***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Sherry Thomas
Had anyone told the Honorable Harrington Sackville that the investigation into his death would make the name Sherlock Holmes known throughout the land, Mr. Sackville would have scoffed.
He had never heard of Sherlock Holmes. But more importantly, he despised the idea of death. Of his death, to be precise—others could die as they wished.
He loathed old age almost as much: that long, vile decline into helplessness halted only by the final breath, falling like a guillotine blade.
And yet his reflection in the mirror made it increasingly difficult to tell himself that he was still a young man. He remained a fit man, a handsome man, but the skin beneath his jaw sagged. Deep grooves cut into the sides of his mouth. Even his eyelids drooped, heavy from the passage of time.
Fear hooked through him, cold and sharp. Every man was afraid of something. For him, death had long loomed as the ultimate terror. A darkness with fangs.
He turned away from the mirror—and the unwelcome thoughts that always simmered these days a scant inch beneath the surface. It was summer. The glow of twilight suffused the house. From his perch on the headlands, the bay blazed with the flame of the setting sun. A hint of salt fragranced the breeze that meandered in; the top note of that perfumed air was tuberose, bulbs of which he had imported from Grasse, in the south of France.
But a storm was coming; inky clouds gathered at the edge of the sky . . .
He inhaled deeply. No, he must not let his mind wander to shadowy places. Recent weeks had been difficult—the events in London particularly distressing—but in time things would improve. He still had many good years left to relish life, and to laugh at death and its still distant grasp.
No premonitions crossed his mind that death was to have him by morning.
But have him it would—and the last laugh.
On the day Mr. Harrington Sackville met his darkness with fangs, certain parties in the know were bracing for—and eagerly anticipating—a major scandal involving the youngest member of the Holmes family.
Lord Ingram Ashburton did not share in their anticipation. The idea that such a catastrophe could come to pass had haunted him for days. He did not yet know that Holmes was already doomed, but a sense of dread had been growing in him, a tumorlike weight on his lungs.
He stared at the envelope on the desk before him.
Mr. Sherlock Holmes,
General Post Office,
St. Martin's Le Grand,
Any idiot could see the frustration that seethed with every stroke of the pen—at several places the nib had nearly torn through the linen paper.
The writing on the note next to the envelope was equally agitated.
And if you must, not with Roger Shrewsbury. You will regret it relentlessly.
For once in your life, listen to me.
He dropped his forehead into his left palm. It would be no use. Holmes would do as Holmes pleased, carried along on that blitheness born of extraordinary ability and favorable circumstances.
Until disaster strikes.
You don't need to let it happen, said a voice inside him. You step in. You give Holmes what Holmes wants.
And then what? Then I carry on and pretend it never happened?
He stared out of the open window. His unimpeded view of the sky appeared as if seen through a lens that had been smudged with a grimy finger—a polluted blue, a fine day for London. Peals of irrepressible mirth rose from the small park below—his children's laughter, a sound that would have brought a smile to his face on any other day.
He picked up his pen.
Do not do anything without first consulting me again.
Was he acquiescing? Was he jettisoning all caution—and all principle as well?
He sealed the unsigned letter in the envelope and walked out of his book-lined study, envelope in pocket. He was scheduled to give an archeological lecture in the evening. But first he wanted to spend some time with his daughter and son, rambunctious children at the peak of their happy innocence.
After that he would decide whether to post the letter or to consign it to the fire, like the dozen others that had preceded it.
The front door opened and in came his wife.
"Afternoon, madam," he said politely.
"My lord." She nodded, a strange little smile on her face. "I see you have not heard about what happened to your favorite lady."
"My favorite lady is my daughter. Is anything the matter with her?"
He kept his voice cool, but he couldn't stop the hair on the back of his neck from standing up: Lady Ingram was not talking about their child.
"Lucinda is well. I refer to . . ." Her lips curled with disdain. "I refer to Holmes. Your Holmes."
