Front cover of a graphic novel adaptation of "The Adventure of the Second Stain" published in 2013.

"The Adventure of the Second Stain" is a Sherlock Holmes short story by the British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in the December 1904 issue of the magazine The Strand. It would be published again in 1905 as the final story in the anthology The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

In the story, a senior British politician receives a strongly worded letter from a European king which criticizes British foreign policy. If the contents of the letter were made public, the reaction of the British people would make war inevitable. When the letter is stolen, the Prime Minister calls on the brilliant consulting detective Sherlock Holmes for assistance. The case is further complicated when Holmes discovers that a foreign spy whom he suspects of stealing the letter was murdered at around the same time that the letter was stolen.

In the opening paragraph of the story, Watson says that, following the publication of 'The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", Holmes asked him not to write any more stories about him. Watson was prepared to go along with Holmes' request. He then remembered that he had previously promised to give his readers an account of "The Adventure of the Second Stain" but had to wait until the "time was ripe". In the 1893 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Naval Treaty", Watson refers to a case called "The Adventure of the Second Stain", about which he says that it will be impossible to write until after the start of the 20th century because it, "deals with intersts of such importance and implicates so many of the first families in the kingdom".

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included "The Adventure of the Second Stain" in a list of his twelve favorite Sherlock Holmes stories which he compiled for The Strand magazine in 1927.[1]

The story has been adapted for British television three times and adapted for television in the Soviet Union once.


At the start of "The Adventure of the Second Stain", Dr. John Watson, the tale's narrator, apologizes for the vagueness of some of the details in his story, explaining that it is because they touch on sensitive areas of international politics.

Lord Bellinger, the Prime Minister, and Trelawney Hope, the Secretary for European Affairs, go to the apartment which Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes share. They have come to ask for Sherlock Holmes' assistance in a matter of national security. Six days earlier, Trelawney Hope received a long thin blue envelope with a red wax seal. The envelope contained a hastily written letter from a European king. The king had been angered by some recent development in British colonial expansion. The letter contains some phrases which are of "so provocative a character" that, if the British public found out about them, war would be unavoidable. Due to the sensitive nature of the letter, Trelawney Hope did not put it in his safe but carried it with him at all times, taking it home and putting it in a despatch box in his bedroom in the evening.


Dr. Watson and Lord Bellinger look on while Sherlock Holmes and Trelawney Hope talk. 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget.

On the evening before he went to see Holmes, Trelawney Hope saw the letter in his despatch box at 7:30pm. After his wife returned from a trip to the theater alone, Trelawney Hope went to bed at 11:30pm. When he got up in the morning, Trelawney Hope found that the letter had disappeared. Since both Trelawney Hope and his wife are light sleepers and would have woken up if anybody had entered their room while they were in bed, Trelawney Hope is certain that the letter was stolen between 7:30pm and 11:30pm.

Sherlock Holmes is told that nobody else in England knows about the letter, except for the members of the Cabinet who were all sworn to secrecy. Apart from the king himself, nobody in the other European kingdom knows about the letter either because it was written without any advice from the king's ministers. Only three servants have access to Trelawney Hope's bedroom. Trelawney Hope has complete trust in all three of them and does not believe they know anything about the letter, since he has not told them about it. He adds that his wife does not know about the letter's contents either because he never talks about politics with her. The king, who has come to regret having written the letter, has been informed of its loss by a secret telegram. His country is even less prepared for war than Britain is. It appears that the letter must have been stolen by agents of a third country who want to provoke a war between the king's nation and Britain to further their own agenda.

Trelawney Hope's wife, Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope, comes to Holmes' apartment later. She asks Holmes to promise not to tell her husband that she was there. She also asks Holmes to tell her about the contents of the stolen letter. Holmes refuses to tell her anything about it.

Holmes believes that the letter has probably been taken out of the country already. However, it is possible that it is still in the hands of a spy who might be prepared to sell it back to the British government. Holmes says that he will go to see some of the secret agents he knows to be operating in London, naming Oberstein, La Rothiere[2] and Eduardo Lucas. Watson tells Holmes that he will not see Eduardo Lucas because, according to the newspaper, he was found murdered at his home at 11:45pm the night before. Eduardo Lucas was stabbed to death with an Indian dagger taken from a display on his wall. Nothing appears to have been stolen from him. Holmes is convinced that it is no coincidence that the man was killed at around the same time that the letter was stolen. Without inviting Dr. Watson to go with him, Holmes leaves for the scene of the crime. For three days, he participates in the official police investigation into the murder. He tells Watson nothing about it, claiming that there is nothing to tell.

On the fourth day, there is a new development in the murder investigation. It is revealed that Eduardo Lucas, who was known to have spent several months of each year in Paris, had been leading a double life. In Paris, he went by the name of Henri Fournaye and married a woman under that name. Madame Henri Fournaye has been declared legally insane. She is known to have been in London at the time of Eduardo Lucas' death and it is theorized that she either murdered him while she was insane or that she went mad after she killed him.

