Arthur Conan Doyle.

His Last Bow online

. (page 1 of 2)
Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleHis Last Bow → online text (page 1 of 2)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by David Brannan. HTML version by Al Haines.








His Last Bow

An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes


By

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


(Part of a collection of stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published as
a book entitled His Last Bow)




It was nine o'clock at night upon the second of August - the most
terrible August in the history of the world. One might have thought
already that God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there
was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and
stagnant air. The sun had long set, but one blood-red gash like an
open wound lay low in the distant west. Above, the stars were shining
brightly, and below, the lights of the shipping glimmered in the bay.
The two famous Germans stood beside the stone parapet of the garden
walk, with the long, low, heavily gabled house behind them, and they
looked down upon the broad sweep of the beach at the foot of the great
chalk cliff in which Von Bork, like some wandering eagle, had perched
himself four years before. They stood with their heads close together,
talking in low, confidential tones. From below the two glowing ends of
their cigars might have been the smouldering eyes of some malignant
fiend looking down in the darkness.

A remarkable man this Von Bork - a man who could hardly be matched among
all the devoted agents of the Kaiser. It was his talents which had
first recommended him for the English mission, the most important
mission of all, but since he had taken it over those talents had become
more and more manifest to the half-dozen people in the world who were
really in touch with the truth. One of these was his present
companion, Baron Von Herling, the chief secretary of the legation,
whose huge 100-horse-power Benz car was blocking the country lane as it
waited to waft its owner back to London.

"So far as I can judge the trend of events, you will probably be back
in Berlin within the week," the secretary was saying. "When you get
there, my dear Von Bork, I think you will be surprised at the welcome
you will receive. I happen to know what is thought in the highest
quarters of your work in this country." He was a huge man, the
secretary, deep, broad, and tall, with a slow, heavy fashion of speech
which had been his main asset in his political career.

Von Bork laughed.

"They are not very hard to deceive," he remarked. "A more docile,
simple folk could not be imagined."

"I don't know about that," said the other thoughtfully. "They have
strange limits and one must learn to observe them. It is that surface
simplicity of theirs which makes a trap for the stranger. One's first
impression is that they are entirely soft. Then one comes suddenly upon
something very hard, and you know that you have reached the limit and
must adapt yourself to the fact. They have, for example, their insular
conventions which simply MUST be observed."

"Meaning 'good form' and that sort of thing?" Von Bork sighed as one
who had suffered much.

"Meaning British prejudice in all its queer manifestations. As an
example I may quote one of my own worst blunders - I can afford to talk
of my blunders, for you know my work well enough to be aware of my
successes. It was on my first arrival. I was invited to a week-end
gathering at the country house of a cabinet minister. The conversation
was amazingly indiscreet."

Von Bork nodded. "I've been there," said he dryly.

"Exactly. Well, I naturally sent a resume of the information to
Berlin. Unfortunately our good chancellor is a little heavy-handed in
these matters, and he transmitted a remark which showed that he was
aware of what had been said. This, of course, took the trail straight
up to me. You've no idea the harm that it did me. There was nothing
soft about our British hosts on that occasion, I can assure you. I was
two years living it down. Now you, with this sporting pose of yours - "

"No, no, don't call it a pose. A pose is an artificial thing. This is
quite natural. I am a born sportsman. I enjoy it."

"Well, that makes it the more effective. You yacht against them, you
hunt with them, you play polo, you match them in every game, your
four-in-hand takes the prize at Olympia. I have even heard that you go
the length of boxing with the young officers. What is the result?
Nobody takes you seriously. You are a 'good old sport' 'quite a decent
fellow for a German,' a hard-drinking, night-club, knock-about-town,
devil-may-care young fellow. And all the time this quiet country house
of yours is the centre of half the mischief in England, and the
sporting squire the most astute secret-service man in Europe. Genius,
my dear Von Bork - genius!"

"You flatter me, Baron. But certainly I may claim my four years in
this country have not been unproductive. I've never shown you my
little store. Would you mind stepping in for a moment?"

The door of the study opened straight on to the terrace. Von Bork
pushed it back, and, leading the way, he clicked the switch of the
electric light. He then closed the door behind the bulky form which
followed him and carefully adjusted the heavy curtain over the latticed
window. Only when all these precautions had been taken and tested did
he turn his sunburned aquiline face to his guest.

