It is years since the incidents of which I speak took place, and
yet it is with diffidence that I allude to them. For a long
time, even with the utmost discretion and reticence, it would
have been impossible to make the facts public, but now the
principal person concerned is beyond the reach of human law, and
with due suppression the story may be told in such fashion as to
injure no one. It records an absolutely unique experience in the
career both of Mr. Sherlock Holmes and of myself. The reader
will excuse me if I conceal the date or any other fact by which
he might trace the actual occurrence.
We had been out for one of our evening rambles, Holmes and I,
and had returned about six o'clock on a cold, frosty winter's
evening. As Holmes turned up the lamp the light fell upon a card
on the table. He glanced at it, and then, with an ejaculation of
disgust, threw it on the floor. I picked it up and read:
CHARLES AUGUSTUS MILVERTON,
"Who is he?" I asked.
"The worst man in London," Holmes answered, as he sat down and
stretched his legs before the fire. "Is anything on the back of
I turned it over.
"Will call at 6:30--C.A.M.," I read.
"Hum! He's about due. Do you feel a creeping, shrinking
sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the
Zoo, and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with
their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that's how
Milverton impresses me. I've had to do with fifty murderers in
my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion
which I have for this fellow. And yet I can't get out of doing
business with him--indeed, he is here at my invitation."
"But who is he?"
"I'll tell you, Watson. He is the king of all the blackmailers.
Heaven help the man, and still more the woman, whose secret and
reputation come into the power of Milverton! With a smiling face
and a heart of marble, he will squeeze and squeeze until he has
drained them dry. The fellow is a genius in his way, and would
have made his mark in some more savoury trade. His method is as
follows: He allows it to be known that he is prepared to pay
very high sums for letters which compromise people of wealth and
position. He receives these wares not only from treacherous
valets or maids, but frequently from genteel ruffians, who have
gained the confidence and affection of trusting women. He deals
with no niggard hand. I happen to know that he paid seven
hundred pounds to a footman for a note two lines in length, and
that the ruin of a noble family was the result. Everything which
is in the market goes to Milverton, and there are hundreds in
this great city who turn white at his name. No one knows where
his grip may fall, for he is far too rich and far too cunning to
work from hand to mouth. He will hold a card back for years in
order to play it at the moment when the stake is best worth
winning. I have said that he is the worst man in London, and I
would ask you how could one compare the ruffian, who in hot
blood bludgeons his mate, with this man, who methodically and
at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order
to add to his already swollen money-bags?"
I had seldom heard my friend speak with such intensity of feeling.
"But surely," said I, "the fellow must be within the grasp of
"Technically, no doubt, but practically not. What would it
profit a woman, for example, to get him a few months'
imprisonment if her own ruin must immediately follow? His
victims dare not hit back. If ever he blackmailed an innocent
person, then indeed we should have him, but he is as cunning as
the Evil One. No, no, we must find other ways to fight him."
"And why is he here?"
"Because an illustrious client has placed her piteous case in my
hands. It is the Lady Eva Blackwell, the most beautiful
debutante of last season. She is to be married in a fortnight to
the Earl of Dovercourt. This fiend has several imprudent
letters--imprudent, Watson, nothing worse--which were written to
an impecunious young squire in the country. They would suffice
to break off the match. Milverton will send the letters to the
Earl unless a large sum of money is paid him. I have been
commissioned to meet him, and--to make the best terms I can."
At that instant there was a clatter and a rattle in the street
below. Looking down I saw a stately carriage and pair, the
brilliant lamps gleaming on the glossy haunches of the noble
chestnuts. A footman opened the door, and a small, stout man in
a shaggy astrakhan overcoat descended. A minute later he was in
Charles Augustus Milverton was a man of fifty, with a large,
intellectual head, a round, plump, hairless face, a perpetual
frozen smile, and two keen gray eyes, which gleamed brightly
from behind broad, gold-rimmed glasses. There was something of
Mr. Pickwick's benevolence in his appearance, marred only by the
insincerity of the fixed smile and by the hard glitter of those
restless and penetrating eyes. His voice was as smooth and suave
as his countenance, as he advanced with a plump little hand
extended, murmuring his regret for having missed us at his first
visit. Holmes disregarded the outstretched hand and looked at
him with a face of granite. Milverton's smile broadened, he
shrugged his shoulders removed his overcoat, folded it with
great deliberation over the back of a chair, and then took a seat.
