The Identity of Miss Angela Vespers

Today’s 1894 story from the 223B Casebook is unusual by creating a sort of female Sherlock Holmes. It was one of two that appeared in The Student, a journal for university extension students published at the home of Durham University in Newcastle-on-Tyne, England, It stars the widow of “Herlock Shomes,” taking up her husband’s business after his death.

female sherlock holmes

How not to create a female Sherlock Holmes.

There were few women writing in the detective field at the time, and even fewer women acting as detectives. Those that were acted like Holmes, as “consulting detectives,” because women weren’t allowed on police forces. It’s surprising, then, that the first American crime novel was written by a woman: “The Dead Letter” (1864), by Metta Victor writing as Seeley Register.

While we don’t know if “Ka,” the author of these stories, but the presence of Mrs. Shomes adds weight to the argument.

As this story opens, Mrs. Shomes had just succeeded in solving her first case, recounted as “The Adventure of the Tomato on the Wall.”

The complete list of stories from the 223B casebook — parodies and pastiches published during Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s lifetime (plus later ones I liked) — can be found here.

“I wonder who will be our next visitor,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes. She was in good spirits that afternoon, and had assured me several times that our discovery about the tomato, though galling to the landlord, was quite a feather in our caps.

“We were not at all to blame, my dear,” said she, leaning back in her chair and putting her finger-tips together in a judicial manner, “except in underestimating the extreme waywardness of Human Nature. Man is perpetually full of surprises; it is that which makes him so interesting. Once let us thoroughly understand a man; and no matter how much we may admire him, the element of curiosity is lacking, and we are bored.”

“Julia,” I said, “you talk like a philosopher.”

“Who would not,” she replied, “who had been the wife of such a man as Herlock? Life with him was as interesting and as full of the most delightful unexpectedness as a sixpenny raffle. Just fancy sitting waiting for him to come into tea, and never knowing whether a visitor was he or not till he’d been in the house half an hour! I’ve several times rushed to welcome a man and kissed him, thinking it was Herlock, only to discover afterwards that the creature had committed some terrible crime.

“The life you have led together must have been most interesting,” said I, sighing, and wishing that Mr Wiggins, though a kind husband, had not been so commonplace. In considering the late Mr Shomes one felt that, as a spouse, Darby himself would have been unsupportable. Why, oh why, should the latter have been “always the same!”

“Oh, very interesting indeed,” said Mrs Shomes, shaking her head pensively; “sometimes a Rough, sometimes a Costermonger, and sometimes a Gentleman! There is not a charm peculiar to any station of life I did not occasionally find in Herlock. And now they are all gone — all.”

I thought of Macduff’s touching “What! all my pretty ones?” and sighed. Julia was certainly unfortunate in having lost such a man. But after all, was it not better to have had a Herlock Shomes and lost him, than never — “How you must miss them,” I said, suddenly recollecting my duty to Mr Wiggins, “him, I mean.”

“I do indeed,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, “I don’t know which of him I miss the most! And never do I miss him more, Lucilla, than in trying to solve the questions brought before us. I seem to feel more and more at every turn the need of his almost supernatural powers of observation.

“Is there no kind of rule that one could go by in solving these mysteries?” I asked, munching a biscuit. We had decided that it would not be professional to have afternoon tea, and I felt famished.

Mrs Herlock Shomes reflected profoundly, and then said: “It seems to me that in trying to clear up a Mystery one can count upon one thing only, and that is, that what at first appears to be the most improbable solution will prove to be the true one.” She paced up and down the room as she spoke, occasionally pausing to look out of the window in the street below.

“Aha! here is someone at last,” she cried, as a thin young man wearing spectacles came round the corner. He looked up at the numbers on the doors in a short-sighted manner, and after minutely examining our nameplate, rang the bell.

“Have I the honour to address Mrs Herlock Shomes?” he asked, bowing most respectfully as I opened the door to him.

“You have not,” said I, judging it best to keep my own name of Wiggins in the background; “Mrs Shomes is upstairs, considering her cases, but might spare you a few minutes, I daresay.”

“I should be greatly obliged,” he said, bowing again, “Mrs Shomes’ success in connection with the famous ‘Tomato on the Wall’ is not unknown to me.”

I ushered him in, and Julia, after gracefully bending her head, eyed him over with the most minute and yet abstracted attention of which she was capable. “Why should you have on your elder brother’s clothes?” she asked, letting her eyelids droop over her eyes, and looking at him in rather an ill-used way. The young man started violently, and examined his clothes with misgiving. “They — they are my own, I think,” he said, looking up at her again; “but I had an elder brother who was lost in infancy. It is most remarkable that you should know anything about him.”

Mrs Shomes did not reply. She took a ruby-tipped pencil from her pocket, scribbled the following words and handed them to me.” In mercy aid me, Lucilla, and suggest, if you can, why the suit he has on is so big for him.”

Of course I made up my mind to do the best I could, but oh, for Herlock! “I should like to know, sir,” I said, looking at him with all the intelligent abstraction which I could muster, “why within the last six months you have taken to wearing corsets?”

