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Our narrator (Dr. John Watson) describes Holmes: (1) He's a coldly rational guy. (2) Because of this, he's not super popular with the ladies. (3) He really, really admires this one woman, Irene Adler.
Since Watson got married (to Mary Morstan, in Conan Doyle's second Holmes novel, The Sign of Four), he hasn't been seeing as much of Holmes.
Watson's happy at home, and Holmes is still living it up as a bachelor in their old apartment in Baker Street—as both a detective and an addict.
Watson refers to several fictional cases that he's vaguely heard about in connection with Holmes: "the Trepoff Murder, [...] the singular tragedy of the Atkinson brothers at Trincomalee, and [...] the mission which he had accomplished so delicately and successfully for the reigning family of Holland" (Bohemia.1.2). The Trepoff murder brings Holmes to Odessa, Ukraine. (P.S. Trincomalee is a city in Sri Lanka.)
This brings us to March 20, 1888, when Watson is walking home after seeing a patient.
Watson's stroll takes him past his old apartment in Baker Street, where he sees Holmes pass twice in front of the window. Watson can tell from Holmes's energy that he's excited about a case—and off the drugs (for now).
He rings the bell and is let in to Holmes's flat. Holmes doesn't seem all that psyched to see Watson, but Watson thinks he's glad anyway.
Holmes comments that Watson's looking good; he's put on weight.
Watson gets kind of defensive, but Holmes isn't kidding: "'I think, Watson, that you have put on seven and a half pounds since I saw you'" (Bohemia.1.5).
He also comments that Watson's working again as a doctor. (Holmes uses the words "'into harness'" [Bohemia.1.7], analogizing Watson's work with that of a cart or plough horse, i.e., a working animal.)
(Watson was an army doctor in Afghanistan during the Second Afghan War from 1878-1880 before he came back to London and became roomies with the great detective in the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Watson couldn't practice as a doctor at the time because of health issues from a leg wound from the war, but in this story, set several years after the first book, Watson appears to have gone back to treating people in private practice.)
Watson asks how Holmes knows all these details; Holmes says he observes it from Watson's appearance, just as he sees that Watson's been getting soaked lately and that his servant girl is clumsy.
Watson is all, "What?! He did get wet on a country walk that Thursday; and his servant girl, Mary Jane, is so terrible that his wife has fired her. But how can Holmes have guessed?" (Yeah, we're paraphrasing.)
Holmes laughs and answers. He tells Watson his left shoe has six almost-parallel cuts caused by the hands of someone awkwardly trying to scrape mud from the sole—hence, the walk in wet weather and the clumsy Mary Jane. Also, he smells like iodoform (a disinfectant) and nitrate of silver (a treatment for eye infections and gonorrhea), and his hat has a bulge from where Watson's carrying his stethoscope. In Holmes's mind, he would have to be an idiot not to know that Watson's a practicing doctor.
After Holmes describes his creative process, Watson expresses amazement: his eyes are as good as Holmes's, and Holmes's deductions seem obvious after they've been described; yet Watson can never seem to recreate Holmes's method on his own. Ugh.
Holmes says (and we paraphrase) "Well, how many times have you gone up the stairs to this apartment?" "Hundreds of times," replies Watson. "How many stairs are there?" asks Holmes. "I dunno," says Watson.
Holmes replies that this is proof of the difference between the two men: Watson has seen the stairs, but Holmes has observed them. And there are seventeen steps, by the way.
Holmes has received an undated, unsigned letter informing him that someone's going to come at 7:45—possibly with a mask on.
The two guys brainstorm about who the author of the note could be. He's got to be (a) rich and (b) German (the paper itself is from Bohemia, which used to be part of the Austrian empire and is now the greater part of the Czech Republic).