"This gentleman?" said he, with a wave in my direction. "Is it
discreet? Is it right?"
"Dr. Watson is my friend and partner."
"Very good, Mr. Holmes. It is only in your client's interests
that I protested. The matter is so very delicate----"
"Dr. Watson has already heard of it."
"Then we can proceed to business. You say that you are acting
for Lady Eva. Has she empowered you to accept my terms?"
"What are your terms?"
"Seven thousand pounds."
"And the alternative?"
"My dear sir, it is painful for me to discuss it, but if the
money is not paid on the 14th, there certainly will be no
marriage on the 18th." His insufferable smile was more
complacent than ever.
Holmes thought for a little.
"You appear to me," he said, at last, "to be taking matters too
much for granted. I am, of course, familiar with the contents of
these letters. My client will certainly do what I may advise. I
shall counsel her to tell her future husband the whole story and
to trust to his generosity."
"You evidently do not know the Earl," said he.
From the baffled look upon Holmes's face, I could see clearly
that he did.
"What harm is there in the letters?" he asked.
"They are sprightly--very sprightly," Milverton answered. "The
lady was a charming correspondent. But I can assure you that the
Earl of Dovercourt would fail to appreciate them. However, since
you think otherwise, we will let it rest at that. It is purely
a matter of business. If you think that it is in the best
interests of your client that these letters should be placed in
the hands of the Earl, then you would indeed be foolish to pay
so large a sum of money to regain them." He rose and seized his
Holmes was gray with anger and mortification.
"Wait a little," he said. "You go too fast. We should certainly
make every effort to avoid scandal in so delicate a matter."
Milverton relapsed into his chair.
"I was sure that you would see it in that light," he purred.
"At the same time," Holmes continued, "Lady Eva is not a wealthy
woman. I assure you that two thousand pounds would be a drain
upon her resources, and that the sum you name is utterly beyond
her power. I beg, therefore, that you will moderate your
demands, and that you will return the letters at the price I
indicate, which is, I assure you, the highest that you can get."
Milverton's smile broadened and his eyes twinkled humorously.
"I am aware that what you say is true about the lady's
resources," said he. "At the same time you must admit that the
occasion of a lady's marriage is a very suitable time for her
friends and relatives to make some little effort upon her
behalf. They may hesitate as to an acceptable wedding present.
Let me assure them that this little bundle of letters would give
more joy than all the candelabra and butter-dishes in London."
"It is impossible," said Holmes.
"Dear me, dear me, how unfortunate!" cried Milverton, taking out
a bulky pocketbook. "I cannot help thinking that ladies are
ill-advised in not making an effort. Look at this!" He held up
a little note with a coat-of-arms upon the envelope. "That
belongs to--well, perhaps it is hardly fair to tell the name
until to-morrow morning. But at that time it will be in the
hands of the lady's husband. And all because she will not find
a beggarly sum which she could get by turning her diamonds into
paste. It IS such a pity! Now, you remember the sudden end of
the engagement between the Honourable Miss Miles and Colonel
Dorking? Only two days before the wedding, there was a paragraph
in the MORNING POST to say that it was all off. And why? It is
almost incredible, but the absurd sum of twelve hundred pounds
would have settled the whole question. Is it not pitiful? And
here I find you, a man of sense, boggling about terms, when your
client's future and honour are at stake. You surprise me, Mr. Holmes."
"What I say is true," Holmes answered. "The money cannot be
found. Surely it is better for you to take the substantial sum
which I offer than to ruin this woman's career, which can profit
you in no way?"
"There you make a mistake, Mr. Holmes. An exposure would profit
me indirectly to a considerable extent. I have eight or ten
similar cases maturing. If it was circulated among them that I
had made a severe example of the Lady Eva, I should find all of
them much more open to reason. You see my point?"
Holmes sprang from his chair.
"Get behind him, Watson! Don't let him out! Now, sir, let us see
the contents of that notebook."
Milverton had glided as quick as a rat to the side of the room
and stood with his back against the wall.
