Leaving home involves a kind of
second birth, in which we give
birth to ourselves.
-Robert Neely Bellah
Their return to Calcutta had been delayed for some time to be certain that both Ananda and William were strong enough for the journey. As the weeks went by, Mycroft spent more and more time with his brother, hoping that perhaps he could imprint some memories onto the baby’s brain, no matter how long it would be before they saw one another again. If they ever did.
On fine mornings, the ayah would carry the wicker basket with William tucked up inside out to the garden. Mycroft would sit on the ground next to him, sometimes reading aloud from whatever book he happened to be in the middle of. He thought that his brother was fond of science, especially chemistry. On other days, he would just talk about whatever was on his mind. Mycroft realised that none of what he said probably made any sense at all to the infant, but that really didn’t matter. And there were times when it seemed as if William was actually listening. Occasionally, he would frown, apparently displeased by Mycroft’s opinions on the issue of workers’ rights or universal suffrage. Other times, he would smile. Mycroft liked it when the infant’s lips turned up in delight.
When they were alone, he would secretly call his brother Sherlock, rather than William, which seemed a far too ordinary name for such a fascinating creature.
It was embarrassing to admit, even to himself, but Mycroft realised that he was entirely smitten with his little brother. There were times when he would muse about all of the things they could do when Sherlock was a little older, all the things he could teach him. But then he would remember that in a few short months he would be on a ship, steaming towards a world he had never known and in which he would be very much alone.
So the days passed and each week Mycroft read more and talked more and tried to believe that it could make a difference.
Apparently the fact that he had not the slightest interest in attending a party to mark his imminent departure from Calcutta, from India, from his birds and his little brother mattered not at all. Consequently, Mycroft found himself trapped in the parlour, wearing his best suit and pretending to eat the biscuit someone had pushed into his hand. Most of the people in the room were only vaguely familiar to him and so, quite reasonably, none of them seemed very interested in actually conversing with him. Which suited him very well, as it happened.
There were several young people in attendance; he might have seen them each half-a-dozen times in his life at one or another function in the capital. The fact that he could not find anything in common with them was a forceful realisation that he lacked any real ability to socialise with others. It was also a reminder that before long he would be at a school surrounded by strangers.
Finally, two of the guests made their way across the room to where he stood. One of them was a girl with close-set eyes and thin lips; she was accompanied by a boy who clearly took a great deal of pride in his flaxen hair, judging by how often he tossed his head to show it off. Mycroft vaguely remembered their names. Franklin Something and Emma Something.
“You lucky dog,” the boy said when they were standing next to him. “I shan’t be going to Winchester until next year.”
“Are you looking forward to it?” Mycroft asked him, genuinely curious.
“Of course I am,” Franklin replied. “Aren’t you weary of living surrounded by---“ He gestured towards Aadi, who was serving sherry to several chattering women nearby. “I will be delighted to be amongst my own kind.”
Emma slapped his arm. “Shush, don’t be rude.”
He just sneered and tossed his head yet again.
There were several things that Mycroft thought about saying, but he said none of them. Instead, he gazed around the room, his entire being rendered languid with boredom. “Actually, I will be at Eton,” he murmured at last.
“At least you two get to go off and have adventures. I asked my father to send me home for school, but he decided that Miss Palmer’s Academy for Young Englishwomen here will do for me,” Emma said, sounding disgruntled.
“What would you do with a proper education anyway?” Franklin said.
She giggled. “Oh, I’m not bothered about that, of course. I would just love to be in London. For the fashion and the society balls.”
For what was possibly the first time in his life, Mycroft was happy to see his father gesturing for him from across the room. “Excuse me,” he said, wondering if Franklin were emblematic of the boys he would be meeting at school. It seemed a grim prospect.
Father was standing with an elderly couple, both strangers to Mycroft. The man wore a clerical collar, which was never reassuring. “Mycroft, this is the Reverend Jeffries and his wife. They will be your chaperones when you sail for England. Reverend, my son, Mycroft.”
Politely, Mycroft shook the old man’s hand and inclined his head to the wife, saying all the proper words, whilst at the same time noticing that the reverend’s gaze was vague and his face slack. Mrs Jefferies looked to be a shrew, with lips that seemed permanently pursed in disapproval. The thought of spending weeks in their company was dismal, but Mycroft took some relief in the fact that these days the journey would only take weeks rather than months, as it had when his parents came over..
He was only vaguely listening as the reverend and his wife droned on with details of their plans for the trip and managing not to rudely disagree when they assumed that he would be delighted to join them for their daily bible study. Fortunately, before his restraint was stretched too far, he looked across the room and saw a very familiar face. Politely, he excused himself again and made his way through the crowd of guests until he reached the over-stuffed chair tucked in the corner. “Hello, Nanny,” he said, a bit surprised at how happy he was to see the tiny elderly woman.
