It was pleasant to Dr. Watson to find himself once more in the untidy room of the first floor in Baker Street which had been the starting-point of so many remarkable adventures. He looked round him at the scientific charts upon the wall, the acid-charred bench of chemicals, the violin-case leaning in the corner, the coal-scuttle, which contained of old the pipes and tobacco. Finally, his eyes came round to the fresh and smiling face of Billy, the young but very wise and tactful page, who had helped a little to fill up the gap of loneliness and isolation which surrounded the saturnine figure of the great detective.
"It all seems very unchanged, Billy. You don't change, either. I hope the same can be said of him?"
Billy glanced, with some solicitude, at the closed door of the bedroom.
"I think he's in bed and asleep," he said.
It was seven in the evening of a lovely summer's day, but Dr. Watson was sufficiently familiar with the irregularity of his old friend's hours to feel no surprise at the idea.
"That means a case, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir; he is very hard at it just now. I'm frightened for his health. He gets paler and thinner, and he eats nothing. 'When will you be pleased to dine, Mr. Holmes?' Mrs. Hudson asked. 'Seven-thirty, the day after to-morrow,' said he. You know his way when he is keen on a case."
"Yes, Billy, I know."
"He's following someone. Yesterday he was out as a workman looking for a job. To-day he was an old woman. Fairly took me in, he did, and I ought to know his ways by now." Billy pointed with a grin to a very baggy parasol which leaned against the sofa. "That's part of the old woman's outfit," he said.
"But what is it all about, Billy?"
Billy sank his voice, as one who discusses great secrets of State. "I don't mind telling you, sir, but it should go no farther. It's this case of the Crown diamond."
"What—the hundred-thousand-pound burglary?"
"Yes, sir. They must get it back, sir. Why, we had the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary both sitting on that very sofa. Mr. Holmes was very nice to them. He soon put them at their ease and promised he would do all he could. Then there is Lord Cantlemere——"
"Yes, sir; you know what that means. He's a stiff 'un, sir, if I may say so. I can get along with the Prime Minister, and I've nothing against the Home Secretary, who seemed a civil, obliging sort of man, but I can't stand his lordship. Neither can Mr. Holmes, sir. You see, he don't believe in Mr. Holmes and he was against employing him. He'd rather he failed."
"And Mr. Holmes knows it?"
"Mr. Holmes always knows whatever there is to know."
"Well, we'll hope he won't fail and that Lord Cantlemere will be confounded. But I say, Billy, what is that curtain for across the window?"
"Mr. Holmes had it put up there three days ago. We've got something funny behind it."
Billy advanced and drew away the drapery which screened the alcove of the bow window.
Dr. Watson could not restrain a cry of amazement. There was a facsimile of his old friend, dressing-gown and all, the face turned three-quarters towards the window and downwards, as though reading an invisible book, while the body was sunk deep in an arm-chair. Billy detached the head and held it in the air.
"We put it at different angles, so that it may seem more life-like. I wouldn't dare touch it if the blind were not down. But when it's up you can see this from across the way."
"We used something of the sort once before."
"Before my time," said Billy. He drew the window curtains apart and looked out into the street "There are folk who watch us from over yonder. I can see a fellow now at the window. Have a look for yourself."
Watson had taken a step forward when the bedroom door opened, and the long, thin form of Holmes emerged, his face pale and drawn, but his step and bearing as active as ever. With a single spring he was at the window, and had drawn the blind once more.
"That will do, Billy," said he. "You were in danger of your life then, my boy, and I can't do without you just yet. Well, Watson, it is good to see you in your old quarters once again. You come at a critical moment."
"So I gather."
"You can go, Billy. That boy is a problem, Watson. How far am I justified in allowing him to be in danger?"
"Danger of what, Holmes?"
"Of sudden death. I'm expecting something this evening."
"To be murdered, Watson."
"No, no; you are joking, Holmes!"
"Even my limited sense of humour could evolve a better joke than that. But we may be comfortable in the meantime, may we not? Is alcohol permitted? The gasogene and cigars are in the old place. Let me see you once more in the customary arm-chair. You have not, I hope, learned to despise my pipe and my lamentable tobacco? It has to take the place of food these days."