Holmes and Watson go to the house where Eduardo Lucas was killed. They are met by Inspector Lestrade and a police officer named MacPherson. Lestrade tells them that, thanks to the Paris police, the mystery of Eduardo Lucas' death has been solved but there is another smaller mystery. Eduardo Lucas bled to death on a rug in the living room. There is a large bloodstain on both sides of the rug but there is no bloodstain on the wooden floorboards underneath the stained part of it. There is however, a bloodstain on the floorboards covered by an unstained part of the rug. It is obvious that the rug has been moved. Holmes tells Lestrade that MacPherson, who has been guarding the house every day since the murder, let somebody into the room. He tells Lestrade to speak to MacPherson about it in private. The inspector goes off to angrily confront the constable.


Holmes finds where the letter had been hidden until recently. 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget.

When Lestrade leaves the room, Holmes starts trying to lift up the floorboards that had been covered by the rug. He finds that one of the floorboards lifts up easily but that the cavity underneath it is empty. By the time that Lestrade returns, the rug and the floorboard are back in place.

Lestrade makes MacPherson tell Holmes and Watson what happened. The constable says that a woman came to the house the previous evening. She said that she was answering a job advertisement for a typist. After it was pointed out to her that she had come to the wrong address and was in the house where Eduardo Lucas was killed, she asked to see the room where the murder took place. When she saw the large bloodstain on the rug, she fainted. Having failed to revive the woman with water, MacPherson went to a pub to get some brandy. By the time that he got back to the house, the woman had gone. Before leaving the house, Holmes shows something to MacPherson. The constable has a look of amazement on his face and cries out in surprise.

Holmes and Watson go straight to the house of Trelawney Hope but it is Lady Hilda Trelawney Hope that Holmes asks to see. Holmes reveals that the object which he showed to MacPherson was a photograph of Lady Hilda. He knows that she was the woman who went to the house the previous evening and knows that she has the stolen letter. After some time, Lady Hilda very reluctantly admits that this is true and that she was blackmailed by Eduardo Lucas.

Lady Hilda explains that Eduardo Lucas got hold of a letter that she wrote before she was married which would shock her husband if he read it. Through spies in Trelawney Hope's office, Eduardo Lucas found out about the letter from the king. He told Lady Hilda that he would send the letter that she wrote long ago to her husband unless she gave him the letter from the king. A duplicate key for the despatch box was made from an impression that Lady Hilda took. Lady Hilda brought the letter from the king to Eduardo Lucas and saw him place it underneath a floorboard which was then covered by the rug. As she was leaving, Lady Hilda saw another woman arrive. From comments that the woman made in French, it was obvious that she mistook Lady Hilda for Eduardo Lucas' lover. Lady Hilda saw the man and woman begin to fight but left before Eduardo Lucas was killed. Since her husband never spoke to her about politics, Lady Hilda had no idea about the letter's contents before she took it. However, once she saw how much distress the loss of the letter caused him, she became desperate to recover it.


Trelawney Hope is relieved to have found the letter in his despatch box. 1904 illustration by Sidney Paget.

Using the duplicate key to open the despatch box, Holmes places the letter inside the pages of another document in the box. Shortly afterwards, Trelawney Hope returns home with the Prime Minister. Holmes tells Trelawney hope that, since none of the negative effects expected to come about as a result of the letter's theft have happened, he believes that it is still in the despatch box. Trelawney Hope reluctantly looks through the contents of his despatch box again. He is surprised and delighted to find the blue envelope inside it.

As soon as Trelawney Hope leaves the room, the Prime Minister expresses doubts about the letter having been in the despatch box all the time. Holmes, however, refuses to tell the Prime Minister anything more about the matter.


The story was adapted as the sixth and final episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes in which Alan Wheatley played the title character. The episode was first broadcast in the United Kingdom on November 22, 1951.

"The Second Stain" was the title of the first episode of the BBC TV series Sherlock Holmes which starred Peter Cushing as the famous detective. It was first shown on British television on September 9, 1968. The episode is now lost.

The fourth episode of the Granada TV series The Return of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett, is an adaptation of the story. The episode first aired in the United Kingdom on the ITV network on July 23, 1986.

The TV movie Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson - The Twentieth Century Approaches, starring Vasily Livanov as Holmes and Vitali Solomin as Watson, which was first shown on television in the Soviet Union in 1986, is based on "The Adventure of the Second Stain", "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb", "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans" and "His Last Bow".


  1. In the list of his twelve favorite Sherlock Holmes stories which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle compiled for The Strand in 1927, the author ranked "The Adventure of the Second Stain" as his eighth best, following "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", "The Red-Headed League", "The Adventure of the Dancing Men", "The Final Problem", "A Scandal in Bohemia', "The Adventure of the Empty House" and "The Five Orange Pips".
  2. Spies called Oberstein and La Rothiere are also referred to in the 1905 Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans".

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