The die is cast.
Mycroft continues to stare at the shiny coat of dove-grey varnish covering the door to The Diogenes’ The Stranger’s Room long after it has fallen shut behind Victor Trevor’s departing back. During those minutes his repugnance of and disdain for the world in general converges steadily into the five foot nine of sartorial coxcomb that has just sought Mycroft’s tacit endorsement for Sherlock’s semi-permanent removal from both their lives.
Reaching for the bell pull, Mycroft huffs. The press indeed. Even while Trevor sketched his scheme – a crude proposal that hardly warrants the courtesy of such a locution – Mycroft was already contemplating means to socially annihilate the man once and for all.
Unlike Trevor, Mycroft hasn’t forgotten who first plucked the enticing boy who enrolled at Magdalene one fine early autumn morning almost two decades ago. Mycroft’s mouth softens at the memory of Sherlock at fifteen. Home tutored, because their father had judged the delicate child wasn’t up to the hardships of an education at one of the prep schools, Sherlock had been champing at the bit to enter Cambridge with its libraries and laboratories. Both their father and Mycroft had set the boy down before departure and warned him against the temptations lurking beneath the placid surface of varsity life. Despite, or perhaps thanks to, those warnings, Sherlock, prancing on legs that had suddenly grown impossibly long and graceful, had been snatched by Victor Trevor’s nefarious talons weeks before Michaelmas Term was completed.
Ready as Mycroft is to blame his younger sibling for many transgressions, he doesn’t regard his seduction by a shrewd elder student among those; nor will Mycroft blame Sherlock for his steadfast loyalty to the man who robbed him of his virginity. Displeased with the object of Sherlock’s commitment he may be, but the actual fact gratifies Mycroft. In his opinion, steadfast loyalty exemplifies a strong character, a quality any true Briton should be proud of.
“Wilder.” He addresses the servant that has crept silently into the room and stands waiting for his orders at the required distance of a respectful ten feet. “I want to speak to Wiggins. Fresh tea first though, with some of those strawberry tartlets.”
Wilder bows from the waist and leaves the room. Five minutes later a discreet rap on the door by one of his underlings announces the requested victuals are delivered.
As the boy pours the Earl Grey into the wafer thin porcelain, Mycroft eyes his backside appreciatively. He’s faithful, has been so since Leighton and he first tumbled into a bed, but that doesn’t mean Mycroft can’t appreciate a handsome figure. In all probability, comeliness features high on Wilder’s list of requirements for prospective hirelings. The man’s subtle talent – so disappointingly rare among the lower middle classes – for fathoming his masters’ clandestine appetites has turned him into one of the club’s most valuable assets.
“Thank you,” Mycroft says, pointedly, and the boy takes his leave hastily, blushing like a beetroot salad and nearly tripping over his feet as he sketches a clumsy bow. Not quite up to the task yet, obviously.
Which makes Mycroft wonder, while sinking his teeth into one of the delectable pastries, about Sherlock’s near future as a dogsbody, the lowest of the low. The drudgework will do his brother good in more ways than one, he assumes. First of all, it’ll cure him irrevocably of his reprehensible infatuation with the man responsible for his temporary imprisonment right on top of the medium he abhors. Secondly it’ll separate Sherlock from Miss Adler, at whose sympathetic though wholly unmotherly bosom he’s been clinging a bit too tightly lately. Finally, it’ll cure Sherlock from his opium habit.
Truly, dropping his brother on a barge in the middle of the great wide ocean is a strategy Mycroft might have come up with himself. After all, his reputation hails him as the craftiest being to serve His Majesty since Thomas Cromwell met his untimely end. Alas, deplorable sentiment has kept Mycroft from drastic measures. Rather than saving Sherlock from himself, Mycroft has been looking on with gritted teeth as his baby brother wasted his youth and his talents in an ocean of profligate debauchery.
No, he really should let Trevor run ahead with his dastardly plot and merely twist and knot the manoeuvre into the rope for the rascal to hang himself with. Ever since Trevor has wormed his way into Sherlock’s life, Mycroft has kept tabs on the man. His past renders enough scrap wood for a sturdy gallows.
Having drained his cup, Mycroft throws the remaining tartlets a longing glance before steeling himself and getting to his feet. For all of Wiggins’ air of elusiveness, Wilder always manages to exhume the boy pretty quickly from wherever he’s buried himself. No doubt the promise of a hefty premium aids Wilder’s efforts in that regard. Time to move then, so Mycroft can receive the street urchin in a proper style: towering behind the daunting fence of his desk’s endless expanse of solid mahogany.
The second floor of Mycroft’s home at Grosvenor Square houses both his library and his study. At Whitehall he has the whole wing of a building allotted to him and his closest subordinates. No one – or at least no one who matters – suspects the real work is done here, literally beneath The Diogenes’ hardwood flooring. Stashed behind the wine cellars, a mere five feet from the back door to the service stairs that run up to the mews where the carts from Borough market draw to a rumbling halt every morning, an unobtrusive iron-sheeted door opens upon a small anteroom. Another door, this one of the same sturdy mahogany as Mycroft’s desk, leads into the office that fits the Nation’s perpetually busy brain as neatly as Mycroft’s skull houses the yellow matter responsible for a huge part of the Nation’s unprecedented rise to world domination.