"How dare you humiliate me this way?" Mrs. Shrewsbury rained down blows on her husband. "How dare you?"
The painted French fan, folded up, made for a surprisingly potent weapon—a cross between a bolt of silk and a police baton. Roger Shrewsbury whimpered.
He didn't understand the way her mind worked.
Very well, he had committed an unforgivable error: The night before he'd been so drunk he mistook his wife for Mimi, his mistress, and told the wife what he was going to do this afternoon with Charlotte Holmes. But if Mrs. Shrewsbury hadn't wanted him to deflower Miss Holmes, why hadn't she smacked him then and there and forbidden him to do anything of the sort? Or she could have gone 'round to Miss Holmes's and slapped her for not having a higher regard for her hymen.
Instead she had mustered a regiment of sisters, cousins, and friends, set his mother at the helm of the entire enterprise, and stormed the Bastille just as he settled into Miss Holmes. So how could she accuse him of humiliating her, when she was the one who had made sure that a good dozen other women saw her husband in flagrante delicto?
He knew better than to give voice to his thoughts. After twenty-six years as Lady Shrewsbury's son and three as Anne Shrewsbury's husband, he'd learned that he was always wrong. The less he said, the better.
The missus continued to hit him. He wrapped his arms around his head, made himself as small as possible, and tried to disappear into a nice memory, a time and a place in which he wasn't a bounder twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year.
Lady Shrewsbury frowned mightily at the young woman who sat opposite her in the brougham. Charlotte Holmes was still, her face pale but composed.
Eerily composed, given she was now ruined beyond repair.
So composed that Lady Shrewsbury, who had been prepared for any amount of hysterical sobbing and frantic pleas, was beginning to feel rattled—a sensation she hadn't experienced in years.
Lady Shrewsbury had been the one to throw a sheet over the girl. She had then ordered her son to go home with his wife, and the rest of the women to disperse. Miss Holmes had not trembled in a corner, her hands over her face. Nor had she stared numbly at the floor. Instead she had watched the goings-on as if she were a mere bystander, one whose own fate had not in the least taken an unthinkable turn. As Roger was shoved out by his wife, Miss Holmes glanced at him, without anger, loathing, or any reflection of his helplessness.
It had been a sympathetic and apologetic look, the kind the ringleader of a gang of unruly children might give one of her followers, after she had got the latter into unlimited trouble.
Lady Shrewsbury had fully expected this bravado to disintegrate once the others had gone. She was famous for her sternness. Roger, whenever he found himself alone with her, perspired even when she hadn't planned to inquire into what he had been doing with himself of late.
But her formidableness had no effect on Charlotte Holmes. When the gaggle of eyewitnesses departed to spread the salacious story in drawing rooms all over London, Miss Holmes, instead of dissolving into tears, dressed and ordered a considerable tea service.
Then, under Lady Shrewsbury's increasingly incredulous gaze, she proceeded to polish off a plate of plum cake, a plate of cherry tartlets, and a plate of sardine and toast. All without saying a single word, or even acknowledging Lady Shrewsbury's presence.
Lady Shrewsbury controlled her vexation. Silence was one of her greatest weapons and she would not be goaded into abandoning that strategic advantage. Alas, her magnificent silence had no effect on Charlotte Holmes, who dined as if she were a queen and Lady Shrewsbury a lowly lackey, not worthy of even a spare glance.
When the girl was ready to leave, she simply walked out, forcing Lady Shrewsbury to catch up. Again, as if she weren't a strict moral guardian escorting a fallen woman to her consequences, but a simpleminded maid scampering behind her mistress.
The silence continued in the brougham. Miss Holmes studied the carriages that clogged the street—shiny, lacquered town coaches jostling for space amidst long queues of hansom cabs. From time to time her gaze fell on Lady Shrewsbury and Lady Shrewsbury had the distinct sensation that of the two of them, Miss Holmes considered Lady Shrewsbury the far stranger specimen.
