It was in June of 1887 that I came to the employ of the most remarkable man it has ever been my privilege to know: Mycroft Holmes. This unique gentleman was beyond my usual experience, being a man of enormous intellect, combined with rare acumen and sensitivity of nature which required he live in a manner most would find difficult to endure, although he thrived on it. He was then about to celebrate four-and-forty years, a tall, portly, long-headed gentleman with heavy brows, aquiline nose, and profound gray eyes. He had schooled himself to reveal little of his thoughts with his features, but a white line around his lips occasionally revealed anger in spite of his intentions, and he had a nervous habit of twiddling with his watchfob when distracted by thought. Although he was at that time most often a man of sedentary and private habits and a strict routine which he rarely varied, his journals tell of a more active and dangerous youth. He himself admits he had a few tight scrapes in those years which I surmised at the time had left their mark upon him and upon his character. I noticed at the top of his collar on the back of his neck there is what I take to be the beginning of a long scar, but, I have never learned what caused it, or how severe the injury was.
Mycroft Holmes kept rooms in Pall Mall, a short walk across the street to his club; a second-floor flat with a sitting room, a study, a bedroom, a kitchen, a bath, a parlor, and a room for his manservant. The furnishings were largely antiques of the Stuarts’ time, though he had a few diverse items, such as his secretary, which was set up in his parlor; this piece was French, from the time of Napoleon, and Mycroft Holmes claimed he had it from his French grandmother. The carpets throughout the flat were Turkish, of first quality, one of them considered to be worth more than all the others combined. There were a number of antique brass vessels from the East, most of which were pressed into service as planters for the exotic herbs and flowers Mr. Holmes grew; his interests in horticulture had more to do with the properties of the herbs than their beauty. He had an especial fascination in poisons and opiates, and maintained a small nursery of deadly blossoms which none but himself was allowed to touch. Although never unclean, the rooms were often cluttered, for Mycroft Holmes was a man who wanted everything of interest readily to hand. No artwork adorned the walls, but there were a dozen framed maps of India, Russia, and China in the parlor and sitting room, clearly the legacy of his early service, for two of them were torn and one had a suspicious dark stain blotting its left-central quadrant that Mister Holmes had assured me was nothing more than whiskey. Four good-sized brass urns stood in the entryway of the hall, with curving Arabic script around the mouths which Mister Holmes informed me was a standard text from their sacred writings and in no way sinister, as I first supposed.
At the lime I became his personal secretary I had but recently arrived in London from Stirling, where I had been the confidential clerk to Mister C. T. J. Andrews-Nimmo, who had engaged me as soon as I left school because of my facility with languages. It was the recommendation of Mister Andrews-Nimmo that brought me to the attention of Mister Holmes, and I am forever grateful to him for his introduction to my present employer. Incidentally, my name is Paterson Erskine Guthrie. I am the son of a minor staff officer who had died of disease in the Crimea. I was then in my twenty-ninth year; my betrothal to Elizabeth Roedale had been understood by our families practically from the cradle, and so my acceptance of the post Mister Holmes offered me was cause for rejoicing for both our mothers. There is nothing outwardly remarkable about me but that my right eye is green and my left blue, and I am left-handed.
It was my custom in those early days to be up at six o’clock to break my fast before putting myself at Mister Holmes’s service promptly at seven, at which time it was my duty to copy and file all his memoranda of the previous night: Mister Holmes himself rarely rose much in advance of nine, at which time he wanted nothing cluttering his thoughts or his desk, the better to start his daily assessment of information supplied to him by many sources for his work on behalf of Her Majesty’s government.
This particular morning, however, a warm Tuesday in the middle of October, I arrived to find him awake and fully dressed in swallowtail coat, black waistcoat, and dark striped trousers, seated at his dining table over a breakfast of baked eggs, beef sirloin, and muffins. He looked up at me as I came into the parlor, and gave me a terse greeting. “Guthrie. Come in.”
Perplexed as I was to discover him already awake, I inclined my head as I would have done at any hour. “Good morning, sir. I trust I see you well.”
“You see me in good health, but you do not see me well. You have your notebook ready?” he asked without ado.
“Certainly, sir,” I said, indicating the leather portfolio I always carried. “Pencils sharpened, as well.”
“I need not have asked,” said Mycroft Holmes, and indicated his table. “Have a cup of tea if you like. Tyers!” This to his patient manservant, a former denizen of the branch of government where Holmes had his start. Now beyond service age, Tyers was in Holmes’s employ and had been for more than eight years. As Tyers appeared in the doorway, Holmes said, “Tea for Guthrie. Make it strong. And a scone or two as well, with butter and clotted cream, I think.”
“Actually, sir, I would prefer a cup of strong tea; I’ve eaten already,” I said, hoping I had not offended Mister Holmes or Tyers.