He’s barely seated himself before a knock at the anteroom’s door and a swift glance at his repeater informs Mycroft Wilder has outdone himself. Thirty-three minutes. He must remember to raise the man’s wages. Perhaps an extra large basket at Christmas as well. Mrs Wilder will appreciate the gesture, what with yet another Wilder due to arrive in a few months.
“Come in,” he calls out after half a minute. Wiggins steps into the room to find Mycroft burrowed deep in a file on… Lord Wellesley’s ridiculous campaign in India of all things. Really, that upstart is more and more developing into a decisive adversary to Britain’s true interests, quite apart from a massive pain in the arse. Crossly, Mycroft shoves the file aside and acknowledges Wiggins’ presence with a belligerent glare.
Wiggins – Billy to his friends – is a member of the contingents of the poor, bereft and unworthy perpetually patrolling London’s streets by day and, due to a lack of housing, however inadequate, by night. Orphaned at ten, he’s still better off than most for his parents have gone to great lengths to get him some schooling and being quick of mind he’s managed to ingratiate himself with many a servant of the great houses by running errands for them. The scraps he receives in payment he re-distributes to the cleverest of his fellow ragamuffins and thus he’s built a subterranean intelligence network that spans the whole of London. In efficiency and usefulness the system resembles a miniature version of Mycroft’s own endeavours.
During one of the ‘investigations’ Sherlock liked to dabble in whenever he was bored he’d chanced upon Wiggins. Immediately realising the potential of such an aide he’d more or less hired Wiggins on the spot.
Once Mycroft learned of the association his brother had forged, he had Wiggins abducted to this very same office. Wiggling the carrot of monetary amends in front of Wiggins’ nose and swishing the stick of an untimely end in the workhouse behind his back, Mycroft soon cajoled the boy into an understanding. Thus, Wiggins is probably the only street urchin in the world with an bank account; one that will allow him to retire at an early age, should he wish to.
Their initial meetings were awkward for both of them, with Wiggins muttering under his breath through his recital of Sherlock’s recent exploits. However, once he inferred that Mycroft had spoken the truth and not only meant Sherlock no harm but also was as interested as Wiggins in screening their association from Sherlock’s sight, he opened up a little more. Through the years Mycroft has profited from the acquaintance in other respects as well.
People are so careless around their staff, openly discussing their concerns in front of the footman busy lighting the lamps, as if the man were a brass lamp stand himself. But then, those same servants are equally blind to the presence of the small boy the scullery maid has engaged to do her work for her.
Mycroft’s files contain many a juicy titbit delivered almost straight from the horse’s mouth. He abhors blackmail in all its forms and would rather eat his neck cloth than resort to such base methods of gaining his objective but, like any battle commander half worth his salt, he likes to be prepared for any eventuality.
“Ye wanted to see me, M’lud,” Wiggins says, belatedly remembering to snatch his greasy cap from the equally greasy tufts of hair erupting from his head like sprouts from a shrunken potato. He immediately trails a taming hand through his locks, which doesn’t improve matters at all.
“Concerning my brother, yes,” confirms Mycroft.
“Last I know he was at Miss Adler’s, M’lud. He entered her house yesterday evening and hasn’t come out since.”
“The backdoor is covered as well?”
“Of course, M’lud.” Wiggins has the audacity to look affronted. “He hasn’t left the house.”
“Excellent,” praises Mycroft. Folding his hands on the desk he leans forward and lowers his voice. “You’re familiar with Mr Victor Trevor of Hans Town, of course?”
“You mean the gent Mr Sherlock fancies himself wild for, M’lud? His father died, what, a month ago? Something shifty about that. I can dig into it if you need me to, M’lud.”
Interesting, and yet another nail in Victor Trevor’s scaffold, even if the rumour turns out ot be nothing but wild speculation. Rumours are Mycroft’s specialty; he loves few things better than gently wafting air across the first few glimmering sparks and feeding the budding fire with tinder.
First things first however.
“I’ll happily reward you for anything you’ll come up with but for the moment we needn’t concern ourselves with the odds of the senior Mr Trevor’s untimely demise.”
Wiggins nods his comprehension, obviously already detailing the task of wresting every crumb of information from the dissolving household to one of his sergeants.
“The matter directly concerns my brother,” Mycroft continues, routinely ignoring the habitual upwards jerk of Wiggins’ head at the mention of his other employer. “Mr Trevor the younger wishes to stand for parliament. He considers his association with my sibling a hindrance to this ambition and wants him removed from the scene. In his sudden penchant for respectability he’s even found himself a fiancée. A…” Here Mycroft pretends to read the name from the Wellesley file though he etched the unfortunate innocent’s name in his memory during Trevor’s unbosoming, less than an hour ago, “Miss Margaret Holborn.”
Wiggins’ cackle rings around the room, offensively lecherous for a thirteen-year-old.
“Wretched lass, she’s in for a choker,” he guffaws. Inwardly, Mycroft sighs. Oh, for the appalling stupidity of the lower classes.
“Care to explain, Wiggins,” he nevertheless obliges his caller.
“Why, M’lud,” Wiggins re-joins immediately, his wide grin gracing Mycroft with the dubious pleasure of a premium view of his molars, “he’s hardly likely to get it up for her. Ye know.” He wriggles his eyebrows expressively while tipping his chin to the stained fragments of threadbare calico hanging from the oily measure of hemp rope fastened around his hips. “Only interested in boys, Mr Trevor is. Young boys. That’s Mr Sherlock’s problem, see? He’s too old for Mr Trevor now.”
