The Strange Case of the Red Painted Woman
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Doctor Watson was worried about Holmes. It had been some time since the last case ‘deemed worthy of his intellect’ and he was getting depressed. Watson was concerned in case he again turned to smoking opium. Mrs Hudson had warned them that if she smelt that evil stink once more they would be looking for another housekeeper! As Holmes sat glowering out of the window Watson desperately searched the Times for items that might be of interest. “Holmes, it says here that this years crop of the Thrallbourne mulberry tree has been stolen!”
“I do not concern myself with cases of common theft. Those are matters for the police.”
“But it is a strange matter, as it appears that the Thrallbourne mulberry is the only one of its species in the country. That is by the decree of Queen Elizabeth.”
“No doubt she had her reasons. Perhaps she was partial to jam made from its fruit and wished to obtain a monopoly of such a luxury.”
Glad to have aroused a flicker of interest Watson replied, “Perhaps the fruit is used to feed some exclusive breed of silkworm and the thieves have a secret silk factory somewhere?”
“Nonsense Watson, silk worms feed on Mulberry leaves and not the fruit! I do not know what the world is coming to Watson. Why should what are probably a gang of children scrumping some fruit merit a mention in the Times?”
“Ah well Holmes it calls into question the ownership of the Thrallbourne estate, if the Baron does not harvest and destroy the mulberry crop! It has been suggested that the Commissioners for Crown Lands should be looking into it. Shortly after Queen Elizabeth proscribed the growing of woad in England as a ‘vile stinking weed’ her attention was brought to the existence of the Thrallbourne Mulberry. The tree was captured aboard a Spanish ship by one of our valiant seamen. It was sold to Sir Edward Twelverton, Baron of Thrallbourne, with several other exotic shrubs. He planted them in the grounds of his estate, once those of the former Thrallbourne Priory. The tree Pseudomulberris Aztecus throve whilst most of the other plants died. However the fruits, when ten years later they first appeared, were too bitter and foul smelling to be eaten or cooked. Crushed they could be used as a fast bright red dye but the foul smell would linger on for many months. Apparently the Aztecs of the New World used it for dyeing feathers and sacrificial victims. When Edward’s son Cyprian succeeded to the Barony, Queen Elizabeth made it a condition of the inheritance, that the holder should harvest and destroy the fruits each year. Because of the plants foul smell, Kew Gardens was glad not to be obliged to stock any sample in later days. In lawless times the local mobs would anoint the faces of malefactors held in the Scaphism Tree. I say Holmes, what is a Scaphism tree? I have never heard of one!”
“It come from the Greek for a hollowed out tree. They would secure a criminal in it with his face exposed. They would smear it with honey and leave him in the sun for several days. The expectation was that wasps would come for the honey and sting him. It sounds as though these Thrallbourne people used their mulberry juice as a cheaper substitute.”
“I have it Holmes, the berries were not stolen by children as fruit, the smell militates against that, but by someone who intends to put a victim in the Scaphism Tree!”
“My dear Watson! Now why would they need an entire years crop for that?”
“A good point Holmes I confess I am stumped.”
A silence ensued in which Watson was glad that his friend had at last something on which to exercise his brain.
“If the berries can produce a fast bright red dye, perhaps it is for that purpose that they have been stolen. One assumes that in time the foul smell ceases to be a problem. Now who would need a cheap source for such a dye? Clothes for the ladies perhaps, or more likely some contractor for our army. Will the army need to stock up more scarlet uniforms at present Watson?"
“Well there is the war in Burma dragging on and our forces were active in Sikkim although I deem that job is done. Then there was that Zulu rebellion. We always seems be fighting somewhere in the Empire!”
“That will be it then. We can now leave it to the Commissioners for Crown Lands to see if they can wrest the Barony from its present incumbent. I would doubt that they will even try. That article my dear Watson is evidence of a newspapers desperation, being short of story during the silly season!”
* * *
Later Holmes himself read the following letter in The Times newspaper on 13th October 1890
It is with considerable chagrin that I consider it
my public duty to write this letter. The facts are
that I have been for some time aware of unlawful
acts being committed in the St. Radegund Graveyard.
The local police have again and again turned a blind
eye to these. Last Saturday around 1 am. screams
were heard from the direction of the church. Visiting
it at 10am I found fresh blood stains on and around
the altar. Clear evidence that some unspeakable act
of sacrilege had taken place there. I reported this to
the Bogey Lane Station who ‘recorded’ the report!
After a repeat call, Constable Legget was detailed to
accompany me to the Church. Despite it raining the
blood was still there showing as fresh as ever! The
Constable passed the information to his Inspector.