The obvious wealth of the visitor's carriage, or "brougham," as he pulls up to 221 Baker Street proves Watson's point that he's probably got a lot of cash: his pair of horses are worth a cool 150 guineas each. (A guinea was worth 1.05 pounds. That'd make the amount 157.50 British pounds, or the equivalent of around 12,538 pounds today—or, in American terms, $20,141 dollars each. So it makes sense that Holmes is all excited about how much money is probably going to come out of this case.)
In comes the visitor. He's 6'6", dressed richly (almost too rich to be tasteful, comments Watson reprovingly), and "appears to be a man of strong character" (Bohemia.1.42). In other words, he looks stubborn and tough.
The guy announces himself in a thick German accent. He says his name is Count von Kramm and that he has a story to tell them—one that absolutely must stay a secret.
He also asks that Holmes and Watson excuse his mask. The Count's being employed by an important person who doesn't want the great detective to trace his identity. In fact, the Count acknowledges, his own name (von Kramm) is made up.
Masks, however, are no match for Sherlock Holmes! Holmes tells the Count that he knows that the Count is in fact Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, Grand Duke of Cassel-Felstein and hereditary king of Bohemia.
The "Count," now king, throws off his mask. He says that he shouldn't have bothered trying to hide, but he's in an extremely delicate position that he has to deal with himself... and he's not used to such dealings.
The king's problem is this: five years before, during a visit to Warsaw (now capital of Poland, then under Russian control), he met a pretty lady and "adventurer" named Irene Adler.
(As a side note, Holmes inserts some info on her, taken from his own records on notable persons: Adler was born in New Jersey in 1858, sings contralto, has retired from the opera, and now lives in London.)
The king is freaked out because he needs to recover some sexy-times letters he wrote to her before it gets out that the two had a fling. But that's not the worst piece of evidence against him: he also allowed himself to be photographed with her, thus proving their affair.
The king's tried hiring people to burgle her house, take her luggage during her travels, and hold her up directly, but he still hasn't been able to get the photograph back.
He needs it because he's engaged to the daughter of the king of Scandinavia, who's strict about conduct and wouldn't be pleased to hear about the king's earlier indiscretions.
Adler herself has threatened to send the photograph because she doesn't want the king to marry another woman. She has warned him that she will give the picture to his betrothed on the day when their engagement becomes public—a.k.a. three days from now.
And now, for music to Holmes's ears: the king tells Holmes that money is no object, and he hands over three hundred pounds in gold and seven hundred in bills. ($128,149 in today's cash. Nice.)
The king provides Adler's address in London and confirms that the photograph was "a cabinet," a type popular for portraits in the 1870s and 80s, of around postcard size.
The king departs in his carriage, and Watson takes off to return at 3:00PM the following day.
Watson turns up right on time at Baker Street the next day, but Holmes is out. According to his landlady, Holmes left the house just after eight that morning.
As Watson settles in to wait, he mentions that he hadn't even considered the possibility that Holmes would fail; he's just waiting for the pleasure of seeing how Holmes will close the case.
Just before four, the door opens: a "drunkenlooking groom, ill-kempt and side-whiskered, with an inflamed face and disreputable clothes" walks through the door.
Even though Watson knows how good Holmes is at disguising himself, he still has to look three times to be sure it's his friend.
Holmes (still in costume) collapses into a chair and laughs.
He's just been visiting Briony Lodge, where Irene Adler lives in a "bijou" (French for "jewel") villa that's well-furnished.
Holmes has found a great source of information on her life: the guys who work at the "mews," or row of stables, in the lane behind her house. A bunch of them are cabbies (these would've been horse-drawn cabs since we're back in olden times), so they've had the chance to bring her only regular male visitor, Mr. Godfrey Norton, to and from the house.
After finding all this out and wondering who this "male visitor" could be (lawyer? buddy? lover?), Holmes sees a well-dressed, handsome guy (clearly Norton) turn up in a hansom (read: two-wheel horse-drawn) cab.
