"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, November 19, 2022

The Sorceress of the Strand (1903) by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace

Readers unfamiliar with The Sorceress of the Strand (1903) by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace may prefer to read these notes only after reading the collection

The Sorceress of the Strand (1903) 

by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace is a  series of crime stories that first appeared in The Strand in 1903-1904. The stories are episodes in the careers of Dixon Druce and Eric Vandeleur.

Druce is head of Werner's Agency, "the Solvency Inquiry Agency for all British trade." It is a non-governmental business intelligence organization, "the great safeguard to British trade.... [which] prevents much fraudulent dealing." Druce is a bachelor and our narrator.

Eric Vandeleur of No. 192, Victoria Street, London is police surgeon for Westminster.

1: Madame Sara

     When we got into the street and were driving back again to Eaton Square, I turned to Edith. 

     "Many things puzzle me about your friend," I said, "but perhaps none more than this. By what possible means can a woman who owns to being the possessor of a shop obtain the entrée to some of the best houses in London? Why does Society open her doors to this woman, Miss Dallas?" 

     "I cannot quite tell you," was her reply. "I only know the fact that wherever she goes she is welcomed and treated with consideration, and when he fails to appear there is a universally expressed feeling of regret."

A "professional beautifier," Madam Sara is an ageless spider at the heart of an international criminal web. In the first adventure, she has her sights set on two million pounds sterling to be inherited by the sisters Edith and Beatrice Dallas.

As "Madame Sara" opens, Beatrice has just wed Jack Selby, a wealthy man who went to Harrow with Dixon Druce.

Edith Dallas, in thrall to Madame Sara, tells Druce before her murder that "Madame Sara is uncanny and terrible."

Madame Sara places herself in a position over Edith and Beatrice through her mesmerizing dentistry skills. She surreptitiously fills a molar in each sister's mouth with hyoscine, then stoppers the tooth with gutta-percha.

At the end of the episode, Madame Sara escapes punishment. Villains in all the Meade/Eustace collaborations do the same, until the final chapter, when the biter gets well and truly bit.

*   *   *

2: The Blood-Red Cross

Dixon Druce visits his old friend Geoffrey Rowland  at stately Rowland's Folly. Druce gets an unwelcome shock from Geoffrey's fiancée, Miss Ripley.

"Have you ever heard of that most wonderful, that great woman, Madame Sara? '

I'm sure Druce felt that everyone he met was secretly a Madame Sara patient.

Druce again brings in Vandeleur:

".... Madame has another iron in the fire, that once again she is preparing to convulse Society, and that little Miss Ripley is the victim." 

Druce and Vandeleur race to save Miss Ripley, the wedding, and an heirloom family gem. Vandeleur states his goal sharply:

[....] I want to protect Miss Ripley, and at the same time to get Madame into my power. She managed to elude us last time, but she shall not this. My idea is to inveigle her to her ruin....

But the mortal stakes in this duel are not spelled out until Vandeleur questions Madam Sara's nurse, Mrs. Curt:

     "Madame has an object— she blackmails the signora. She wants to get the signora completely into her power." 

     "Indeed! Is she succeeding?" 


     "How has she managed? Be very careful what you say, please." 

     "The mode is subtle— the young lady had a disfiguring mole or wart on her neck, just below the throat. Madame removed the mole." 

     "Quite a simple process, I doubt not," said Vandeleur, in a careless tone. 

     "Yes, it was done easily— I was present. The young lady was conducted into a chamber with a red light." 

     Vandeleur's extraordinary eyes suddenly leapt into fire. He took a chair and drew it so close to Mrs. Curt's that his face was within a foot or two of hers. 

     "Now, you will be very careful what you say," he remarked. "You know the consequence to yourself unless this narrative is absolutely reliable." 

     She began to tremble, but continued:—  

     "I was present at the operation. Not a single ray of ordinary light was allowed to penetrate. The patient was put under chloroform. The mole was removed. Afterwards Madame wrote something on her neck. The words were very small and neatly done— they formed a cross on the young lady's neck. Afterwards I heard what they were." 