She smiled at him gently. “Hello, Mycroft. Goodness, haven’t you turned into a real young man.”
How was one meant to respond to that? Not knowing, he ignored the remark.
Nanny patted the arm of the chair and he sat down there.
“How are you doing? Is your new residence acceptable?” he asked, realising with some shame that he had never visited her there.
“I am contented,” she replied. “The food is plentiful and there is always someone ready for a game of Whist.”
“That’s good.” Mycroft knew that his mother had left money in her will to provide for Nanny. “I was surprised to see you here,” he admitted.
Nanny chuckled and leaned a bit closer to him. “I think the invitation was issued as an obligation and with no real expectation that I would accept.”
Mycroft grinned fleetingly.
Then Nanny straightened her shoulders. “I owed it to your dear mother to see you off, Mycroft. She never wanted you to be sent away, you know.”
He hadn’t known that, actually, but it was not relevant now, so he only shrugged.
“I understand that you have a new brother,” Nanny said then.
Mycroft could not help brightening at that. “Yes, I do. Would you like to meet him?”
“If you would like me to.”
He helped her up from the chair and continued to hold her arm as they made a slow journey though the house to the nursery. The ayah was folding linens, but when they walked in, she smiled a bit and excused herself from the room. The rattan cot stood in the corner, its billowing China silk white curtains fluttering in the warm breeze coming in through the window. Mycroft had expected that Sherlock might be sleeping, but instead the little boy was sitting up, chewing on a silver teething ring, apparently deep in thought.
He watched their approach thoughtfully.
Nanny clasped her hands together in clear delight. “Oh, so this is William. What a delightful little fellow.”
Mycroft put a hand into the cot and ruffled the dark curls. “I prefer to call him Sherlock,” he said softly. “Suits him better than William, I think.”
Nanny eyed him in a surprisingly sharp way. “You will miss him when you go off to England, won’t you?”
He nodded and cleared his throat. “He likes me, I think. But I expect that he will forget me before too long.” He glanced at Nanny. “Won’t he?”
She gave his cheek a pat just as she used to do. “The love will always be there, Mycroft.”
He was not so sure of that. England was very far away and Sherlock was very young. But in that moment, he almost let himself believe what Nanny was saying. He wanted to so very much.
Mycroft left his hand where it was, weaving his fingers through the softs hair as he listened to Nanny tell saccharine tales of his own babyhood, which seemed a very long time ago.
The days remaining until his departure seemed to pass more quickly than time normally did, although rationally Mycroft knew that such was not the case. But there were fittings to be had for his tail coats, striped black trousers and black waistcoats. In addition, there were other necessary purchases to be made and the selecting of items that would go into the two large trunks being packed. Add in the deciding of which books he wanted to take with him and Mycroft was kept very busy indeed. He missed his lazy afternoons with Sherlock.
Almost at the end of the preparations, he carefully wrapped and packed two other items in the case that would stay with him though-out the voyage: the daguerreotype of his mother as a young woman and the silver urn that contained her ashes. The responsibility of carrying the ashes to England was not one he resented. Then, finally, he packed his journals and the binoculars.
Just as he finished, there was a soft tap at his door. “Come in,” he said.
The door opened and Ananda stepped in, a small brown paper wrapped parcel in her hand. “I have a gift for you,” she said.
Mycroft pushed himself up from the floor and she handed him the parcel. “Thank you,” he said, before carefully unwrapping it. Inside was a small watercolour painting of Sherlock sitting in the garden and smiling.
Ananda gave him a gentle pat on his arm. “So he can be with you always. And be assured that William will have the tintype for which you sat last week to look upon.”
Mycroft bit his lower lip almost hard enough to make it bleed. When he finally spoke, it was in a whisper, as if telling her a secret of his heart. “I call him Sherlock,” he said. “I think it suits him.”
She smiled. “You might be right.”
After another moment, she turned and left the room.
When he was alone again, Mycroft carefully rewrapped the watercolour and tucked it into case with the portrait of his mother and the urn.
Too soon the day arrived.
Father had delayed going to the office so that he could accompany Mycroft to the ship. Surprisingly, he had acquiesced to Ananda coming along as well. On her lap Sherlock, in a grey-and-white-checked dress, kept up a lively babel on everything he was seeing.
Mycroft kept soothing the front of his waistcoat, trying to look as if he were not attempting to wipe the dampness from his palms. Sherlock reached out towards him and Mycroft let the baby grab his finger.
