I only caught a glimpse of her at the moment, but she was
a lovely woman, with a face that a man might die for.
—SHERLOCK HOLMES ON IRENE ADLER, “A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA”
New York City, August 1889
Perhaps I have presumed. I, Penelope Huxleigh, have always considered myself the sole recorder of the life and times of my friend Irene, nee Adler, now Norton. (Irene, having performed grand opera under her maiden name for some years, now uses both surnames in private life. Propriety was never a sufficiently strong argument with this American-born diva with whom I have spent almost ten—can it be?—years of my life.)
So I was taken aback to witness Irene entering the sitting room of our New York hotel, her arms bearing a bundle of writing paper as if it were an infant of her recent and fond delivery. Her distinctive penmanship, exercised in eccentric green ink, galloped over the visible top page like a runaway horse.
“Is this the ‘something’ you said you had for the post?” I asked, setting aside my own handiwork, a petit point bellpull. There was no use for such a thing in a hotel, but I hoped that we would not forever dwell in a hotel, although it seemed as though we had already.
She regarded her foolscap progeny’s bulky form as if seeing it clearly for the first time.
“I suppose this is more in the way of a parcel than a letter, but I had so much to tell, and even as many cables as I send Godfrey about our American adventures can barely scratch the surface.”
She sat to straighten the unmannerly sheets on her lap. “Godfrey must be half-mad by now, languishing in the dully bucolic Bavarian countryside. I’m sure he’ll welcome this more thorough report on our recent investigations in America.”
“Godfrey would welcome reading the London city charter from your hand, but you can’t possibly have told him about all of the unsuitable people we have met here in New York.”
“Er, which unsuitable people? I’m sure, Nell, you could name a good many, but how am I to acquaint Godfrey with the outcome of our quest if I do not mention Salamandra, or Professor Marvel, or the Pig Lady?”
“Although those are unsuitable people, which I am thankful that you recognize, I did not have them in mind.”
“Oh.” Irene sat back in the small tapestried chair, sinking into her combing gown of puffed white silk and sky blue ribbons as into an exceedingly comfortable and flattering cloud. “You meant to say ‘Unsuitable Person.’ Singular.”
“Sherlock Holmes is very singular, as well as very unsuitable.”
“Then you will be relieved to know that I did not mention him to Godfrey.”
“Not once, in all those pages and pages of exclamation points? Don’t bother to deny it, Irene. You write as if you were singing grand opera. Every paragraph is an aria, every sentence a dramatic revelation, and every word an impossibly high note.”
“Do I take it that you find my writing persuasive?”
“Excessively so. And yet you have used the most uncharacteristic restraint in omitting Sherlock Holmes from the cast list! I find that even more troubling than including him.”
Irene played the innocent as well as she portrayed the femme fatale. It struck me then that she would best serve her absent spouse by having her photograph made and sent to him, just as she appeared now.
I have never seen a woman who looked so unnervingly well in the morning, her color warm even without the light enhancement of paint, her chestnut hair flashing gold and red glints like cherry amber, her face serene as a Madonna’s. Unfortunately, not many Madonnas were to be found in grand opera.
Needless to say that Irene and I were, like most longtime companions, night and day in temperament. We were also opposite in looks, although Irene insisted, in her usual optimistic moments, that I was attractive.
She was now frowning prettily and paging through her opus. “I suppose I could slip mention of Sherlock Holmes into one of these pages, if it would satisfy you, Nell.”
“Me? It has nothing to do with me. And why trouble Godfrey when he is too far away to do anything about it?”
“What would Godfrey do if he were here?”
“Escort you everywhere, so you had no opportunity to consort improperly with that miserable man.”
Irene smiled. “We really had very little to do with Mr. Holmes during our New York inquiries.”
“No, he only appeared at the end when you had solved the unspeakable death, to drop portentous hints about your lost mother’s identity . . . in a graveyard, no less, and then marched off without even a word of farewell.”
“Perhaps he expects to see us again,” she murmured to the infant serial novel on her lap. Just loud enough so that I could hear it.
“And will he?
She looked up through her dark eyelashes, as contrite as Miss Allegra Turnpenny at age fourteen, and I was cast suddenly again in my role of stern governess.
“I hope not,” Irene finally said with deep feeling, an emotion I could heartily endorse.
I allowed myself to take a breath of relief.
“When I follow someone, especially Mr. Sherlock Holmes, I would hope to be quite invisible.”