"Some of my papers have gone," said he. "When my wife and the
household left yesterday for Flushing they took the less important with
them. I must, of course, claim the protection of the embassy for the
others."

"Your name has already been filed as one of the personal suite. There
will be no difficulties for you or your baggage. Of course, it is just
possible that we may not have to go. England may leave France to her
fate. We are sure that there is no binding treaty between them."

"And Belgium?"

"Yes, and Belgium, too."

Von Bork shook his head. "I don't see how that could be. There is a
definite treaty there. She could never recover from such a
humiliation."

"She would at least have peace for the moment."

"But her honor?"

"Tut, my dear sir, we live in a utilitarian age. Honour is a mediaeval
conception. Besides England is not ready. It is an inconceivable
thing, but even our special war tax of fifty million, which one would
think made our purpose as clear as if we had advertised it on the front
page of the Times, has not roused these people from their slumbers.
Here and there one hears a question. It is my business to find an
answer. Here and there also there is an irritation. It is my business
to soothe it. But I can assure you that so far as the essentials
go - the storage of munitions, the preparation for submarine attack, the
arrangements for making high explosives - nothing is prepared. How,
then, can England come in, especially when we have stirred her up such a
devil's brew of Irish civil war, window-breaking Furies, and God knows
what to keep her thoughts at home."

"She must think of her future."

"Ah, that is another matter. I fancy that in the future we have our
own very definite plans about England, and that your information will
be very vital to us. It is to-day or to-morrow with Mr. John Bull. If
he prefers to-day we are perfectly ready. If it is to-morrow we shall
be more ready still. I should think they would be wiser to fight with
allies than without them, but that is their own affair. This week is
their week of destiny. But you were speaking of your papers." He sat
in the armchair with the light shining upon his broad bald head, while
he puffed sedately at his cigar.

The large oak-panelled, book-lined room had a curtain hung in the
further corner. When this was drawn it disclosed a large, brass-bound
safe. Von Bork detached a small key from his watch chain, and after
some considerable manipulation of the lock he swung open the heavy door.

"Look!" said he, standing clear, with a wave of his hand.

The light shone vividly into the opened safe, and the secretary of the
embassy gazed with an absorbed interest at the rows of stuffed
pigeon-holes with which it was furnished. Each pigeon-hole had its
label, and his eyes as he glanced along them read a long series of such
titles as "Fords," "Harbour-defences," "Aeroplanes," "Ireland,"
"Egypt," "Portsmouth forts," "The Channel," "Rosythe," and a score of
others. Each compartment was bristling with papers and plans.

"Colossal!" said the secretary. Putting down his cigar he softly
clapped his fat hands.

"And all in four years, Baron. Not such a bad show for the
hard-drinking, hard-riding country squire. But the gem of my
collection is coming and there is the setting all ready for it." He
pointed to a space over which "Naval Signals" was printed.

"But you have a good dossier there already."

"Out of date and waste paper. The Admiralty in some way got the alarm
and every code has been changed. It was a blow, Baron - the worst
setback in my whole campaign. But thanks to my check-book and the good
Altamont all will be well to-night."

The Baron looked at his watch and gave a guttural exclamation of
disappointment.

"Well, I really can wait no longer. You can imagine that things are
moving at present in Carlton Terrace and that we have all to be at our
posts. I had hoped to be able to bring news of your great coup. Did
Altamont name no hour?"

Von Bork pushed over a telegram.

Will come without fail to-night and bring new sparking plugs.

Altamont.

"Sparking plugs, eh?"

"You see he poses as a motor expert and I keep a full garage. In our
code everything likely to come up is named after some spare part. If
he talks of a radiator it is a battleship, of an oil pump a cruiser,
and so on. Sparking plugs are naval signals."

"From Portsmouth at midday," said the secretary, examining the
superscription. "By the way, what do you give him?"

"Five hundred pounds for this particular job. Of course he has a
salary as well."

"The greedy rogue. They are useful, these traitors, but I grudge them
their blood money."

