My mind filled with admiration for this extraordinary man.
“You have solved it!” I cried.
“Hardly that, Watson. There are some points which are as dark as ever. But we have so much that it will be our own fault if we cannot get the rest. We will go straight to Whitehall Terrace and bring the matter to a head.”
When we arrived at the residence of the European Secretary it was for Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope that Sherlock Holmes inquired. We were shown into the morning-room.
“Mr. Holmes!” said the lady, and her face was pink with her indignation. “This is surely most unfair and ungenerous upon your part. I desired, as I have explained, to keep my visit to you a secret, lest my husband should think that I was intruding into his affairs. And yet you compromise me by coming here and so showing that there are business relations between us.”
“Unfortunately, madam, I had no possible alternative. I have been commissioned to recover this immensely important paper. I must therefore ask you, madam, to be kind enough to place it in my hands.”
The lady sprang to her feet, with the colour all dashed in an instant from her beautiful face. Her eyes glazed—she tottered—I thought that she would faint. Then with a grand effort she rallied from the shock, and a supreme astonishment and indignation chased every other expression from her features.
“You—you insult me, Mr. Holmes.”
“Come, come, madam, it is useless. Give up the letter.”
She darted to the bell.
“The butler shall show you out.”
“Do not ring, Lady Hilda. If you do, then all my earnest efforts to avoid a scandal will be frustrated. Give up the letter and all will be set right. If you will work with me I can arrange everything. If you work against me I must expose you.”
She stood grandly defiant, a queenly figure, her eyes fixed upon his as if she would read his very soul. Her hand was on the bell, but she had forborne to ring it.
“You are trying to frighten me. It is not a very manly thing, Mr. Holmes, to come here and browbeat a woman. You say that you know something. What is it that you know?”
“Pray sit down, madam. You will hurt yourself there if you fall. I will not speak until you sit down. Thank you.”
“I give you five minutes, Mr. Holmes.”
“One is enough, Lady Hilda. I know of your visit to Eduardo Lucas, of your giving him this document, of your ingenious return to the room last night, and of the manner in which you took the letter from the hiding-place under the carpet.”
She stared at him with an ashen face and gulped twice before she could speak.
“You are mad, Mr. Holmes—you are mad!” she cried, at last.
He drew a small piece of cardboard from his pocket. It was the face of a woman cut out of a portrait.
“I have carried this because I thought it might be useful,” said he. “The policeman has recognized it.”
She gave a gasp, and her head dropped back in the chair.
“Come, Lady Hilda. You have the letter. The matter may still be adjusted. I have no desire to bring trouble to you. My duty ends when I have returned the lost letter to your husband. Take my advice and be frank with me. It is your only chance.”
Her courage was admirable. Even now she would not own defeat.
“I tell you again, Mr. Holmes, that you are under some absurd illusion.”
Holmes rose from his chair.
“I am sorry for you, Lady Hilda. I have done my best for you. I can see that it is all in vain.”
He rang the bell. The butler entered.
“Is Mr. Trelawney Hope at home?”
“He will be home, sir, at a quarter to one.”
Holmes glanced at his watch.
“Still a quarter of an hour,” said he. “Very good, I shall wait.”
The butler had hardly closed the door behind him when Lady Hilda was down on her knees at Holmes’s feet, her hands outstretched, her beautiful face upturned and wet with her tears.
“Oh, spare me, Mr. Holmes! Spare me!” she pleaded, in a frenzy of supplication. “For heaven’s sake, don’t tell him! I love him so! I would not bring one shadow on his life, and this I know would break his noble heart.”
Holmes raised the lady. “I am thankful, madam, that you have come to your senses even at this last moment! There is not an instant to lose. Where is the letter?”
She darted across to a writing-desk, unlocked it, and drew out a long blue envelope.
“Here it is, Mr. Holmes. Would to heaven I had never seen it!”
“How can we return it?” Holmes muttered. “Quick, quick, we must think of some way! Where is the despatch-box?”
“Still in his bedroom.”
“What a stroke of luck! Quick, madam, bring it here!” A moment later she had appeared with a red flat box in her hand.
“How did you open it before? You have a duplicate key? Yes, of course you have. Open it!”
From out of her bosom Lady Hilda had drawn a small key. The box flew open. It was stuffed with papers. Holmes thrust the blue envelope deep down into the heart of them, between the leaves of some other document. The box was shut, locked, and returned to the bedroom.
“Now we are ready for him,” said Holmes. “We have still ten minutes. I am going far to screen you, Lady Hilda. In return you will spend the time in telling me frankly the real meaning of this extraordinary affair.”
“Mr. Holmes, I will tell you everything,” cried the lady. “Oh, Mr. Holmes, I would cut off my right hand before I gave him a moment of sorrow! There is no woman in all London who loves her husband as I do, and yet if he knew how I have acted—how I have been compelled to act—he would never forgive me. For his own honour stands so high that he could not forget or pardon a lapse in another. Help me, Mr. Holmes! My happiness, his happiness, our very lives are at stake!”
“Quick, madam, the time grows short!”
“It was a letter of mine, Mr. Holmes, an indiscreet letter written before my marriage—a foolish letter, a letter of an impulsive, loving girl. I meant no harm, and yet he would have thought it criminal. Had he read that letter his confidence would have been forever destroyed. It is years since I wrote it. I had thought that the whole matter was forgotten. Then at last I heard from this man, Lucas, that it had passed into his hands, and that he would lay it before my husband. I implored his mercy. He said that he would return my letter if I would bring him a certain document which he described in my husband’s despatch-box. He had some spy in the office who had told him of its existence. He assured me that no harm could come to my husband. Put yourself in my position, Mr. Holmes! What was I to do?”