"Mr. Holmes, Mr. Holmes," he said, turning the front of his coat
and exhibiting the butt of a large revolver, which projected
from the inside pocket. "I have been expecting you to do
something original. This has been done so often, and what good
has ever come from it? I assure you that I am armed to the
teeth, and I am perfectly prepared to use my weapons, knowing
that the law will support me. Besides, your supposition that I
would bring the letters here in a notebook is entirely mistaken.
I would do nothing so foolish. And now, gentlemen, I have one or
two little interviews this evening, and it is a long drive to
Hampstead." He stepped forward, took up his coat, laid his hand
on his revolver, and turned to the door. I picked up a chair,
but Holmes shook his head, and I laid it down again. With bow,
a smile, and a twinkle, Milverton was out of the room, and a few
moments after we heard the slam of the carriage door and the
rattle of the wheels as he drove away.
Holmes sat motionless by the fire, his hands buried deep in his
trouser pockets, his chin sunk upon his breast, his eyes fixed
upon the glowing embers. For half an hour he was silent and
still. Then, with the gesture of a man who has taken his
decision, he sprang to his feet and passed into his bedroom. A
little later a rakish young workman, with a goatee beard and a
swagger, lit his clay pipe at the lamp before descending into
the street. "I'll be back some time, Watson," said he, and
vanished into the night. I understood that he had opened his
campaign against Charles Augustus Milverton, but I little dreamed
the strange shape which that campaign was destined to take.
For some days Holmes came and went at all hours in this attire,
but beyond a remark that his time was spent at Hampstead, and
that it was not wasted, I knew nothing of what he was doing. At
last, however, on a wild, tempestuous evening, when the wind
screamed and rattled against the windows, he returned from his
last expedition, and having removed his disguise he sat before
the fire and laughed heartily in his silent inward fashion.
"You would not call me a marrying man, Watson?"
"You'll be interested to hear that I'm engaged."
"My dear fellow! I congrat----"
"To Milverton's housemaid."
"Good heavens, Holmes!"
"I wanted information, Watson."
"Surely you have gone too far?"
"It was a most necessary step. I am a plumber with a rising
business, Escott, by name. I have walked out with her each
evening, and I have talked with her. Good heavens, those talks!
However, I have got all I wanted. I know Milverton's house as I
know the palm of my hand."
"But the girl, Holmes?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"You can't help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as
best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I
rejoice to say that I have a hated rival, who will certainly cut
me out the instant that my back is turned. What a splendid night
"You like this weather?"
"It suits my purpose. Watson, I mean to burgle Milverton's house
I had a catching of the breath, and my skin went cold at the
words, which were slowly uttered in a tone of concentrated
resolution. As a flash of lightning in the night shows up in an
instant every detail of a wild landscape, so at one glance I
seemed to see every possible result of such an action--the
detection, the capture, the honoured career ending in
irreparable failure and disgrace, my friend himself lying
at the mercy of the odious Milverton.
"For heaven's sake, Holmes, think what you are doing," I cried.
"My dear fellow, I have given it every consideration. I am never
precipitate in my actions, nor would I adopt so energetic and,
indeed, so dangerous a course, if any other were possible. Let
us look at the matter clearly and fairly. I suppose that you
will admit that the action is morally justifiable, though
technically criminal. To burgle his house is no more than to
forcibly take his pocketbook--an action in which you were
prepared to aid me."
I turned it over in my mind.
"Yes," I said, "it is morally justifiable so long as our object
is to take no articles save those which are used for an illegal
Exactly. Since it is morally justifiable, I have only to
consider the question of personal risk. Surely a gentleman
should not lay much stress upon this, when a lady is in most
desperate need of his help?"
"You will be in such a false position."
"Well, that is part of the risk. There is no other possible way
of regaining these letters. The unfortunate lady has not the
money, and there are none of her people in whom she could
confide. To-morrow is the last day of grace, and unless we can
get the letters to-night, this villain will be as good as his
word and will bring about her ruin. I must, therefore, abandon
my client to her fate or I must play this last card. Between
ourselves, Watson, it's a sporting duel between this fellow
Milverton and me. He had, as you saw, the best of the first
exchanges, but my self-respect and my reputation are concerned
to fight it to a finish."
"Well, I don't like it, but I suppose it must be," said I. "When
do we start?"
"You are not coming."
