On the eve of the First World War, Von Bork, a German agent, is getting ready to leave England with his vast collection of intelligence, gathered over a four-year period. His wife and household have already left Harwich for Flushing in the Netherlands, leaving only him and his elderly housekeeper. Von Bork and his diplomat friend Baron von Herling disparage their British hosts, having judged them rather negatively. Von Herling is impressed at his friend's collection of vital British military secrets, and tells Von Bork that he will be received in Berlin as a hero. Von Bork indicates that he is waiting for one last transaction with his Irish-American informant Altamont, who will arrive shortly. The treasure will prove rich, Von Bork thinks: naval signals.
Von Herling leaves and Von Bork gets to work packing the contents of his safe. He then hears another car arriving. It is Altamont. By this time, the old housekeeper has turned her light off and retired. Von Bork greets Altamont, and Altamont shows him the package that he has brought.
Altamont proceeds to disparage Von Bork's safe, but Von Bork proudly says that nothing can cut through the metal, and that it has a double combination lock. He even tells Altamont the combination: “August 1914”. Altamont then insinuates that German agents get rid of their informants when they are finished with them, naming several who have ended up in prison. Von Bork is left to make excuses for these events. Altamont's mistrust of Von Bork is evident in his refusal to hand over the package before he gets his cheque. Von Bork, for his part, claims the right to examine the document before handing Altamont the cheque which he has written.
Altamont hands him the package, and upon opening it, it turns out to be a book called Practical Handbook of Bee Culture, hardly what he expected. Even less expected is the chloroform-soaked rag that was held in his face by Altamont a moment later. Altamont, it turns out, is none other than Sherlock Holmes, and the chauffeur who brought him is, of course, Dr. Watson. Now much older than in their heyday, they have nonetheless not only caught several spies (Holmes is actually responsible for the imprisoned agents, of course) in their return from retirement, but fed the Germans some thoroughly untrustworthy intelligence. Holmes has been on this case for two years, and it has taken him to Chicago, Buffalo, and Ireland, where he learnt to play the part of a bitter Irish-American, even gaining the credentials of a member of a secret society. He then identified the security leak through which British secrets were reaching the Germans.
The housekeeper was part of the plot, too. The light that she switched off was the signal to Holmes and Watson that the coast was clear.
They remove Von Bork and all the evidence, and drive him to Scotland Yard, where his welcome will not be as triumphant as the one that was awaiting him in Berlin.
After the story has concluded, it is revealed that Holmes has retired from active detective work. He spends his days beekeeping in the countryside and writing his definitive work on investigation.
The story is the last chronological instalment of the series, though yet another collection (The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes), set before the story, was published four years later. In reference to the impending World War I, Holmes concludes,
- "There's an east wind coming, Watson."
- "I think not, Holmes. It is very warm."
- "Good old Watson! You are the one fixed point in a changing age. There's an east wind coming all the same, such a wind as never blew on England yet. It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it's God's own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared."
The patriotic sentiment of the above passage has been widely quoted, and was later used in the final scene of the Basil Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), set in World War II.
Read more about this topic: His Last Bow (story)
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