The Case of the Left-Handed Lady by Nancy Springer
London, January 1889
A younger, taller, black egret of a man is arguing with an older, stouter man about their foolish fourteen year old sister. The older one blames their mother’s influence on how she has turned out rather than his desire to send her to a boarding school during turbulent times as the younger believes. The older one doesn't understand the younger’s need to rescue a girl hell bent on rebellion, especially since they’ve only met twice! The younger man, better known as Sherlock Holmes, has a plan and doesn’t need Mycroft’s assistance.
At the office of Dr. Lesley T. Ragostin PhD, Scientific Perditorian, Dr. John Watson MD presents his card. Enola Holmes, or rather Miss Ivy Meshle when in the office, knows that name. It’s her brother Sherlock’s closest acquaintance. What is he doing here? Jodhpur, the page-boy with the sadly misspelled name, and yes, who was named after the riding breeches, doesn’t know, obviously. Well, Miss Meshle can’t leave the good doctor waiting. With reluctance, Dr. Watson informs Miss Meshle that he is here on behalf of his friend, Sherlock, who is unaware of his visit. Dr. Watson has seen a disturbing change in his friend of late, he seems distraught. After speaking to Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, he found out that the Holmes brothers’ mother and sister have gone missing and fear their sister is alone in London disguised as a boy. Dr. Watson wants to engage Dr. Ragostin’s services to help locate her.
Well, it seems Enola’s first case is to find herself. It’s a shame she can’t take it, but she doesn’t want to be found and forced into the genteel life of a young lady her brothers seem insistent upon. Miss Meshle asks why Mr. Holmes does not make the inquiry himself and Dr. Watson informs her that Sherlock doesn’t normally take such cases, finding them generally mundane. Why, just the other day, Sir Eustace Alistair and Lady Alistair’s daughter was reported missing, yet Sherlock was unmoved to offer assistance. This is interesting, very interesting. Now this is a case Enola can work on!
With this upsetting news about Sherlock, Enola wishes she could consult with her mum, however they only communicate via encrypted flower messages posted in the paper. That night, having stripped the guise of Ivy Meshle, Enola pens a message to her mother in a very clever way to ask her to meet her at London Bridge. Hopefully the changes in the flower code would help stress the importance of the message. Once done, Enola dresses for her nighttime life with weapons, items to give to the poor, and a black veil.
The night is wet and freezing as Enola wanders the streets listening for crying. She finds someone huddled, she could be a widow or a spinster, but it doesn’t matter for she needs help. Enola gives the woman stockings, a blanket, a portable fire, a meat pie, and some coins. All the while the woman tells her, “thank you, sister.” There are too many like this. As Enola walks on, she hears the sounds of a public house, which is odd. It distracts her long enough for someone to wrap something around her neck and tighten. Enola is sure she will die.
When Enola comes to, it is to blurry figures in her vision questioning why someone would attack a nun. Though still feeling the effects of the attack, Enola hurries back to her lodging house and starts to claw at her clothing, desperately needing air. Around her neck she finds the garrote fashioned from some white cord knotted to a stick of wood. The only reason she is alive is thanks to the high collar stiffened with whale bone and the drunkards happening by. Examining the device, Enola notes the cord is from the lacing of a lady’s stays and the wood is finely crafted cane. She flings the garrote into the fire.
Enola takes to her bed, her throat is bruised and sore but it is more her pride that has been prickled and the evil of the incident that bothers her. The parts used to make the garrote symbolize all that she ran away from. So many questions go through Enola’s mind over the three days she stays in her lodging house. Sitting in the office, Enola berates herself for feeling lonely. She needs to do something and remembers Sir Alistair’s missing daughter, but first, tea.
Heading down to the warm kitchen, Enola listens as the cook regales her and the housekeeper about the mesmerist she saw the night before. Stuff and nonsense! The conversation moves on to gossip, and since household staff see and hear everything, they are veritable fountains of knowledge which Enola will tap about Sir Alistair’s missing daughter. Sir Alistair is only a baronet and has been disgraced. His daughter, Lady Cecily, had an affair. A ladder was found outside her bedroom window. Shameful! Cecily had been very improperly corresponding with a shop keeper's boy with ideas above his station. However, Cecily wasn’t found with him. Enola retires to Dr. Ragostin’s room where she has her disguises hidden in a secret room behind the bookcase. Eventually, Enola emerges as a gentlewoman in a gray dowdy dress with her hair up and a knife secreted about her person.