     "Repeat them." 

     "I can't. You will know in the moment of victory." 

     "I choose to know now! A detective from my division at Westminster comes here early to-morrow morning— he brings hand-cuffs— and—" 

     "I will tell you,' interrupted the woman. "The words were these:—  


     'I am the daughter of Paolo Gioletti, who was executed for the murder of my mother, June 20th, 18— ' 


     "How were the words written?" 

     "With nitrate of silver." 

     "Fiend!" muttered Vandeleur. 

     He jumped up and began to pace the room. I had never seen his face so black with ungovernable rage. 

     "You know what this means?" he said at last to me. "Nitrate of silver eats into the flesh and is permanent. Once exposed to the light the case is hopeless, and the helpless child becomes her own executioner." 

*   *   *

3: The Face of the Abbot

"It was late in April of this year when my brother-in-law first declared that he saw the apparition. I shall never forget his terror. He came to me in my room, woke me, and pointed out the embrasure where he had seen it. He described it as a black figure leaning out of a window, with an appallingly horrible white face, with wide-open eyes apparently staring at nothing. I argued with him and tried to appeal to his common sense, and did everything in my power to bring him to reason, but without avail. I he terror grew worse and worse. He could think and talk of nothing else, and, to make matters worse, he collected all the old literature he could find bearing on the legend. This he would read, and repeat the ghastly information to me at meal times. I began to fear that his mind would become affected, and three weeks ago I persuaded him to come away with me for a change to Lisbon. He agreed, but the very night before we were to leave I was awakened in the small hours by hearing an awful cry, followed by another, and then the sound of my own name. I ran out into the courtyard and looked up at the battlements. There I saw, to my horror, my brother-in-law rushing along the edge, screaming as though in extreme terror, and evidently imagining that he was pursued by something. The next moment he dashed headlong down a hundred feet on to the flagstones by my side, dying instantaneously. Now comes the most horrible part. As I glanced up I saw, and I swear it with as much certainty as I am now speaking to you, a black figure leaning out over the battlement exactly at the spot from which he had fallen— a figure with a ghastly white face, which stared straight down at me. The moon was full, and gave the face a clearness that was unmistakable. It was large, round, and smooth, white with a whiteness I had never seen on human face, with eyes widely open, and a fixed stare; the face was rigid and tense; the mouth shut and drawn at the corners. Fleeting as the glance was, for it vanished almost the next moment, I shall never forget it. It is indelibly imprinted on my memory." 

Helen Sherwood, a young woman of great expectations, enlists Druce to clear away the obstacles to her wedding to a British diplomat and living happily ever after in her late father's Portuguese castle.

One of the obstacles is Madame Sara:

     "You must not scold me," she said. "There is only one thing to do, and I made up my mind this morning to do it. The day after to-morrow I am going to Lisbon. I mean to investigate the mystery for myself." 

     "You are a good, brave girl," I cried. "But listen, Helen; it is not necessary." 

     I then told her that I had unexpectedly obtained a few weeks' holiday and that I intended to devote the time to her service. 

     "Better and better," she cried. "I go with you. Nothing could have been planned more advantageously for me." 

     "What put the idea into your head?" I asked. 

     "It isn't my own," she said. "I spent a dreadful night, and this morning, soon after ten o'clock, I had an unexpected visitor. She is not a stranger to me, although I have never mentioned her name. She is known as Madame Sara, and is—" 

     "My dear Helen!" I cried. "You don't mean to tell me you know that woman? She is one of the most unscrupulous in the whole of London. You must have nothing to do with her— nothing whatever." 

     Helen opened her eyes to their widest extent. 

     "You misjudge Madame Sara," she said. "I have known her for the last few years, and she has been a most kind friend to me. She has got me more than one good post as teacher, and I have always felt a warm admiration for her. She is, beyond doubt, the most unselfish woman I ever met."