“‘Corsets’ madam!” repeated the young man, glancing from one of us to the other, with an expression of curiosity tempered with respect; “I-I’ve seen the name in tradesmen’s bills but I’m not quite sure that I can define the term. Pray explain yourselves, ladies.”

“It is no matter, cried Mrs Herlock Shomes — rather too hastily, as it seemed to me, for he might have known the corset by some other name — “It was just a little idea of my friend’s, that is all. And now, sir, may I ask you to proceed with your story. “

The young man sighed pensively, groaned once or twice, and then began: “About seven months ago,” said he, addressing himself to my friend with an air of the most touching confidence, “I had occasion to change my lodgings. My new rooms were comfortable and the cooking good. Do I make myself clear?”

“Entirely so,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, folding her hands in her lap. “Your statement is remarkably lucid.”

“My landlady was elderly and very plain,” went on the young man in a melancholy tone, “she was also not a little mysterious. Even when she personally opened the door to the tax-collector she would sometimes insist that she was ‘not at home’ and when she went out with her husband, which she did every evening, she always put on a very thick veil. I had only been in the house three days when the servant handed me a playbill. It exhibited the portrait of a lady of remarkable beauty, stated that she was the sensational skirt-dancer, ‘Miss Angelica Vespers,’ and described in glowing terms a performance in which she had appeared the night before, and which she was to repeat that evening. Madam, I went to that performance, and was at once bewitched by the beauty and agility of the fair Angelica. Attired in a filmy cloud of lace, and seeming rather to hover in the air than dance upon the ground, she appeared to me divinely beautiful, and not above eighteen or nineteen years of age. ‘She is my affinity!’ exclaimed my heart, enraptured at her charms; ‘she shall become my wife,’ said I before Angelica had done more than poise herself, and gaily pirouette upon one toe. In all she did I seemed to follow her with my heart as well as my eyes; and when, after lightly vaulting in the air, she leant suddenly back and. three times touched the stage with the crown of her lovely head, a mist floated before my eyes, my breath came in one gasp of admiration, and I vowed that she and none but she, must sit at the head of my table.

“From this time forth I haunted the hall in the hope of seeing Angelica. I sent her bouquets, bracelets, notes, occasionally receiving a few scribbled lines in reply which set my heart aflame. In these messages she stated that she admired my presents and personal appearance; but was averse to matrimony, intended to dance till she was ninety, and could not bring herself to grant an interview. At this treatment, my excitement became intense. I tried to bribe first one attendant and then another to make them divulge by what secret exit Angelica left the hall; but without success. They informed me that my landlord and landlady were the proprietors of the place, that the two scene-shifters who slept upon the premises were their sons, and that none but these four persons were ever permitted to speak to the dancer.

“What was the appearance of the two scene-shifters?” asked Mrs Herlock Shomes. “Did you ever see them?”

“Frequently,” replied the young man; “they were dwarfs, and squinted horribly. They were not above three feet high.”

“It never occurred to you that either of them resembled Angelica?”

“It did not.”

“Pray continue,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, noting down these particulars, “you interest me extremely.”

“During the next six months I not only spent every penny I could afford on presents for Angelica, but in order to make these as handsome as possible I began to restrict myself as to diet, coming down latterly to two meals a day.”

“Ah!” said Mrs Shomes, looking thoughtfully at his suit of clothes, “I see it all now.”

That's better.

That’s better.

“Madam,” cried the young man, “your words fill me with the utmost confidence in your powers! — but I will resume. The waywardness of the fair dancer, her beauty, and the mystery that surrounded her, were driving me frantic, and I went to the hall one evening determined to bring matters to a crisis. The dance which she performed on that occasion was called ‘The Devil’s Horns.’ In it she wore a whirling robe of black and shimmering gauze, which set off her dazzling fairness to perfection. Never shall I forget her as she then appeared with her long robes coiling round and round her lovely form, enveloping her snowy arms, and rising at last to a great height on either side like two demoniac horns. Faster and faster played the music, higher and higher danced Angelica. A weird red light was suddenly flashed upon her from the side. The audience cheered; but as she danced on their faces began to blanch, and sinister whispers of ‘witch’ and ‘demon’ could be heard among them. Just as she gave her final pirouette and was about to leave the stage, she turned in my direction and blew a kiss into the auditorium. This was too much for my excited nerves. With one bound I leapt upon the stage; but was immediately followed and held back by several members of the Orchestra. ‘Let me see her!’ I panted, ‘where does she go? I insist on following her!’ There was a shriek, a slamming of a door, and all was still. Then a great hubbub arose amongst the audience, the curtain fell, and I was taken by two of the attendants and thrust into the street.

“Well?” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, as the young man looked at her and paused, “well?”

“From that day to this,” he said impressively, “Angelica Vespers has disappeared! Her name is no longer on the bills, other performers are on the stage, and all my enquiries after her have met with no response.”

“Have you asked your landlord and landlady about her?”

“Oh, repeatedly; but they profess to be as much in the dark as I am.”

