“Does it really matter?” I asked with as careless an air as I could muster.
“You can see that the piece is genuine, and, as to the value, I am content to take an expert’s valuation.”
“Very mysterious,” said he with a quick, suspicious flash of his dark eyes. “In dealing with objects of such value, one naturally wishes to know all about the transaction. That the piece is genuine is certain. I have no doubts at all about that. But suppose — I am bound to take every possibility into account — that it should prove afterwards that you had no right to sell?”
“I would guarantee you against any claim of the son.”
“That, of course, would open up the question as to what your guarantee was worth.”
“My bankers would answer that.”
“Quite so. And yet the whole transaction strikes me as rather unusual.”
“You can do business or not,” said I with indifference. “I have given you the first offer as I understood that you were a connoisseur, but I shall have no difficulty in other quaerers.”
“Who told you I was a connoisseur?”
“I was aware that you had written a book upon the subject.”
“Have you read the book?”
“Dear me, this becomes more and more difficult for me to understand! You are a connoisseur and collector with a very valuable piece in your collection, and yet you have never troubled to consult the one book which would have told you of the real meaning and value of what you held. How do you explain that?”
“I am a very busy man. I am a doctor in practice.”
“That is no answer. If a man has a hobby he follows it up, whatever his other pursuits may be. You said in your note that you were a connoisseur.”
“So I am.”
“Might I ask you a few questions to test you? I am obliged to tell you, Doctor — if you are indeed a doctor — that the incident becomes more and more suspicious. I would ask you what do you know of the Emperor Shomu and how do you associate him with the Shoso-in near Nara? Dear me, does that puzzle you? Tell me a little about the Nonhern Wei dynasty and its place in the history of ceramics.”
I sprang from my chair in simulated anger.
“This is intolerable, sir,” said I. “I came here to do you a favour, and not to be examined as if I were a schoolboy. My knowledge on these subjects may be second only to your own, but I certainly shall not answer questions which have been put in so offensive a way.”
He looked at me steadily. The languor had gone from his eyes. They suddenly glared. There was a gleam of teeth from between those cruel lips.
“What is the game? You are here as a spy. You are an emissary of Holmes. This is a trick that you are playing upon me. The fellow is dying I hear, so he sends his tools to keep watch upon me. You’ve made your way in here without leave, and, by God! you may find it harder to get out than to get in.”
He had sprung to his feet, and I stepped back, bracing myself for an attack, for the man was beside himself with rage. He may have suspected me from the first; certainly this cross-examination had shown him the truth; but it was clear that I could not hope to deceive him. He dived his hand into a side-drawer and rummaged furiously. Then something struck upon his ear, for he stood listening intently.
“Ah!” he cried. “Ah!” and dashed into the room behind him.
Two steps took me to the open door, and my mind will ever carry a clear picture of the scene within. The window leading out to the garden was wide open. Beside it, looking like some terrible ghost, his head gin with bloody bandages, his face drawn and white, stood Sherlock Holmes. The next instant he was through the gap, and I heard the crash of his body among the laurel bushes outside. With a howl of rage the master of the house rushed after him to the open window.
And then! It was done in an instant, and yet I clearly saw it. An arm — a woman’s arm — shot out from among the leaves. At the same instant the Baron uttered a horrible cry — a yell which will always ring in my memory. He clapped his two hands to his face and rushed round the room, beating his head horribly against the walls. Then he fell upon the carpet, rolling and writhing, while scream after scream resounded through the house.
“Water! For God’s sake, water!” was his cry.
I seized a carafe from a side-table and rushed to his aid. At the same moment the butler and several footmen ran in from the hall. I remember that one of them fainted as I knelt by the injured man and turned that awful face to the light of the lamp. The vitriol was eating into it everywhere and dripping from the ears and the chin. One eye was already white and glazed. The other was red and inflamed. The features which I had admired a few minutes before were now like some beautiful painting over which the artist has passed a wet and foul sponge. They were blurred, discoloured, inhuman, terrible.
In a few words I explained exactly what had occurred, so far as the vitriol attack was concerned. Some had climbed through the window and others had rushed out on to the lawn, but it was dark and it had begun to rain. Between his screams the victim raged and raved against the avenger. “It was that hell-cat, Kitty Winter!” he cried. “Oh, the she-devil! She shall pay for it! She shall pay! Oh, God in heaven, this pain is more than I can bear!”
I bathed his face in oil, put cotton wadding on the raw surfaces, and administered a hypodermic of morphia. All suspicion of me had passed from his mind in the presence of this shock, and he clung to my hands as if I might have the power even yet to clear those dead-fish eyes which glazed up at me. I could have wept over the ruin had l not remembered very clearly the vile life which had led up to so hideous a change. It was loathsome to feel the pawing of his burning hands, and I was relieved when his family surgeon, closely followed by a specialist, came to relieve me of my charge. An inspector of police had also arrived, and to him I handed my real card. It would have been useless as well as foolish to do otherwise, for I was nearly as well known by sight at the Yard as Holmes himself. Then I left that house of gloom and terror. Within an hour I was at Baker Street.
Holmes was seated in his familiar chair, looking very pale and exhausted. Apart from his injuries, even his iron nerves had been shocked by the events of the evening, and he listened with horror to my account of the Baron’s transformation.
“The wages of sin, Watson — the wages of sin!” said he. “Sooner or later it will always come. God knows, there was sin enough,” he added, taking up a brown volume from the table. “Here is the book the woman talked of. If this will not break off the marriage, nothing ever could. But it will, Watson. It must. No self-respecting woman could stand it.”
“It is his love diary?”