I should have known that Irene would be determined to pick up the gauntlet he had tossed at our feet at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn two days earlier.
How Sherlock Holmes had been lured from London, and Irene and I from the pleasant village of Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris, to arrive at this place of gravestones near Manhattan Island, would require a book to detail in all its convolutions.
Nellie Bly, the crusading American newspaper reporter had been the catalyst, by tempting Irene with the notion that she had a long-lost mother whose life was being threatened. Irene, abandoned soon after birth, had always stoutly denied any sentimental need to find a delinquent mother, but add the melodrama of possible murder, and she would go anywhere. We’d discovered more than I wanted to know about Irene’s childhood years, and a truly appalling candidate for the role of Irene’s mother.
So Irene and I culminated our investigations with a visit to the burial site of “the wickedest woman in New York,” or so the long-dead creature had been called more than a decade earlier, in 1877 on the occasion of her shocking demise. This pseudonymously named Madame Restell (she was an Englishwoman born, can you imagine!) had ministered to “women’s problems,” for decades, even to the point of forestalling births. Some considered this an abomination, others a boon. It was not precisely illegal in Madame Restell’s day, and the woman had become conspicuously wealthy, even building a grand mansion on Fifth Avenue where her clients would come to a side door in the dark of night. That some of them came from the surrounding mansions protected the Restell enterprise for decades. She also offered the same services to poor women at far less costly rates. Her clients regarded her as a savior. Her detractors considered her a devil. Charged by a morals crusader named Comstock, she had supposedly cut her own throat with a butcher knife on the eve of her sentencing, adding the sin of suicide to any roster of wrongdoing she would have to answer for before the Final Bar.
Some question remained whether this lost soul had been the “Woman in Black,” who had apparently abandoned Irene at an early age to the care of the most freakish assemblage of theatrical folk I had ever seen, onstage or off.
We had contemplated that very fact as we gazed at the monument for what might be Irene’s mother. I sincerely hoped not.
Then who should appear but Sherlock Holmes in top hat and city garb, quite appropriate for the cemetery, actually, and the sober act of visiting the dead. He led us to another hill in the vast and picturesque park and to a small headstone that bore the very common name of Eliza Gilbert. Mrs. Eliza Gilbert, I noted to my great ease of mind.
And there he had left us with the unspoken implication that this unknown woman was more likely to be Irene’s mother than “the wickedest woman in New York.” I was foolishly relieved. At the time.
“How would he know?” I demanded as I unpinned my hat when we had returned to the Astor House Hotel on Broadway.
“Apparently he does know, and knows more than I do. Than we do. I do not for a moment believe that Sherlock Holmes is in New York City in answer to Nellie Bly’s summons. He has business of his own here. The fact that I had come here on the thin trail of a mother who disowned me, and who might be in danger of death, according to our daredevil reporter friend, meant nothing but a moment’s mental diversion for Sherlock Holmes. Yet he insists on dogging my movements.”
“Perhaps because you pursue these inquiries.”
“How would he know, or suspect, who the Woman in Black was? He must have found clues here, for neither of us had the least interest in her until Nellie Bly’s cables drew us both across the Atlantic.”
“And we shall have to cross that horrible, heaving body of water to return home to Paris again! I do not believe I can stomach that.”
“Poor girl.” Irene patted my hand. “You didn’t stomach it at all on the voyage over.”
“A week of terror and distress. I would almost volunteer to remain in this savage land rather than return by sea.”
“You cannot fly, Nell. And walking on water is a prerogative of the Lord you would not wish to usurp. But fear not. We will stay on until we solve the riddle of Eliza Gilbert, and by then you may have somewhat forgotten the inconveniences of the voyage.”
“You have today put me between the devil and the deep blue sea, Irene, and I don’t know which is the worst to contemplate.”
“Then don’t think about either.” She bent her eyes to her pages and turned several periods into exclamation marks.
Poor Godfrey. A benighted barrister toiling away on dull legal matters in Bavaria for the Rothschild banking interests, bereft of wife and unaware that she was bent on trying to out-Sherlock Sherlock Holmes himself.
Brilliantly blind Irene! She was quite unaware that the cold-minded man of logic had developed an unreasonable addiction to her brains and beauty as well as cocaine and who knew what other vices?
What a bother! I would have to make sure that Irene did not dance too near the flame when she sought to turn the tables on Sherlock Holmes.
That might be just what the irritating fellow was hoping for.