The machine broke down.
“Not at home means not at home to you,” said the footman.
“Good,” Holmes answered. “That means that we shall not have to wait. Kindly give this note to your mistress.”
He scribbled three or four words upon a sheet of his notebook, folded it, and handed it to the man.
“What did you say, Holmes?” I asked.
“I simply wrote: ‘Shall it be the police, then?’ I think that should pass us in.”
It did–with amazing celerity. A minute later we were in an Arabian Nights drawing-room, vast and wonderful, in a half gloom, picked out with an occasional pink electric light. The lady had come, I felt, to that time of life when even the proudest beauty finds the half light more welcome. She rose from a settee as we entered: tall, queenly, a perfect figure, a lovely mask-like face, with two wonderful Spanish eyes which looked murder at us both.
“What is this intrusion–and this insulting message?” she asked, holding up the slip of paper.
“I need not explain, madame. I have too much respect for your intelligence to do so–though I confess that intelligence has been surprisingly at fault of late.”
“How so, sir?”
“By supposing that your hired bullies could frighten me from my work. Surely no man would take up my profession if it were not that danger attracts him. It was you, then, who forced me to examine the case of young Maberley.”
“I have no idea what you are talking about. What have I to do with hired bullies?”
Holmes turned away wearily.
“Yes, I have underrated your intelligence. Well, good-afternoon!”
“Stop! Where are you going?”
“To Scotland Yard.”
We had not got halfway to the door before she had overtaken us and was holding his arm. She had turned in a moment from steel to velvet.
“Come and sit down, gentlemen. Let us talk this matter over. I feel that I may be frank with you, Mr. Holmes. You have the feelings of a gentleman. How quick a woman’s instinct is to find it out. I will treat you as a friend.”
“I cannot promise to reciprocate, madame. I am not the law, but I represent justice so far as my feeble powers go. I am ready to listen, and then I will tell you how I will act.”
“No doubt it was foolish of me to threaten a brave man like yourself.”
“What was really foolish, madame, is that you have placed yourself in the power of a band of rascals who may blackmail or give you away.”
“No, no! I am not so simple. Since I have promised to be frank, I may say that no one, save Barney Stockdale and Susan, his wife, have the least idea who their employer is. As to them, well, it is not the first –” She smiled and nodded with a charming coquettish intimacy.
“I see. You’ve tested them before.”
“They are good hounds who run silent.”
“Such hounds have a way sooner or later of biting the hand that feeds them. They will be arrested for this burglary. The police are already after them.”
“They will take what comes to them. That is what they are paid for. I shall not appear in the matter.”
“Unless I bring you into it.”
“No, no, you would not. You are a gentleman. It is a woman’s secret.”
“In the first place, you must give back this manuscript.”
She broke into a ripple of laughter and walked to the fireplace. There was a calcined mass which she broke up with the poker. “Shall I give this back?” she asked. So roguish and exquisite did she look as she stood before us with a challenging smile that I felt of all Holmes’s criminals this was the one whom he would find it hardest to face. However, he was immune from sentiment.
“That seals your fate,” he said coldly. “You are very prompt in your actions, madame, but you have overdone it on this occasion.”
She threw the poker down with a clatter.
“How hard you are!” she cried. “May I tell you the whole story?”