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 as 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 channel.
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 notebook 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!"
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
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. "My, 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
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.