“Indeed?” Mycroft cuts the boy short. “But then, perhaps, Miss Margaret might consider his inclination for the Greek vice a blessing in disguise.”
“Whatever you say, M’lud,” the boy replies sullenly, clearly holding on to the belief every woman perpetually craves the flesh hanging between a man’s legs.
Mycroft, contentedly married to a member of the Sapphic horde who has blessed him with an heir and a spare while continuing her liaison with her maid, chooses not to correct Wiggins.
Contrary to Trevor, Mycroft began planning his private life soon after he reached his eleventh year. That fateful summer he first realised that, unlike his father or the gentlemen of his father’s large acquaintance, he was more interested in a roll in the hay with one of the stable lads than with any of the housemaids, no matter how high the latter’s praises were sung by his father’s guests. At Harrow he’d eagerly indulged his inverse tastes. Deprived of eligible females, most boys merely sodomised the youngsters for lack of the preferred vessel to receive their seed. Nevertheless Mycroft soon discovered others were like him, and preferred the stark lines of a male body to the voluptuous curves of a woman’s.
His final revelation came when, during a Christmas holiday, he spied the housekeeper desperately kissing his mother’s maid with her hand beneath the girl’s skirts. Mycroft spent an hour pondering the implications of this discovery before deciding he’d dedicate his search for his future bride – for being the first son he must marry – to finding a woman who shared his persuasion.
In this, as in everything Mycroft undertook, he succeeded admirably and both spouses are so grateful for the guise the other provides, they’re universally hailed as a proper example of conjugal felicity. In order to protect his household and his reputation from slander Mycroft makes sure the personnel he hires are only too relieved to enter the service of a master who won’t condemn their choice of bed companions.
Thus, the outside world never suspects Mycroft is perpetually sailing close to the wind of the general public’s opinion. It’s only natural, Mycroft supposes, that he despises Trevor all the more for only considering the effect of two decades wasted in idleness, dissipation and buggering Mycroft’s much-beloved younger brother, now he can’t hide any longer behind his father’s broad back. Through the years, Mycroft has kept a meticulous account of the copious amounts the elder Trevor has spent in attempts at protecting his son’s reputation.
“Well, Miss Margaret Holborn must fend for herself. She certainly isn’t the reason I instructed Wilder to find you,” Mycroft offers in a conciliatory tone.
“No, M’lud. I suppose you want me to look after Mr Sherlock, M’lud,” Wiggins is happy to accept the olive branch.
“That would be rather difficult.” Across the ample sweep of the desk Mycroft locks eyes with Wiggins, searching for the slightest tremor of the boy’s coppery lashes as he carries on, “Unless you’re prepared to be pressganged yourself. For all your devotion to my brother I think that’s a step you’d not be willing to undertake and I certainly won’t hold it against you.”
Staggering backwards, Wiggins gasps and claps a horrified hand across his mouth.
“The Press, M’lud? You mean, Mr Tre…, that fucking arse bandit wants to throw Mr Sherlock to the Press?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Wiggins,” Mycroft affirms. “Though I’d have opted for a different mode of expressing myself.”
“We’ll stop him, M’lud. I know just the man to off the varmint and with no one any the wiser, M’lud. Please, he’ll never know what hit him.” The words fall from Wiggins’ mouth so quickly he’s panting by the time he finishes.
“But I do want Trevor to know what hit him,” Mycroft contends. “And I believe, for the short term my interests collide with Trevor’s.”
“M’lud.” Fists balled at his sides Wiggins approaches the desk, snarling like a ferocious little devil straight from hell’s foulest pits. Mycroft raises his hand in a pacifying gesture.
“Calm down, Wiggins. You’re a clever enough fellow and I’m convinced you’ll see things my way once you’ve let me unfold my argument.”
“Go ahead,” Wiggins grumbles, clearly unwilling but reminding himself the man at the other side of the desk calls the tune in this room.
“Thank you,” Mycroft says, meaningfully. He leans back in his chair, regarding Wiggins from beneath hooded lids.
“What would you say are my dear brother’s greatest hindrances in life, Wiggins? You may speak frankly. Surprisingly little shocks me.”
Cocking his head to the side the boy attempts to return Mycroft’s stare and fails miserably. To cover his embarrassment he points at the visitor’s chair in front of the desk with a dirty finger. Mycroft winces but graciously lifts one eyebrow to indicate he may perch on a corner.
“Why, M’lud,” Wiggins begins once he’s planted his trousers’ dirty seat on the heavy gold brocade. “That whoreson Trevor to start with. Then there’s the Chinese tobacco. And his trap, M’lud. It does run away with him.”
An adequate résumé for certain. If the host of blundering ignoramuses thronging Whitehall were as half to the point as Wiggins, Mycroft’s daily toil for the greater good would be as easy and straightforward as a piece of cake.
“Miss Adler too?” he suggests, but the boy shakes his head so adamantly Mycroft is briefly afraid it will come off and get catapulted right across the desk, into Mycroft’s lap to irrevocably ruin his cream satin breeches. Fortunately, the head seems quite attached to the rest of Wiggins.
“Not her, M’lud. She’s a whore but she doesn’t fancy Mr Sherlock, not that way. They’re friends, M’lud. They watch out for each other.”
