“I think I may safely promise that,” said he. “I may add that your problem interests me, and that I shall be prepared to look into it. How shall I keep in touch with you?”
“The Carlton Club will find me. But in case of emergency, there is a private telephone call, ‘XX.31.’ ”
Holmes noted it down and sat, still smiling, with the open memorandum-book upon his knee.
“The Baron’s present address, please?”
“Vernon Lodge, near Kingston. It is a large house. He has been fortunate in some rather shady speculations and is a rich man, which naturally makes him a more dangerous antagonist.”
“Is he at home at present?”
“Apart from what you have told me, can you give me any further information about the man?”
“He has expensive tastes. He is a horse fancier. For a short time he played polo at Hurlingham, but then this Prague affair got noised about and he had to leave. He collects books and pictures. He is a man with a considerable artistic side to his nature. He is, I believe, a recognized authority upon Chinese pottery and has written a book upon the subject.”
“A complex mind,” said Holmes. “All great criminals have that. My old friend Charlie Peace was a violin virtuoso. Wainwright was no mean artist. I could quote many more. Well, Sir James, you will inform your client that I am turning my mind upon Baron Gruner. I can say no more. I have some sources of information of my own, and I dare say we may find some means of opening the matter up.”
When our visitor had left us Holmes sat so long in deep thought that it seemed to me that he had forgotten my presence. At last, however, he came briskly back to earth.
“Well, Watson, any views?” he asked.
“I should think you had better see the young lady herself.”
“My dear Watson, if her poor old broken father cannot move her, how shall I, a stranger, prevail? And yet there is something in the suggestion if all else fails. But I think we must begin from a different angle. I rather fancy that Shinwell Johnson might be a help.”
I have not had occasion to mention Shinwell Johnson in these memoirs because I have seldom drawn my cases from the latter phases of my friend’s career . During the first years of the century he became a valuable assistant. Johnson, I grieve to say, made his name first as a very dangerous villain and served two terms at Parkhurst. Finally he repented and allied himself to Holmes, acting as his agent in the huge criminal underworld of London and obtaining information which often proved to be of vital importance. Had Johnson been a “nark” of the police he would soon have been exposed, but as he dealt with cases which never came directly into the courts, his activities were never realized by his companions. With the glamour of his two convictions upon him, he had the entree of every night-club, doss house, and gamblingden in the town, and his quick observation and active brain made him an ideal agent for gaining information. It was to him that Sherlock Holmes now proposed to turn.
It was not possible for me to follow the immediate steps taken by my friend, for I had some pressing professional business of my own, but I met him by appointment that evening at Simpson’s, where, sitting at a small table in the front window and looking down at the rushing stream of life in the Strand, he told me something of what had passed.
“Johnson is on the prowl,” said he. “He may pick up some garbage in the darker recesses of the underworld, for it is down there, amid the black roots of crime, that we must hunt for this man’s secrets.”
“But if the lady will not accept what is already known, why should any fresh discovery of yours turn her from her purpose?”
“Who knows, Watson? Woman’s heart and mind are insoluble puzzles to the male. Murder might be condoned or explained, and yet some smaller offence might rankle. Baron Gruner remarked to me —”
“He remarked to you!”
“Oh, to be sure, I had not told you of my plans. Well, Watson, I love to come to close grips with my man. I like to meet him eye to eye and read for myself the stuff that he is made of. When I had given Johnson his instructions I took a cab out to Kingston and found the Baron in a most affable mood.”
“Did he recognize you?”
“There was no difficulty about that, for I simply sent in my card. He is an excellent antagonist, cool as ice, silky voiced and soothing as one of your fashionable consultants, and poisonous as a cobra. He has breeding in him — a real aristocrat of crime with a superficial suggestion of afternoon tea and all the cruelty of the grave behind it. Yes, I am glad to have had my attention called to Baron Adelbert Gruner.”
“You say he was affable?”
“A purring cat who thinks he sees prospective mice. Some people’s affability is more deadly than the violence of coarser souls. His greeting was characteristic. ‘I rather thought I should see you sooner or later, Mr. Holmes,’ said he. ‘You have been engaged, no doubt by General de Merville, to endeavour to stop my marriage with his daughter, Violet. That is so, is it not?’
” ‘My dear man,’ said he. ‘you will only ruin your own well-deserved reputation. It is not a case in which you can possibly succeed. You will have barren work, to say nothing of incurring some danger. Let me very strongly advise you to draw off at once.’
” ‘It is curious,’ I answered, ‘but that was the very advice which I had intended to give you. I have a respect for your brains, Baron, and the little which I have seen of your personality has not lessened it. Let me put it to you as man to man. No one wants to rake up your past and make you unduly uncomfortable. It is over, and you are now in smooth waters, but if you persist in this marriage you will raise up a swarm of powerful enemies who will never leave you alone until they have made England too hot to hold you. Is the game worth it? Surely you would be wiser if you left the lady alone. It would not be pleasant for you if these facts of your past were brought to her notice.’
“The Baron has little waxed tips of hair under his nose, like the short antennae of an insect. These quivered with amusement as he listened, and he finally broke into a gentle chuckle.
” ‘Excuse my amusement, Mr. Holmes,’ said he, ‘but it is really funny to see you trying to play a hand with no cards in it. I don’t think anyone could do it better, but it is rather pathetic all the same. Not a colour card there, Mr. Holmes, nothing but the smallest of the small.’
” ‘So you think.’
” ‘So I know. Iet me make the thing clear to you, for my own hand is so strong that I can afford to show it. I have been fortunate enough to win the entire affection of this lady. This was given to me in spite of the fact that I told her very clearly of all the unhappy incidents in my past life. I also told her that certain wicked and designing persons — I hope you recognize yourself — would come to her and tell her these things. and I warned her how to treat them. You have heard of post-hypnotic suggestion. Mr. Holmes ‘ Well you will see how it works for a man of personality can use hypnotism without any vulgar passes or tomfoolery. So she is ready for you and, I have no doubt, would give you an appointment, for she is quite amenable to her father’s will — save only in the one little matter.’
“Well, Watson, there seemed to be no more to say, so I took my leave with as much cold dignity as I could summon, but, as I had my hand on the door-handle, he stopped me.
” ‘By the way, Mr. Holmes,’ said he, ‘did you know Le Brun, the French agent?’
” ‘Yes,’ said I.
” ‘Do you know what befell him?’
“‘I heard that he was beaten by some Apaches in the Montmartre district and crippled for life.’
” ‘Quite true, Mr. Holmes. By a curious coincidence he had been inquiring into my affairs only a week before. Don’t do it, Mr. Holmes; it’s not a lucky thing to do. Several have found that out. My last word to you is, go your own way and let me go mine. Good-bye!’
“So there you are, Watson. You are up to date now.”
“The fellow seems dangerous.”
“Mighty dangerous. I disregard the blusterer, but this is the sort of man who says rather less than he means.”