Norton rushes into the house, stays for half an hour, comes out again, and demands that his cabdriver take him to the Church of St. Monica in Edgeware Road. (By the way: Edgeware Road and the whole Marylebone district in London are known for being two things: a place with awesome, diverse night life, and the home of the real life 221 Baker Street, made famous by these very stories. See how life imitates art imitating life?)
So then a beautiful lady comes running out of Briony Lodge to meet her coachman (in a "landau," a kind of carriage); she tells the driver to go to the Church of St. Monica and step on it.
Our detective follows suit, arriving at the church in time to see Godfrey Norton, the lovely lady, and a clergyman. Holmes quickly starts pretending to be just some guy hanging around the church.
Suddenly, these three whirl around to look at Holmes (not recognizing, of course, that he's the great detective because he's still in disguise).
Norton grabs him and asks that Holmes be his best man—without a witness, his marriage to the lovely lady (Irene Adler) won't be legal because there's some issue with their marriage license.
So that's why Holmes has been laughing so hard since coming home. In the middle of his investigation of Irene Adler, he gets to be an official witness to her marriage. What's more, she gives him a sovereign (a gold coin worth one British pound back in Victorian times) for his trouble, a coin that Holmes plans to wear on his watch chain as a souvenir.
After this unexpected elopement, Norton heads off somewhere, and Adler goes home. They plan to meet at a park at 5:00PM "'as usual'" (Bohemia.2.24).
Holmes asks Watson to accompany him to Briony Lodge in two hours, at 7:00PM, so that he can carry out some unknown plan.
Watson agrees that he will throw a "plumber's smoke-rocket" (a self-lighting smoke bomb) through an open window and yell "Fire!" when Holmes signals to him from inside Adler's house. (Don't try this at home!)
Watson and Holmes arrive about ten minutes before seven at Briony Lodge. Watson's a bit surprised to see a bunch of people hanging around, including some guys smoking cigars and a couple of dudes flirting with a nurse—a generic crowd, in other words.
Holmes bides his time until Adler turns up by pondering where the photograph might be. It's too big for Adler to slip into her dress. Holmes says that women are naturally so secretive that it's unlikely for her to give the picture to a banker or lawyer for safekeeping. He decides that it has to be in Adler's house and that the previous burglars just didn't know how to look for it properly.
Holmes says, mysteriously, that Adler herself will show Holmes where it is. Watson has no clue what his friend is talking about.
They have to shut up because Adler's carriage has arrived.
As Adler attempts to step out of her carriage, a guy from the crowd reaches up to help her, in the hopes of getting a small tip. (By the way, a "copper" is a penny in late Victorian slang.)
Another guy tries to jostle the first fellow out of the way because he wants a tip for helping Adler out of her carriage.
These two bums wind up getting into a fierce argument over the right to assist Adler, an argument that turns physical.
Soon everyone standing by falls into this riot, and Holmes (disguised this time as an elderly priest) rushes through the fight to help Adler escape the crowd.
But suddenly Holmes falls to the ground with blood streaming down his face! The crowd freaks out and scatters at the sight of blood.
Several helpful neighbors (drawn by the scuffle?) carry Holmes (apparently unconscious) into Adler's house. Holmes then gestures to the maid to open the window of the living room because he needs air—which also happens to be the signal to Watson to do his business.
Watson watches all of this and wonders if it's right for him to throw his smoke bomb into poor Adler's house. But then he decides that (a) Holmes trusts him to do so, and Watson's said yes, so he can't back out now; and (b) Adler's the lying lady who's trying to destroy the poor king's life, so too bad for her. (We have to say, we think this might be a little unfair on Watson's part. It's not like Adler forced the king to stand for this photograph, and he is king, after all. His loads of money must be some comfort to him during all of these difficulties).
To cut a long story short, Watson throws the smoke bomb into the living room and yells "'Fire!,'" a call taken up by all the crowds of people who have been watching the struggle outside Briony Lodge and Holmes's subsequent "injury."
Holmes slips out of Adler's house during the general panic that ensues, and he and Watson flee the scene.