As Mrs. Ragostin, Enola makes a quiet exit from the office, hails a cab and, sketching on the way, alights on a fashionable street and the house of Sir Alistair. She plays the part of the upper class lady and is admitted inside to at least warm herself by the fire if not to see Lady Theodora. Thankfully, the butler comes back and escorts her to Lady Theodora’s boudoir. Addressing the delicate topic of Lady Cecily’s disappearance, Lady Theodora seems grateful to Dr. Ragostin for forcing their acquaintance and the opportunity to use his services; however Mrs. Ragostin offers to look over Lady Cecily’s rooms, as young ladies of a similar age, something may stand out to her.
After tea, Enola looks over Lady Cecily’s rooms. She notes Lady Cecily either neglected typical lady-like pursuits or was dreadful at them. Interrogating the maid as she examines the chamber, Enola finds out that Lady Cecily disappeared in her night dress and her window was already ajar an inch which was typical as it was believed that "ventilation strengthened the moral resolve of one's digestion and so forth against disease, and guarded one's personage against laxness." She also learns that all correspondence was given to the police already, and thank you very much, they were not received through the post, but likely a servant helped deliver them.
Interestingly, Enola finds Lady Cecily’s journals, written backwards and requiring a mirror to read. Enola notes the journals hardly contain the sentiments one would write if one was planning an elopement with a secret lover. Another interesting find are the large quantities of used charcoal sticks, but no hint of black in any of the art. The maid claims to know nothing, but that doesn’t stop Enola finding Cecily's hidden artworks. They depict the harsh reality of people from the poorest streets of London.
Enola is sure Lady Cecily did not run off for love, but something else that is likely to do with her charcoal drawings. After once again transforming into Ivy Meshle, Enola returns back to her lodgings to read Lady Cecily’s journals which display her indignation at the treatment and lack of aid to the poor. In the office, Enola starts sketching Lady Cecily over and over again until Jodhpur interrupts with tea. He takes a look at the sketches and declares that he knows the lady Enola is drawing. Really? Unfortunately, Jodhpur isn’t able to give much information, just something about her having a basket with papers. Well, that was a useless and frustrating conversation. Enola decides to go shopping at Ebenezer Finch and Son Emporium, not the usual shopping establishment, more an ocular extravaganza. Enola isn’t interested in the merchandise, rather the ‘and Son,' the shopkeeper who had been corresponding with Lady Cecily.
Enola is able to find Alexander Finch quickly, his father Ebenezer berating him was a good signpost. Catching his attention, Enola is able to speak with him under the ruse of purchasing shoes. Enola notes that under Alexander’s bland exterior, he has intelligence and less definable qualities, then his expression changes and he tells Enola he believes they have met before though she hasn’t introduced herself with any of her names. Alexander reveals very liberal thoughts on class and societal norms that he shared with Lady Cecily. Their meeting was pure happenstance when he stopped to help her with a flat bicycle tire, but soon, he would take Lady Cecily to see the proletariat which she would sketch. It’s of Alexander’s belief that Lady Cecily strolled out the front door and put the ladder at her bedroom window herself.
On her way to her lodgings, Enola picks up a copy of Marx’s book, Das Kapital which she learned Alexander and Lady Cecily so revered. After reading some that evening, Enola can’t figure out for the life of her how it converted Lady Cecily and drove her to run away. As Enola ponders this over tea the next morning, being left with more questions than answers, she spots a series of numbers in the paper that look to be a response from her mother. Wonderful! Devastating! Enola and her mother have a complicated relationship, meaning she both wants to see her and desperately doesn’t. As Enola looks at the message, doubt creeps in. Her mother requests to meet at the British Museum? No, that can't be right. There were no mentions of flowers and she would never choose The British Museum as a meeting point, denouncing it as an insult to female scholars. This can only mean one thing, the message was sent by Sherlock.
Deciding what she must do, Enola visits Dr. Watson that afternoon as Miss Meshle. Enola asks Dr. Watson if Sherlock looks for cyphers in the newspaper, which of course he does, but he also mentions a ladies little book of cyphers describing the language of flowers on his desk. Oh no. Sherlock must have gotten it from Inspector Lestrade after it was stolen from her by a cutthroat. He’s been spying on her communications with their mother, and this meeting is a trap!
When Enola leaves Dr. Watson’s office, she takes a cab to Baker Street removing as much of Ivy Meshle as she can. Lingering in the cold outside her brother’s lodging, Enola speaks to a street vender, buys the girl's entire stock at a marked up price and trades coats with her. In a new disguise, Enola strolls up and down Baker Street until Sherlock emerges, disguised as a common laborer. Enola hopes she is right and their mum isn’t walking into Sherlock’s trap as she knocks on the door of 221b Baker Street.