The next day he visited the church in company with
the Sexton Timothy Fowler who holds the graveyard
keys. The bloodstains were now gone! Sexton Fowler
told me that since there was no evidence of any crime
the police would take no further action! Thus are the
public served by these overpaid layabouts!
Miss Edna Gimlet 2 Knowe Lane Whitechapel.
“Aha! Watson I think we have a vital clue here! How long would it take bloodstains to congeal in the open?”
“Within minutes. Even a puddle of blood would solidify within twenty minutes I should say. You think that it was not blood then?”
“Most certainly not. I feel that I must take a hand in this matter. However I must make certain inquiries first.”
“What enquiries and from whom Holmes?”
“Those I shall tell you only if my surmises are correct, Watson.”
“Damn you Holmes you are always so provoking!”
At the Diogenes Club his brother Mycroft had alerted Holmes to the strange branding of ‘Scarlet faced women’! Apparently He thought that their appearance was an unusual phenomenon enough to interest him. A series of women had been abducted and endured a ritual in which they were daubed with an indelible red substance from the waist up. On their foreheads was written SFVC whose significance was not known.
* * *
“The game is afoot tonight Watson! We have to be at St. Radegunds Graveyard by midnight. And bring your revolver Watson we will have need of it!”
“St. Radegunds Graveyard by midnight! Really Holmes you might have given me some warning! I was to attend that lecture on skin diseases!”
“There may be a hundred pounds reward in it if my deductions are correct!”
“A hundred pounds eh! Very well if that is the case I’ll come.”
So that evening they caught a hansome cab to Whitechapel High Street. On the way Holmes gave Watson some information.
“If I am correct, tonight we shall catch the SFVC, whoever they are, red handed dyeing another woman at the St Radegund church!”
“It seems hardly the sort of job we normally deal in Holmes?”
“Ah but you see they will be red handed with Thrallbourne Mulberry dye! Lord Thrallbourne has offered me £100 if I can discover the thieves of his mulberry crop. Whilst the Commissioner’s for Crown Lands have agreed to ignore this years theft, he rightly fears that they might not do so were it to happen again. Questions would be asked in Parliament whether they were doing their job rigorously enough!”
“I see. That is why you have not contacted the police over the matter?”
“Yes. At Whitechapel we shall collect Eric, one of my Baker Street Irregulars. He should Have been on watch for any untoward activity and can go and fetch the police if we nab the SFVC gang.”
“Do you really think they will be there tonight Holmes?”
“Yes. There have been five attacks so far, all taking place on Saturday nights, a week or a fortnight apart. It is a week since the last one so either tonight or next week. I consider it possible that attempts are planned for every week but that in the nature of things some miscarry. First we go to Madam Hsing Song’s Laundry.”
“Madam who? And why do we need to go there?”
“Madam Hsing Song sells the mandarin quality opium I generally use. She used to be based in Chinatown but now has new premises near St. Radegunds. As an outsider she may be able to give us information that the locals would keep to themselves. She told me the last time I saw her, that she intended to start catering for western tastes. The other opium dealers cater almost entirely for their own countrymen. She is very grateful to me for proving that her nephew Hsing Hi was innocent in the jade dagger affair.”
“I remember it well Holmes. In fact I seem to remember playing quite a part in it myself!”
“Ah but you did not meet Madam herself!”
“So how do you know that these scarlet faced women attacks take place at St. Radegunds?”
“I have spoken to one of the victims. She had served a year in prison for bigamy. Her first husband was a geologist prospecting in Natal and not home very often. Her brother Jules talked her into the second marriage with a wealthy man, to whom he sold a lot of worthless investments. He will remain a few more years at her Majesty’s pleasure! As I suspected the victim is now hiding in his house. Still bright red and smelling of fruit gone bad. She said that she was rendered unconscious with an evil smelling cloth. She came round blindfolded and tied up in a closed van. Eventually they stopped and she was manhandled out for a short walk and laid on a cold slab. Her assailants kept chanting in what she guessed was Latin. Then they removed the blindfold and her upper clothing and doused her with the foul smelling red liquid. She had screamed but one of them clouted her until she stopped. It was her screams that Miss Edna Gimlet heard. There were three of them wearing strange robes with aprons and they were chanting all the time. The scene was lit with black candles but they gave very little light. However she could see the moon and stars and so knew that she was in a church with no roof and one of the walls was ruined. They had pressed something onto her forehead which she later knew spelt the SFVC. In fact they told that it meant the Scorching Flames of Virtue Court or something like that. Then the evil smelling cloth was held against her and she knew no more. They dumped her in the public Park in Kentish Town where she ran a boarding house under an assumed name. Of course the local press soon discovered her true identity and published the story.”
