“I was sorry for her, Watson. I thought of her for the moment as I would have thought of a daughter of my own. I am not often eloquent. I use my head, not my heart. But I really did plead with her with all the warmth of words that I could find in my nature. I pictured to her the awful position of the woman who only wakes to a man’s character after she is his wife — a woman who has to submit to be caressed by bloody hands and lecherous lips. I spared her nothing — the shame, the fear, the agony, the hopelessness of it all. All my hot words could not bring one tinge of colour to those ivory cheeks or one gleam of emotion to those abstracted eyes. I thought of what the rascal had said about a post-hypnotic influence. One could really believe that she was living above the earth in some ecstatic dream. Yet there was nothing indefinite in her replies.
” ‘I have listened to you with patience, Mr. Holmes,’ said she. ‘The effect upon my mind is exactly as predicted. I am aware that Adelbert, that my fiance, has had a stormy life in which he has incurred bitter hatreds and most unjust aspersions. You are only the last of a series who have brought their slanders before me. Possibly you mean well, though I learn that you are a paid agent who would have been equally willing to act for the Baron as against him. But in any case I wish you to understand once for all that I love him and that he loves me, and that the opinion of all the world is no more to me than the twitter of those birds outside the window. If his noble nature has ever for an instant fallen, it may be that I have been specially sent to raise it to its true and lofty level. I am not clear’ — here she turned eyes upon my companion — ‘who this young lady may be.’
“I was about to answer when the girl broke in like a whirlwind. If ever you saw flame and ice face to face, it was those two women.
” ‘I’ll tell you who I am,’ she cried, springing out of her chair, her mouth all twisted with passion — ‘I am his last mistress. I am one of a hundred that he has tempted and used and ruined and thrown into the refuse heap, as he will you also. Your refuse heap is more likely to be a grave, and maybe that’s the best. I tell you, you foolish woman, if you marry this man he’ll be the death of you. It may be a broken heart or it may be a broken neck, but he’ll have you one way or the other. It’s not out of love for you I’m speaking. I don’t care a tinker’s curse whether you live or die. It’s out of hate for him and to spite him and to get back on him for what he did to me. But it’s all the same, and you needn’t look at me like that, my fine lady, for you may be lower than I am before you are through with it.’
” ‘I should prefer not to discuss such matters,’ said Miss de Merville coldly. ‘Let me say once for all that I am aware of three passages in my fiance’s life in which he became entangled with designing women, and that I am assured of his hearty repentance for any evil that he may have done.’
” ‘Three passages!’ screamed my companion. ‘You fool! You unutterable fool!’
” ‘Mr. Holmes, I beg that you will bring this interview to an end,’ said the icy voice. ‘I have obeyed my father’s wish in seeing you, but I am not compelled to listen to the ravings of this person.’
“With an oath Miss Winter darted forward, and if I had not caught her wrist she would have clutched this maddening woman by the hair. I dragged her towards the door and was lucky to get her back into the cab without a public scene, for she was beside herself with rage. In a cold way I felt pretty furious myself, Watson, for there was something indescribably annoying in the calm aloofness and supreme self-complaisance of the woman whom we were trying to save. So now once again you know exactly how we stand, and it is clear that I must plan some fresh opening move, for this gambit won’t work. I’ll keep in touch with you, Watson, for it is more than likely that you will have your part to play, though it is just possible that the next move may lie with them rather than with us.”
And it did. Their blow fell — or his blow rather, for never could I believe that the lady was privy to it. I think I could show you the very paving-stone upon which I stood when my eyes fell upon the placard, and a pang of horror passed through my very soul. It was between the Grand Hotel and Charing Cross Station, where a one-legged news-vender displayed his evening papers. The date was just two days after the last conversation. There, black upon yellow, was the terrible news-sheet:
MURDEROUS ATTACK UPON
I think I stood stunned for some moments. Then I have a confused recollection of snatching at a paper. of the remonstrance of the man, whom I had not paid, and, finally, of standing in the doorway of a chemist’s shop while I turned up the fateful paragraph. This was how it ran:
We learn with regret that Mr. Sherlock Holmes, the well-known private
detective, was the victim this morning of a murderous assault which has
left him in a precarious position. There are no exact details to hand,
but the event seems to have occurred about twelve o’clock in Regent
Street, outside the Cafe Royal. The attack was made by two men armed with
sticks, and Mr. Holmes was beaten about the head and body, receiving
injuries which the doctors describe as most serious. He was carried to
Charing Cross Hospital and afterwards insisted upon being taken to his
rooms in Baker Street. The miscreants who attacked him appear to have
been respectably dressed men, who escaped from the bystanders by
passing through the Cafe Royal and out into Glasshouse Street behind it.
No doubt they belonged to that criminal fraternity which has so often had
occasion to bewail the activity and ingenuity of the injured man.
I need not say that my eyes had hardly glanced over the paragraph before I had sprung into a hansom and was on my way to Baker Street. I found Sir Leslie Oakshott, the famous surgeon, in the hall and his brougham waiting at the curb.
“No immediate danger,” was his report. “Two lacerated scalp wounds and some considerable bruises. Several stitches have been necessary. Morphine has been injected and quiet is essential, but an interview of a few minutes would not be absolutely forbidden.”
With this permission I stole into the darkened room. The sufferer was wide awake, and I heard my name in a hoarse whisper. The blind was three-quarters down, but one ray of sunlight slanted through and struck the bandaged head of the injured man. A crimson patch had soaked through the white linen compress. I sat beside him and bent my head.
“All right, Watson. Don’t look so scared,” he muttered in a very weak voice. “It’s not as bad as it seems.”
“Thank God for that!”
“I’m a bit of a single-stick expert. as you know. I took most of them on my guard. It was the second man that was too much for me.”
“What can I do, Holmes? Of course, it was that damned fellow who set them on. I’ll go and thrash the hide off him if you give the word.”
“Good old Watson! No, we can do nothing there unless the police lay their hands on the men. But their get-away had been well prepared. We may be sure of that. Wait a little. I have my plans. The first thing is to exaggerate my injuries. They’ll come to you for news. Put it on thick, Watson. Lucky if I live the week out concussion delirium — what you like! You can’t overdo it.”
“But Sir Leslie Oakshott?”
“Oh, he’s all right. He shall see the worst side of me. I’ll look after that.”
“Yes. Tell Shinwell Johnson to get that girl out of the way. Those beauties will be after her now. They know, of course, that she was with me in the case. If they dared to do me in it is not likely they will neglect her. That is urgent. Do it to-night.”
“I’ll go now. Anything more?”