“As Guthrie likes,” Holmes said, making light of my request. He considered Tyers a moment. “It is a difficult time, but I rely upon you to continue your journal, Tyers. Your impressions can be most valuable during uncertain dealings. There is no substitute for a first keen observation.”
“As we saw in Cairo. Yes, sir; I am continuing my journal.” Tyers bowed his badger-gray head and went away.
I had gone to Mister Holmes’s writing table and was looking over his notes of the night before. There were not as many as usual, which surprised me, given the level of his unwonted morning activity. “Has there been news, sir? Has any news of the treaty leaked out? Are there developments in the Bavarian negotiations?” I asked him as I puzzled over the cryptic note I had just taken into my hand: Mister Holmes, it read. If you will forgive this importunity, I must beg you to look over the documents I enclose. How I came by them I cannot tell you, for that would bring intolerable danger to you, and I depend upon you to right the great wrong that is contemplated here. It would be catastrophic if the activities of these dire men go unchecked, and I can think of few who have the acumen to prevail against them. As prevail you must. Suffice it to say that it would mean my life if ever the authors of them learned of what I have done. In giving you this I place my life in your hands. I trust you to keep my confidence, and if I have the opportunity, I will contact you again when I have learned more.
It was signed, One who is your friend.
“You notice that there has been an attempt to disguise the handwriting, not a very successful one since the letter was plainly written in haste,” remarked my employer distantly, his attention on his breakfast. “And certainly you are aware that the writer is a woman.”
“A woman?” I exclaimed. “Why do you say that? I can see why you would say the writing is disguised, but what leads you to discern the sex?”
Mycroft Holmes sighed as he cut himself another sliver of beef and topped it with part of his baked eggs, a yellow stain of yolk spreading across the pink meat. “It is not the writing itself, which suggests a European education in its character, probably Swiss rather than French; the paper comes from Holland, if you observe the watermark. It is a matter of style, Guthrie. The way in which the writer addresses me is womanly. The manner is female.”
“Or that of a desperately frightened and helpless young man,” I proposed, and looked at the documents under the note. Immediately I saw them, I frowned. “Lord Harry. These are in code.”
“No doubt why she sent them to me. And based on German, too, from what I can tell, which is at least consistent with the rest. Ah, well. I will need a part of the morning to decipher them, I suspect.” This with no trace of boasting, though we both knew that it would ordinarily take a team of men several days to break the codes. His skill in this regard was formidable to everyone but himself; he chafed at his own desire to be faster. He saw Tyers return, bearing a tray with a pot of tea and a single cup. “Very good, Tyers. You will not be needed for another two hours. Take them for your visit to your mother. If you are a little late returning, it will not be any great inconvenience to me”
“Thank you, sir; you are most kind,” said Tyers as he placed the pot and then the cup on the table across from Mycroft Holmes. He offered Mister Holmes a short bow. “I will return as quickly as possible.” He withdrew promptly, without speaking again.
“The poor man,” said Holmes, cocking his long head in the direction of the door where Tyers had departed.
“Why do you say that?” I asked, for in the eight months I had worked for Mister Holmes, I had never heard him remark on Tyers in any way, much less to call him a poor man.
Mycroft Holmes lifted one long, large-knuckled hand. “His mother is dying and he has not been able to spend much time with her.”
I understood at once. “Thus you have given him an hour to visit her,” I said, coming back to the table, but reluctant to sit, for I was unaccustomed to such familiarity with my employer.
“You aren’t going to drink your tea standing up are you, dear boy? Oblige me. Sit. Sit.” He indicated the chair across from his and went on as I obeyed him. “Yes. It is a very sad situation. I only wish it were possible to permit him more time with her, but given the gravity of what the message you have just read implies, I fear I will need him by me.”
“Why do you say the situation is grave?” 1 asked, pouring tea through the strainer that Tyers had left next to the spoon. When my cup was near full, I set the pot down again, removed the lid and placed the strainer there. “The tone of the note is alarming, certainly, but it may be that there is—”
Holmes shook his long head. “Wishful thinking, Guthrie. From what I have discerned, there are excellent reasons to regard these papers with the utmost misgiving. I have put some time in on the codes already, and I fear we can eliminate all the usual ones. Which means we are dealing with men of great cunning, and dangerous knowledge.” He had another bite of sirloin-and-egg, chewing steadily.
“How do you mean, dangerous knowledge?” I was intrigued at his choice of words; Mycroft Holmes rarely misspoke himself.
“I mean knowledge of matters outside the realms of standard learning. Studies of the realms beyond the limits of science. You may think such teaching a sop for fools, and in the main you would be right: credulous persons are often duped by incense and candles. But there are those who have acquired specific knowledge, knowledge which grants tremendous power. The men who wrote those missives have great craft at their disposal, for their German codes are based on that ancient Hebrew work, The Kabbalah”—he stared at me to determine if I knew the work; I had, but only just—“which tells us that they are adept in hazardous disciplines. Either factor alone would be troublesome, but together, their sum is far greater than their parts.”
