The mystery of life is not a problem
to be solved, but a reality to be lived.
Of all the beautiful things that surrounded him every day, John had decided that his second favourite was the wood, with its dark, rich, almost blood-red colour and the smooth, silky feel it had beneath his fingers. To his delight, it was now his job to keep all the wood in this very large house in perfect condition. He very much enjoyed the task, not least because it was something to be done alone, away from the two young housemaids, [Ruth, upstairs and Ethel, downstairs] both of whom seemed determined to flutter their eyelashes and giggle far too much whenever they encountered him. At least when they were not in sight of the butler, Mr Whittaker or the housekeeper, Mrs Hope.
Another benefit of the taking care of the wood was that he was able to escape the stern gaze of Mr Whittaker, for whom nothing was ever quite completely correct, despite John’s best efforts.
All in all, he felt as if it were a treat, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning when he was left alone with the bottle of Mrs Hope’s special mixture of linseed oil, turpentine, vinegar and something called spirits of wine to use on what felt like miles of wood. His instructions were precise and he followed them to the letter every time. Shake the bottle well, rub the mixture onto the wood with a piece of fine linen and, finally, polish it off with a clean duster.
Sometimes as he worked, John would let his mind wander, musing on just how he, of all people, had come to be living in this castle-like house in Northampton, so far from the filth and noise of London. It all still sometimes felt like a dream and had done so since his ride in the growler that brought him from the train station up the long tree-lined drive to Ashburn Hall, the ancestral home of the Whitcomb family.
He would never forget the evening he returned to the telegraph office only to find Reverend Burke, the vicar from the church near John’s former home, waiting for him. First had come the expected remarks about the death of Harry months earlier, not forgetting to remind John that his brother was in a better place now, reunited with their parents and at peace.
John was vaguely tempted to remind the man that there had never been much peace within the Watson household and also that it was a very big leap to feature his father amongst the angels. If angels even existed.
But then he remembered something his former neighbour, the Professor, the man who taught him to read, had once said. Manners maketh the man. So John just smiled and nodded politely, hoping that this unexpected visit would soon be over, as he had already missed two chances at making a delivery.
It was then that the vicar told him about Sir Malcolm Whitcomb, apparently a close acquaintance of the bishop, who was in need of an able young man to work at his country house. “Just general chores, perhaps boot-cleaning, running errands, heavy-lifting for the housemaids, that sort of thing.” Burke beamed at him. “I thought to recommend you, John, if that would suit.”
John gave it a moment’s thought, wondering if this would turn out to be the most important moment of his life. And if the decision he made now would be for the better or for the worse. But then he found himself speaking. “Yes, sir, it would suit me very nicely, please.”
He had no idea where the courage had come from to make that decision. To leave behind the only place he knew. Perhaps, as his mother had always said, he was once again trying to raise himself about his station.
Always when he was polishing all that woodwork, John saved his favourite room, the thing he loved most about this house, for last. To walk into the library and see row upon row of leather-bound books made all the pettiness he dealt with every day seem unimportant. That he could be in the presence of what felt like all of the knowledge in the world brought him an unfamiliar sense of contentment. Sometimes he even dared to think that what he felt might be called happiness.
The library was at the very end of a long corridor, beyond the dining room and the other public areas of the house, so to him it felt like a different planet. For the first few weeks, intimidated by the grandeur, all John did was polish the woodwork, look at the fine bindings and inhale the scent of all those books.
Finally, one day while a thunderstorm raged outside and the fire beneath the stone mantelpiece burned brightly, he reached out and let his fingers [carefully wiped on the front of his trousers first, to remove any trace of oil] dance lightly across the spines of a dozen books. When his hand paused, he leant forward to read the title. The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire by someone named Gibbon.
Just the title made John aware of how little he knew about the world.
Abruptly, he heard footsteps in the corridor outside the room and yanked his hand back.
Over the next few weeks, he learned to move as quickly as he could with the polishing of the wood in the rest of the house [whilst not shirking at all, because he did not want the chore passed on to someone else] so that he could spend as much time as possible in the library, touching the books and reading titles that seemed to promise so much. The first book he ever actually removed from a shelf was that same one by Gibbon and for several weeks he read through much of it.
There was a lot he did not understand, but John persisted.
He found that Dr Johnson’s dictionary was very useful.
Then one day John discovered the shelves filled with science books and he was completely enthralled.
