Holmes had sat up upon the couch, and I saw him motion like a man who is in need of air. A maid rushed across and threw open the window. At the same instant I saw him raise his hand and at the signal I tossed my rocket into the room with a cry of “Fire!” The word was no sooner out of my mouth than the whole crowd of spectators, well dressed and ill — gentlemen, ostlers, and servant-maids — joined in a general shriek of “Fire!” Thick clouds of smoke curled through the room and out at the open window. I caught a glimpse of rushing figures, and a moment later the voice of Holmes from within assuring them that it was a false alarm. Slipping through the shouting crowd I made my way to the corner of the street, and in ten minutes was rejoiced to find my friend’s arm in mine, and to get away from the scene of uproar. He walked swiftly and in silence for some few minutes until we had turned down one of the quiet streets which lead towards the Edgeware Road.
“You did it very nicely, Doctor,” he remarked. “Nothing could have been better. It is all right.”
“You have the photograph?”
“I know where it is.”
“And how did you find out?”
“She showed me, as I told you she would.”
“I am still in the dark.”
“I do not wish to make a mystery,” said he, laughing. “The matter was perfectly simple. You, of course, saw that everyone in the street was an accomplice. They were all engaged for the evening.”
“I guessed as much.”
“Then, when the row broke out, I had a little moist red paint in the palm of my hand. I rushed forward, fell down. clapped my hand to my face, and became a piteous spectacle. It is an old trick.”
“That also I could fathom.”
“Then they carried me in. She was bound to have me in. What else could she do? And into her sitting-room. which was the very room which I suspected. It lay between that and her bedroom, and I was determined to see which. They laid me on a couch, I motioned for air, they were compelled to open the window. and you had your chance.”
“How did that help you?”
“It was all-important. When a woman thinks that her house is on fire, her instinct is at once to rush to the thing which she values most. It is a perfectly overpowering impulse, and I have more than once taken advantage of it. In the case of the Darlington substitution scandal it was of use to me, and also in the Arnsworth Castle business. A married woman grabs at her baby; an unmarried one reaches for her jewel-box. Now it was clear to me that our lady of to-day had nothing in the house more precious to her than what we are in quest of. She would rush to secure it. The alarm of fire was admirably done. The smoke and shouting were enough to shake nerves of steel. She responded beautifully. The photograph is in a recess behind a sliding panel just above the right bell-pull. She was there in an instant, and I caught a glimpse of it as she half-drew it out. When I cried out that it was a false alarm, she replaced it, glanced at the rocket, rushed from the room, and I have not seen her since. I rose, and, making my excuses, escaped from the house. I hesitated whether to attempt to secure the photograph at once; but the coachman had come in, and as he was watching me narrowly it seemed safer to wait. A little over-precipitance may ruin all.”
“And now?” I asked.
“Our quest is practically finished. I shall call with the King to-morrow, and with you, if you care to come with us. We will be shown into the sitting-room to wait for the lady; but it is probable that when she comes she may find neither us nor the photograph. It might be a satisfaction to his Majesty to regain it with his own hands.”
“And when will you call?”
“At eight in the morning. She will not be up, so that we shall have a clear field. Besides, we must be prompt, for this marriage may mean a complete change in her life and habits. I must wire to the King without delay.”
We had reached Baker Street and had stopped at the door. He was searching his pockets for the key when someone passing said:
“Good-night, Mister Sherlock Holmes.”
There were several people on the pavement at the time, but the greeting appeared to come from a slim youth in an ulster who had hurried by.
“I’ve heard that voice before,” said Holmes, staring down the dimly lit street. “Now, I wonder who the deuce that could have been.”
I slept at Baker Street that night, and we were engaged upon our toast and coffee in the morning when the King of Bohemia rushed into the room.
“You have really got it!” he cried, grasping Sherlock Holmes by either shoulder and looking eagerly into his face.
“But you have hopes?”
“I have hopes.”
“Then, come. I am all impatience to be gone.”
“We must have a cab.”
“No, my brougham is waiting.”
“Then that will simplify matters.” We descended and started off once more for Briony Lodge.
“Irene Adler is married,” remarked Holmes.
“But to whom?”
“To an English lawyer named Norton.”
“But she could not love him.”
“I am in hopes that she does.”
“And why in hopes?”
