|"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax"|
"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" is one of the 56 Sherlock Holmes short stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was first published in The Strand Magazine in 1911 with illustrations by Alec Ball and is one of the eight stories in the cycle collected as His Last Bow. It is one of the few stories in which for much of the plot Dr. Watson must act alone and try his best with Holmes left in the background.
Holmes sends Dr Watson to Switzerland to investigate the disappearance of a wealthy woman named Lady Frances Carfax, as Holmes is too busy in London. Lady Frances is a lone, unwed woman denied a rich inheritance on account of her gender. She does, however, carry valuable jewels with her. It is also her habit to write to her old governess, Miss Dobney, every other week, but for the past five weeks, there has not been a word from her. She has left her hotel in Lausanne for parts unknown. Her last two bank transactions were cheques, one to pay her hotel bill, and another for £50 to her maid, Miss Marie Devine.
In Lausanne, Watson finds out that Lady Frances stayed at the Hôtel International for several weeks, but then suddenly left in a hurry. Only one witness could suggest an explanation, one involving a big, bearded man who kept hounding her. It also emerges that Lady Frances’s maid has left her employ, although it is not known why.
Watson finds out where Lady Frances went, and inquires at the Englischer Hof in Baden, Germany. She stayed there for a fortnight and met a couple named Schlessinger, a missionary from South America, and an invalid. Lady Frances left with them three weeks ago for London, and nothing has been heard of her since. Watson also finds out that the big bearded man, the “savage”, came about a week ago looking for her. Watson telegraphs Holmes about his progress, and oddly, Holmes wires back asking for a description of Dr Schlessinger’s left ear. Watson believes this to be Holmes’s attempt at humour. Holmes is actually in earnest.
Watson visits Marie Devine, the former maid, in Montpellier, France, and it turns out that her upcoming wedding was why she left Lady Frances’s employ. The £50 was a wedding present. She, too, believes that the bearded man was the reason that her former mistress left Lausanne. He was quite a rough man. During this interview, Marie sees the very man in question in the street. Watson rushes out and demands to know who he is and what he has done with Lady Frances. A fight ensues and Watson is nearly strangled. A French workman breaks the fight up with his cudgel and the bearded man withdraws. It then turns out that the workman is a disguised Holmes, who suggests that Watson accompany him back to London, and wryly observes that there is no blunder which Watson has failed to commit in this investigation.
Before leaving, however, Holmes interviews someone. It is the bearded man, Philip Green, an old suitor of Lady Frances’s. Yes, he is seeking Lady Frances, but he still wants to win her heart. As a younger man, he was not rich. Now that he has made his fortune in South Africa, he hopes she will see him differently, but he is still rather churlish and clearly Lady Frances is unwilling. Holmes recommends that he go back to London.
Once Holmes and Watson are back at 221B Baker Street, Holmes reads a telegram from Baden about Dr Schlessinger’s left ear — “jagged or torn”. This confirms Holmes’s suspicion that Dr Schlessinger is in fact Henry Peters, a vicious rascal from Australia (his earlobe was chewed away in a bar brawl). His wife’s real name is Fraser. He beguiles young women by playing to their religious beliefs, as Schlessinger did with Lady Frances. This suggested his true identity to Holmes. Holmes believes that Lady Frances is in London, and quite possibly dead, or if not, confined in some way.
The search seems hopeless. The police follow known associates, Holmes places advertisements hoping to learn something, but nothing happens. Then, a pawnshop reports that someone matching Schlessinger’s description has pawned a pendant very much like one owned by Lady Frances. He gave a false address, but this gives Holmes what he needs. He has Philip Green wait in the pawnshop, knowing that Henry Peters will want to pawn more jewellery. It takes a few days, but he is not disappointed. His wife shows up this time to pawn a matching pendant, and Green follows her, first to an undertaker’s, where he finds Peters’s wife discussing an “out of the ordinary” order, and later to an address in Brixton. He watches the house and sees some men deliver a coffin.
Holmes writes Green a note and sends him to the police to fetch a warrant. Meanwhile, Holmes and Watson go first to the undertaker’s to ask about the funeral — it is at eight o’clock the next morning — and then to Brixton where they demand to see Dr Schlessinger, or whatever he may call himself. Once inside, in the absence of a warrant, Holmes is obliged to resort to force to search Peters’s house. He finds the coffin, and deep inside it is a small, emaciated, very old, dead woman. It is certainly not Lady Frances. Peters explains that it is his wife’s old nurse. The police come and tell Holmes and Watson that they must leave. Peters gloats over Holmes’s obvious humiliation.
The day ends in apparent failure. Nothing suspicious can be found about the household, no warrant arrives, and Holmes and Watson go back to Baker Street. Holmes does not sleep that night, preferring to go over the case in his mind.
Finally, early the next morning, Holmes realises what is going on. He and Watson rush to Brixton and make sure that the coffin is not removed from the house to go for burial. They unscrew the coffin lid and find Lady Frances inside, chloroformed. The Peterses, while dishonest enough to kidnap someone to steal her jewels, were too squeamish to commit murder. Watson manages to revive her, and the Peterses are found to have fled. It was the remark heard by Green at the undertaker’s that helped Holmes deduce the truth. The woman there had been talking about an unusual coffin, and Holmes then also remembered that it was a big coffin for a very small woman, the idea being to obtain the necessary legal documents for the old woman, and then “legitimise” the burial of a coffin containing two bodies.
- The story was also adapted in 1965, part of the thirteen-episode Sherlock Holmes series starring Douglas Wilmer as Holmes and Nigel Stock as Watson.
- The Granada TV adaptation starring Jeremy Brett is not completely faithful to the original story. The action takes place entirely in the Lake District of England, where the holidaying Doctor often sees the Lady (and her stalker Philip Green) at the hotel before her disappearance; she has a brother; her jewellery is French rather than Spanish; no mention is made of the maid; Peters is not Australian and does not have a bitten ear, but is in a wheelchair; Green made his fortune in Australia rather than in South Africa; there is no police intervention at the house; the coffin is opened at the cemetery rather than at the house; Lady Frances is traumatised by her experience (though Holmes says that "There is every hope of a full recovery"); and Holmes acknowledges the case as one of his few true failures and refuses to be rewarded by Green.