*   *   *

4: The Talk of the Town

     THERE is such a thing as being haunted by an idea or by a personality. About this time Vandeleur and I began to have nightmares with regard to Madame Sara. She visited us in our dreams, and in our waking dreams she was also our companion. We suspected her unseen influence on all occasions. We dreaded to see her visible presence in the street, in the Park, at the play—in short, wherever we went. This sort of thing was bad for both of us. It began to get on our nerves. It takes a great deal to get on the iron nerves of a man like Vandeleur; nevertheless, I began to think that they were seriously shaken when I received, on a certain afternoon in late October, the following note:— 

     "My Dear Druce,—There are fresh developments in the grand hunt. Come and dine with me to-morrow evening to meet Professor Piozzi. New problems are on foot." 

     The grand hunt could, of course, only mean one thing. What was up now? What in the name of fortune had Professor Piozzi, the greatest and youngest scientist of the day, to do with Madame Sara? But the chance of meeting him was a strong inducement to accept Vandeleur's invitation. He was our greatest experimental chemist. Six months ago his name had been on everyone's lips as the discoverer of a new artificial lighting agent which, if commercially feasible, would take the place of all other means hitherto used. 

     Professor Piozzi was not yet thirty years of age. He was an Italian by birth, but spoke English as well as though it were his native tongue. 

     At the appointed hour I found Vandeleur standing by his hearth. A table in a distant recess was laid for dinner. He greeted me with a gleam of pleasure in his eyes. 

     "What is the new problem?" I asked. "It goes without saying that it has to do with Madame Sara." 

     "I am glad you were able to come before Piozzi put in an appearance," was Vandeleur's grave answer. 

     He paused for an instant, and then he burst out with vehemence:— 

     "I owe Sara a debt of gratitude. Hunting her as a recreation is as good as hunting a man-eating tiger. I am getting at her now by watching the movements of her victim." 

     "Who is the victim?" I interrupted. 

     "No less a person than Professor Piozzi...." 

*   *   *

5: The Bloodstone

Madame Sara, sorceress of the Strand, seduces and mesmerizes men and women, husbands and wives. She picks and chooses among the upper crust; once an angle of profit and a method of exploitation are determined, ruin threatens the mates and betrothed couples.

In "The Bloodstone," Madame Sara learns of the arrival of a valuable Persian gem on British soil. Its courier will be a guest at Greylands, home of Sir John Bouverie of the Foreign Office and new husband to Dixon Druce's young ward, Violet Sale. Druce, on arriving, finds Madame Sara in the heart of this country house weekend ensemble.

[....] a large house-party was expected to arrive, the chief guest being a certain Persian, Mr. Mirza Ali Khan, one of the Shah's favourite courtiers and most trusted emissaries. This great personage had come to England to prepare for his Royal master's visit to this country, the date of which was as yet uncertain. Sir John Bouverie, by virtue of his official position at the Foreign Office, had offered to entertain him for a few days' shooting. 

     "I do not envy Ali Khan his billet," remarked Sir John to me on the evening before the arrival of our honoured guest. "The Shah is a particular monarch, and if everything is not in apple-pie order on his arrival there is certain to be big trouble for someone. In fact, if the smallest thing goes wrong Mirza Ali Khan is likely to lose his head when he returns to Persia. My guest of to-morrow has a very important commission to execute before the Shah's arrival. Amongst some valuable gems and stones which he is bringing to have cut and set for his monarch is, in especial, the bloodstone." 

     "What?" I asked. 

     "The bloodstone. The bloodstone, which has never before left Persia. It is the Shah's favourite talisman, and is supposed, among other miraculous properties, to possess the power of rendering the Royal owner invisible at will. Awful thing if he were suddenly to disappear at one of the big Court functions. But, to be serious, the stone is intensely interesting for its great age and history, having been the most treasured possession of the Persian Court for untold centuries. Though I believe it is intrinsically worth very little, its sentimental value is enormous. Were it lost a huge reward would be offered for it. It has never been set, but is to be so now for the first time, and is to be ready for the Shah to wear on his arrival. It will be a great honour to handle and examine a stone with such a history, and Violet has asked the Persian to bring it down here as a special favour, in order that we may all see it." 