Father finished the letter that he had been reading, folded it carefully and placed it back into his pocket. “I have done all I can to prepare you for this, son,” he said then. “And I feel very confident that you will not disappoint me in my expectations.”
Mycroft was watching Sherlock gnaw on his finger.
Ananda patted her husband’s arm. “I am certain that Mycroft will always do his best, my dear.”
Father did not argue with that. “I do believe that the rigorous structure will profit you.”
“Yes, sir,” Mycroft said softly.
After that exchange, the inside of the carriage was silent, save for Sherlock’s babbling.
As they drew closer to the docks, Father spoke again. “This time next year, Calcutta will be an official port city,” he said. “By the time you return, things will be very different and you will be in a position the make the best of that progress.”
Mycroft realised then that he had given very little though to the idea of returning to India. How many years from now would that be? Not until he was through Eton and Cambridge, he was sure of that. Years. What would he be like at that point? What would Sherlock have grown into? In fact, it occurred to him that they might actually pass one another, two ships heading in opposite directions, as Mycroft made his way back to Calcutta and Sherlock set off on his own journey to Eton.
The baby grinned at him
In the end, it all went very quickly.
Ananda and Sherlock stayed in the carriage as Father ensured that Mycroft’s trunks were put aboard. Then he led the way up the gangplank, being greeted by the bearded captain before taking Mycroft to his tiny cabin. Which, as it happened, was right next to the one occupied by Reverend Jeffries and his wife. That worthy pair was just leaving their cabin to go back on deck for the departure. They reminded Mycroft about the bible studies and then departed.
Mycroft saw that his small trunk holding those things he would need on the voyage, as well as his most precious objects, was already sitting in the corner. Father made a cursory inspection of the room while standing in the doorway.
“I might go back on deck as well,” Mycroft suggested tentatively. It occurred at that moment, in a way that it had not really done before, that in only a few moments, he would be out from under the complete control of this man. Oh, there was no doubt that, as closely as one could manage from the other side of the world, he would still be the one in charge. Regular reports would be dispatched by the Headmaster on his progress.
But, still, day to day, some decisions would be made by Mycroft himself.
“Yes,” Father said. “Despite my suggestion that she remain in the carriage, I suspect that your stepmother is standing on the dock now and would no doubt like to see you wave.” At that moment, a bell sounded to indicate that departure was imminent. Father took a small leather purse from his pocket and handed it to Mycroft. “Do not be frivolous with these funds,” he admonished. “They must last until the end of Summer Half. Also in there are the particulars of my legal man in London, in the eventuality that there is some problem. Not that I believe there will be.” The final words sounded less like a statement of confidence in his son’s abilities and more of an order.
Mycroft tucked the purse into his pocket carefully.
It seemed that every passenger on board wanted to witness their departure from Calcutta. Mycroft spotted the Jefferies and moved to stand at a distance from them. Father held out a hand and Mycroft responded in kind. It was a brusque farewell, with no more words spoken and then Father joined a few others moving down the gangplank.
Mycroft leant on the railing and saw that Ananda, Sherlock in her arms, had indeed left the carriage and was standing with other spectators seeing off their loved ones. Or those they felt obligated to see off. A moment later, Father appeared beside them, pointing out where Mycroft was standing.
Ananda seemed to be trying to get Sherlock to wave, but he was clearly more interested in the large dog that was standing nearby. Mycroft removed the crisp white handkerchief from his pocket and, feeling rather foolish, waved it about a bit. Ananda returned the gesture with a pink handkerchief, whilst Father merely lifted one hand in a dignified manner befitting a man whom everyone acknowledged was rising to an ever higher position of power within Her Majesty’s government.
Finally, at the very last moment, Sherlock appeared to look directly at the ship, even at Mycroft, although that seemed very unlikely. The baby seemed to give what might be called a wave by a fond brother. Mycroft waved back with a little more enthusiasm.
The engine awoke all at once, like an ancient behemoth come back to life. Water at the stern was thrown into a whirlpool of boiling surges and then the ship began to creep slowly away from the jetty. The departure gun was fired and the many handkerchiefs and hats were waved even more enthusiastically from both land and water.
Mycroft lifted his hand once more to Sherlock, before Father began to shepherd Ananda and the baby back towards the carriage. It struck Mycroft that life had already returned to normal for them.
As the ship continued its slow progression, the passengers started to turn away and Mycroft thought that most of them were glad to see the end of the farewells. Now they could begin to think of themselves and whatever new life awaited after the travails of the voyage. On board, the crowd began to disperse, heading for various locations. Some went no further than one of the wooden chairs arrayed along the promenade deck to sit and watch the city disappear. Others were retreating to their quarters.