"But why not eat?"
"Because the faculties become refined when you starve them. Why, surely, as a doctor, my dear Watson, you must admit that what your digestion gains in the way of blood supply is so much lost to the brain. I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix. Therefore, it is the brain I must consider."
"But this danger, Holmes?"
"Ah, yes; in case it should come off, it would perhaps be as well that you should burden your memory with the name and address of the murderer. You can give it to Scotland Yard, with my love and a parting blessing. Sylvius is the name—Count Negretto Sylvius. Write it down, man, write it down! 136 Moorside Gardens, N.W. Got it?"
Watson's honest face was twitching with anxiety. He knew only too well the immense risks taken by Holmes, and was well aware that what he said was more likely to be under-statement than exaggeration. Watson was always the man of action, and he rose to the occasion.
"Count me in, Holmes. I have nothing to do for a day or two."
"Your morals don't improve, Watson. You have added fibbing to your other vices. You bear every sign of the busy medical man, with calls on him every hour."
"Not such important ones. But can't you have this fellow arrested?"
"Yes, Watson, I could. That's what worries him so."
"But why don't you?"
"Because I don't know where the diamond is."
"Ah! Billy told me—the missing Crown jewel!"
"Yes, the great yellow Mazarin stone. I've cast my net and I have my fish. But I have not got the stone. What is the use of taking them? We can make the world a better place by laying them by the heels. But that is not what I am out for. It's the stone I want."
"And is this Count Sylvius one of your fish?"
"Yes, and he's a shark. He bites. The other is Sam Merton, the boxer. Not a bad fellow, Sam, but the Count has used him. Sam's not a shark. He is a great big silly bull-headed gudgeon. But he is flopping about in my net all the same."
"Where is this Count Sylvius?"
"I've been at his very elbow all the morning. You've seen me as an old lady, Watson. I was never more convincing. He actually picked up my parasol for me once. 'By your leave, madame,' said he—half-Italian, you know, and with the Southern graces of manner when in the mood, but a devil incarnate in the other mood. Life is full of whimsical happenings, Watson."
"It might have been tragedy."
"Well, perhaps it might. I followed him to old Straubenzee's workshop in the Minories. Straubenzee made the air-gun—a very pretty bit of work, as I understand, and I rather fancy it is in the opposite window at the present moment. Have you seen the dummy? Of course, Billy showed it to you. Well, it may get a bullet through its beautiful head at any moment. Ah, Billy, what is it?"
The boy had reappeared in the room with a card upon a tray. Holmes glanced at it with raised eyebrows and an amused smile.
"The man himself. I had hardly expected this. Grasp the nettle, Watson! A man of nerve. Possibly you have heard of his reputation as a shooter of big game. It would indeed be a triumphant ending to his excellent sporting record if he added me to his bag. This is a proof that he feels my toe very close behind his heel."
"Send for the police."
"I probably shall. But not just yet. Would you glance carefully out of the window, Watson, and see if anyone is hanging about in the street?"
Watson looked warily round the edge of the curtain.
"Yes, there is one rough fellow near the door."
"That will be Sam Merton—the faithful but rather fatuous Sam. Where is this gentleman, Billy?"
"In the waiting-room, sir."
"Show him up when I ring."
"If I am not in the room, show him in all the same."
Watson waited until the door was closed, and then he turned earnestly to his companion.
"Look here, Holmes, this is simply impossible. This is a desperate man, who sticks at nothing. He may have come to murder you."
"I should not be surprised."
"I insist upon staying with you."
"You would be horribly in the way."
"In his way?"
"No, my dear fellow—in my way."
"Well, I can't possibly leave you."
"Yes, you can, Watson. And you will, for you have never failed to play the game. I am sure you will play it to the end. This man has come for his own purpose, but he may stay for mine." Holmes took out his notebook and scribbled a few lines. "Take a cab to Scotland Yard and give this to Youghal of the C.I.D. Come back with the police. The fellow's arrest will follow."
"I'll do that with joy."
"Before you return I may have just time enough to find out where the stone is." He touched the bell. "I think we will go out through the bedroom. This second exit is exceedingly useful. I rather want to see my shark without his seeing me, and I have, as you will remember, my own way of doing it."