“Do you happen to have a specimen of your landlady’s handwriting here?” The young man produced a bill for a week’s board and lodging. “Thank you,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, “and now give me one of Angelica’s letters.” She carefully compared the documents, and put them into her pocket. “Have you anything more to tell me?” said she.

“There is only one fact more, madam, but it is a most important one. I have twice seen my landlady wearing a bracelet which I could swear was one of those I gave Angelica.”

“Ha!” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, “what sort of woman is this landlady of yours to look at?”

“Very ugly; she is slim and active, but has grey hair, small eyes, a nose to one side, and a complexion of walnut shells.”

“That will do,” said Julia, affably; “I quite see the whole thing.”

“Eh!” cried the visitor, falling back a few steps, “you can find Angelica?”

“I can put my finger upon her at any moment,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes firmly. The young man bowed with an air of stupefaction and took his leave.

“I begin to be afraid of you, Julia,” I said, when he was gone. “Where do you think she is? What are you going to do?”

For an answer she went to the bathroom tap and filling a bottle with water placed it upon the table. Then she went to the cupboard, and got out a piece of coarse flannel and a large lump of washing soda. As I looked at these preparations I felt in a state of utter collapse. My hands fell limply by my sides, and I emitted a low gurgle of amazement.

With an unpretending leather bag in our possession we went to the somewhat shabby hall that night and asked to see the proprietress, Mrs Delaware, on important business. We were taken to a small room where we found her renovating the theatrical wardrobe; and no sooner were we alone with her than Julia pounced upon the key of the door, turned it, and put it into her pocket.

“So you have locked the door have you?” said the lady, pausing in her work. “You seem to be rather an extraordinary person. Why have you come here?”

“I have come, madam,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, with perfect calmness, “to wash your face.

Mrs Delaware sat and stared at us both for several minutes. “To wash my face,” she repeated musingly, “are you a professional face-washer then?”

“I am not; but I’ve every intention of removing that mask of yours,” said Mrs Herlock Shomes, getting out the flannel.

“M-mask!” murmured Mrs Delaware.

“Yes,” said Julia firmly. “What looks like your face you know. Don’t imagine we are deceived. That hideous mask is merely a cosmetical preparation warranted to ensure all sorts of charms beneath. Your secret, Angelica, is discovered!”

Almost before my friend had finished speaking, the lady went off into violent hysterics, and I had much ado to bring her round. “There, she is better now,” said Julia. “You hold her and I will try her face with this.

She had been vigorously rubbing the flannel on the soda, and no sooner did Mrs Delaware hear the words than she sprang from her chair at a single bound and positively screamed for mercy. “Anything but that,” she cried, clasping her hands in supplication. “You terrible person, I am as wax in your hands. Anything but that awful — awful soda!”

“Well then,” said Julia, seizing her opportunity, “Are you, or are you not, the lost Miss Angelica Vespers?”

“I Miss Vespers?’ returned the lady much amazed. “I the lovely Angelica? Certainly not.” She seemed to be still much agitated; and at a sign from me Julia put down the flannel.

“Then what have you done with her?” asked my friend. “Your writing is identical with hers, which should not be. Produce her at once, or I arrest you upon the spot for forgery.”

“But Angelica had no education,” cried Mrs Delaware, “I had to write her letters.”

“No matter,” said Julia, unabashed, “Produce her at once, or I arrest you for stealing her bracelets, one of which you have on.”

“I never knew anyone like you!” said Mrs Delaware, looking from the bracelet to the face of my friend in uncontrollable agitation. “And must we suffer?” she went on, “and must our little ruse by which we hoped to gain a fortune be exposed to all the world?”

“Ha!” said my friend, looking at me in triumph; “It need not be, if you will produce the lady.”

“And will you not arrest me if I produce her?” cried the other.

“Not if she does not accuse you in any way. It all depends on how you’ve treated her.”

With this Mrs Delaware appeared to be content. “I can and will produce her, quite unharmed,” she said. Thereupon she unlocked a large press which stood in the room, and emerged from it bearing in her arms the apparently lifeless figure of a dancing girl. The face and arms were exquisitely moulded, the hair fell in a shower of golden ringlets to the waist, and the whole form was enveloped in black-bespangled gauze.

“Angelica is a perfect triumph of mechanism,” said the lady, taking one of the girl’s hands in her own, and turning the fingers about in all directions. “She can vault three feet higher than any living lady on the stage, and has danced us out of bankruptcy over and over again. No one ever suspected us,” she went on, carefully dusting the face of the figure of a dancing girl with her pocket handkerchief; “but her accomplishments are of the kind that take with men, and they were constantly pining away on her account. Three noblemen and two poets have committed suicide because of her; and as my own lodger was becoming skin-and-bone, and had begun to make things most unpleasant, we did not like the idea of an inquest at our house, and we’ve agreed to sell her.”

“Then she’s neither more nor less than a marionette!” cried I.

“And there’s our second Mystery cleared up,” said Mrs Herlock Shornes.