“Because it would spare your Majesty all fear of future annoyance. If the lady loves her husband, she does not love your Majesty. If she does not love your Majesty, there is no reason why she should interfere with your Majesty’s plan.”
“It is true. And yet Well! I wish she had been of my own station! What a queen she would have made!” He relapsed into a moody silence, which was not broken until we drew up in Serpentine Avenue.
The door of Briony Lodge was open, and an elderly woman stood upon the steps. She watched us with a sardonic eye as we stepped from the brougham.
“Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I believe?” said she.
“I am Mr. Holmes,” answered my companion, looking at her with a questioning and rather startled gaze.
“Indeed! My mistress told me that you were likely to call. She left this morning with her husband by the 5:15 train from Charing Cross for the Continent.”
“What!” Sherlock Holmes staggered back, white with chagrin and surprise. “Do you mean that she has left England?”
“Never to return.”
“And the papers?” asked the King hoarsely. “All is lost.”
“We shall see.” He pushed past the servant and rushed into the drawing-room, followed by the King and myself. The furniture was scattered about in every direction, with dismantled shelves and open drawers, as if the lady had hurriedly ransacked them before her flight. Holmes rushed at the bell-pull, tore back a small sliding shutter, and, plunging in his hand, pulled out a photograph and a letter. The photograph was of Irene Adler herself in evening dress, the letter was superscripted to “Sherlock Holmes, Esq. To be left till called for.” My friend tore it open and we all three read it together. It was dated at midnight of the preceding night and ran in this way:
“MY DEAR MR. SHERLOCK HOLMES,– You really did it very well. You took me in completely. Until after the alarm of fire, I had not a suspicion. But then, when I found how I had betrayed myself, I began to think. I had been warned against you months ago. I had been told that if the King employed an agent it would certainly be you. And your address had been given me. Yet, with all this, you made me reveal what you wanted to know. Even after I became suspicious, I found it hard to think evil of such a dear, kind old clergyman. But, you know, I have been trained as an actress myself. Male costume is nothing new to me. I often take advantage of the freedom which it gives. I sent John, the coachman, to watch you, ran up-stairs, got into my walking-clothes, as I call them, and came down just as you departed. Well, I followed you to your door, and so made sure that I was really an object of interest to the celebrated Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Then I, rather imprudently, wished you good-night, and started for the Temple to see my husband. We both thought the best resource was flight, when pursued by so formidable an antagonist; so you will find the nest empty when you call to-morrow. As to the photograph, your client may rest in peace. I love and am loved by a better man than he. The King may do what he will without hindrance from one whom he has cruelly wronged. I keep it only to safeguard myself, and to preserve a weapon which will always secure me from any steps which he might take in the future. I leave a photograph which he might care to possess; and I remain, dear Mr. Sherlock Holmes, very truly yours, Irene Norton, neé ADLER.”
“What a woman — oh, what a woman!” cried the King of Bohemia, when we had all three read this epistle. “Did I not tell you how quick and resolute she was? Would she not have made an admirable queen? Is it not a pity that she was not on my level?”
“From what I have seen of the lady she seems indeed to be on a very different level to your Majesty,” said Holmes coldly. “I am sorry that I have not been able to bring your Majesty’s business to a more successful conclusion.”
“On the contrary, my dear sir,” cried the King; “nothing could be more successful. I know that her word is inviolate. The photograph is now as safe as if it were in the fire.”
“I am glad to hear your Majesty say so.”
“I am immensely indebted to you. Pray tell me in what way I can reward you. This ring ” He slipped an emerald snake ring from his finger and held it out upon the palm of his hand.
“Your Majesty has something which I should value even more highly,” said Holmes.
”You have but to name it.”
The King stared at him in amazement.
“Irene’s photograph!” he cried. “Certainly, if you wish it.”
“I thank your Majesty. Then there is no more to be done in the matter. I have the honour to wish you a very good-morning.” He bowed, and, turning away without observing the hand which the King had stretched out to him, he set off in my company for his chambers.
And that was how a great scandal threatened to affect the kingdom of Bohemia, and how the best plans of Mr. Sherlock Holmes were beaten by a woman’s wit. He used to make merry over the cleverness of women, but I have not heard him do it of late. And when he speaks of Irene Adler, or when he refers to her photograph, it is always under the honourable title of the woman.