"Then you are not going," said I. "I give you my word of honour--
and I never broke it in my life--that I will take a cab straight
to the police-station and give you away, unless you let me share
this adventure with you."
"You can't help me."
"How do you know that? You can't tell what may happen. Anyway,
my resolution is taken. Other people besides you have
self-respect, and even reputations."
Holmes had looked annoyed, but his brow cleared, and he clapped
me on the shoulder.
"Well, well, my dear fellow, be it so. We have shared this same
room for some years, and it would be amusing if we ended by
sharing the same cell. You know, Watson, I don't mind confessing
to you that I have always had an idea that I would have made a
highly efficient criminal. This is the chance of my lifetime in
that direction. See here!" He took a neat little leather case
out of a drawer, and opening it he exhibited a number of shining
instruments. "This is a first-class, up-to-date burgling kit,
with nickel-plated jemmy, diamond-tipped glass-cutter, adaptable
keys, and every modern improvement which the march of
civilization demands. Here, too, is my dark lantern. Everything
is in order. Have you a pair of silent shoes?"
"I have rubber-soled tennis shoes."
"Excellent! And a mask?"
"I can make a couple out of black silk."
"I can see that you have a strong, natural turn for this sort of
thing. Very good, do you make the masks. We shall have some cold
supper before we start. It is now nine-thirty. At eleven we
shall drive as far as Church Row. It is a quarter of an hour's
walk from there to Appledore Towers. We shall be at work before
midnight. Milverton is a heavy sleeper, and retires punctually
at ten-thirty. With any luck we should be back here by two, with
the Lady Eva's letters in my pocket."
Holmes and I put on our dress-clothes, so that we might appear
to be two theatre-goers homeward bound. In Oxford Street we
picked up a hansom and drove to an address in Hampstead. Here we
paid off our cab, and with our great coats buttoned up, for it
was bitterly cold, and the wind seemed to blow through us, we
walked along the edge of the heath.
"It's a business that needs delicate treatment," said Holmes.
"These documents are contained in a safe in the fellow's study,
and the study is the ante-room of his bed-chamber. On the other
hand, like all these stout, little men who do themselves well,
he is a plethoric sleeper. Agatha--that's my fiancee--says it is
a joke in the servants' hall that it's impossible to wake the
master. He has a secretary who is devoted to his interests, and
never budges from the study all day. That's why we are going at
night. Then he has a beast of a dog which roams the garden. I
met Agatha late the last two evenings, and she locks the brute
up so as to give me a clear run. This is the house, this big one
in its own grounds. Through the gate--now to the right among the
laurels. We might put on our masks here, I think. You see, there
is not a glimmer of light in any of the windows, and everything
is working splendidly."
With our black silk face-coverings, which turned us into two of
the most truculent figures in London, we stole up to the silent,
gloomy house. A sort of tiled veranda extended along one side of
it, lined by several windows and two doors.
"That's his bedroom," Holmes whispered. "This door opens
straight into the study. It would suit us best, but it is bolted
as well as locked, and we should make too much noise getting in.
Come round here. There's a greenhouse which opens into the
The place was locked, but Holmes removed a circle of glass and
turned the key from the inside. An instant afterwards he had
closed the door behind us, and we had become felons in the eyes
of the law. The thick, warm air of the conservatory and the
rich, choking fragrance of exotic plants took us by the throat.
He seized my hand in the darkness and led me swiftly past banks
of shrubs which brushed against our faces. Holmes had remarkable
powers, carefully cultivated, of seeing in the dark. Still
holding my hand in one of his, he opened a door, and I was
vaguely conscious that we had entered a large room in which a
cigar had been smoked not long before. He felt his way among the
furniture, opened another door, and closed it behind us. Putting
out my hand I felt several coats hanging from the wall, and I
understood that I was in a passage. We passed along it and
Holmes very gently opened a door upon the right-hand side.
Something rushed out at us and my heart sprang into my mouth,
but I could have laughed when I realized that it was the cat. A
fire was burning in this new room, and again the air was heavy
with tobacco smoke. Holmes entered on tiptoe, waited for me to
follow, and then very gently closed the door. We were in
Milverton's study, and a portiere at the farther side showed the
entrance to his bedroom.
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
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
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
"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
"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
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 dangerous smile.
"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!--
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 this direction."
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 sitting-room.
"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.