“Have you ever thought about ants?” Amyus Crowe asked.
Sherlock shook his head. “Apart from the fact that they get all over jam sandwiches at picnics, I can’t say I’ve ever given them much thought.”
The two of them were out in the Surrey countryside. The heat of the sun weighed on the back of Sherlock’s neck like a brick. An almost overpowering aroma of flowers and freshly mown hay seemed to hang in the air around him.
A bee buzzed past his ear and he flinched. Ants he was relatively ambivalent about, but bees still spooked him.
Crowe laughed. “What is it about the British and jam sandwiches?” he asked through the laughter. “I swear there’s a nursery aspect to British eating habits that no other country has. Steamed puddings, jam sandwiches—with the crusts cut off, of course—and vegetables boiled so long they’re just flavoured mush. Food you don’t need teeth to eat.”
Sherlock felt a stab of annoyance. “So what’s so terrific about American food?” he asked, shifting his position on the dry stone wall he was sitting on. Ahead of him the ground sloped down to a river in the distance.
“Steaks,” Crowe said simply. He was leaning on the wall, which came up to his chest. His square chin was resting on his folded arms, and his broad-brimmed hat shielded his eyes from the sun. He was wearing his usual white linen suit. “Big steaks, flame-grilled. Properly grilled so there’s crisp bits around the edge, not just waved over a candle like the French do. An’ not smothered in some kind of cream brandy sauce, also like the French do. It don’t take the brains of an archbishop to cook and serve a steak properly, so why can’t anybody outside the United States do it right?” He sighed, his bubbling good nature suddenly evaporating to expose an unexpected flat sadness.
“You miss America?” Sherlock said simply.
“I’ve been away for longer than a man should. An’ I know Virginia misses her home as well.”
Sherlock’s mind was filled with a vision of Crowe’s daughter, Virginia, riding her horse Sandia with her copper red hair flowing out behind her like a flame.
“When will you go back?” he asked, hoping it wouldn’t be soon. He had grown accustomed to both Crowe and Virginia. He liked having them in his life since he’d been sent to live with his aunt and uncle.
“When my work here is done.” A huge smile creased his lined, weather-beaten face as his mood changed. “An’ when I consider that I have discharged my responsibility to your brother by teachin’ you everythin’ I know. Now, let’s talk about ants.”
Sherlock sighed, resigning himself to another of Crowe’s impromptu lessons. The big American could take anything from around him, whether it was in the countryside, the town, or someone’s house, and use it as the springboard for a question, a problem, or a logical conundrum. It was beginning to annoy Sherlock.
Crowe straightened up and looked around behind him. “I thought I’d seen some of the little critters,” he said, walking over to a small pile of dry earth that was heaped up like a miniature hill in a patch of grass. Sherlock wasn’t fooled. Crowe had probably spotted them on the way up and filed them away as fodder for his next training session.
Sherlock jumped down from the wall and walked across to where Crowe was standing. “An anthill,” he said with little enthusiasm. Small black forms wandered aimlessly around the mound of earth.
“Indeed. The external sign that there’s a whole bunch of little tunnels underneath which the little critters have patiently excavated. Somewhere under there you’ll find thousands of tiny white eggs, all laid by a queen ant who spends her life underground, never seeing daylight.”
Crowe bent down and gestured for Sherlock to join him. “Look at how the ants are movin’,” he said. “What strikes you about it?”
Sherlock watched them for a moment. No two ants were heading in the same direction, and each one seemed to change direction at a moment’s notice, for no visible reason. “They’re moving randomly,” he said. “Or they’re reacting to something we can’t see.”
“More likely the first explanation,” Crowe said. “It’s called ‘the drunkard’s walk,’ an’ it’s actually a good way of coverin’ ground quickly if you’re lookin’ for somethin’. Most people searchin’ an area will just walk in straight lines, crisscrossin’ it, or divide the area up into a grid an’ search each square separately. Those techniques will usually guarantee success eventually, but the chances of findin’ whatever it is quickly are increased by usin’ this random way of coverin’ the ground. It’s called the drunkard’s walk,” he added, “’cause of the way a man walks when he’s got a belly full of whisky—legs goin’ in different directions to each other and head goin’ in another direction entirely.” He reached into his jacket pocket and removed something. “But back to the ants: once they find somethin’ of interest, watch what they do.”