Mr Babbage’s Invention: Application of Machinery to the Purpose of Calculating and Printing Mathematical Tables
An Enquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae by Edward Jenner
As before, much of what he read was beyond his understanding, but the dictionary again proved useful. One dark winter afternoon, he pulled from the shelf On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey and it was as if a whole new world opened up. It made him think of visiting Harry in hospital and seeing the physicians at their work. And he recalled his conversations with Doctor Franklin.
He remembered the dream that he himself might one day rise to such a state, foolish as those thoughts were.
It was two months later when John found Anatomy: Descriptive and Surgical by Henry Gray and it instantly became the favourite of all the books he’d read. He never tired of going through its pages.
That fascination would prove to be dangerous.
He was lost in a close examination of the human skull portrayed on one of the exquisitely engraved illustrations, when some faint sound or perhaps a shift in the air made it sickeningly obvious that he was no longer alone in the library. His first thought was that one of those giggling housemaids had discovered his secret and immediately his mind went to work trying to work out how she might be persuaded not to tattle on him.
John carefully closed the heavy volume and replaced it on the shelf before turning to look towards the door.
It was neither Ruth nor Ethel who had entered.
It wasn’t even Mr Whittaker, which would have been bad enough.
John’s stomach lurched as he took in the sight of Sir Malcolm himself standing there. The man never visited the library at this time of the day, so John had always felt comfortable taking the time to read. That habit was undoubtedly now going to lead to his ruin, landing him back in the smoke and filth of London.
It took all of his courage not to simply burst into tears.
Instead, he just stood there and clasped his hands behind his back, awaiting the pronouncement of his doom.
Sir Malcolm just looked at him for a moment, before saying, “You can read?”
At first, John only nodded. But then he realised that it would be more proper to speak. “Yes, sir,” he said. “A kind neighbour taught me when I was young. Since then, I have kept up the practice.” His brow furrowed. “I wanted to improve.” How unlucky that his desire to better himself was now going to be the end of this life he had made.
“What were you reading just now?”
“Mr Gray’s book on anatomy, sir.”
Sir Malcolm did not seem angry. “Have you an interest in such things?”
John could hardly believe that he was having this conversation with Sir Malcolm. They had scarcely passed more than three dozen words in the two years that John had been here and most of those on Boxing Day, when he received his annual gift. “I find it fascinating.” He should have kept quiet then, but his mouth moved on its own. “I used to think about being a physician, sir, although I know that was a foolish dream for someone like me.”
After a moment, the man moved to sit in the leather chair in front of the fireplace. “And do you understand what you are reading?”
“Most of it. I find Mr Johnson’s dictionary to be useful. Sir.”
“Remind me of your name.”
“John Watson, sir.”
There was a pause as Sir Malcolm studied him. “Have you learned about the skeletal structure of humans, John?”
John thought for a moment. “The long bones are found in the limbs, where they form a system of levers.”
Sir Malcolm appeared to listen carefully, as John talked for at least five minutes, then just looked at him for a long moment. “How is your handwriting? Clear and legible?”
That was something else John had spent his spare moments at the telegraph office improving. “Yes, sir. Cook sometimes has me write out the lists for the green grocer and butcher.”
“You might know that Mr Eakins, my secretary, has recently departed for a position in France.”
John remembered the thin, whispery young man who had seemed to slip away with no fuss at all, with hardly any notice being paid. “Yes, sir.”
“His replacement will not arrive for a fortnight and I have considerable correspondence to manage. Would you like to fill the post temporarily?”
John was stunned into silence for a moment. Then he glanced at the cleaning supplies on the floor.
“I will arrange for the release from your other chores. You may begin tomorrow. Be about your business now, John.”
As quickly and quietly as he could, John gathered up his supplies and headed back to the housekeeper’s cupboard.
From somewhere, Mrs Hope had procured a white shirt and collar that were a reasonable fit. His Sunday suit, inherited from a departed under-footman, was threadbare, but needs must, Mrs Hope said. After she finished fussing over him, John sat down to eat his breakfast before reporting for his first day as Sir Malcolm’s secretary. His stomach was tied in knots, though, so all he could manage was some tea and toast.
The housemaids, the gardener’s helper and the under-groom all stared at him as if he were some strange creature that they did not know. Mr Whittaker gave him a brief lecture on how to comport himself. “And,” the butler finished, “do not put on airs and think yourself high and mighty.”
Finally, it was time to present himself.
John knew that he had always been ambitious and once he was over the shock of Sir Malcolm’s offer, he determined to do the best that he could. Every letter he wrote was without an ink blot and if there were any words he was unsure of, he turned to his old friend, Mr Johnson. When Sir Malcolm asked him to research some bit of information from the library, he made sure to give a comprehensive report. The desk was kept tidy and Sir Malcolm’s calendar was kept up to date. There were scant words of praise, but neither were there any reprimands.
