Title: The East Wind Goes
Pairings (if any): None
Summary: Mycroft in retirement
Author's Notes: I have an Uncle Dick myself
Word Count: 2000
It was 3:55, and his attendant’s reading became less fluent as he started directing unobtrusive glances at the reflection of the clock in the glossy wooden tabletop in front of him. He would remain ignorant of the time today, of course. Over the past few years the upkeep of the reading room had suffered (as, indeed, much of the country had suffered); Wednesday was the latest in the week that the tabletop could actually be informative. On later days the smudges that accumulated on the furniture made any time-telling impossible, but Richardson (or was it Houseman?) was young and eternally hopeful, and his eye would always wander in that direction as teatime approached every afternoon.
Mr Holmes sternly rejected annoyance at the attempt to discern the time discreetly—not annoyance with Houseman, of course (right, Houseman. Richardson had enlisted the year before, and his name had appeared on the casualty lists that autumn), but with everyone else who did not even bother to pretend to the sorts of niceties that his attendant still observed. Mrs Michaels never asked him to shift his feet; she simply moved his chair away from the window like a piece of furniture to sweep up where he had been sitting. Simmons and Watt always politely greeted him, but any other questions regarding Mr Holmes were strictly third-person, directed over his head to the attendant wheeling his chair. “Did he go anywhere this weekend?” “Did the storm last night bother him?” “What does he think about the rumors about Berlin’s offer to Mexico?”
Mr Holmes used to consider objecting to these indignities himself, but he had become so familiar with the train of reasoning which before had led him to keep his peace that now he would skip straight to the end. No one ever really listened to what he had to say; they would stare at him attentively with a bemused expression, and then respond with some comment indicating they hadn’t really grasped his point. Fifty years ago even the fools could understand at least his surface meaning, which now seemed to elude anyone who heard his increasingly infrequent utterances. He knew it was not possible that the intellect of the entire population of London had declined so drastically, so the source of his isolation must originate at his end, not theirs. He did not like the conclusion, but it was illogical to do anything but accept it.
At that moment (3:59 now), Mr Holmes was surprised by a new and not entirely unpleasant thought. Houseman, although having entered his employment only recently, did not seem to participate in this otherwise universal attitude towards Mr Holmes. Further (another new thought), Houseman’s responses to Simmons and Watt were usually accurate—far more accurate than Richardson’s, which had usually been nothing more than the sorts of platitudes hired attendants must be trained to produce. In some ways Houseman reminded him of his younger brother. He could not quite read Mr Holmes’s glances the way Sherlock did, but usually a few words, which Houseman never required him to repeat, were sufficient to make his needs known, and Houseman’s correct relation of his views on recent events were apparently drawn from nothing more than the occasional grunt that escaped him while his attendant read him the paper. Indeed, Mr Holmes didn’t even think he had grunted when Houseman had read Richardson’s name in the paper, yet somehow his attendant had known that this name was important. He supposed someone might have told him the name of his predecessor, yet Houseman’s reaction was a bit too late to come from first-hand knowledge. Anyhow, it was so difficult to ask questions or corroborate uncertain deductions now that he had let the matter drop.
With this new stream of thoughts, however, that memory came back to the fore. Mr Holmes opened his eyes and glanced at Houseman with something like an interest he hadn’t felt in years. He remembered the original observations he had made when the employment agent had introduced Houseman to him: single, living with a flatmate in Bethnal Green, of irregular habits and late nights. (Sherlock had had a flatmate too, all those years ago.) He owned a gramophone, but did not like opera.
Houseman noticed the gaze now, sharper than usual, and laid down the paper.
“I do apologize, Mr Holmes,” he said. “I’m afraid my mind has been wandering a bit.”
Mr Holmes nodded, and closed his eyes again. He considered the image of his attendant in his mind’s eye. A smudge on the lapel stood out. That was odd: Houseman usually had his laundry done on Thursdays, but evidently he had skipped it this week. Why would he need to skimp? Mr Holmes opened his eyes, looked at the smudge again. Of course—make-up. Make-up for a fair-skinned woman. Well, a woman would certainly wreak havoc on a young man’s finances. He closed his eyes once more and grunted to Houseman,
“A blond, is she?”
His attendant flushed, but answered cheerfully, “Yes, sir. Susan Baker. We met in Victoria Park two weeks ago.”
How much did a week’s worth of laundry cost? He used to know, or at least command secretaries who could tell him. What trinkets appropriate for a lady would cost no more than—was that a candle-wax burn? How much could one save by stopping electricity? Well, the purple paper in his pocket was distinctive enough. He coughed. A tea-cup materialized in his hand.
“Flowers this week, sir. Maybe chocolates later, but they’re hard to come by now, you know.”
Mr Holmes examined his mental image more carefully. Of course—lilac paper, not lavender. And Harrow’s had closed a year ago. Disappointment lurked somewhere, but feeling it required too much effort, so he let it drift away.