He showed Sherlock the thing in his hand. It was a pottery jar with a waxed paper top held on with string. “Honey,” he said before Sherlock could ask. “Bought it in the market.” He pulled the string off and removed the waxed paper. “Sorry if this brings back bad memories.”
“Don’t worry,” Sherlock said. He knelt beside Crowe. “Should I ask why you’re wandering around with a jar of honey in your pocket?”
“A man never knows what might come in useful,” Crowe said, smiling. “Or maybe I planned all this in advance. You choose.”
Sherlock just smiled and shook his head.
“Honey is largely sugar, plus a whole load of other things,” Crowe continued. “Ants love sugar. They take it back to the nest to feed the queen and the little grubs that hatch from the eggs.”
Dipping his finger in the honey, which Sherlock noticed was runny in the heat of the morning sun, Crowe scooped up a huge shiny droplet and let it fall. It caught on a clump of grass and hung there for a few moments before strands of it sagged to the ground and lay in scrawled and glistening threads.
“Now let’s see what the little critters do.”
Sherlock watched as the ants continued in their random wanderings; some climbing up strands of grass and dangling upside down and others foraging amongst grains of dirt. After a while, one of them crossed a strand of honey. It stopped midway. For a moment Sherlock thought it was stuck, but it wandered along the strand, then wandered back, then dipped its head as though drinking.
“It’s collecting as much as it can carry,” Crowe said conversationally. “It’ll head back for the nest now.”
And indeed the ant did appear to retrace its steps, but rather than heading directly for the nest it continued to wander back and forth. It took a few minutes, and Sherlock almost lost it a couple of times as it crossed the path of other groups of ants, but eventually it reached the pile of dry earth and vanished into a hole in the side.
“So what now?” Sherlock asked.
“Look at the honey,” Crowe said.
Ten, perhaps fifteen ants had discovered the honey by now, and they were all taking samples. Other ants kept joining the throng. As they joined, others broke away and headed vaguely in the direction of the nest.
“What do you notice?” Crowe asked.
Sherlock bent his head to look closer. “The ants appear to be taking a shorter and shorter time to get back to the nest,” he said wonderingly.
After a few minutes there were two parallel lines of ants heading between the honey and the nest. The random wandering had been replaced with a purposeful direction.
“Good,” Crowe said approvingly. “Now let’s try a little experiment.”
He reached into his pocket and took out a scrap of paper about the size of his palm. He laid it on the ground halfway between the nest and the honey. The ants crossed the paper back towards the nest as if they hadn’t even noticed it.
“How are they communicating?” Sherlock asked. “How are the ants who have found the honey telling the ones in the nest where it is?”
“They’re not,” Crowe answered. “The fact that they are returnin’ with honey is a signal that there’s food out there, but they can’t talk to each other, they can’t read each other’s minds, and they can’t point with those little legs of theirs. There’s something a lot cleverer goin’ on. Let me show you.”
Crowe reached down and deftly turned the scrap of paper ninety degrees. The ants already on the paper walked off the edge and then seemed lost, wandering aimlessly around, but Sherlock was fascinated to watch the ants who reached the paper walking across it until they reached halfway, then turning and heading at right angles to their previous path until they came to the edge and then walking off and starting to wander again.
“They’re following a path,” he breathed. “A path they can see but we can’t. Somehow, the first few ants had laid that path down and the rest followed it, and when you turned the paper around they kept following the path, not knowing that it now leads somewhere else.”
“That’s right,” Crowe said. “Best guess is that it’s some kind of chemical. When the ant is carrying food, he leaves a trail of the chemical behind. Imagine it like a rag covered in something that smells strong, like aniseed, attached to one of their feet, and the other ants, like dogs, have a tendency to follow the aniseed trail. Because of the drunkard’s-walk effect, the first ant will wander all over the place before he finds the nest. As more and more ants find the honey, some of them will take longer paths to the nest and some shorter ones. As more ants follow, the shorter paths get reinforced by the chemical because they work better and because the ants can get back quicker, and the longer paths, the wandering ones, fade away because they don’t work as well. Eventually you end up with a nearly straight route. An’ you can prove that by doin’ what I did with the paper. The ants still follow the straight-line trail even though it now leads them away from the nest, not towards it, although eventually they’ll correct themselves.”
“Incredible,” Sherlock said. “I never knew. It’s not … intelligence … because it’s instinctive and they’re not communicating, but it looks like it’s intelligent.”