Best of all, he had permission to read whatever he wanted from the library when his work was done.
On the day before the new secretary was due to arrive, Sir Malcolm summoned John to sit in front of him. He seemed to collect his thoughts before speaking. “I had a ward some years ago,” he began in a voice that was softer than usual. “A bright lad of whom we were very fond. It was his hope to seek a career in medicine, perhaps as a surgeon. Sadly, he was stricken with typhoid just before his sixteenth birthday and succumbed.”
John had no idea where this was going.
Sir Malcolm continued. “You are also a bright lad and it seems to me that you ought to have a chance. I am willing to provide aid, but the outcome is entirely down to you, John.”
“What are you saying, sir?”
“I will fund you for one year at Randolph College, the local day school. I have no doubt that you have the capacity to succeed there. You will still have some chores here, of course, in return for your room and board. If at the end of one year, you can pass the exams, I will find you a place to study medicine. You will be on a strict budget and expected to maintain the highest standards, both academically and morally.” Now, Sir Malcolm fixed him with a hard stare. “What do you say, John Watson?”
John felt as if the room were spinning around him, so it was a moment before he could respond. “I say that I will do my very best, sir,” he said, his spine as straight as he could make it.
Then, amazingly, Sir Malcolm held out his hand. John stuck his own out as well and they shook.
It was a very bad idea from the off.
Mycroft still never knew what to expect from his weekly dinner with Mulberry and Day. Sometimes the conversation was merely the idle chitter-chatter of the sort found in the less respectable newspapers. Mycroft always suspected that the other two men were as bored by these conversations as was he himself. Still, they all played the game.
On other evenings, Mulberry had pored over Mycroft’s carefully written reports of what was going on in the Home Office. With each of the promotions that had come Mycroft’s way, their interest in what he had to say increased. And now that he had left the Home Office to become the assistant to the confidential secretary for the Foreign Minister, his reports were even more significant.
Despite Mulberry and Day’s apparent approval of the work he was doing, Mycroft was beginning to chafe just a bit at being considered something like an assistant to them. He wanted to do more. And then the opportunity came along.
It was over the port that Day leaned forward and fixed Mycroft with an intense stare. “We have an assignment for you, Holmes,” he said.
Mycroft took another sip of the Gordon tawny port, letting it sit in his mouth for a moment before swallowing. The last time Day had spoken those words, Mycroft had ended up spending the night locked within a small hidden room near the Prime Minister’s office. It had been uncomfortable and, he was not ashamed to admit [at least to himself] a bit unsettling. Perhaps frightening.
But he had emerged the next morning with his carefully written copy of the memorandum and no one had been the wiser. Luckily so, because had he been caught, there might have been the suspicion that he was spying on the government rather than for it. There was a thin line, sometimes.
Still, if he wanted to progress, he had to take a few chances.
And so it was that two nights later, Mycroft Holmes found himself loitering in a dark, malodorous alley in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, wrapped tightly in his black overcoat, hat pulled down over his brow. It was unclear whether he was more in danger of being assaulted by some low-life or arrested as a suspicious character by an over-enthusiastic idiot from Scotland Yard.
So this was legwork.
After more than two hours dawdling behind the rundown gambling den, Mycroft knew that this sort of activity was not really his forte. He was miserable, honestly, and also uneasy because he did not really know what would happen when—-if—-the man he was waiting for actually appeared. There were secret passwords involved, for heaven’s sake.
He felt a bit of a fool.
The cold air was seeping into his shoes, so he stamped his feet to get the blood flowing. Unexpectedly, he thought of India, of the warmth that had enveloped him, but that was only a memory now.
And that was was a dangerous line of thought. Memories.
Only the day before, he had received yet another querulous letter from his father, urging his return to India, where apparently there was a position awaiting him at Government House. Mycroft was running out of reasons for why he had to stay in London. It had been impressed on him that his activities had to be kept secret even from Father.
When Mycroft had the time and the inclination to think about it, he realised that Father had changed after Ananda’s disappearance. Whether it was grief or bitterness or something else altogether, William Holmes was not the man he had been. Despite that, his power was undiminished and still growing.
Sometimes, he wondered how Sherlock was getting on. Most days, however, he managed to forget that he even had a brother.