“Perhaps,” concedes Mycroft, stowing the observation at the back of his mind for the present. “Now Wiggins, if we allow Mr Trevor to proceed with his squalid ploy, wouldn’t you say we’d free my brother from the two main scourges wrecking his life? In addition, as a landlubber, which is I believe the proper term for one new at sea, he may learn to keep his mouth shut when it’s actually wise to do so. You’ll have to admit we’d all profit from that outcome.”
In spite of these arguments Wiggins remains doubtful.
“But Mr Sherlock doesn’t like the sea,” he protests.
“I do realise that, Wiggins. We can’t always humour our preferences.”
“Ye don’t understand, M’lud. He’s really, really scared. He nearly drowned in the sea once.”
“Yes, Wiggins. Who do you think took him out of the water?”
Wiggins’ eyes grow wide, which, with the wiggling tufts of greasy hair on top of his head, fleetingly transforms the boy into a five-foot horned owl. After a moment he says, “Good, what do you want?” and belatedly adds, “M’lud.”
The following morning a mudlark ploughs headfirst into Mycroft just as he’s alighting from the carriage in front of St Paul’s where he’s to attend the christening of yet another aristocratic wastrel’s latest offspring.
“Sir!” The driver hurries to Mycroft’s aid. Unnecessary, as Mycroft is already cuffing the boy’s ears while pressing a half-crown into the grubby little fist presenting a filthy scrap of paper. The youngster beams, dives expertly between the driver’s bowlegs and scurries out of the man’s reach. Mycroft silently compliments Wigging on his recruitment technique and dismisses the driver’s anxious enquiries with an airy flick of the wrist.
Inside the safety of the church’s shadows he unfurls the piece of cheap paper. At first glance Wiggins’ scrawls resemble the runes of a bygone area but Mycroft mastered this particular version of the alphabet long ago and appreciates its general illegibility. Better the contents of their correspondence remain a mystery, should it fall into the wrong hands.
Trevor, he learns, has acted extraordinarily quickly after receiving Mycroft’s blessing. Not three hours later Sherlock was bundled onto The Adder, which lifted anchor two hours later for Mumbai.
Mycroft pleats the paper while considering Sherlock’s plight. The Adder is a converted vessel, more akin to a floating sieve than a barge to do Britain proud. However, its captain, a rustic curmudgeon traveling by the name of Philip Norman if Mycroft remembers correctly, remains fiercely attached to the craft and refuses every promotion to a larger, more adequate and modern ship. Which, in this particular instance is all to the good, Mycroft supposes, as HMS Alcyone, bound for Calcutta and departing Friday next, will easily overtake the elderly man-of-war and call at Mumbai while Sherlock is still being carried around the Cape of Good Hope.
Other concerns engage Mycroft’s attention. That Wednesday he’s snugly installed himself in front of the merrily roaring fire in The Diogenes’ Reading Room with his copy of The Times when his perusing eye chances upon the announcement of Trevor’s engagement. He folds the paper with more force than strictly necessary, raising several heads of the members seated in his proximity. Together they search for the philistine disturbing the club’s sacred peace and quiet in order to glare him into silence. Once they apprehend the source of the ruckus is none other than Mycroft Holmes their glares transform into inappropriately open stares. Several heads plummet back into their gazettes, eagerly searching for the juicy morsel of news that managed to ruffle the most imperturbable man in England.
Mycroft recomposes his features into their customary benevolent indifference and pretends an avid interest in rest of the paper for an hour before leisurely leveraging himself from his chair and making for his office. There he rings for Wilder, requests a pot of tea and three strawberry tartlets and, having come to a decision halfway through the second tartlet, reaches for a piece of paper, dips his quill into the inkstand and starts to write.
One minute the men are surging down the gangplank like a swarm of ravenous locusts swooping down upon a glorious bounty of endlessly rolling wheat fields and the next they’re swallowed by the gaping black holes that give entry to the brothels lining the quay.
“Well,” Sherlock comments, which earns him a giggle from Des, the ship’s loblolly boy and Sherlock’s devoted satellite of the past seven months.
“Won’t you be going, Sir?”
“Good heavens, no. This journey definitely cured me of stews, whatever form they may take.”
“Oh.” Des’ face falls. Sherlock observes the boy closely for a moment, then scrutinises the buildings’ fronts through his lashes.
“That one.” He points to an edifice slightly bigger than its neighbours, freshly whitewashed, and with pots of bright red flowers in its windows.
“Aims hard to convey the resemblance of some elegance. More reputable than the others, providing a better class of whores less likely to carry diseases.”
“You think so, Sir?” But the boy has already knuckled his brow and is scrambling for the plank. “See you in a week, Sir.”
“Yes,” Sherlock murmurs, pivoting on his heel, strangely reluctant to leave the ship and find out how swiftly his laboriously acquired sea legs will re-adapt themselves to carrying him on solid ground.
“Hullo, my man,” a strange voice accosts him. “I’m looking for Mr Holmes. Do you know where I can find him?”
Sherlock wheels round. The speaker is sandy-haired, short, dressed as a clerk for one of the shipping houses and leaning rather heavily on a cane. His square-shouldered carriage betrays a military past. Left-shoulder stab wound, the upper part of the arm retains a certain immobility. Then why is he purporting a limp in the right leg? The man’s open countenance refutes any suggestion of a dissembling nature. He honestly believes the leg isn’t functioning properly. Interesting.
“That depends,” he answers.
The former soldier laughs. “Upon what?”
“The reason you’re looking for him, obviously. If you mean to hand him a missive from that nuisance of an older brother of his I’d advise you to stop troubling yourself. He won’t listen.”
