strong emotion.
"Well," said Milverton, "you made me lose a good night's rest, my
dear. I hope you'll prove worth it. You couldn't come any other time eh?"
The woman shook her head.
"Well, if you couldn't you couldn't. If the Countess is a hard
mistress, you have your chance to get level with her now. Bless the girl,
what are you shivering about? That's right. Pull yourself together. Now,
let us get down to business." He took a note-book from the drawer of his
desk. "You say that you have five letters which compromise the Countess
d'Albert. You want to sell them. I want to buy them. So far so good. It
only remains to fix a price. I should want to inspect the letters, of
course. If they are really good specimens Great heavens, is it you?"
The woman, without a word, had raised her veil and dropped the mantle
from her chin. It was a dark, handsome, clear-cut face which confronted
Milverton a face with a curved nose, strong, dark eyebrows shading
hard, glittering eyes, and a straight, thin-lipped mouth set in a
"It is I," she said, "the woman whose life you have ruined."
Milverton laughed, but fear vibrated in his voice. "You were so very
obstinate," said he. "Why did you drive me to such extremities? I assure
you I wouldn't hurt a fly of my own accord, but every man has his
business, and what was I to do? I put the price well within your means.
You would not pay."
"So you sent the letters to my husband, and he the noblest
gentleman that ever lived, a man whose boots I was never worthy to lace
he broke his gallant heart and died. You remember that last night, when I
came through that door, I begged and prayed you for mercy, and you laughed
in my face as you are trying to laugh now, only your coward heart cannot
keep your lips from twitching. Yes, you never thought to see me here
again, but it was that night which taught me how I could meet you face to
face, and alone. Well, Charles Milverton, what have you to say?"
"Don't imagine that you can bully me," said he, rising to his feet.
"I have only to raise my voice, and I could call my servants and have you
arrested. But I will make allowance for your natural anger. Leave the room
at once as you came, and I will say no more."
The woman stood with her hand buried in her bosom, and the same
deadly smile on her thin lips.
"You will ruin no more lives as you have ruined mine. You will wring
no more hearts as you wrung mine. I will free the world of a poisonous
thing. Take that, you hound and that! and that! and that! and that!"
She had drawn a little gleaming revolver, and emptied barrel after
barrel into Milverton's body, the muzzle within two feet of his shirt
front. He shrank away and then fell forward upon the table, coughing
furiously and clawing among the papers. Then he staggered to his feet,
received another shot, and rolled upon the floor. "You've done me," he
cried, and lay still. The woman looked at him intently, and ground her
heel into his upturned face. She looked again, but there was no sound or
movement. I heard a sharp rustle, the night air blew into the heated room,
and the avenger was gone.
No interference upon our part could have saved the man from his fate,
but, as the woman poured bullet after bullet into Milverton's shrinking
body I was about to spring out, when I felt Holmes's cold, strong grasp
upon my wrist. I understood the whole argument of that firm, restraining
grip that it was no affair of ours, that justice had overtaken a
villain, that we had our own duties and our own objects, which were not to
be lost sight of. But hardly had the woman rushed from the room when
Holmes, with swift, silent steps, was over at the other door. He turned
the key in the lock. At the same instant we heard voices in the house and
the sound of hurrying feet. The revolver shots had roused the household.
With perfect coolness Holmes slipped across to the safe, filled his two
arms with bundles of letters, and poured them all into the fire. Again and
again he did it, until the safe was empty. Someone turned the handle and
beat upon the outside of the door. Holmes looked swiftly round. The letter
which had been the messenger of death for Milverton lay, all mottled with
his blood, upon the table. Holmes tossed it in among the blazing papers.
Then he drew the key from the outer door, passed through after me, and
locked it on the outside. "This way, Watson," said he, "we can scale the
garden wall in this direction."
I could not have believed that an alarm could have spread so swiftly.
Looking back, the huge house was one blaze of light. The front door was
open, and figures were rushing down the drive. The whole garden was alive
with people, and one fellow raised a view-halloa as we emerged from the
veranda and followed hard at our heels. Holmes seemed to know the grounds
perfectly, and he threaded his way swiftly among a plantation of small
trees, I close at his heels, and our foremost pursuer panting behind us.
It was a six-foot wall which barred our path, but he sprang to the top and
over. As I did the same I felt the hand of the man behind me grab at my
ankle, but I kicked myself free and scrambled over a grass-strewn coping.
I fell upon my face among some bushes, but Holmes had me on my feet in an
instant, and together we dashed away across the huge expanse of Hampstead
Heath. We had run two miles, I suppose, before Holmes at last halted and
listened intently. All was absolute silence behind us. We had shaken off
our pursuers and were safe.
We had breakfasted and were smoking our morning pipe on the day after
the remarkable experience which I have recorded, when Mr. Lestrade, of
Scotland Yard, very solemn and impressive, was ushered into our modest
"Good-morning, Mr. Holmes," said he; "good-morning. May I ask if you
are very busy just now?"
"Not too busy to listen to you."
"I thought that, perhaps, if you had nothing particular on hand, you
might care to assist us in a most remarkable case, which occurred only
last night at Hampstead."
"Dear me!" said Holmes. "What was that?"
"A murder a most dramatic and remarkable murder. I know how keen
you are upon these things, and I would take it as a great favour if you
would step down to Appledore Towers, and give us the benefit of your
advice. It is no ordinary crime. We have had our eyes upon this Mr.
Milverton for some time, and, between ourselves, he was a bit of a
villain. He is known to have held papers which he used for blackmailing
purposes. These papers have all been burned by the murderers. No article
of value was taken, as it is probable that the criminals were men of good
position, whose sole object was to prevent social exposure."
"Criminals?" said Holmes. "Plural?"
"Yes, there were two of them. They were as nearly as possible
captured red-handed. We have their footmarks, we have their description,
it's ten to one that we trace them. The first fellow was a bit too active,
but the second was caught by the under-gardener, and only got away after a
struggle. He was a middle-sized, strongly built man square jaw, thick
neck, moustache, a mask over his eyes."
"That's rather vague," said Sherlock Holmes. "Why, it might be a
description of Watson!"
"It's true," said the inspector, with amusement. "It might be a
description of Watson."
"Well, I'm afraid I can't help you, Lestrade," said Holmes. "The fact
is that I knew this fellow Milverton, that I considered him one of the
most dangerous men in London, and that I think there are certain crimes
which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify
private revenge. No, it's no use arguing. I have made up my mind. My
sympathies are with the criminals rather than with the victim, and I will
not handle this case."
Holmes had not said one word to me about the tragedy which we had
witnessed, but I observed all the morning that he was in his most
thoughtful mood, and he gave me the impression, from his vacant eyes and
his abstracted manner, of a man who is striving to recall something to his
memory. We were in the middle of our lunch, when he suddenly sprang to his
feet. "By Jove, Watson, I've got it!" he cried. "Take your hat! Come with
me!" He hurried at his top speed down Baker Street and along Oxford
Street, until we had almost reached Regent Circus. Here, on the left hand,
there stands a shop window filled with photographs of the celebrities and
beauties of the day. Holmes's eyes fixed themselves upon one of them, and
following his gaze I saw the picture of a regal and stately lady in Court
dress, with a high diamond tiara upon her noble head. I looked at that
delicately curved nose, at the marked eyebrows, at the straight mouth, and
the strong little chin beneath it. Then I caught my breath as I read the
time-honoured title of the great nobleman and statesman whose wife she had
been. My eyes met those of Holmes, and he put his finger to his lips as we
turned away from the window.