"Have you nothing to say for yourself?" she snapped, unable to stand the silence another second.
"For myself, no," Charlotte Holmes said softly. "But I hope you will not be too harsh on Roger. He is not to blame for this."
Inspector Robert Treadles of the Metropolitan Police always enjoyed an outing to Burlington House, especially to attend Lord Ingram's lectures. They had met via a shared ardor for archeology—Lord Ingram had sponsored Treadles's entry into the London Society of Antiquaries, in fact.
But this evening his friend was not himself.
To the casual observer, his lordship would seem to command the Society of Antiquaries's meeting room, thorough in his knowledge, eloquent in his presentation, and deft with a touch of dry humor—his comparison of the ancient family strife caused by variation in size and ornateness of each member's jeweled brooches with the modern jealousy aroused by the handsomeness of a sibling's new brougham drew peals of laughter from the audience.
To Inspector Treadles, however, Lord Ingram's delivery had little of its usual élan. It was a struggle. A futile struggle, moreover: Sisyphus pushing that enormous boulder up the hill, knowing that it would roll away from him near the top, condemning him to start all over again, ad infinitum.
What could be the matter? Lord Ingram was the scion of a ducal family, an Old Etonian, and one of the finest polo players in the world. Of course Inspector Treadles knew that no one's existence was perfect behind closed doors, but whatever turbulence Lord Ingram navigated in his private life had never before been made visible in his public demeanor.
After the lecture, after the throng of admirers had dispersed, the two men met in a book-lined nook of the society's soaring library.
"I'd hoped we could dine together, Inspector," said Lord Ingram. "But I'm afraid I must take leave of you very soon."
Treadles was both disappointed and relieved—he didn't think he would be able to offer Lord Ingram much consolation, in the latter's current state.
"I hope your family is well," he said.
"They are, thank you. I'm obliged to pay a call on short notice, that is all." Lord Ingram's words were calm, yet there was a hollowness to his tone. "I trust we shall have the pleasure of a more leisurely meeting in the not too distant future."
"Certainly, my lord."
Inspector Treadles did not mean to delay his friend, but at that moment he remembered his other purpose for being at Burlington House this evening. "If it isn't too much trouble, sir, may I ask you to convey a note to Holmes? I'm most grateful for his assistance on the Arkwright case and wrote a few lines to that effect."
"I am afraid that would be impossible."
Inspector Treadles almost took a step back at his friend's expression: a flare of anger that bordered on wrath.
"I understand that you are engaged this evening, my lord," Treadles explained hesitantly. "My note requires no haste and needs be relayed only at your lordship's convenience."
"I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear," said Lord Ingram. All hints of rage had left his countenance. His eyes were blank, the set of his jaw hard. "I can't—nor can anyone else—convey any notes to Holmes. Not anymore."
"I—I don't—that is—" Treadles stuttered. "Has something terrible happened?"
Lord Ingram's jaw worked. "Yes, something terrible."
Inspector Treadles blinked. "Is . . . is Holmes still alive?"
"Thank goodness. Then we haven't lost him completely."
"But we have," said Lord Ingram, slowly, inexorably. "Holmes may be alive, but the fact remains that Holmes is now completely beyond my reach."
Treadles's confusion burgeoned further, but he understood that no more details would be forthcoming. "I'm exceedingly sorry to hear that."
"As am I, to be the bearer of such news." Lord Ingram's voice was low, almost inaudible.
Treadles left Burlington House in a daze, hounded by dozens of unhappy conjectures. Had Holmes leaped from a perilous height armed with nothing but an unreliable parachute? Had he been conducting explosive experiments at home? Or had his brilliant but restless mind driven him to seduce the wrong woman, culminating in an illegal duel and a bullet lodged somewhere debilitating but not instantly lethal?
What had happened to the elusive and extraordinary Sherlock Holmes?
Such a tragedy.
Such a waste.
Such a shame.