“It pains me to hear you say so. Though the sentiment is all too understandable to many of us,” the clerk replies affably, no doubt congratulating himself for holding his cards close to the chest. So the letter is from Mycroft.
The talk of his fellow-mates, which initially struck Sherlock as outlandish gibberish rather than the English language, taught him The Adder’s speed was laggard at best. Whether this was due to her great age or to the great masses of seaweed and shelled creatures she’d collected on her hull during her travels was the subject of many a fiery debate in the fo’castle. Whatever the reason, any other ship sailing the wide ocean was bound to sail faster than the decrepit hulk they were striving to keep afloat.
Caulking the decks left Sherlock with plenty of time to wonder how soon his brother would learn of Sherlock’s abduction and what his reaction would be. Has he merely written a letter, to be presented to the Captain and ordering the man to let go of Sherlock and send him back to London? Or has he ordered his network of spies to dig up the identity of the individual on whose orders Sherlock was pressganged?
For a reason Sherlock has never bothered to concern himself with, Mycroft took a loathing to Victor the moment they met. Their mutual antipathy had rather served to amuse Sherlock at his sibling’s expense. Aware his elder brother would prove himself a hypocrite were he to berate Sherlock for an unnatural inclination, Sherlock always invited Victor, when visiting during the summer holidays, to use him most vigorously and vociferously in his bedroom, all too aware Mycroft’s lair perched against the other side of the wall.
Now suppose Mycroft knows Victor is his man. A tiny twitch tugs at Sherlock’s heartstrings, but no. Even if Victor has doomed himself by not sufficiently covering his tracks, Sherlock refuses to feel for the traitor.
The suspense, though… Oh, damn and blast the consequences. The suspense is worse than revealing to this petty clerk he is indeed Sherlock Holmes Esq.
“I’ll have that letter,” Sherlock demands haughtily. Palm upwards, he holds out his hand, noticing for the first time in weeks that his cuff is in tatters and blackened with filth and sweat.
The clerk is no fool. “Sir,” he breathes. “Apologies. Your appearance differs greatly from the description Mr Holmes provided in his covering letter.”
Sherlock smirks. “The art of disguise is knowing how to hide in plain sight,” he confides. “You think I convince as a landsman, then?”
“Very much so, Sir,” the soldier nods. “Except—” He grimaces, blushes, grins rather sheepishly.
“Except what?” exacts Sherlock.
“Except for the fact you didn’t join the general stampede for the quay. You and the Captain are the last men aboard.”
Sherlock shrugs, sniffs.
“A wise decision,” the clerk continues in a jolly voice. “Clap traps these houses are, all of them. I’ve tried to advise the madams on the basic necessities of hygiene but a lass’s life here is even cheaper than that of her London sisters.”
“You were an army doctor,” Sherlock decrees. “Whatever are you holding that cane for?”
“Well yes, how do you…” But then he indicates at the letter in Sherlock’s hand. “Why don’t you come to the office for refreshment and a shaded place to sit and read that letter? Your brother has instructed us to find you a boarding house until you’re ready to return to England and I suggest you take a room at my lodgings. My landlady, Mrs Hudson, is a respectable widow and the food is excellent.”
“Right,” Sherlock murmurs. Suddenly desperate to discover what Mycroft has to disclose he is already tearing at the seal. “I’ll follow you.”
Sunrays heralding a glorious spring morning slant through the high windows of Victor Trevor’s breakfast room and bathe the meticulously pressed paper of The Times in liquid gold. A sigh of contentment escapes Trevor’s lips.
Across the table his pretty, little – insufferably dull – wife sits pouring their tea like a dutiful housewife. Last night, emboldened by the day’s successes, he visited her bedroom again. Ordering her to lie on her stomach he breached her from behind and, pretending she were Sherlock at fifteen instead of Mrs Trevor at twenty-two, for the first time since they were joined in Holy Matrimony held out long enough to hopefully have impregnated her so he won’t have to repeat the sordid business anytime soon.
“Your tea, Victor.” Well, whatever her deficiencies in the bedroom, for which, Victor grants magnanimously, he can hardly hold her accountable, she knows the ropes when it comes to making herself agreeable to anyone of importance. As they ride their landau in the park his wife frequently orders for the carriage to stop so she may converse with a lady who happens to be the spouse of a man whose acquaintance Victor has been seeking for ages.
The only female refusing to succumb to her appeal remains Mrs Holmes, undoubtedly instructed to steadfastly resist every endeavour on Mrs Trevor’s part. Well, Victor doesn’t need Holmes. His star is climbing fast while Holmes sits brooding in his Whitehall office, as impotent and gibbous as the waning moon.
With a flick of the wrist, Victor opens the gazette. His Maiden Speech, which he’s sweated over for more than a week, met exceptional approval in the House yesterday. Now he longs to read what Fleet Street has made of his bold outcry for additional government funding of the East India Company.
They seem to have done him justice. Sipping his tea, Victor feasts his eyes on the faithful representation of his captivatingly florid phrases and luxuriates for some minutes in daydreaming about his glorious future. He’s still young, thirty-seven, enough time left to aim for the highest office. Not everyone can be a Mycroft Holmes or Pitt the Younger and praise be to the Lord for that happy circumstance. The world would be an exceedingly dreary place if everyone were as colourless and tedious as that pair of presumptuous dullards.
He flips the page and freezes.