“Take your husband into your confidence.”
“I could not, Mr. Holmes, I could not! On the one side seemed certain ruin, on the other, terrible as it seemed to take my husband’s paper, still in a matter of politics I could not understand the consequences, while in a matter of love and trust they were only too clear to me. I did it, Mr. Holmes! I took an impression of his key. This man, Lucas, furnished a duplicate. I opened his despatch-box, took the paper, and conveyed it to Godolphin Street.”
“What happened there, madam?”
“I tapped at the door as agreed. Lucas opened it. I followed him into his room, leaving the hall door ajar behind me, for I feared to be alone with the man. I remember that there was a woman outside as I entered. Our business was soon done. He had my letter on his desk, I handed him the document. He gave me the letter. At this instant there was a sound at the door. There were steps in the passage. Lucas quickly turned back the drugget, thrust the document into some hiding-place there, and covered it over.
“What happened after that is like some fearful dream. I have a vision of a dark, frantic face, of a woman’s voice, which screamed in French, ‘My waiting is not in vain. At last, at last I have found you with her!’ There was a savage struggle. I saw him with a chair in his hand, a knife gleamed in hers. I rushed from the horrible scene, ran from the house, and only next morning in the paper did I learn the dreadful result. That night I was happy, for I had my letter, and I had not seen yet what the future would bring.
“It was the next morning that I realized that I had only exchanged one trouble for another. My husband’s anguish at the loss of his paper went to my heart. I could hardly prevent myself from there and then kneeling down at his feet and telling him what I had done. But that again would mean a confession of the past. I came to you that morning in order to understand the full enormity of my offence. From the instant that I grasped it my whole mind was turned to the one thought of getting back my husband’s paper. It must still be where Lucas had placed it, for it was concealed before this dreadful woman entered the room. If it had not been for her coming, I should not have known where his hiding-place was. How was I to get into the room? For two days I watched the place, but the door was never left open. Last night I made a last attempt. What I did and how I succeeded, you have already learned. I brought the paper back with me, and thought of destroying it, since I could see no way of returning it without confessing my guilt to my husband. Heavens, I hear his step upon the stair!”
The European Secretary burst excitedly into the room. “Any news, Mr. Holmes, any news?” he cried.
“I have some hopes.”
“Ah, thank heaven!” His face became radiant. “The Prime Minister is lunching with me. May he share your hopes? He has nerves of steel, and yet I know that he has hardly slept since this terrible event. Jacobs, will you ask the Prime Minister to come up? As to you, dear, I fear that this is a matter of politics. We will join you in a few minutes in the dining-room.”
The Prime Minister’s manner was subdued, but I could see by the gleam of his eyes and the twitchings of his bony hands that he shared the excitement of his young colleague.
“I understand that you have something to report, Mr. Holmes?”
“Purely negative as yet,” my friend answered. “I have inquired at every point where it might be, and I am sure that there is no danger to be apprehended.”
“But that is not enough, Mr. Holmes. We cannot live forever on such a volcano. We must have something definite.”
“I am in hopes of getting it. That is why I am here. The more I think of the matter the more convinced I am that the letter has never left this house.”
“If it had it would certainly have been public by now.”
“But why should anyone take it in order to keep it in his house?”
“I am not convinced that anyone did take it.”
“Then how could it leave the despatch-box?”
“I am not convinced that it ever did leave the despatch-box.”
“Mr. Holmes, this joking is very ill-timed. You have my assurance that it left the box.”
“Have you examined the box since Tuesday morning?”
“No. It was not necessary.”
“You may conceivably have overlooked it.”
“Impossible, I say.”
“But I am not convinced of it. I have known such things to happen. I presume there are other papers there. Well, it may have got mixed with them.”
“It was on the top.”
“Someone may have shaken the box and displaced it.”
“No, no, I had everything out.”
“Surely it is easily decided, Hope,” said the Premier. “Let us have the despatch-box brought in.”
The Secretary rang the bell.
“Jacobs, bring down my despatch-box. This is a farcical waste of time, but still, if nothing else will satisfy you, it shall be done. Thank you, Jacobs, put it here. I have always had the key on my watch-chain. Here are the papers, you see. Letter from Lord Merrow, report from Sir Charles Hardy, memorandum from Belgrade, note on the Russo-German grain taxes, letter from Madrid, note from Lord Flowers——Good heavens! what is this? Lord Bellinger! Lord Bellinger!”
The Premier snatched the blue envelope from his hand.
“Yes, it is it—and the letter is intact. Hope, I congratulate you.”
“Thank you! Thank you! What a weight from my heart. But this is inconceivable—impossible. Mr. Holmes, you are a wizard, a sorcerer! How did you know it was there?”
“Because I knew it was nowhere else.”
“I cannot believe my eyes!” He ran wildly to the door. “Where is my wife? I must tell her that all is well. Hilda! Hilda!” we heard his voice on the stairs.
The Premier looked at Holmes with twinkling eyes.
“Come, sir,” said he. “There is more in this than meets the eye. How came the letter back in the box?”
Holmes turned away smiling from the keen scrutiny of those wonderful eyes.
“We also have our diplomatic secrets,” said he and, picking up his hat, he turned to the door.