Mycroft was actually the last to leave the railing, wondering again as he watched Calcutta begin to slip away when or if he would ever return. When or if he would ever see his family again. Wondering what awaited him at Eton.
Finally, he left the deck and returned to his cabin, deciding to write a letter to Sherlock, knowing that it could be sent on when the ship made its first stop to refill the fresh water and food and to take on cargo.
Mycroft spent the first few days of the voyage making a study of the new society in which he had found himself. He carefully wrote his observations in the ever-present journal, just as he had done when watching the birds. There were a surprising number of similarities.
As well, much like life in Calcutta or Simla, the shipboard community was clearly demarcated, at least when considering the crew. There, he could clearly see the strict divisions. The officers, of course, were all British. Some of the ordinary seamen were European; he had distinguished four different languages thus far. The most tedious and onerous jobs on the ship were performed by lascars, mainly Indians. Although the various nationalities seemed to work together in harmony, on those few occasions when Mycroft saw them pausing for a smoke or going to meals, there was no mingling between the groups.
Amongst the nearly two hundred passengers on-board there seemed to be more flexible social boundaries than might be found on land. An aging doyen of the colonial government might be tucked up in a deck chair and chatting amiably with a man who was clearly in trade, while his wife played whist with the widow of a Scottish vicar.
For the most part, Mycroft kept to his own company. Luck and more than a little strategic planning made it possible to mostly avoid the Reverend Jeffries and his good wife, although he compromised by joining them for breakfast every morning. He was still expected for bible study each afternoon and he had still managed to evade it completely.
He had, oddly enough, made the acquaintance of two young people about his own age. Roger was was on his way to Charterhouse School, travelling with his older brother and his new bride. Circumstances gave Roger a great deal of time on his own. Mycroft realised that the other boy was intelligent enough, but his interests seemed to centre solely on two subjects: horses and philately, either of which he was happy to talk about for hours. Mycroft struggled a bit to get a word in on the much more interesting subjects of birding or fencing.
He had also met Clarice, the daughter of a British officer. Her family was returning to England as her father was taking up a position at the War Office. She had a pleasant nature, a bit too eager to please, with a tendency towards simpering that grew annoying after a time.
The three of them met up most afternoons in a quiet corner of the Promenade Deck, where they would eat biscuits Clarice provided from her apparently endless supply and talk in lazy, aimless circles while mocking the other passengers.
Mycroft wondered if this was what it was like to have friends.
He was not certain how he felt about that.
The storm had been brewing all day and it was the only real topic of conversation at breakfast. The dark clouds on the horizon and the increased wind set many nerves on edge, especially those of the ladies onboard. Tension was such that Captain Hopkins even made an appearance in the lounge to assure everyone that all would be well. He advised that when the storm hit it would be best if everyone avoided walking on deck as much as possible and kept to their cabins or gathered in the lounge.
Mycroft was not frightened of a storm, although he hoped that it would not bring on a bout of mal de mere, which he had so far escaped. Reverend Jeffries tapped on his cabin door to say that if he were uneasy they would welcome him to join them in prayer for salvation from the storm. Mycroft merely nodded and thanked him, already knowing that no matter how bad things became, he would never seek refuge with them. The thought of going into whatever lay beyond death in their company had no appeal at all.
The storm had still not arrived by luncheon, so Mycroft went to eat and then to find Clarice and Roger waiting in their usual spot, sitting down on the deck in an attempt to evade the growing wind. Roger had filched a couple of Navy Cuts from his brother and he offered one to Mycroft. Mostly out of curiosity, Mycroft took it and placed it awkwardly between his lips as he waited for the other boy to strike the Bryant and May match. His first inhalation left him coughing and gasping.
Roger laughed and blew a ring of smoke that floated towards Clarice, who waved it off irritably. “My mother says that cigarette smoking is a filthy, low-class habit,” she said leaning closer to Mycroft.
Roger cast her a scathing glance. “I expect that your mother would also think that kissing boys behind the lifeboat is filthy and low-class.”
Clarice blushed and ducked her head.
Mycroft, meanwhile, had almost managed to inhale a couple of times without choking. He watched the interplay between his two companions. Although he had absolutely no experience in such things, Mr Hall had instructed him in the ways a gentleman should always conduct himself. Now, he looked disapprovingly at Roger. “A gentleman should not speak like that to a lady, you know,” he said.
Roger laughed. “You are so very priggish, aren’t you, Holmes?”
Mycroft was now managing to inhale and exhale properly. “I just know the proper way to behave.”
“Nope, just a prig,” Roger said with a sneer.
