“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 superscribed 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 upstairs,
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, née ADLER