“Sometimes,” Crowe pointed out, “a group is less intelligent than an individual. Look at people: one by one they can be clever, but put them into a mob an’ a riot can start, ’specially if there’s an incitin’ incident. Other times a group exhibits cleverer behaviour than an individual, like here with the ants or with swarms of bees.”
He straightened up, brushing dirt and grass from his linen trousers. “Instinct tells me,” he said, “that it’s nearly lunchtime. You reckon your aunt and uncle can make some space at the table for a wanderin’ American?”
“I’m sure they can,” Sherlock replied. “Although I’m not so sure about the housekeeper—Mrs. Eglantine.”
“Leave her to me. I have bottomless reserves of charm which I can deploy at a moment’s notice.”
They wandered back across the fields and through coppices of trees, with Crowe pointing out clumps of edible mushrooms and other fungi to Sherlock as they went, reinforcing lessons that he’d taught the boy weeks before. By now, Sherlock was fairly sure that he could survive in the wild by eating what he could find without poisoning himself.
Within half an hour they were approaching Holmes Manor, a large and rather forbidding house set in a few acres of open ground. Sherlock could see the window of his own bedroom at the top of the house: a small, irregular room set beneath a sloping roof. It wasn’t comfortable, and he never looked forward to going to bed at night.
A carriage was sitting outside the front door, its driver idly flicking his whip while the horse munched hay from a nose bag hung around its head.
“Visitors?” Crowe said.
“Uncle Sherrinford and Aunt Anna didn’t mention anyone coming for lunch,” Sherlock said, wondering who had been in the carriage.
“Well, we’ll find out in a few minutes,” Crowe pointed out. “It’s a waste of mental energy to speculate on a question when the answer’s goin’ to be presented to you on a plate momentarily.”
They reached the step leading up to the front door. Sherlock ran up to the door, which was half-open, while Crowe followed on sedately behind.
The hall was dark, with buttresses of dusty light crossing it from the sun shining through the high windows. The oil paintings lining the walls were nearly invisible in the gloom. The summer heat was an almost physical presence.
“I’ll tell someone you’re here,” Sherlock said to Crowe.
“No need,” Crowe murmured. “Someone already knows.” He nodded his head towards the shadows under the stairs.
A figure stepped out, black dress and black hair offset only by the whiteness of the skin.
“Mr. Crowe,” said the housekeeper. “I do not believe we were expecting you.”
“People speak far and wide of the hospitality of the Holmes household,” he said grandly, “and of the victuals it provides to passing travellers. And besides, how could I forgo the opportunity to see you again, Mrs. Eglantine?”
She sniffed, thin lips twitching under her sharp, thin nose. “I am sure that many women succumb to your colonial charms, Mr. Crowe,” she said. “I am not one of those women.”
“Mr. Crowe will be staying for lunch,” Sherlock said firmly, though he felt a tremor in his heart as Mrs. Eglantine’s needlelike gaze moved to him.
“That is up to your aunt and uncle,” she said, “not to you.”
“Then I will tell them,” he said, “not you.” He turned back to Crowe. “Wait here while I check,” he said. When he turned back, Mrs. Eglantine had faded into the shadows and vanished.
“There’s something odd about that woman,” Crowe murmured. “She don’t act like a servant. She acts like she’s a member of the family sometimes. Like she’s in charge.”
“I don’t know why my aunt and uncle let her get away with it,” Sherlock said. “I wouldn’t.”
He walked across to the salon and glanced inside. Maids were bustling around the sideboards at one end of the room, preparing plates of cold meat, fish, cheese, rice, pickled vegetables, and breads that the family could come in and graze on, as was the normal way of taking lunch at Holmes Manor, but there was no sign of his aunt or uncle. Heading back into the hall, he paused for a moment before approaching the door to the library and knocking.
“Yes?” said a voice from inside, a voice that was used to practising the sermons and speeches that its owner spent most of his life writing: Sherlock’s uncle, Sherrinford Holmes. “Come in!”
Sherlock opened the door. “Mr. Crowe is here,” he said as the door swung open to reveal his uncle sitting at a desk. He was wearing a black suit of old-fashioned cut, and his impressively biblical beard covered his chest and pooled on the blotter in front of him. “I was wondering if it would be possible for him to stay for lunch.”
“I would welcome the opportunity to talk to Mr. Crowe,” Sherrinford Holmes said, but Sherlock’s attention was distracted by the man standing over by the open French windows, his long frock coat and high collar silhouetted by the light.