I laughed once, and wished I did not sound uneasy; in spite of what he said, I did not want to believe him. In this day and age, a man of Mycroft Holmes’s intellect would not be so gullible as to put credence in the occult. “Surely you don’t suppose that old superstition has any real—”
“That old superstition, as you describe it, teaches skills that very few men have been able to master. Those who have have often paid a high price for their learning.” He poured milk into his tea and stirred it contemplatively. “The secret societies and occult lodges of Europe are not often drawn into the realms of politics. But there is one such Brotherhood, and it is notorious for its relentless opposition to the rightful rulers everywhere on the continent.”
“You make them sound quite sinister,” I observed when he broke off his explanation and became engrossed in the movement of liquid in his teacup.
“If I have done that, well and good,” he declared, looking up sharply. “I would not like you to suppose that we are dealing with credulous dreamers and mad fools. These are determined and capable enemies, of ruthless intent. We underestimate them at our peril.” He finished his breakfast quickly, and I drank my tea as he did; all the while I wondered who the men he mentioned were and what he thought they might do.
When his plate was empty, Mycroft Holmes laid his napkin aside and pushed back from the table. Rising, he went quickly to the longest of the bookshelves that lined the walls of his apartments, and drew out a leather-covered volume of some age; there was foxing on the pages and the gold leaf had all but been rubbed off with wear. This he held out to me, saying, “Here. Read this. Before noon. When you have completed it, we will speak again.”
I took the offered book, noticing it was written in German: A Study of the Powers of the Unseen World I translated, and looked at the notes waiting to be copied. I read and wrote the language competently but not with ease, and on subjects of so esoteric a nature and terms with which I was not familiar, I knew I would not progress quickly through the text. It would not be possible for me to read this volume and transcribe the notes in the time he had allowed me. I weighed the book in my hands, hoping to think of some way to inform Mister Holmes of my predicament.
Mycroft Holmes followed my implication, and gave an impatient wave of his hand. “You may do your transcriptions later, Guthrie. This is much more important, and must be dealt with immediately.” He picked up his saucer and cup, and carrying them with him, began to pace. “Foremost in my mind is the letter: I am concerned for the unfortunate who wrote that warning.”
“You mean the one who is your friend?” I asked.
“Yes. For if she is acting against the Brotherhood as I fear she is, her life may well be forfeit before the sun sets. She must be aware that she is in increasing danger with every passing hour. If she still lives as I suspect she does, she will have no protection against any action taken against her.” His grave mien revealed his concern far more than the tone of his voice. “If they discover she has betrayed their cause, they will demand the highest price for her daring.”
“Surely it is not so hazardous as that, sir,” I exclaimed, all the while reflecting that in the seven months I had been in his employ, I had never known Mycroft Holmes to magnify a risk beyond its true scale.
“It may, in fact, be much worse. There is said to be some difficulty developing in the negotiations in Bavaria,” He coughed once, a signal that he was dissatisfied with such arrangements.
“Surely there can be no connection,” I protested, and went on in defense of my own theory, “If those codes are truly based in German, would it not be more likely a diversion prepared by the Russians or the French or the Turks, for that matter, than the work of the Germans themselves?”
“It is possible, but I doubt it: I will know more when I have finished with these codes,” he said quietly, and rose from the table, dropping his napkin negligently on his plate where the last of the sirloin juices stained the edge of the linen red. “I will be in my study, if you should require me.”
“I think I can manage,” I said with deference, and rose from the table quickly, reaching for my unfinished cup of tea.
“You will need more of that before you are finished for the morning,” Mycroft Holmes observed. “I will have brandy waiting for you when you are done.”
“Brandy?” I repeated, somewhat taken aback. Never before had my employer suggested I take spirits while I was at my work.
“When you are done with that, you may need it,” he answered cryptically.
* * *
from the private journal of philip tyers:
Mother much worse today. She is failing steadily. Dr. J. informs me that she will not be lucid many days more and has urged me to spend what time I can with her now.
This afternoon M.H. took time to inquire into the circumstances of Mother’s ill health. I informed him that Dr. J. believes it to be a general failing of health brought about by age and the vicissitudes of her life. M.H. did not seem satisfied with this answer, and asked if before she had been taken ill, she had suffered from agitation and had an odor of carbolic on her clothes or her bedding. I had no knowledge of the state of her bedding or clothes, but I did remark that she was much distressed and restless before her collapse brought her to hospital. My response caused M.H. grave concern, for he instructed me to investigate her clothing as soon as possible to determine if such an odor clings to them. He is unwilling to explain his reason to me until he learns more about her clothing.
M.H. is planning to send G. on a mission to the Continent for him shortly. I hope G. is ready for the work.
Copyright © 1997 by Quinn Fawcett