The housekeeper, Mrs. Hudson, opens the door. With some drama, Enola is admitted into the house and permitted to wait for Mr. Holmes. Mrs. Hudson leaves Enola in Sherlock’s rooms to get tea. Noting the mess of her brother’s lodgings, Enola gets to work searching until she finds the book of cyphers. Just in time too as Mrs. Hudson returns with tea and walnut cake, then she takes a seat to join Enola. Not good. Thinking quickly, Enola asks to use the water closet, sending Mrs. Hudson off to check the state of the facilities which gives Enola the opportunity to dart out the front door and into a cab to the British Museum.
From the cab, Enola soon spots Sherlock waiting outside the museum and no sign of their mum, thank goodness. She directs the driver to her own lodgings where she looks over the cypher book, spotting Sherlock’s lightly written notes to the clues she had already solved and a few she did not. Instead of removing them, Enola takes her time to look over her brother's handwriting, thinking how handwriting can tell a lot about a person. These musings wander to Lady Cecily’s journals, how dramatically different handwriting could be, how Lady Cecily had her inkwell placed on the left side of her desk. Then suddenly Enola realizes something.
The following morning, Enola is rudely awakened by her landlady calling her to breakfast. In a sullen mood, Miss Meshle makes her way to the office to look through the newspapers for replies from her mum, unfortunately to no avail. Turning her attention to Lady Cecily’s disappearance, Enola spends hours making sketch after sketch of Lady Cecily in different hats, hairstyles and garments. Eventually calling for Jodhpur to add more coal to the fire, Enola lets the lad look over the various sketches she’s laid across her desk. His eyes catch on one and Jodhpur admits he saw her within the last week wearing a rag around her head. It seems Lady Cecily has gone from observing the poor to being one of them.
Dressed again as Mrs. Ragostin, Enola examines the Alistair residence. Lady Cecily’s bedroom was a considerable height upward needing a very conspicuous ladder, like the one Enola finds in the carriage house which is far too big and far too heavy for one young lady to extract, carry and lean against the house. Visiting Lady Theodora, Enola notes she is dressed as if in mourning for her daughter already. Mrs. Ragostin confides she was sent by her “husband” to ask a question of some delicacy regarding the case: was Lady Cecily left-handed? After some outrage as such disparaging accusations, Lady Theodora admits the nanny and governess may have reported some early incidents in her daughter's youth, but she is most assuredly NOT left-handed. Enola is becoming convinced that there are two Lady Cecilys, one who paints pastel pictures with her right hand, and sketches the stark reality of the gutter in charcoal with her left.
Sitting down that night, Enola decides to use logic to reason through the why and how of Lady Cecily’s disappearance. Unfortunately logic has turned to chaos and nothing makes sense. Donning her disguise of the Sister, Enola goes into the night to do what she can for the poor. The terror of her last outing plays on her mind as she heads to the workhouse laden with supplies. Surprisingly Enola finds there is a considerable fire already burning surrounded by a group of women and a craggy looking older gentleman with a long gray beard warming themselves. After one of the women finishes a story, Enola starts giving out the food she brought and the old man with a cockney accent mentions he is looking for his fourteen-year old granddaughter Ivy, lost to the streets, last seen wearing a coat not unlike the one the woman is wearing. Thrusting a meat pie and cheese at him, Enola gazes at her brother Sherlock, thankful that her veil hides her identity.
The next day, Enola, as Ivy Meshle, heads to the office safe in the knowledge that Sherlock does not know where she is. Scanning the papers, there is still no message from her mother. Enola turns to her sketches and lets her mind wander. She draws various people but it’s the face of Ebenezer Finch and the scowl she gave him that makes her pause. The other day, Mr. Finch all but accused his son of being an anarchist, not something Enola was overly familiar with. Dressing as gentry, Enola heads back to Finch’s Emporium. Upon her arrival, she asks the first clerk she sees to fetch Master Alexander Finch. Waiting for him, Enola wonders why the clerk seemed so nervous at her request, then her mind wanders to her previous visit to the Emporium and Master Finch taking her all the way to the shoe department and his aptitude at pulling the laces tight when suddenly Enola becomes faint. Master Finch’s face was familiar as she recalls the man who tried to garrote her, who had seen her face under her veil. Feigning a faint, the clerks take her to their break room and she listens to their conversation about dock workers and strikes, but when Mr. Finch interrupts them to see why they're not working, Enola takes her leave.