“Is anything wrong, Victor? I told Cook those kippers had spoiled but she assured me…” Margaret babbles but Victor has already shoved back his chair, run out of the room and up the stairs and is dashing to his dressing room, shouting for his valet.
“Sir.” Edward pops up, hands dangling uselessly at his side and watching open-mouthed at his master pulling at drawers and throwing their contents on the bed.
“Trunks,” Victor commands. “We’re boarding the next ship for Sweden.”
“Victor?” His wife is entering the bedroom, eyebrows knitted in the shape of a question mark. “Whatever is the matter with you?”
“Oh, get out of my way.” He shoves the stupid bitch aside and makes for his study and the strongbox locked in his desk.
“Victor?” She’s wringing her hands now and crying as if it’s her future that’s just been ruined by Mycroft bloody Holmes. In a way it is, Victor supposes, but he can’t afford to ponder upon the implications and effects of Holmes’ retribution upon the ludicrous girl who agreed to become his wife. For now he must try and slip the City Watch’s nets.
A peal of thunder booms through the hall. It’s the front door’s brass knocker announcing a host of unwelcome visitors.
“Open up,” several voices are shouting outside. A quick glance out of the window informs Victor a throng of London’s great unwashed are already hemming in from all sides, in eager expectation of a break in the perpetual grey monotony of their existence. His only chance of escape lies down the alleyway running along the back of the garden.
Strongbox under his arm, Victor dashes through the door to the servants’ passage and crashes down the narrow stairs, almost slipping on the tiles at the bottom. The garden gate proves to be locked, according to his instructions. Swearing loudly, Victor fumbles for his ring of keys, finds the one that fits, throws open the door and hotfoots it to the alley’s entrance, simultaneously with the bevy of men ordered around the back to thwart his escape.
Even the fastest boats don’t manage the crossing to India in less than half a year so Sherlock doesn’t learn of Victor’s arrest and subsequent trial for patricide until four months after his former lover’s execution.
He puts down the newspaper, pretending a sudden ennui with the world. The strategy worked perfectly the first few weeks he shared lodgings with the former army doctor but by now John Watson has learned Sherlock’s tells and he reaches for The Times with a frown of concern.
“Oh,” he says, once he’s spotted the report and read it. His fingers caress the ill-favoured swob squatting beneath his nose nervously. Then, “they’ll have hung him, for sure. My dear Sherlock, I’m so very sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Sherlock cuts him short. “I’m not. He was a supercilious braggart and an idiot for thinking he’d get away with it.”
“Well, thank God there’s some justice left in this world,” John observes in heartfelt tones, “Imagine one were allowed to walk free after murdering one’s parent.”
“There’s that too, obviously.”
“Excuse me?” John’s hand pauses between the table and his lips, which had already shaped themselves to slot onto the rim of the teacup now hanging mid-air. His nonplussed expression is lifted straight from those of the onlookers in William Hogarth’s most caustic engravings. Decency and distinctive intelligence do not necessarily a quick mind make. Besides, so far John has been spared the aggravation of an acquaintance with the elder Holmes brother.
Both the manner of Victor’s arrest and the subsequent trial bear every trace of Mycroft’s hallmark. Swift, decisive, lethal. If Victor’s crime had merely consisted of murking his father Mycroft wouldn’t have blinked an eyelid. Sherlock has convincing evidence several of his sibling’s closest cronies have dabbed in worse offences – veritable massacres – and nothing to fear as long as they continue to do Mycroft’s bidding.
Nay, Victor’s felony in the eyes of Mycroft, who is, after all, more powerful than God, lies in throwing his precious baby brother into the Navy’s manger. The likelihood of Victor having remained alive long after the verdict is nil. Cursorily, Sherlock mourns the loss of that glorious instrument he’s enjoyed worshipping ever since Victor taught him how to properly apply his tongue and lips to the effigy. But then, Victor had been less and less inclined to let Sherlock sink to his knees and partake in the rite. In reality, the untimely demise of one incumbent hasn’t altered the state of their relationship one jot.
Mrs Hudson taps the doorjamb. “Yoohoo, gentlemen, your omelette,” she announces, shooing the servant boy with his tray onto the veranda where Sherlock and John are breakfasting tête-a-tête.
“Oh. What’s wrong, Sherlock dear?” she enquires after one look at his countenance. Inwardly, Sherlock sighs, cursing John Watson under his breath for choosing the one landlady in the whole of the Indian sub-continent able to read him like a book.
“This fetid heat,” he replies, picking up the fateful newspaper and fanning his face with it. His shirt is wide open at the neck – indecent – but Mrs Hudson is old enough to be his mother and treats him with the strict indulgence he remembers from the nursery.
“You’re still resisting the warmth,” she now lectures him in stern tones. “You ought to embrace it, Sherlock, just like John does.”
“It took me a long time as well, Mrs Hudson,” soothes John. “Not everyone is blessed with your versatility with regard to the vagaries of the Indian climate.”
“No, I suppose not. Deepak.” She gestures at the rope hanging from the ceiling and the boy obediently seats himself cross-legged on the floor and starts pulling it to send the large flap of canvas over their heads swishing to and fro. “Though I often find myself wishing for a good old spell of true London fog.”
“Dear Lord, yes,” John replies dreamily. “I’d give my right leg to be able to roam London’s streets again, seeing as it’s no use to me anyway in its current state.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” decrees Sherlock. The fan’s breeze, for all its lassitude, manages to enliven his senses. “I’ve told you often enough there’s nothing wrong with your leg except the perennial tediousness of your existence here.”
