The Adventure of the Yellow Face
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|"The Adventure of the Yellow Face"|
"He lifted the little child." 1893 illustration by Sidney Paget
|Author||Arthur Conan Doyle|
|Series||The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes|
"The Adventure of the Yellow Face", one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the third tale from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. It was first published in Strand Magazine in 1893 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget.
One of Doyle's sentimental pieces, the story is remarkable in that Holmes' deduction during the course of it proves incorrect. (Nevertheless, the truth still comes out.) According to Dr. Watson:
"...where he failed it happened too often that no one else succeeded... Now and again, however, it chanced that even when he erred the truth was still discovered."
Sherlock Holmes, suffering from boredom due to a want of cases, returns home from a walk with Dr. Watson early in spring to find he has missed a visitor, but that the caller has left his pipe behind. From it, Holmes deduces that he was disturbed of mind (because he forgot the pipe); that he valued it highly (because he had repaired, rather than replaced it when it was broken); that he was muscular, left-handed, had excellent teeth, was careless in his habits and was well-off.
None of these deductions is particularly germane to the story: they are merely Holmesian logical exercises. When the visitor, Mr. Grant Munro (whose name Holmes observed from his hatband) returns, Holmes and Watson hear the story of Munro's deception by his wife Effie. She had been previously married in America, but her husband and child had died of yellow fever, whereupon she returned to England and met and married Munro. Their marriage had been blissful—"We have not had a difference, not one, in thought, or word, or deed," says Grant Munro—until she asked for a hundred pounds and begged him not to ask why. Two months later, Effie Munro was caught conducting secret liaisons with the occupants of a cottage near the Munro house in Norbury.
Grant Munro has seen a mysterious yellow-faced person in this cottage. Overcome with jealousy, he breaks in and finds the place empty. However, the room where he saw the mysterious figure is very comfortable and well-furnished, with a portrait of his wife on the mantelpiece.
Holmes, after sending Munro home with instructions to wire for him if the cottage was reoccupied, confides in Watson his belief that the mysterious figure is Effie Munro's first husband. He postulates that the husband, having been left in America, has come to England to blackmail her.
After Munro summons Holmes and Watson, the three enter the cottage, brushing aside the entreaties of Effie Munro. They find the strange yellow-faced character; Holmes peels the face away, showing it to be a mask, and revealing a young half-black girl. Effie Munro's first husband was John Hebron, an African-American lawyer; he did die in America, but their daughter, Lucy, survived. Upon hearing of this, Effie became overcome with desire to see her child again, so she asked for the hundred pounds and used it to bring Lucy and her nurse to England, and installed them in the cottage near the Munro house. She feared, however, that Grant might stop loving her if he found out that she was the mother of a mixed race child, so all the while, she had made every endeavor to keep Lucy's existence a secret.
Both Watson and Holmes are touched by Munro's response. Watson observes:
...when [Munro's] answer came it was one of which I love to think. He lifted the little child, kissed her, and then, still carrying her, he held his other hand out to his wife and turned towards the door. "We can talk about it more comfortably at home," said he. "I am not a very good man, Effie, but I think I am a better one than you have given me credit for being."
"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."
Treatment of race
Doyle's sympathetic treatment of interracial marriage, between an Englishwoman and a black lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia, might at first appear extraordinarily liberal for the 1890s. Though the story has the widow treating her dead husband's race as a secret whose revelation might entail very negative reactions, the marriage is clearly not illegal in Britain, and her second husband's loving response is reported approvingly by Watson. This story, however, should be set alongside Doyle's unpleasantly stereotyped caricature of a thuggish black boxer, in "The Adventure of the Three Gables" (1926). The earlier story was written at the end of Reconstruction, at a time when many people still had high hopes for America's recovery and racial reconciliation after the traumas of slavery and the Civil War; the later story was written during what some historians call "the Nadir of race relations", roughly the first half of the 20th century, when segregation was intensified and interracial hostility often had free rein.