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“Only for the last half-hour,” said he, “during which time I have been extremely busy, otherwise I should certainly have communicated my findings to you. We have been investigating the matter from different directions, but have arrived together at the same conclusion. But wait! Someone is coming!”

A group of people were leaving. A footman at the front door stepped out to summon their carriage, and the footman by the cloakroom produced their coats and cloaks. The Duchess of Pont herself then appeared in the hall. “I am so glad you were able to come,” said she to her departing guests, and wished them a merry Christmas. As the front door closed and the duchess returned to a side room, the door of the long drawing room opened and a large military man emerged, whom I recognized as Colonel Fitzwarren.

“Could you bring my coat,” said he, addressing the footman, who disappeared into his cloakroom and re-emerged bearing a heavy, dark overcoat. For a moment, the colonel felt in an inside pocket, then drew out a long brown envelope. “This is for the Princess Zelda,” said he. “See that it is placed securely with her hat and coat.” He took a coin from his pocket and handed it, with the envelope, to the footman.

“At once, sir,” said the latter with a little bow, disappearing once more into the cloakroom and taking Fitzwarren’s coat back with him. The colonel’s features assumed a look of satisfaction and he returned to the drawing room.

“How did you discover it was he?” I whispered to Holmes as the hall returned once more to silence.

“He ordered the same unusual mixture of whisky and lemon juice tonight as had been drunk from the glass used by Norton’s mysterious visitor last night. I knew then that it must be he. I dare say you have found this evening something of a trial, Watson,” he added with a chuckle, “so you will be pleased to know that our efforts have not been in vain!”

“Should we not act at once to retrieve that envelope?” I queried, surprised at my companion’s apparent lack of concern.

He shook his head and appeared about to reply, when there came the sound of approaching voices, and he put his finger to his lips.

A large number of people had emerged from the drawing room, and soon the hall was thronged. I watched as the Duchess of Pont’s staff coped with this sudden demand upon their skills, as coats, cloaks and hats were carried hither and thither, the front doors were opened, closed and opened again, and a succession of carriages was summoned to the gate.

“Do you see that fellow with all the medals,” observed Holmes to me in a whisper. “That is Archduke Somebody-or-other from Russia. What a terrific strain those medals must place upon his tunic-front! He insisted upon discussing the bi-metallic question with me, and I could not help reflecting that if he were to melt down a few of his medals he might make a remarkable personal contribution to the question! Ah! Here is Zelda, appearing pleased with herself!”

I watched as the princess’s maid entered and assisted her with her coat and hat. I saw the princess feel for something in her pocket and smile in satisfaction, then with a swish of her skirts she was gone, through the front doors, into the cold night air.

“She is getting away with the secret documents!” I cried in dismay.

“Have no fear!” said my companion in a calm tone. “Come! It is time now for us to put on our own coats!”

We emerged from our hiding place unnoticed amid the general bustle. In two minutes we were well wrapped up against the night air, and standing on the pavement outside the house. Holmes looked along the street and raised his arm slightly, and a hand emerged from a carriage window and returned his signal. “Captain Armstrong and his men are ready for us,” said he.

It was a very cold night, and even as we stood there it began to snow again. A succession of carriages drew up beside us, their harnesses jingling and the breath of the horses blowing out like smoke in the cold air. All at once, Holmes plucked my sleeve, and I looked round to see Colonel Fitzwarren in the doorway of the house.

“Colonel,” said Holmes as Fitzwarren reached the pavement. “Would you be so good as to step this way?”

“Whatever for?” said the other, a mixture of surprise and apprehension upon his features. “Who are you?”

“Who I am is of no importance,” returned Holmes. “But you will observe that my left hand is in my coat pocket. There, it is holding a pistol, which is pointed at you. I am quite prepared to use it, and will withdraw it from my pocket and thus embarrass you before all these people, unless you do as I say.”

“This is an outrage,” said the colonel under his breath.

“But somewhat less of an outrage than attempting to pass your country’s secrets to an enemy power.”

The colonel’s face blanched and he swallowed hard before speaking.

“If I raise a hue and cry, you will not dare to do anything,” said he at length.

“I should not advise it, Colonel. There is a party of marines waiting along the road who are watching your every move.” As he spoke, he raised his arm again, a carriage door opened, and two soldiers stepped out onto the pavement.

For a moment, Fitzwarren hesitated, then, his face ashen, he turned and walked in the direction Holmes had indicated. As we approached the carriage, Captain Armstrong came forward.

“Here is your prisoner,” said Holmes.

“What!” cried Armstrong in surprise.

“There is no mistake,” said Holmes. “Here are the papers he attempted to pass to Princess Zelda. Dr Watson overheard the two of them arranging the plan. Keep these papers safe, Armstrong: the handwriting is good evidence against Norton.”

Without a word, Fitzwarren climbed into the carriage with Armstrong and his men, and in a moment it had rattled away around Belgrave Square.

“Let us walk over to Park Lane and look for a cab there,” said Holmes. “It is not far, and it is good to be out in the fresh night air.”

Our way took us back past the front of the Duchess of Pont’s house once more, and as we reached the gate the duchess herself abruptly emerged, a cloak flung hastily about her shoulders.

“Were you at all successful, gentlemen?” she enquired in an anxious tone.

“Entirely, your Grace,” returned Holmes. “The security of the nation is preserved.”

“Thank goodness!” cried she, an expression of relief upon her features. “And I am thankful,” she added, “that you were able to achieve your ends without creating an incident.”

“The only ‘incident’,” said Holmes to me with a chuckle as we approached Hyde Park Corner, “occurred in her Grace’s kitchens, over a steaming kettle.”

“You steamed open the colonel’s envelope?”

“Precisely, Watson,” said he. “Once I was certain that Fitzwarren was the man we were after, it did not take me long to find the envelope in his overcoat. The duchess’s staff were most helpful to me, and procured me some excellent stationery, with which I filled up the envelope when I had extracted the confidential documents, before replacing it in the traitor’s pocket. In this way, you see, everyone concerned could leave the house peacefully, believing that their treacherous plans had succeeded.”

The snow was falling heavily as we turned into Park Lane.

“All in all,” remarked Holmes in a gay tone, “it has been a very satisfactory night’s work. We have recovered the Army ciphers and unmasked a singularly dangerous traitor.”

I nodded. “And now Princess Zelda will travel on to Venice and meet the foreign agents there, only to discover that she has brought them nothing but a wad of blank paper!”

“Not quite blank,” returned my friend. “I took the liberty, before resealing the envelope, of inscribing upon the top sheet a little message for Zelda and her colleagues which reads, ‘The Compliments of the Season, from all your friends in England!’”