“These news hounds have no sense of discretion or of any public decency!” exclaimed Watson.
“They have their uses Watson. I immediately did some research into London ruined churches. This confirmed St. Radegunds as the prime site. Anyway I then visited Miss Gimlet. She had had some youths break all her windows and a message telling her to mind her own business! As a result she was reluctant to give me admittance. However when I disclosed my identity she let me in. She expects me to expose the incompetence of the police. She said that the red stains had a bad fruit smell. She thinks that the Sexton Timothy Fowler must be involved as he has the keys to the two gates to the graveyard. She is sure that he lends them to the harlots who use the graveyard for immoral purposes practically every night in the week! Miss Gimlet has given me a key to the graveyard. Her brother made the locks and kept spares. She uses it when going to lay flowers on his grave in the morning before the graveyard is opened at noon. I will have Eric Littleworth scout the area before we get there. He should be waiting for us outside the Lilywhite Laundry in Bogey Lane.” (Eric is one of the Baker Street Irregulars.)
* * *
The hansome cab travelled slowly as there was a dense fog that night. In fact only the modern wonder of the street gas lamps, enabled them to go faster than a crawling pace! “Do not worry Watson. The miscreants are likely to be as late getting there as we are.
Eventually Holmes ordered the hansome cab to drop them off, beside the umbrella shop in Whitechapel High Street. “Here we are Watson, observe the Hsing symbol on the wall!”
He indicated what looked like a dirty mark on the brickwork with his magnifying glass and plunged into a dark alley. A short way in he stopped and knocked on a door. A voice the other side responded with a demand in what Watson guessed was Chinese.
“I am Sherlock Holmes come to visit Madam Hsing Song!”
“Why do we need to visit her Holmes?” hissed Watson.
“She is the sister of the Hsing Shrill head of the Hsing Tong who are always well informed. Her place has not been here very long, so that she also will have the eyes of the observant outsider to assist us.”
Assist us in what wondered Watson but he held his peace.
Eventually the door opened and a beefy chinaman thrust his hand out. “One penny each!”
Holmes handed him the money and he indicated that they should follow him.
“Priss come this way honouraber Gentreman!”
He led them into a dimly lit chamber and indicated that they should sit on two of the sixteen chairs laid out facing a stage. Two other men were occupying seats and other faces could be seen peering out from a triple tier of wooden bunks lining the walls. The room was filled with fumes from the pipes the bunk occupants were smoking. On the stage a woman was doing a slow fan dance to the accompaniment of a high pitched Chinese flute. “I wish to see Madam Hsing Song!” hissed Holmes. Their guide bowed and left them. Presently a woman’s head appeared at the door and beckoned to Holmes. “Watch the show Watson whilst I consult with the Lady!”
You intend to buy a guinea’s worth of opium from her and ask such questions about the area and its underworld doings as you think desirable. Why has she moved here for instance? What does she know about organised vice in Whitechapel? You have a theory that Professor Moriarty was the brains behind the Jack the Ripper murders. You think that they were publicity stunts terrorising non-organised harlots off the streets. (Most of the murders took place two years ago in 1888.) You also believe that Moriarty was behind last year’s docker’s strike. The increase form five to six pence an hour rate, has vastly increased the wealth of the area businesses including organised vice!
On this night it is very dark with a thick London Particular pea-souper fog. Visibility is down to six inches with recognition at three. This increases to nine inches and recognition at six inches near the lit gas street lamps.
To conceal identities in the fog players will move flags until meeting.
Sherlock Holmes Activist, LEA, Mo 6”, Fa 2/3/5, Ag +2, Th +1, Me +2, Magnifying Glass Bst –3. Class VI, PI Respectable, Charm M0, F+1, Coercion +1. MC £7 – 19s – 9d
Police whistle 24”, Penknife, watch..
Dr Watson Activist, Vle, Mo 5.5”, Fa 2/3/5, Ag +1, Th +1, Me +1, revolver Bst –2.
Firing 3” 4+ Pst 0, 6” 5+ Pst 0, 11” 6+ Pst 0, 18” 7+ Pst –2, Doctors Bag 1st Aid
Class VI, PI Respectable, Charm M+1 F+2, Coercion 0. MC £7 – 19s – 9d, Watch
Eric WA, Mo 6”, Fa 1/2/2, Ag +2, Th +2, Me –2, knife Pst –3
3 pebbles 3” 2+ Bst –3, 6” 3+ Bst –3, 11” 4+ Bst –4
Class I, PI Dubious, Charm –1, Coercion –2, MC £ 0 – 0 – 1d
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