“Why, Sherlock? You suggest I invite you to pressgang me?” John jokes.
“Not exactly, no. But I could talk your employer into buying us passage to London in a comfortable ship and charging my brother for the bill.”
“What an extraordinary suggestion,” the former army doctor exclaims but a newly enthusiastic Sherlock is already bending forward in his chair, holding up one hand to tick off the many advantages his proposal comprises.
“John, the state of your leg shows you’re literally bored stiff in this part of the world and, frankly, that doesn’t surprise me at all, for apart from the fossilised lot that frequents my brother’s club I’ve never in my life chanced upon a deader set of dolts. Your average London cemetery is livelier than this town, if only for the body snatchers conducting their business there.”
“Oh dear.” Mrs Hudson rests a hand over her heart and shuffles closer to the table, ears perked and determined not to miss a word.
“Your job bores you to tears. You never were cut out for a clerk. Your active mind requires your body to be active also. True, due to the wound in your left shoulder you’re no longer of use in the battlefield but a continuous struggle for life rages through London’s streets, sending many a soul astray. I’m acquainted with one of the City Watch’s most prominent members and have my own network of informants. Before Trevor introduced me to the Chinese tobacco I amused myself by nabbing criminals. Not those poor sods who steal a bread to feed their offspring and get send to the Antipodes for their efforts but people of consequence who think they may dispatch others at leisure because their rank renders them impervious to justice.”
“Oh dear,” Mrs Hudson repeats, pulling out a chair and planting her behind on the seat.
“Only imagine, John,” Sherlock enthuses and in his imagination their future blazes as gloriously fierce as the golden star beating their heads with its bright light day after ceaseless day. “The thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through your veins, just the two of us against the rest of the world...”
“Sholto will be grieved to see me go,” John says simultaneously with Mrs Hudson’s tremulous lament. “You two can’t just leave like that! You’re both like sons to me.”
“You’ll come with us, of course,” Sherlock tells her. “We need someone to serve us breakfast and tea and biscuits and my linen has never been taken better care of in my life.”
Mrs Hudson looks slightly insulted at this enumeration of her qualities and Sherlock flaps an impatient hand at her. “Oh, don’t pretend you’re a simpleton,” he says and whirls to try and talk some sense into John Watson.
“John, I understand you’re grateful to your former Major for hiring you after you were forced to leave the Army but in doing so he only acted as his betters had for him. And you’ll admit, while the arrangement lasted, Sholto couldn’t have found himself a more conscientious, willing and able assistant. Soldiers are invalided out of the army daily. Before we met your employment was your only means of paying Mrs Hudson’s boarding fees and your chances of ever returning home were zero. But now you’re parked in a position some other desperate fellow needs more than you do. And Sholto will be just as happy to engage another army comrade.”
“And what do you suggest we live on in London, then? My sister writes me housing prices have soared in this latest speculation and they had to shift to a yet more dismal part of town.”
“John, have you not listened to a word I said? Mycroft is richer than Croesus, and besides his ridiculously fat behind has been perching on this trust fund in my name ever since I came of age. As soon as he sees what a good little boy I’ve become he’ll hand over the loot with his blessing.”
To Sherlock’s astonishment, John’s cheeks flush scarlet and he fumbles with his napkin, clearly struggling to overcome a sudden rise in his temper. Oh, for the devil, what did he say wrong now?
“You expect me to live with you as your kept man, Sherlock?”
“Oh,” Mrs Hudson exclaims, exceedingly happily scandalised. “Surely not. That’s against the law, isn’t it?”
Volleys of sleet pound the windows of The Diogenes’ Reading Room as relentlessly as Boney’s cannons firing away on the Continent’s fields of battle but Mycroft is ensconced in his customary chair, lifting a celebratory glass of port wine to his lips while his feet are once more toasting near the fire. Idly he ponders the consequences of advancing Wellesley’s younger brother at this particular moment – Pitt’s gout has been troubling him lately – when Wilder pops up at his elbow and, bowing like a jack-knife, presents a note on a silver platter.
Mycroft contemplates the missive, which bears all the evidence of originating with Wiggins. Clearly the scrap of paper once began life as part of The Observer. Subsequently the noble sheet was demoted into a night covering for various unwashed bodies, package paper for a bunch of leeks and a pike in an advanced state of decay before finishing up in Wiggins’ burrow. There, it was ripped into shreds that can serve either as wicks or a means at relaying information to the British Government.
The position of Wilder’s right eyebrow tells Mycroft Wiggins has descended upon The Diogenes’s backdoor in person and is ready to wait for an answer there until either hell or Wiggins freezes over. Given the weather conditions, Mycroft thinks it highly likely Wiggins will be the first to succumb so he wriggles his left eyebrow meaningfully before waving Wilder away. The boy will be fed handsomely and be allowed to thaw out next to the great chimney in The Diogenes’ kitchens.
Wilder makes himself scarce and Mycroft opens Wiggins’ note. The letter’s dance meaninglessly in front of his eyes before arranging themselves into a message.
ma shelok arived in lundun
Initially Mycroft is convinced he’s lost the knack for translating Wiggins’ squiggles into the Latin alphabet and English phonemes. For two seconds he holds the piece of paper topsy-turvy in an endeavour to decipher the symbols, before concluding the odds of Wiggins having mastered the Hindi script are negligible. At last he reaches the inevitable conclusion that Sherlock must indeed have returned to London, and done so with his habitual rashness, thus robbing Mycroft’s informant of the chance of an advance tip-off.
