In the days of the Roman Empire, it is said that when Caesar stood in triumph before his people, he would have a slave walk behind him, whispering in his ear: “Remember, you too are mortal.” This is the kind of wisdom a great mind such as Sherlock Holmes takes to heart if he wants to remain human.
“Watson, if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”
You see, even Holmes is capable of error. We’ve seen him foiled by the keen wit of Irene Adler, but we’ve not seen his own deductive powers of reason fail him. Not yet, anyway.
Not until now.
The story opens with Holmes returning home from a walk with Watson in the wake of yet another bout of boredom due to a lack of cases. He finds he has missed a visitor, who has in turn left behind a pipe. We’re given another classic round of deductive reasoning, which not particularly pertinent to the case, does set up the story nicely with the kind of character building we’ve come to appreciate.
The visitor, one Mr. Grant Munro, returns, and the story unfolds of his wife’s deception. His wife, Effie, was previously married in the States. Following the deaths of her husband and child by yellow fever, she returned to England, where she met and married Munro. According to him, there was not so much as the slightest hint of trouble in paradise, until one day she asked him for a hundred pounds and begged him not to ask why. Two months later, he caught her carrying on clandestine meetings with the occupants of a cottage in Norbury, not far from the Munro residence. Mr. Munro had himself seen a yellow-faced person in the cottage with hard, unnatural features. He attempted to break in and learn more when overcome by jealousy, but the room was empty. It was also well-adorned and comfortable. To his distress, a photograph of his wife is on the mantelpiece that he had commissioned only recently.
Holmes sends Munro home with instructions to wire for him if the cottage is occupied once more, otherwise they will meet again tomorrow. In the meantime, he says, there is nothing to get worked up about until there is something known. Once Munro departs, Holmes confides in Watson that he fears blackmail, that Effie’s first husband has come to England.
Once summoned, Holmes and Watson meet with Munro and enter the cottage, intercepted by Effie. After some drama, they encounter “the creature” with the yellow face. Holmes peels away the mask, revealing a young girl, the daughter once presumed dead. Effie offers her explanation. Her first husband was John Hebron, an African-American lawyer from Atlanta, and while he did die of yellow fever, their daughter Lucy survived.
When Effie came to England, she couldn’t bring Lucy with her as she was still too ill to travel. Then she met Grant Munro, got married, and only then received word that Lucy was alive and well. That’s when she asked for the money, using it to bring Lucy and her nurse to England and putting them up in the cottage. Her fear was that Munro would stop loving her if he discovered a child of mixed heritage.
To his credit, Munro accepts Lucy without reservation, at which point Holmes and Watson excuse themselves with approval.
The historical information on this story is most interesting to me. By this point, there were definitely African-American lawyers in the States, many of whom were educated in the Northern states and came to the South during Reconstruction where they were needed most. Over in Britain, such a mixed marriage would have been quite legal, while it would have been beyond brutal for both Effie and her first husband in Atlanta at that time. Conan Doyle’s treatment of interracial marriage and offspring come across as rather enlightened and somewhat refreshing given how terribly racial issues are treated even today, especially here in the States. Still… I know what else is in the hopper for future stories, so we’ll explore race and potential stereotyping later in the canon. For the time being, we treat the situation, and the story, largely as a win.
My only real gripe is that I don’t feel like there was a good reason for Effie to leave her daughter since the child wasn’t yet dead. I question any mother who’d leave her child under those conditions without truly extenuating circumstances, which we never got here. I like to think there’s a reason as Effie seems like a good mother otherwise. I just can’t think of any at the moment.