“I feel twenty years younger, Holmes. I have seldom felt so happy as when I got your wire asking me to meet you at Harwich with the car. But you, Holmes–you have changed very little–save for that horrible goatee.”
“These are the sacrifices one makes for one’s country, Watson,” said Holmes, pulling at his little tuft. “To-morrow it will be but a dreadful memory. With my hair cut and a few other superficial changes I shall no doubt reappear at Claridge’s to-morrow as I was before this American stunt–I beg your pardon, Watson, my well of English seems to be permanently defiled–before this American job came my way.”
“But you have retired, Holmes. We heard of you as living the life of a hermit among your bees and your books in a small farm upon the South Downs.”
“Exactly, Watson. Here is the fruit of my leisured ease, the magnum opus of my latter years!” He picked up the volume from the table and read out the whole title, Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, with Some Observations upon the Segregation of the Queen. “Alone I did it. Behold the fruit of pensive nights and laborious days when I watched the little working gangs as once I watched the criminal world of London.”
“But how did you get to work again?”
“Ah, I have often marvelled at it myself. The Foreign Minister alone I could have withstood, but when the Premier also deigned to visit my humble roof–! The fact is, Watson, that this gentleman upon the sofa was a bit too good for our people. He was in a class by himself. Things were going wrong, and no one could understand why they were going wrong. Agents were suspected or even caught, but there was evidence of some strong and secret central force. It was absolutely necessary to expose it. Strong pressure was brought upon me to look into the matter. It has cost me two years, Watson, but they have not been devoid of excitement. When I say that I started my pilgrimage at Chicago, graduated in an Irish secret society at Buffalo, gave serious trouble to the constabulary at Skibbareen, and so eventually caught the eye of a subordinate agent of Von Bork, who recommended me as a likely man, you will realize that the matter was complex. Since then I have been honoured by his confidence, which has not prevented most of his plans going subtly wrong and five of his best agents being in prison. I watched them, Watson, and I picked them as they ripened. Well, sir, I hope that you are none the worse!”
The last remark was addressed to Von Bork himself, who after much gasping and blinking had lain quietly listening to Holmes’s statement. He broke out now into a furious stream of German invective, his face convulsed with passion. Holmes continued his swift investigation of documents while his prisoner cursed and swore.
“Though unmusical, German is the most expressive of all languages,” he observed when Von Bork had stopped from pure exhaustion. “Hullo! Hullo!” he added as he looked hard at the corner of a tracing before putting it in the box. “This should put another bird in the cage. I had no idea that the paymaster was such a rascal, though I have long had an eye upon him. Mister Von Bork, you have a great deal to answer for.”
The prisoner had raised himself with some difficulty upon the sofa and was staring with a strange mixture of amazement and hatred at his captor.
“I shall get level with you, Altamont,” he said, speaking with slow deliberation. “If it takes me all my life I shall get level with you!”
“The old sweet song,” said Holmes. “How often have I heard it in days gone by. It was a favorite ditty of the late lamented Professor Moriarty. Colonel Sebastian Moran has also been known to warble it. And yet I live and keep bees upon the South Downs.”
“Curse you, you double traitor!” cried the German, straining against his bonds and glaring murder from his furious eyes.
“No, no, it is not so bad as that,” said Holmes, smiling. “As my speech surely shows you, Mr. Altamont of Chicago had no existence in fact. I used him and he is gone.”
“Then who are you?”