It was, therefore, an empty room into which Billy, a minute later, ushered Count Sylvius. The famous game-shot, sportsman, and man-about-town was a big, swarthy fellow, with a formidable dark moustache, shading a cruel, thin-lipped mouth, and surmounted by a long, curved nose, like the beak of an eagle. He was well dressed, but his brilliant necktie, shining pin, and glittering rings were flamboyant in their effect. As the door closed behind him he looked round him with fierce, startled eyes, like one who suspects a trap at every turn. Then he gave a violent start as he saw the impassive head and the collar of the dressing-gown which projected above the arm-chair in the window. At first his expression was one of pure amazement. Then the light of a horrible hope gleamed in his dark, murderous eyes. He took one more glance round to see that there were no witnesses, and then, on tiptoe, his thick stick half raised, he approached the silent figure. He was crouching for his final spring and blow when a cool, sardonic voice greeted him from the open bedroom door:
"Don't break it, Count! Don't break it!"
The assassin staggered back, amazement in his convulsed face. For an instant he half raised his loaded cane once more, as if he would turn his violence from the effigy to the original; but there was something in that steady grey eye and mocking smile which caused his hand to sink to his side.
"It's a pretty little thing," said Holmes, advancing towards the image. "Tavernier, the French modeller, made it. He is as good at waxworks as your friend Straubenzee is at air-guns."
"Air-guns, sir! What do you mean?"
"Put your hat and stick on the side-table. Thank you! Pray take a seat. Would you care to put your revolver out also? Oh, very good, if you prefer to sit upon it. Your visit is really most opportune, for I wanted badly to have a few minutes' chat with you."
The Count scowled, with heavy, threatening eyebrows.
"I, too, wished to have some words with you, Holmes. That is why I am here. I won't deny that I intended to assault you just now."
Holmes swung his leg on the edge of the table.
"I rather gathered that you had some idea of the sort in your head," said he. "But why these personal attentions?"
"Because you have gone out of your way to annoy me. Because you have put your creatures upon my track."
"My creatures! I assure you no!"
"Nonsense! I have had them followed. Two can play at that game, Holmes."
"It is a small point, Count Sylvius, but perhaps you would kindly give me my prefix when you address me. You can understand that, with my routine of work, I should find myself on familiar terms with half the rogues' gallery, and you will agree that exceptions are invidious."
"Well, Mr. Holmes, then."
"Excellent! But I assure you you are mistaken about my alleged agents."
Count Sylvius laughed contemptuously.
"Other people can observe as well as you. Yesterday there was an old sporting man. To-day it was an elderly woman. They held me in view all day."
"Really, sir, you compliment me. Old Baron Dowson said the night before he was hanged that in my case what the law had gained the stage had lost. And now you give my little impersonations your kindly praise!"
"It was you—you yourself?"
Holmes shrugged his shoulders. "You can see in the corner the parasol which you so politely handed to me in the Minories before you began to suspect."
"If I had known, you might never——"
"Have seen this humble home again. I was well aware of it. We all have neglected opportunities to deplore. As it happens, you did not know, so here we are!"
The Count's knotted brows gathered more heavily over his menacing eyes. "What you say only makes the matter worse. It was not your agents, but your play-acting, busybody self! You admit that you have dogged me. Why?"
"Come now, Count. You used to shoot lions in Algeria."
"Why? The sport—the excitement—the danger!"
"And, no doubt, to free the country from a pest?"
"My reasons in a nutshell!"
The Count sprang to his feet, and his hand involuntarily moved back to his hip-pocket.
"Sit down, sir, sit down! There was another, more practical, reason. I want that yellow diamond!"
Count Sylvius lay back in his chair with an evil smile.
"Upon my word!" said he.
"You knew that I was after you for that. The real reason why you are here to-night is to find out how much I know about the matter and how far my removal is absolutely essential. Well, I should say that, from your point of view, it is absolutely essential, for I know all about it, save only one thing, which you are about to tell me."
"Oh, indeed! And, pray, what is this missing fact?"
"Where the Crown diamond now is."
The Count looked sharply at his companion. "Oh, you want to know that, do you? How the devil should I be able to tell you where it is?"
"You can, and you will."