HIS LAST BOW
An Epilogue of Sherlock Holmes
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
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
"So far as I can judge the trend of events, you will
probably be back in
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
"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
"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
"Your name has already been files 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.
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
"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
The large oak-panelled, book-lined room had a curtain hung in the future 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," "
"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
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
Von Bork pushed over a telegram.
Will come without fail to-night and bring new sparking plugs.
"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."
"Five hundred pounds for this particular job. Of course he has a salary as well."
"The greedy rouge. They are useful, these traitors, but I grudge them their blood money."
"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
"May I offer you a glass before your journey?"
"No, thanks. But it looks like revelry."
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."
"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?"
"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 nit 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 is 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
"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
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
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
The American held the small parcel in his hand, but made no motion to give it up.
"What about the dough?" he asked.
"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 dazing 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
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
"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
"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 cold 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
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
"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
"Then who are you?"
"It is really immaterial who I am, but since the matter
seems to interest you, Mr. Von Bork, I may say that this is not my first
acquaintance with the members of your family.
I have done a good deal of business in
"I would wish to know it," said the Prussian grimly.
"It was I who brought about the separation between Irene Adler and the late King of Bohemia when your cousin Heinrich was the Imperial Envoy. It was I also who saved from murder, by the Nihilist Klopman, Count Von und Zu Grafenstein, who was your mother's elder brother. It was I--"
Von Bork sat up in amazement.
"There is only one man," he cried.
"Exactly," said Holmes.
Von Bork groaned and sank back on the sofa. "And most of that information came through you," he cried. "What is it worth? What have I done? It is my ruin forever!"
"It is certainly a little untrustworthy," said Holmes. "It will require some checking and you have little time to check it. Your admiral may find the new guns rather larger than he expects, and the cruisers perhaps a trifle faster."
Von Bork clutched at his own throat in despair.
"There are a good many other points of detail which
will, no doubt, come to light in good time.
But you have one quality which is very rare in a German, Mr. Von
Bork: you are a sportsman and you will
bear me no ill-will when you realize that you, who have outwitted so many other
people, have at last been outwitted yourself.
After all, you have done your best for your country, and I have done my
best for mine, and what could be more natural?
Besides," he added, not unkindly, as he laid his hand upon the
shoulder of the prostrate man, "it is better than to fall before some
ignoble foe. These papers are now ready,
Watson. If you will help me with our
prisoner, I think that we may get started for
It was no easy task to move Von Bork, for he was a strong and a desperate man. Finally, holding either arm, the two friends walked him very slowly down the garden walk which he had trod with such proud confidence when he received the congratulations of the famous diplomatist only a few hours before. After a short, final struggle he was hoisted, still bound hand and foot, into the spare seat of the little car. His precious valise was wedged in beside him.
"I trust that you are as comfortable as circumstances permit," said Holmes when the final arrangements were made. "Should I be guilty of a liberty if I lit a cigar and placed it between your lips?"
But all amenities were wasted upon the angry German.
"I suppose you realize, Mr. Sherlock Holmes," said he, "that if your government bears you out in this treatment it becomes an act of war."
"What about your government and all this treatment?" said Holmes, tapping the valise.
"You are a private individual. You have no warrant for my arrest. The whole proceeding is absolutely illegal and outrageous."
"Absolutely," said Holmes.
"Kidnapping a German subject."
"And stealing his private papers."
"Well, you realize your position, you and your accomplice here. If I were to shout for help as we pass through the village--"
"My dear sir, if you did anything so foolish you would
probably enlarge the two limited titles of our village inns by giving us 'The
Dangling Prussian' as a signpost. The
Englishman is a patient creature, but at present his temper is a little
inflamed, and it would be as well not to try him too far. No, Mr. Von Bork, you will go with us in a
quiet, sensible fashion to Scotland Yard, whence you can send for your friend,
Baron Von Herling, and see if even now you may not fill that place which he has
reserved for you in the ambassadorial suite.
As to you, Watson, you are joining us with your old service, as I
The two friends chatted in intimate converse for a few minutes, recalling once again the days of the past, while their prisoner vainly wriggled to undo the bonds that held him. As they turned to the car Holmes pointed back to the moonlit sea and shook a thoughtful head.
"There's an east wind coming, Watson."
"I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."
"Good old Watson!
You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind
coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on