Some time later (4:45 now) his cup was empty. Richardson had been reading the back page, but apparently the paper was finished now, for the reading room was silent. It used to be silent always, but so many of the older members had died that the no one really observed the founding philosophies of the Diogenes anymore. Mr Holmes had considered outrage, but he did appreciate having the paper read aloud.
He became aware of someone addressing him. Eyes open again—right, Houseman, not Richardson.
“ . . . and she’ll be meeting me today when I leave. She was awfully interested in meeting you, sir. She read all about you in those stories—especially the one about the Greek gentleman.”
Mr Holmes considered the idea. He remembered the stories. Sherlock’s flatmate (Wilson? Watts? No—Watts was the doorman) had written them, but under some pen-name beginning with D. (Dolan, maybe.) He had been a good sort. Mr Holmes wouldn’t have let Sherlock’s association with him continue if he hadn’t been. Houseman was a good sort too, and it was awfully nice not to have to repeat himself as often as he had around Richardson. Might as well cast an eye over the lady; it might save Houseman some heartbreak later on. He tried to nod, but found his chin already pressed into his tie, so he closed his eyes instead. Houseman correctly interpreted his assent.
“That’s very kind of you, sir. It will only take a moment, and it will mean so much to her.”
Time passed. He felt himself being wheeled towards the front entrance. The floor echoed with Houseman’s footprints, and he felt bits of grit grinding under the chair’s wheels. Evidently they still hadn’t swept yet today, and probably didn’t plan to do so before the weekend. Eventually he stopped, and heard someone else approaching. Short stature, high heeled boots. He opened his eyes, and examined Susan Baker closely. Lovely girl—blonde, of course, pale skin, blue eyes. Bad teeth.
She was looking back at him no less curiously, but her greeting was another version of Watts’ greeting this morning. The only term of address more maddening than third-person singular was first-person plural.
“How are we today, Mr Holmes? I’ve heard a great deal about you from Mr Houseman; it is a pleasure to meet you at last.”
He thought about responding; Houseman deserved that much, at least. But before he could open his mouth, she had started speaking again.
“I understand you held a position in the government. In your expert opinion, do you think England can hold her own without America?”
Her voice was odd. Something about those rhotics—too rounded. They almost sounded like w’s. The vowels were beautifully pure, but didn’t match any dialect he recognized. Mr Holmes glanced at Houseman, who promptly answered her inquiry with an accurate summary of his political views. He closed his eyes to consider more deeply. In the background, Houseman and Miss Baker continued to converse quietly, but he paid them no more attention. When he looked around again, the evening hand-off had been effected, and Mrs Michaels was wheeling him towards his lodgings. He thought about diphthongs all evening.
After coffee the next morning, Houseman responded good-naturedly to his interrogative grunt with a brief description of his evening with Miss Baker. The weather was turning warm again, so they had gone for a walk along the Regents Canal, followed by dinner. He began to relate her views on sausages, but Mr Holmes scowled, and Houseman obligingly changed the subject.
During dinner, Houseman received a note from the lady. Light green paper, addressed to him in a beautiful script. Houseman put it away quickly enough, but Mr Holmes decided he had seen enough to act. Houseman blinked in surprise when he asked for a telegraph form, but brought it obligingly enough, and dispatched it for him as soon as he had finished. The answer did not come until the following Wednesday, but when he read it he looked at Houseman and knit his brows. Houseman seemed taken aback, and Mr Holmes reflected that this was the first time his attendant seemed at a loss as to how to interpret his expression. He spoke.
“Take tomorrow off, lad.”
On Friday, Houseman came in early. His clothes were cleaned and starched, and his eyes had red rims with dark circles. His responses to Simmons bordered on brusque, and he stared blankly in front of him in the reading room while the staff brought in the tea. Finally he took a deep breath and picked up the morning paper. Mr Holmes took pity on him.
“You can skip the front page today.”
Houseman would have none of it, however. He put the paper down and looked directly at Mr Holmes.
“How did you know, sir? How could I have seen it?”
The boy would probably follow an explanation, but it was too much trouble to walk him through it. His brother had always been better at that sort of thing than he. Sherlock had needed to convince clients and police he was right. Mr Holmes had never needed to do more than give an order, and no one had ever asked for reasons. He thought about explaining about the handwriting that did not spell “Rachel” in 1881. He thought about German sausage and the weak vowel off-glides. He thought about remaining silent, but that did not seem fair to Houseman. Finally he said,
“I should introduce you to my brother, Richardson.”
The fellow pushing around the tea service finished distributing the sugar cubes and walked off to join his companion with the pastry cart. Mr Holmes heard a whispered conversation between them, but ignored it after a few sentences of So sad when you consider how it was before—over seventy, you know—I had an uncle Dick once—can linger for years like that. In the chair next to him, Houseman (right, Houseman. Richardson was dead) had started reading about Cairo. The leading headline on the discarded front page ran:
Woodrow Wilson declares war
Below the fold, another headline:
German spy uncovered in Bethnal Green
Susanne Brotmann in custody