Before he could dwell on those sentimental thoughts, the door he’d been watching opened and a large man wearing a camel-coloured cape that Mycroft found a bit flamboyant emerged. He also wore a small yellow flower and was carrying a folded copy of the Times. After a pause, he spotted Mycroft waiting in the shadows and walked over. “Excuse me, sir, can you direct me in the direction of Euston Station?”
“Walk north for ten minutes and then turn east on Euston Road. Easy from there.”
The man handed him the folded paper and without another word walked away quickly. Not in the direction of Euston Station, Mycroft noted absently. Then he took a deep breath and left the alley as well.
Probably he only imagined the sound of footsteps following him.
He knew what everyone called him.
It was an appellation first used by one of the many short-lived tutors who had attempted to rein him in, specifically a Frenchman named Belvoir. The nickname was quickly picked up [only behind his back, of course] by the servants and then overheard by the son of someone from Father’s office, which meant it was known through-out the British community of Calcutta almost overnight.
Not that he minded.
Sherlock Holmes. Wild child.
He had shaped his world just as he wanted it, an activity that was greatly aided by the fact that his father took no interest at all in what his younger son got up to. There was no longer even any attempt to keep a tutor employed. Once a month, the old man summoned Sherlock to his office and demanded to know what he was studying.
Sherlock always went into these interrogations well-armed with a [carefully curated] list of his recent readings and concise descriptions of his current experiments. Occasionally, over the years, there had been talk of Eton, but he doubted that Father would ever summon up enough interest to actually ship him off to England. At the end of every one of the sessions, the man would mutter that he had no idea at all what Mycroft would think of how Sherlock was behaving.
Why he thought Sherlock cared at all was unknown.
Finally, Father would wave him off and get back to running the known world.
And that suited Sherlock very well indeed. He was left to don his most comfortable trousers, an untucked shirt without a collar, and some raffia sandals from a street vendor and roam the streets of Calcutta. Enfant sauvage, indeed.
He learned the city and also how to watch its people. Sometimes, he followed the pickpockets just to see how many would fall victim to their nimble fingers. Other times, he lurked in the alleys to watch the women who worked there. He spied on the spoiled children of the British community being shepherded around by prim nannies.
Once in a while, he wandered into the old cemetery and walked amongst the graves, wondering if it would be better to know that Mummy was buried here, that there was a sentimental headstone he could stand in front of. Probably not. Honestly, he felt closest to her when playing the violin she had given him.
It was on one of those cemetery rambles that he decided to discover just what had happened to his mother the evening she left home and never returned.
The soft brown leather journal had been a gift to him from one of Father’s minions at Christmas, given to Sherlock in the vain hope of currying favour. Sherlock had set it aside, but that night he pulled it from the drawer, along with his new nib pen and opened the journal to the first smooth page. He took care with his handwriting.
THE CASE OF ANANDA HOLMES
Then he leant back against the teak headboard of his bed and stared at the words.
For some ridiculous reason, Sherlock suddenly remembered when he used to chase the butterflies, while Mummy watched and smiled. Those moments seemed to belong to another life entirely. The little boy he’d been was a stranger to him now.
Finally, he tucked the journal under his pillow and settled down to sleep.
The next morning, as soon as Father had left for work, Sherlock slipped into his office and sat at the ridiculously large oak desk. He didn’t even bother with the unlocked drawers, but instead began by using his knife, carefully, to open the bottom drawer.
Inside, there was a stack of files. Underneath some boring ones dealing with such things as wills, there was the report from the police dealing with his mother’s disappearance, which turned out to be exactly as useless as he had expected. No wonder Father had spoken so disparagingly of the force. The so-called report was filled with rumours and whispered suspicions and extravagant fantasies. Sherlock forced back the anger that rose up at some of the suppositions people had made about Mummy.
And after it all, at the end of the over one-hundred pages, there was absolutely no conclusion drawn. There was only a note scribbled by the Chief Superintendent three years after the fact which read Case Closed.
Sherlock closed the file. One finger tapped a bit of Wagner on the top while he thought about what he had read,
Finally, he set that file aside and pulled out the final one.
For a moment, the name on the card attached to the front of the file meant nothing to him, but then he recalled an afternoon soon after Mummy vanished when he’d been hidden in this very room and listened to his father’s meeting with a confidential enquiry agent. This file was thicker than the official police report, if less tidy. Sherlock considered all the pages and decided that he needed to read it all very carefully.
He took the time to carefully rearrange the contents of the drawer to make the absence of one file less noticeable, although he doubted that Father ever looked in there anymore. Why would he? Finally, he closed the drawer and managed to engage the lock again.
Time to see what one Reginald Godwin had discovered about Mummy. Time to solve the mystery.