"I grudge Altamont nothing. He is a wonderful worker. If I pay him
well, at least he delivers the goods, to use his own phrase. Besides he
is not a traitor. I assure you that our most pan-Germanic Junker is a
sucking dove in his feelings towards England as compared with a real
bitter Irish-American."

"Oh, an Irish-American?"

"If you heard him talk you would not doubt it. Sometimes I assure you
I can hardly understand him. He seems to have declared war on the
King's English as well as on the English king. Must you really go? He
may be here any moment."

"No. I'm sorry, but I have already overstayed my time. We shall
expect you early to-morrow, and when you get that signal book through
the little door on the Duke of York's steps you can put a triumphant
Finis to your record in England. What! Tokay!" He indicated a
heavily sealed dust-covered bottle which stood with two high glasses
upon a salver.

"May I offer you a glass before your journey?"

"No, thanks. But it looks like revelry."

"Altamont has a nice taste in wines, and he took a fancy to my Tokay.
He is a touchy fellow and needs humouring in small things. I have to
study him, I assure you." They had strolled out on to the terrace
again, and along it to the further end where at a touch from the
Baron's chauffeur the great car shivered and chuckled. "Those are the
lights of Harwich, I suppose," said the secretary, pulling on his dust
coat. "How still and peaceful it all seems. There may be other lights
within the week, and the English coast a less tranquil place! The
heavens, too, may not be quite so peaceful if all that the good Zepplin
promises us comes true. By the way, who is that?"

Only one window showed a light behind them; in it there stood a lamp,
and beside it, seated at a table, was a dear old ruddy-faced woman in a
country cap. She was bending over her knitting and stopping
occasionally to stroke a large black cat upon a stool beside her.

"That is Martha, the only servant I have left."

The secretary chuckled.

"She might almost personify Britannia," said he, "with her complete
self-absorption and general air of comfortable somnolence. Well, au
revoir, Von Bork!" With a final wave of his hand he sprang into the
car, and a moment later the two golden cones from the headlights shot
through the darkness. The secretary lay back in the cushions of the
luxurious limousine, with his thoughts so full of the impending
European tragedy that he hardly observed that as his car swung round
the village street it nearly passed over a little Ford coming in the
opposite direction.

Von Bork walked slowly back to the study when the last gleams of the
motor lamps had faded into the distance. As he passed he observed that
his old housekeeper had put out her lamp and retired. It was a new
experience to him, the silence and darkness of his widespread house,
for his family and household had been a large one. It was a relief to
him, however, to think that they were all in safety and that, but for
that one old woman who had lingered in the kitchen, he had the whole
place to himself. There was a good deal of tidying up to do inside his
study and he set himself to do it until his keen, handsome face was
flushed with the heat of the burning papers. A leather valise stood
beside his table, and into this he began to pack very neatly and
systematically the precious contents of his safe. He had hardly got
started with the work, however, when his quick ears caught the sounds
of a distant car. Instantly he gave an exclamation of satisfaction,
strapped up the valise, shut the safe, locked it, and hurried out on to
the terrace. He was just in time to see the lights of a small car come
to a halt at the gate. A passenger sprang out of it and advanced
swiftly towards him, while the chauffeur, a heavily built, elderly man
with a gray moustache, settled down like one who resigns himself to a
long vigil.

"Well?" asked Von Bork eagerly, running forward to meet his visitor.

For answer the man waved a small brown-paper parcel triumphantly above
his head.

"You can give me the glad hand to-night, mister," he cried. "I'm
bringing home the bacon at last."

"The signals?"

"Same as I said in my cable. Every last one of them, semaphore, lamp
code, Marconi - a copy, mind you, not the original. That was too
dangerous. But it's the real goods, and you can lay to that." He
slapped the German upon the shoulder with a rough familiarity from
which the other winced.

"Come in," he said. "I'm all alone in the house. I was only waiting
for this. Of course a copy is better than the original. If an original
were missing they would change the whole thing. You think it's all safe
about the copy?"