Sherlock’s brother nodded gravely at the boy, but there was a twinkle in his eye that his sober manner could not conceal. “Sherlock,” he said. “You’re looking well. The countryside obviously suits you.”
“When did you arrive?”
“An hour ago. I came down from Waterloo and took a carriage from the station.”
“How long are you staying?”
He shrugged, a slight movement of his massive frame. “I will not be staying the night, but I wanted to check on your progress. And I was hoping to see Mr. Crowe as well. I’m glad he’s here.”
“Your brother and I will conclude our business,” Sherrinford said, “and we will see you in the dining room.”
It was a clear dismissal, and Sherlock pulled the door closed. He could feel a smile stretching across his face. Mycroft was here! The day was suddenly even sunnier than it had been a few moments before.
“Did I hear your brother’s voice?” Amyus Crowe rumbled from the other side of the hall.
“That’s his carriage outside. He said he wanted to talk to you.”
Crowe nodded soberly. “I wonder why,” he said quietly.
“Uncle Sherrinford said you can stay for lunch. He said they’d meet us in the dining room.”
“That seems like a plan to me,” Crowe said in a louder voice, but there was a frown on his face that belied the lightness of his words.
Sherlock led the way into the dining room. Mrs. Eglantine was already there, standing by the wall in the shadow between two large windows. Sherlock hadn’t seen her pass him in the hall. For a moment he wondered if she might be a ghost, able to pass through walls, but he quickly decided that was a stupid idea. Ghosts didn’t exist.
Ignoring Mrs. Eglantine, he headed for the sideboard, grabbed a plate, and began to load it up with slices of meat and chunks of salmon. Crowe followed and began at the other end of the sideboard.
Sherlock’s head was still spinning after the sudden reappearance of his elder brother. Mycroft lived and worked in London, capital city of the Empire. He was a civil servant, working for the government, and although he often made light of his position, saying that he was just a humble file clerk, Sherlock had believed for a while that Mycroft was a lot more important than he made out. When Sherlock had been at home with his mother and father before being sent away to live with his aunt and uncle, Mycroft had sometimes come down from London to stay for a few days, and Sherlock had noticed that every day a man would turn up in a carriage with a red box. He would give it only to Mycroft in person, and in return Mycroft would hand across an envelope containing, Sherlock presumed, letters and memoranda that he had written based on the contents of the previous day’s box. Whatever he was, the government still needed to keep in touch with him every day.
Mouth full of food, he heard the door to the library open. Moments later, the tall, stooping figure of Sherrinford Holmes entered the dining room.
“Ah, broma theon,” he proclaimed in Greek, gazing at the sideboard. Glancing in Sherlock’s direction, he said: “You may use my library, my psykhes iatreion, for your reunion with your brother.” Turning to Crowe, he added: “And he specifically requested that you join the two of them.”
Sherlock put down his plate and moved quickly towards the library. Crowe followed, his long legs covering the ground quickly despite his apparent slowness of gait.
Mycroft was standing in the same position over by the French windows. He smiled at Sherlock, then walked over and ruffled the boy’s hair. The smile slipped from his face as he glanced at Crowe, but he shook hands with the American.
“First things first,” he said. “After quite an exhaustive investigation by the police, we have found no trace of Baron Maupertuis. We believe he has fled the country for France. The good news is that we have not found any deaths of British soldiers, or anybody else, due to bee stings.”
“It’s debatable whether Maupertuis’s plan would have worked,” Crowe said soberly. “I suspect he was mentally unstable. But it was best we didn’t take the chance.”
“And the government is suitably grateful,” Mycroft replied.
“Mycroft—what about Father?” Sherlock blurted.
Mycroft nodded. “His ship will be approaching India by now. I would expect him to disembark with his regiment within the week, but we will probably not get any word from him, or from anybody else, for a month or two—the speed of communication with that far continent being what it is. If I hear anything, I will tell you straightaway.”
“And … Mother?”
“Her health is weak, as you know. She is stable for the moment, but she needs rest. I understand from her doctor that she sleeps for sixteen or seventeen hours a day.” He sighed. “She needs time, Sherlock. Time and a lack of any mental or physical exertion.”
“I understand.” Sherlock paused, fighting a catch in his throat. “Then I am to stay here at Holmes Manor for the rest of the school holidays?”
