The Ruritanian Embassy is a mansion in Boscobel Place. Belgravia fairly crawls with embassies, legations and consulates. The streets throng with gussied-up krauts strapped into fancy uniforms, tripping over swords they wouldn't know what to do with if a herd of buffalo charged them. I've no love for your average Johnny Native, but he bests any Frenchy, Sausage-Eater or Dutchman who ever drew breath. Never go into the jungle with a Belgian, that's my motto.8
If Irene Adler had gone to a run-of-the-mill safe-breaker like that cricket-playing fathead, the caper would have run to after-midnight window-breakage and a spot of brace-and-bit boring, with perhaps a cosh to Colonel Sapt's dome as an added extra.
Moriarty scorned such methods as too obvious and not sufficiently destructive.
First, he wrote to the Westminster Gazette, which carried his angry letter in full. He harped on about the sufferings of the slum-dwellers of Strelsauer Altstadt – some of which weren't even made up, which is where the clever part came in – and labeled Ruritania 'the secret shame of Europe'. More correspondence appeared, not all from the Professor, chiming in with fresh tales of horrors carried on under the absolute monarchy of the Elphbergs. A long-nosed clergyman and an addle-pated Countess formed a committee of busybodies to mount a solemn vigil in Boscobel Place. The protest was swollen by less-dignified malcontents – Ruritanian dissenters in exile, louts with nothing better to do, crooks in Moriarty's employ.
Hired ranters stirred passersby against the vile Ruritanian practice (invented by the Professor) of cleaning the huge cannons of Zenda Castle by shoving little orphan girls into the barrels and prodding them with sticks until their wriggling wiped out the bore. A few of the Conduit Street Comanche - that tribe of junior beggars, whores, pickpockets and garotters whose loyalty the Professor had bought – got themselves up as Zenda Cannon Girls, with soot on their faces and skirts, and threw dung at anyone who so much as dared step outside the Embassy.
After typical foreign bleating and whining, Scotland Yard sent two constables to Boscobel Place to rap truncheons against the railings and tell the crowd to move along quietly. To the Comanch', a bobby's helmet might as well have a target painted on it. And horse dung is easily come by on the streets of London.
So, within three days, there was the makings of a nice pitched battle outside the Embassy. Moriarty and I took the trouble to stroll by every now and then, to see how the pot was boiling.
Hawk-eyed, the Professor spotted a face peering from a downstairs window.
"That's Sapt," he said.
"I could pot him from here," I volunteered. "I've a revolver in my pocket. It'd be a dicey shot, but I've never missed yet."
Moriarty's head wavered. He was calculating odds.
"He would only be replaced. We know who Sapt is. Another Secret Police Chief might not be such a public figure."
My right hand was itching and I had a thrill in my water.
I had a notion to haul out and blast away, just for sport and hang the scheme. There were enough bearded anarchists about to take the blame. Sometimes an idea takes your fancy, and there's nothing to do but give in.
Moriarty's bony hand was on my wrist, squeezing. Hard.
His eyes shone. Cobra eyes.
"That would be a mistake, Moran."
My wrist hurt. A lot. The Professor knew where to squeeze. He could snap bones with what seemed like a pinch. He let me have my hand back.
Moriarty rarely smiled, and then usually to terrify some poor victim. The first time I heard him laugh, I thought he had been struck by deadly poison and the stutter escaping through his locked jaws was a death-rattle. That day's Times report from Ruritania solicited from him an unprecedented fit of shoulder-shaking giggles. He wound his fingers together like the claws of a praying mantis.
The prompt for this hilarity was Black Michael's vow to free the Zenda Cannon Girls!
"Let us wish him luck in finding them," said the Professor. "How delicious that the Duke should be our staunch ally in this enterprise. Then again, Queen Victoria has also expressed sympathy for our imaginary orphans."
Flashes came from the Embassy. My hand was on my revolver.
"More photographs," said the Professor. "Colonel Sapt's hobby."
Sapt's face was gone, but a box-and-lens affair was pressed against the window. Moriarty and I had coats casually up over our faces, against the wind.
"The Secret Police Chief likes to know his enemies. A man in his position collects them."
"Why's Sapt in London anyway? Shouldn't he be crackin' down on bomb-throwers on his home turf?"
Moriarty pondered the question.
"If we are to believe Miss Adler, Sapt can best serve his cause here."
"His cause, Moriarty?"
"Up the Red, down the Black. But the Elphberg Brothers are half-way across Europe. So, Sapt's attention is directed here on subtler business."
Moriarty's shoulders lifted and dropped.
"The old goat probably hopes she'll give him a tumble to get her snaps back," I suggested. "I'll wager he pulls the pics out of the safe every night and gives "em a proper lookin' over."
"If that were the case, she wouldn't have engaged us. Miss Adler does not strike me as a lady who likes to share. Yet she has willed over half the earnings of a profitable enterprise to us."
"No choice, Moriarty. Who else could get her what she wants?"
The Professor tapped his teeth.
"No one but us, Moran. Evidently."
Moriarty's fingers went to his watch-pocket. On cue, Filthy Fanny dashed from the crowd and began kicking the police guard.
Fanny had been successfully presenting herself as a ten-year-old waif for a full two decades without anyone being the wiser. It was down to the proper application of dirt, which she arranged on her face with the skill other tarts devote to the use of paints and powder.
Now, Filth wore the sooty skirts of a Zenda Cannon Girl. And heavy shin-kicking clogs.
"Reggub the Esclop!" she harangued, in backslang that sounded mighty like Ruritanian, or whatever heathen tongue they use.9
After some painful toe-to-shin business, the plod got his truncheon out.
With a command of the dramatic that would put a Drury Lane tragedienne to shame, Filth tumbled down the embassy steps, squirting tomato juice from a sponge clapped over her eye.