The Irish-American had entered the study and stretched his long limbs
from the armchair. He was a tall, gaunt man of sixty, with clear-cut
features and a small goatee beard which gave him a general resemblance
to the caricatures of Uncle Sam. A half-smoked, sodden cigar hung from
the corner of his mouth, and as he sat down he struck a match and relit
it. "Making ready for a move?" he remarked as he looked round him.
"Say, mister," he added, as his eyes fell upon the safe from which the
curtain was now removed, "you don't tell me you keep your papers in
that?"

"Why not?"

"Gosh, in a wide-open contraption like that! And they reckon you to be
some spy. Why, a Yankee crook would be into that with a can-opener.
If I'd known that any letter of mine was goin' to lie loose in a thing
like that I'd have been a mug to write to you at all."

"It would puzzle any crook to force that safe," Von Bork answered.
"You won't cut that metal with any tool."

"But the lock?"

"No, it's a double combination lock. You know what that is?"

"Search me," said the American.

"Well, you need a word as well as a set of figures before you can get
the lock to work." He rose and showed a double-radiating disc round
the keyhole. "This outer one is for the letters, the inner one for the
figures."

"Well, well, that's fine."

"So it's not quite as simple as you thought. It was four years ago
that I had it made, and what do you think I chose for the word and
figures?"

"It's beyond me."

"Well, I chose August for the word, and 1914 for the figures, and here
we are."

The American's face showed his surprise and admiration.

"My, but that was smart! You had it down to a fine thing."

"Yes, a few of us even then could have guessed the date. Here it is,
and I'm shutting down to-morrow morning."

"Well, I guess you'll have to fix me up also. I'm not staying in this
gol-darned country all on my lonesome. In a week or less, from what I
see, John Bull will be on his hind legs and fair ramping. I'd rather
watch him from over the water."

"But you're an American citizen?"

"Well, so was Jack James an American citizen, but he's doing time in
Portland all the same. It cuts no ice with a British copper to tell
him you're an American citizen. 'It's British law and order over
here,' says he. By the way, mister, talking of Jack James, it seems to
me you don't do much to cover your men."

"What do you mean?" Von Bork asked sharply.

"Well, you are their employer, ain't you? It's up to you to see that
they don't fall down. But they do fall down, and when did you ever
pick them up? There's James - "

"It was James's own fault. You know that yourself. He was too
self-willed for the job."

"James was a bonehead - I give you that. Then there was Hollis."

"The man was mad."

"Well, he went a bit woozy towards the end. It's enough to make a man
bug-house when he has to play a part from morning to night with a
hundred guys all ready to set the coppers wise to him. But now there is
Steiner - "

Von Bork started violently, and his ruddy face turned a shade paler.

"What about Steiner?"

"Well, they've got him, that's all. They raided his store last night,
and he and his papers are all in Portsmouth jail. You'll go off and
he, poor devil, will have to stand the racket, and lucky if he gets off
with his life. That's why I want to get over the water as soon as you
do."

Von Bork was a strong, self-contained man, but it was easy to see that
the news had shaken him.

"How could they have got on to Steiner?" he muttered. "That's the
worst blow yet."

"Well, you nearly had a worse one, for I believe they are not far off
me."

"You don't mean that!"

"Sure thing. My landlady down Fratton way had some inquiries, and when
I heard of it I guessed it was time for me to hustle. But what I want
to know, mister, is how the coppers know these things? Steiner is the
fifth man you've lost since I signed on with you, and I know the name
of the sixth if I don't get a move on. How do you explain it, and
ain't you ashamed to see your men go down like this?"

Von Bork flushed crimson.

"How dare you speak in such a way!"

"If I didn't dare things, mister, I wouldn't be in your service. But
I'll tell you straight what is in my mind. I've heard that with you
German politicians when an agent has done his work you are not sorry to
see him put away."

Von Bork sprang to his feet.

"Do you dare to suggest that I have given away my own agents!"

"I don't stand for that, mister, but there's a stool pigeon or a cross
somewhere, and it's up to you to find out where it is. Anyhow I am
taking no more chances. It's me for little Holland, and the sooner the
better."

Von Bork had mastered his anger.

"We have been allies too long to quarrel now at the very hour of
victory," he said. "You've done splendid work and taken risks, and I
can't forget it. By all means go to Holland, and you can get a boat
from Rotterdam to New York. No other line will be safe a week from
now. I'll take that book and pack it with the rest."