     "It will be most interesting," I replied....

The solution, when unpicked by Vandeleur and Druce, demonstrates all the enormities Madame Sara does not stick at: blackmail, fraud, theft... 

*   *   *

6: The Teeth of the Wolf

"The Teeth of the Wolf" is the most outre tale in The Sorceress of the Strand.

At the start, Vandeleur lays out the problem for Druce:

"I have rather a pretty story to entertain you with. This is the state of things, as nearly as I can narrate it. Mrs. Bensasan, the owner of Bensasan's Menageries, is in some ways the talk of London. She has dared to do what hardly any other woman has done before her. She runs her shows herself, being always present at important exhibitions. Her lion-taming exploits were remarkable enough to arouse general attention in Paris last year, but now in London she is going on an altered tack. She is devoting herself to the taming of even wilder and more difficult animals to manage—I mean wolves." 

     "But what about the girl and your friend Hiliers?" 

     "I will explain. But first let me tell you about Mrs. Bensasan. I must describe her before I go any farther. She is built on a very large scale, being six feet in height. She has strong features, prominent eyes, and a ringing, harsh voice. Her mouth is remarkably large and wide. I understand that Madame Sara has supplied her with a perfect set of false teeth, so well made that they defy detection, but altogether she is disagreeable to look at, although the very essence of strength. Now, this woman is a widow and has one only child of the name of Laura, a girl about nineteen years of age, who is in all respects as unlike the mother as daughter could be, for she is slight, fair, and gentle-looking, with a particularly attractive face. Miss Laura has had the bad taste, according to Mrs. Bensasan, to fall in love with Hiliers, whereas the mother wants her for a very different bridegroom. I have known Hiliers for years, and his father is a friend of mine. He is a nice, gentlemanly fellow, with good commercial prospects. Now, although it is more than probable that Hiliers will be a rich man, Mrs. Bensasan does not wish for the match. She wants Laura to marry a horrible, misshapen little man—a dwarf of the name of Rigby. So far as I can ascertain Rigby is half Jew, half Greek, and he has evidently known Mrs. Bensasan for many years. He lives in expensive lodgings near Cavendish Square, drives a mail phaeton, and has all the externals that belong to a rich man. His face is as repulsive as his body is misshapen. The girl cannot stand him, and what the mother sees in him is the most difficult part of the problem which I have got to solve. It may be a case of blackmail. If so, I must prove it. There is not the slightest doubt that this extremely strong and disagreeable woman fears Rigby, although she professes to be a great friend of his. 

     "In addition, Madame Sara is Mrs. Bensasan's friend. She spends a great deal of her time at Cray Lodge, the pretty little place near Guildford where the Bensasans live. These two women are evidently hand in glove, and both have resolved to give the poor girl to Joseph Rigby; as things are at present Gerald Hiliers stands a poor chance of winning his bride." 

     "You say the girl is missing?" 


*   *   *

The Sorceress of the Strand is not a series of GAD puzzles. Meade/Eustace are writing crime thrillers here. Their model is Conan Doyle. Druce is socially, financially, and politically more capable than Watson, and Vandeleur fits the general Holmes outline: a smart, decisive man of action.

Meade/Eustace burden neither protagonist with a spouse, depression, or cocaine addiction. Both are untouched by jezail bullets. Druce and Vandeleur are part of a broad Edwardian meritocracy: scientists and forensic operatives serving the bourgeois state.

And serving it very well indeed.

Madame Sara herself, seductress and blackmailer, thief and mesmerist, exists within the stories to exploit the upper crust weaknesses of men and women in bourgeois society. In each story, the stakes rise for our villain and the heroic protagonists.

While none of Madam Sara's crimes in this collection lead men to suicide, I wonder if her criminal activities and mesmeric powers of off-page seduction might echo or hint at the types of crimes committed by Machen's Helen Vaughan in "The Great God Pan"? Like Vaughan, and Miss Penclosa in Conan Doyle's "The Parasite" (1894), Madame Sara will stop at nothing.


19 November 2022

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