According to Sholto – a tolerable enough fellow even if he was profoundly stupid but then that was the Army for you, and thank God for that institution as well as the Navy for providing the aristocracy with a respectable channel to rid themselves of buckets of talentless younger sons – Mycroft’s baby brother had been moderately content in India. That was, he hadn’t rifled the weaponry for rifles to shoot the walls with or blown up the powder magazine. Nor had he been arrested for soliciting officers of HRM’s army or servants of His government, sought out any of the opium dens or houses of ill repute or been sighted stirring unrest in the city slums. True, he also hadn’t joined the only club that aspired to at least a pretention at gentility but Mycroft would have been genuinely worried if Sherlock had expressed a desire to become a member of that particular congregation.
No, if Sholto was to be believed, Sherlock was satisfied to keep the company of Sholto’s clerk, a former army captain of partly Scottish descent by the name of John Watson as well as that of their housekeeper, a Mrs Hudson. This venerable woman, Mycroft had since uncovered, was the grass widow of a notorious highwayman who’d been shipped off to serve a life sentence of hard labour in Sydney cove a long time ago and decided to try her luck in India. Beyond doubt Sherlock would have been hard put to find a housekeeper better suited to suffer his mercurial character and here sheer fortuity had blown him straight into her lap.
Naturally Mycroft hasn’t contented himself with relying on Sholto as his only source of intelligence. John Watson’s past and that of his forebears all the way back to the sixteenth century are probably better known to Mycroft than to the man himself and Mycroft is equally certain Mrs Hudson would be quite proud of her straight lineage from one of Old Rowley’s mistresses if only she were aware of the connection.
Both of them do not conform to Mycroft’s standards of desirable companions for a minor peer, which neatly explains Sherlock’s hell for leather attachment to the peculiar pair. If he’s indeed returned to London he must have persuaded them to tag along. Whatever household the three of them will set up, it’s bound to be categorically weird and turn a few more hairs on Mycroft’s head, in addition to the ones already greying at his temples. What’s worse, Sherlock will long since have deduced Mycroft’s part in the recent direction his life has taken, and will be hellbent on driving Mycroft up the wall at least twice a week for years to come.
But oh, the relief of his younger brother being alive and safely returned to England’s fertile soil and, best of all, finally rid of the execrable Victor Trevor.
The next half an hour is one of the worst Mycroft has ever had to endure in his life. More than anything he wants to leap from his chair and dash to the kitchens to wriggle every last shred of information out of Wiggins. Instead he carefully balls the scrap of paper, throws it into the fire and does not look as the flames consume it. He feigns an interest in the newssheets and the hailstorm rattling the windows, even the port wine though the stuff might as well be bilge water for his taste buds are suddenly numb, rendered torpid by a mixture of fierce joy and apprehension. Silently he curses the image he’s painstakingly built over the past decades; Mycroft Holmes the stoic, who won’t blink an eyelid if the King expressed a desire to open Parliament dressed in nothing but his birthday suit, and will merely advise His Majesty tradition dictates the Royal Person must don the Imperial State Crown and the Robe of the State.
At long last Mycroft can contain himself no longer and yanks the bell pull. Wilder materialises at his side the second he steps into the corridor, genuflects so deeply his nose bumps his knees and hurries in front of Mycroft to the servant stairs.
Wiggins is ushered into the office to find Mycroft immersed in the implications of peace talks with the American rebels. At last his flurried hopping from one foot onto the other irritates Mycroft into lowering the papers he was perusing and looking daggers at the haphazard messenger.
“M’lud,” Wiggins breathes excitedly. “You got my note?”
“I did,” confirms Mycroft. “Is your informant trustworthy?”
“Absolutely, M’lud. Mr Sherlock hired him that time I was out of town—” There’s no need for Wiggins to finish the sentence. They both know what he’s referring to.
Mycroft nods. A clear indication Wiggins may continue.
“Mr Sherlock got off a ship from India just after dawn. Bombay the sailors told Dicky when he asked. Mr Sherlock got a coach and entered it together with another gent and a lady. They headed for Grenier’s hotel. I sent Dicky round to make certain that’s where they went.”
“Describe the others,” orders Mycroft.
“I can do better, M’lud,” Wiggins grins. “Dicky got their names. A Dr Watson, Mr Sherlock called the man John but the woman said Dr Watson and they both said Mrs Hudders when they spoke to the woman.”
“Hudson,” Mycroft rectifies.
“If you say so, M’lud,” Wiggins agrees in an affable tone.
“How…” Uncharacteristically, Mycroft falters for a moment but he regroups his wits and carries on. “My brother, did he appear in good health?”
“Gangling, Dicky said, M’lud. But Mr Sherlock has always been thin for a toff.”
Somehow, that remark hits way below the belt, even though Mycroft knows he sports an elegant figure when compared to his equals in class and years.
“That will do for now, Wiggins,” he tells the lad sharply. “Here.” He proffers a crown and lets it plummet into the grimy palm Wiggins shoves over the desk. “You may go now.”
“Aye, M’lud.” Fingers clamped tight as a vice around the coin Wiggins tips his chin and scampers for the door.
“Oh, and Wiggins,” Mycroft says when the boy lays his hand on the handle.