The American held the small parcel in his hand, but made no motion to
give it up.

"What about the dough?" he asked.

"The what?"

"The boodle. The reward. The 500 pounds. The gunner turned damned
nasty at the last, and I had to square him with an extra hundred
dollars or it would have been nitsky for you and me. 'Nothin' doin'!'
says he, and he meant it, too, but the last hundred did it. It's cost
me two hundred pound from first to last, so it isn't likely I'd give it
up without gettin' my wad."

Von Bork smiled with some bitterness. "You don't seem to have a very
high opinion of my honour," said he, "you want the money before you
give up the book."

"Well, mister, it is a business proposition."

"All right. Have your way." He sat down at the table and scribbled a
check, which he tore from the book, but he refrained from handing it to
his companion. "After all, since we are to be on such terms, Mr.
Altamont," said he, "I don't see why I should trust you any more than
you trust me. Do you understand?" he added, looking back over his
shoulder at the American. "There's the check upon the table. I claim
the right to examine that parcel before you pick the money up."

The American passed it over without a word. Von Bork undid a winding
of string and two wrappers of paper. Then he sat gazing for a moment
in silent amazement at a small blue book which lay before him. Across
the cover was printed in golden letters Practical Handbook of Bee
Culture. Only for one instant did the master spy glare at this
strangely irrelevant inscription. The next he was gripped at the back
of his neck by a grasp of iron, and a chloroformed sponge was held in
front of his writhing face.

"Another glass, Watson!" said Mr. Sherlock Holmes as he extended the
bottle of Imperial Tokay.

The thickset chauffeur, who had seated himself by the table, pushed
forward his glass with some eagerness.

"It is a good wine, Holmes."

"A remarkable wine, Watson. Our friend upon the sofa has assured me
that it is from Franz Josef's special cellar at the Schoenbrunn Palace.
Might I trouble you to open the window, for chloroform vapour does not
help the palate."

The safe was ajar, and Holmes standing in front of it was removing
dossier after dossier, swiftly examining each, and then packing it
neatly in Von Bork's valise. The German lay upon the sofa sleeping
stertorously with a strap round his upper arms and another round his
legs.

"We need not hurry ourselves, Watson. We are safe from interruption.
Would you mind touching the bell? There is no one in the house except
old Martha, who has played her part to admiration. I got her the
situation here when first I took the matter up. Ah, Martha, you will be
glad to hear that all is well."

The pleasant old lady had appeared in the doorway. She curtseyed with
a smile to Mr. Holmes, but glanced with some apprehension at the figure
upon the sofa.

"It is all right, Martha. He has not been hurt at all."

"I am glad of that, Mr. Holmes. According to his lights he has been a
kind master. He wanted me to go with his wife to Germany yesterday,
but that would hardly have suited your plans, would it, sir?"

"No, indeed, Martha. So long as you were here I was easy in my mind.
We waited some time for your signal to-night."

"It was the secretary, sir."

"I know. His car passed ours."

"I thought he would never go. I knew that it would not suit your
plans, sir, to find him here."

"No, indeed. Well, it only meant that we waited half an hour or so
until I saw your lamp go out and knew that the coast was clear. You
can report to me to-morrow in London, Martha, at Claridge's Hotel."

"Very good, sir."

"I suppose you have everything ready to leave."

"Yes, sir. He posted seven letters to-day. I have the addresses as
usual."

"Very good, Martha. I will look into them to-morrow. Good-night.
These papers," he continued as the old lady vanished, "are not of very
great importance, for, of course, the information which they represent
has been sent off long ago to the German government. These are the
originals which could not safely be got out of the country."

"Then they are of no use."

"I should not go so far as to say that, Watson. They will at least
show our people what is known and what is not. I may say that a good
many of these papers have come through me, and I need not add are
thoroughly untrustworthy. It would brighten my declining years to see
a German cruiser navigating the Solent according to the mine-field
plans which I have furnished. But you, Watson" - he stopped his work
and took his old friend by the shoulders - "I've hardly seen you in the
light yet. How have the years used you? You look the same blithe boy


1

Online LibraryArthur Conan DoyleHis Last Bow → online text (page 1 of 2)