That night, dressed in her nun garb, Enola returns to Finch’s Emporium, this time to the rear to survey the architecture and work out how Alexander Finch may have descended from the clerks' quarters on the top floor. Once established, Enola settles in to wait and her patience pays off. Finch, dressed as a day laborer, heads into North West London, Enola following. Eventually Finch leads her to a doss-house, where the poorest of the poor stay, but rather than going inside, he slips down an alleyway and returns a few minutes later in disguise before knocking on the doss-house door. If Enola hadn’t sketched her likeness countless times, she wouldn’t have recognized the gaunt and ragged Lady Cecily. Finch does some strange hand movements which seem to place her under a spell and he tells her “work first, food afterward” before turning and heading toward St. Paddington station, Lady Cecily behind and Enola following them.
Outside a public house, Finch stops at a group of rough-looking men with Lady Cecily remaining behind at a short distance. Finch then stands on a crate and begins an anarchist speech, the likes of which Mr. Finch complained loudly about. After, he approaches Lady Cecily and signals for her to start giving out pamphlets. Enola approaches Lady Cecily and whispers her name, but she does not respond, not even a twitch. Enola realizes she must be mesmerized! Finch has placed Lady Cecily in a trance and is controlling her. But what should she do?
Meek and mild though Lady Cecily may appear, if Enola tried to do anything it could result in disaster. However, Enola notices that the mesmerized Lady Cecily is using her right hand, so if she could make contact with her left hand, maybe the forthright Left-Handed Lady would break the mesmeric hold. Instinct takes over Enola and, using one of the pamphlets, she begins to sketch Lady Cecily then switches to her left hand and starts mirror writing when Lady Cecily snatches at her hand demanding to know who she is. Enola lifts her veil and offers to take Lady Cecily to clean up and get some food. Together they take a few steps before Lady Cecily stops and tells Enola she can’t walk away from the cause and Cameron Shaw, indicating the disguised Alexander Finch.
Enola manages to get Lady Cecily away and asks about Cameron Shaw as they wander the unfamiliar streets. Lady Cecily had dreamt about him, standing over her in her bed and telling her she had been chosen for his cause. When she woke, there were clothes laid out for her and a ladder to climb down placed at her window and Cameron Shaw was at the bottom. Before that night, she had never met him. Enola recognizes the truth that Alexander Finch as Cameron Shaw had tricked and mesmerized Lady Cecily. Suddenly Lady Cecily declares she must be getting back, Enola tells her she has a home with her family but Lady Cecily doesn’t want to go back to the place she is so stifled. Enola tells her there are other possibilities, thinking that she may have found a kindred spirit if not a potential sister with Lady Cecily. Suddenly, "Cameron Shaw" intervenes, shouting for Cecily.
Lady Cecily walks away and toward "Cameron Shaw" who bends down and berates her. Enola looks for an opportunity and when she sees it, dashes out, grabbing the fake beard and wig revealing Alexander Finch. Lady Cecily is outraged and the spell he has over her is broken. Finch grows angrier and refuses to let Lady Cecily walk away from him. He reaches for a garrote and Enola makes another dash at him but he punches her, then Finch brings his hands back and wraps the garrote around Lady Cecily’s neck. Enola sees red and raises her dagger, stabbing his arm and keeps stabbing even after Finch has fled. Turning to Lady Cecily, she peels the embedded garrote from her neck, gathers her up and runs toward Dr. Watson’s office close by. Inside is Dr. Watson with his dinner companion, Sherlock Holmes.
Dr. Watson grabs Lady Cecily and begins administering to her, Sherlock watching on and pointing out that this is no beggar girl and that clearly she is a gently bred lady in disguise. Sherlock turns to Enola, whose veil is hiding her face, demanding answers. When Enola speaks, Sherlock recognizes his sister and tries to reason with her, but unfortunately for Sherlock, his reasoning is flawed as he does not know his sister well and that she wants her freedom rather than the "usual" wants of a lady. Enola tells her brother she is quite well and he does not need to worry about her. Then, using the arrival of the constabulary as a distraction, Enola flees. She goes to the one place Sherlock would never look and which has the added bonus of readily available disguises, 221b Baker Street.
Hours later, Sherlock Holmes returns to 221b Baker Street and finds evidence of his sister spending the night and proof that she has once again outwitted him. Ha! Meanwhile, Enola sends a coded message to her mother advising ‘all is well’ though the office of Dr. Ragostin, Scientific Perditorian, is closed until further notice. In the agony columns of several papers, the message "To E.H.: Please be reasonable. Amnesty promised on our family honor; no questions asked. Please contact. S.H. & M.H.” Enola’s reply is simply "Rot." In the Pall Mall personal column, however, Enola receives a response from her mother: "Fidelity not a clinging vine I knew you would stand tall." In other words, her mother knew she would do quite well on her own. Though not all is truly well for Enola, it will be, someday, as she will attend to it.