“I am not sure,” Mycroft said, “that Deepdene School for Boys is doing you much good.”
“My Latin has improved,” Sherlock responded quickly, then mentally cursed himself. He should be agreeing with his brother, not disagreeing.
“No doubt,” Mycroft said drily, “but there are things a boy should be learning other than Latin.”
“Greek?” Sherlock couldn’t help asking.
Mycroft smiled despite himself. “I see that your rather pawky sense of humour has survived your time here. No, despite the obvious importance of Latin and Greek to the increasingly complicated world we live in, I rather think that you would respond better to a more personal and individual style of teaching. I am considering withdrawing you from Deepdene and arranging for you to be tutored here, at Holmes Manor.”
“Not go back to the school?” Sherlock searched himself for some sign that he cared, but there was nothing. He had no friends there, and even his best memories were those of boredom rather than happiness. There was nothing for him at Deepdene.
“We need to look ahead to your matriculation,” Mycroft continued. “Cambridge, of course. Or Oxford. I think you will have a better chance if we focus your learning a little more than Deepdene can manage.” He smiled again. “You are a very individual boy, and you need to be treated that way. No promises, but I will let you know before the end of the holidays what arrangements have been put in place.”
“Do I presume too much when I ask if I will have some small part to play in the youngster’s teachin’?” Amyus Crowe rumbled.
“No,” Mycroft said, lips twisting slightly, “you’ve obviously kept him on the straight and narrow so well to date.”
“He’s a Holmes,” Crowe pointed out. “He can be guided, but he can’t be forced. You were the same.”
“Yes,” Mycroft said simply. “I was, wasn’t I?” Before Sherlock could check his sudden realization that Crowe had been Mycroft’s teacher as well, Mycroft said: “Would you be good enough to allow Mr. Crowe and me to speak privately, Sherlock? We have some business to discuss.”
“Will I … see you before you leave?”
“Of course. I won’t be going until this evening. You can show me around the house, if you like.”
“We could go for a walk in the grounds,” Sherlock suggested.
Mycroft shuddered. “I think not,” he said. “I do not believe I am properly dressed for rambling.”
“It’s just around the outside of the house!” Sherlock protested. “Not out in the woods!”
“If I cannot see a roof over my head and cannot feel floorboards or pavement beneath my feet, then it counts as rambling,” Mycroft said firmly. “Now, Mr. Crowe—to business.”
Reluctantly Sherlock left the library and closed the door behind him. Judging by the voices coming from the dining room, he thought his aunt had joined his uncle for lunch. He didn’t feel like subjecting himself to the constant stream of chatter from his aunt, so he headed outside. He wandered around the side of the house, hands in pockets and kicking at the occasional stone. The sun was almost directly overhead, and Sherlock could feel a thin film of sweat forming on his forehead and between his shoulder blades.
The French windows to the library were ahead of him. The open French windows.
He could hear voices from inside the library.
A part of his mind was telling him that this was a private conversation from which he had been specifically excluded, but another part, a more seductive part, was saying that Mycroft and Amyus Crowe were discussing him.
He moved closer, along the stone balcony that ran beside the house.
“And they’re sure?” Crowe was saying.
“You’ve worked for Pinkertons before,” Mycroft replied. “Their intelligence sources are usually very accurate, even this far from the United States of America.”
“But for him to have travelled here…”
“I presume America was too dangerous for him.”
“It’s a big country,” Crowe pointed out.
“And much of it uncivilized,” Mycroft countered.
Crowe wasn’t convinced. “I would have expected him to head across the border to Mexico.”
“But apparently he didn’t.” Mycroft’s voice was firm. “Look at it this way—you were sent to England to hunt down Southern sympathizers from the War Between the States who had a price on their heads. What better reason for him to travel here than because they are here?”
“Logical,” Crowe admitted. “Do you suspect a conspiracy?”
Mycroft hesitated for a moment. “‘Conspiracy’ is probably too strong a term as yet. I suspect they have all gravitated to this country because it is civilized, because people speak the same language, and because it is safe. But give it time, and a conspiracy could grow. So many dangerous men with nothing to do but talk to each other … we need to nip this in the bud.”
Sherlock’s head was spinning. What on earth were they talking about? He’d come into the conversation just too late to make sense of it.
“Oh, Sherlock,” his brother called from inside the room, “you might as well join us, given that you’re listening in.”
Copyright © 2011 by Andrew Lane