Holmes says he knows where the photograph is; Watson is still confused.
We find out that Holmes actually hired all the guys who were hanging around in front of Briony Lodge so that, when Adler arrived home at 7:00PM, they could create just such a commotion.
Holmes staged his injury with wet red paint to the forehead to provoke Adler to have him carried into her sitting room.
The point of the whole exercise was to see what Adler would reach for when under threat of fire. Holmes's logic is that she would go for what was most precious to her in that moment of panic.
And, indeed, Holmes's guess proves to be true: when the call of "Fire!" goes up, he sees Adler reach for something behind a fake panel in her wall, something that she returns to this corner hiding spot when Holmes tells her it's a false alarm.
Adler sees that the "fire" is a smoke bomb on the floor of her sitting room and runs out of the room.
And that's that, Holmes tells Watson: he knows where she's hidden the photograph, and all that remains is to inform the king and approach Adler at eight the next morning, before she's ready for the day, to retrieve the photograph from her.
He and Watson arrive at Baker Street. Holmes is reaching for his front door key when someone unknown passes by and says, "'Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes'" (Bohemia.2.93). Holmes finds the voice familiar, but can't think where he's heard it.
After the post-riot-sleepover at Baker Street, Holmes and Watson are having breakfast. Just then, the King of Bohemia comes in.
The king's super excited when Holmes tells him he'll have the photograph soon. The three set off to Adler's house in the king's carriage.
Holmes informs the king that Adler has married Norton; and for all the trouble that she has caused, the king is clearly kind of disappointed that she's off the romantic market. He broods about "'what a queen she would have made'" (Bohemia.3.19) if only she had been of royal blood.
They get to Briony Lodge, where they find an elderly woman who greets Holmes by name, much to his surprise. The lady tells the threesome that Adler has left the country with her new husband. Adler plans never to return to England, but she left a letter for Holmes before departing.
Her letter tells Holmes that he has been very clever. Even though Adler had been warned that the king would probably hire Holmes to help him get the photo back, she didn't realize that the old clergyman she helped into her sitting room the night before was the detective—until the fake fire alarm. That's when she knew that she had given up her secret of where the photo was hidden.
Adler's nothing if not a quick thinker: she was once an actress and is familiar with dressing in drag. After the smoke bomb, she rushed out of the sitting room to put on men's clothes as a disguise, so that she and her coachman, John, could follow the escaping Holmes and Watson all the way back to Holmes's apartment on Baker Street.
Being familiar with Holmes, Adler also knows his address, so when she saw where Watson and Holmes went after fleeing her house, she got confirmation that the elderly priest guy = Sherlock Holmes.
So it was Adler in drag who wished Holmes a good night at the end of Part II of this story—that's the voice he knew he recognized.
The photograph they've been looking for? Adler keeps it as security against "'any steps [the King] might take in the future,'" but she promises she'll never make it public by choice, as she "'love[s] and [is] loved by a better man the [king]'" (Bohemia. 3. 30). Ouch to the king.
The king is relieved: he absolutely believes Adler's word that she won't use the photo as blackmail or anything. In fact, he's really turned on by her cleverness, and he regrets once again that she is not on his (social) level.
Holmes is all, yeah, she's not on your level! (Implying that Adler's way too good for someone as ungentlemanly as the Bohemian king.)
The king is so pleased with the results of this case that he pulls an emerald ring off his own finger and offers it to Holmes.
Holmes refuses it, asking instead for a photograph of Irene Adler that she left for the king along with the letter to Holmes.
The king agrees, confused.
Holmes bows and ignores the hand the king reaches out for him to shake (clearly Holmes is not a huge fan of the king by now), as he heads back to Baker Street with Watson.
And that's how Holmes heads off a possible scandal in the German kingdom of Bohemia—while still being outwitted by a lady. Which is why, Watson tells us, he always refers to Irene Adler respectfully as "the woman" (Bohemia.3.105).