Things might have become unpleasant, but just then Clarice gave a squeal, pointing at the sky. “Those clouds look horrid.”
Both boys raised their heads to look.
Indeed, the clouds above them were even more intimidating than they had been earlier. They were a black and grey tumult, roiling like a pot on the boil. The wind had increased in its intensity and they could see a few gulls being tumbled about like scraps of paper above the unforgiving waves.
Roger played at nonchalance, making out that he was only irritated by being unable to light another match. “Might as well go below,” he said quickly. “I have no desire to be caught in the rain.”
Clarice seemed to be on the brink of tears.
Mycroft sighed and took her arm. “I will accompany you back to your parents,” he said, hoping that Mr Hall would have been pleased to see him acting as a gentleman.
She clutched tightly on to him as they crossed the deck, heading for the stairs. The few other passengers still out and about were also ready to take shelter. The crew were hurried about in an urgent, but practised style. The ship heaved and tossed in a way that made walking difficult, but finally they were standing in front of the door of the cabin Clarice was sharing with her parents.
She smiled a bit…well, coyly was the only word that came to mind and edged closer. Closer than was appropriate, in truth. “You are much nicer than Roger,” she murmured.
Mycroft shifted slightly away. “You had best get inside. No doubt your mother is worried. And I must get to my own cabin.”
Before he could take a step, Clarice leaned forward and placed a kiss on his cheek. “Maybe we could walk out together once this horrid storm is over.”
Mycroft stepped back quickly, one hand going to his cheek to wipe at the spot her moist lips had touched. “A lady does not behave in such an outgoing manner,” was all he could think to say. He turned quickly and walked in the direction of his own refuge.
“Roger was right,” Clarice called from behind him. “You are a prig.”
Then she giggled.
The storm raged for twelve hours.
Mycroft spent most of that time curled up in his narrow bed, the daguerreotype of Mummy and the small watercolour of Sherlock by his side. He thought that if he were destined for the bottom of the ocean, he wanted not to be alone. Once, he chanced getting up to use the chamber pot and a sudden swell sent him crashing. His shin received a bad bruise and he crawled back to the bed.
Above the roar of the wind, he could faintly hear the Jeffries exhorting their God to spare them .
At one point during the height of the storm, he began to recite a story to Sherlock, just as he had done during all those lovely afternoons in the Simla garden. “This is the tale of the brave knight, Sir Sherlock, who set forth to save the kingdom from a great and dreadful dragon. This dragon poured fire and death wherever he roamed and even the king feared him. But Sir Sherlock took up his lance and shield and rode his loyal steed out to face the danger alone.”
As he talked, Mycroft kept his eyes fixed on the painting, trying not to wonder about what it would feel like to drown. At some point, he could feel the long-simmering resentment against his father spark and become more. He hated the man who had so cavalierly put his older son on this ship and sent him off to a strange land. Perhaps he was actually hoping that the ship and his inconvenient son would just vanish.
Somehow, despite the storm, Mycroft finally slept.
When he awoke early the next morning, it was to a much more peaceful world. He rolled out of bed quickly, wincing as his bruised shin objected. After a moment, he put his shoes on and donned his coat before walking through the quiet corridor and up the narrow staircase.
The sky above the promenade deck was a glittering blue. He saw that the gulls had survived and were now gliding elegantly overhead. It was still very early and so only a few crew members were about, cleaning the deck and doing other chores. No one paid him any mind as he made his way to the bow. Once there, he leant on the railing and contemplated the horizon. It was clear and bright, seeming to promise only the best for the future.
Mycroft, however, was not fooled. He could not remember what he had dreamt of the night before, but he found himself left with a sense of resolution. He was determined to make his own way in a world that seemed not to care much for one lonely boy. No one in India [save, perhaps, Nanny] would spare him a thought and despite all his hopes, it seemed certain that Sherlock would soon forget that he even had a brother.
As the salt-tinged breeze ruffled his hair, Mycroft Holmes straightened his shoulders. Life may have determined that he would be alone, but he could choose not to be lonely. He would not cater to sentimental thoughts or waste any more time on idiots like Clarice and Roger.
He could not bring to mind the name of the author at the moment, but he could remember a line about ‘the bliss of solitude’ and was now determined to make that the path he would follow in life. After a moment, he took his journal and a pencil from his pocket and wrote down the words.
The Bliss of Solitude.
A solitary man was a safe man.
Returning the journal safely to his pocket, Mycroft decided to go for breakfast now, so that he could be done before many others turned up. Then he would bring a book back out here and spend the day reading and learning.
As he made his way to the dining room, it came to him.
Wordsworth, he realised. That was the poet.