Travel broadens, they say. My personal experience has been that, in
the short term at any rate, it merely flattens, aiming its
steamroller of deadlines and details straight at one's daily life,
leaving a person flat and gasping at its passage.
On the first of January, 1924, I was enjoying a peaceful New Year's
evening with my partner and husband, Sherlock Holmes, in our snug
stone house on the Sussex Downs, blissfully unaware that scarcely
forty hours later I would be sprinting desperately for a train
across a snow-covered railway siding. But on the first day of the
new year, I was at peace and I was at home, with a full stomach, a
tipsy head, and-most pleasant of all-warm feet. No fewer than three
bottles of wine stood on the sideboard, in various stages of
depletion. Holmes had just taken a connoisseur's sip of the last to
appear in our glasses, a dusty port twice as old as I. He sighed in
satisfaction and stretched his slippers out to the fire.
"It is good to find that the French vineyards are recovering from
the War," he noted, although of the three wines, only the champagne
had gone into its bottle since 1918.
I agreed, rather absently I will admit. As I took a swallow of the
glorious liquid, it occurred to me that some part of the back of my
mind was braced for a ring of the telephone or a furious pounding
on the door. The visceral mistrust of leisure was perhaps
understandable: Twice in the past six months the outside world had
crashed in on us; indeed, we had been similarly seated before the
fire one evening a scant two months earlier when an investigation
literally fell into our arms, in the form of an old friend with a
bloodied head. It was not yet midnight, and I had no faith in our
stout oaken door to keep out surprises of the kind Holmes tended to
attract. However, pleasantly enough, no pounding fist came to
trouble our companionship or, later, our slumber, and we rose early
the next morning, fortified ourselves with one of Mrs Hudson's
hearty breakfasts (this one even more elaborate than usual, to make
up for her being cheated of preparing the dinner for this, my
twenty-fourth birthday), and bundled into our warmest clothes for
the sleetdrenched trip to London. We rode the train in silence,
taken up with our thoughts and with the newspapers, both as
cheerless as the landscape outside the windows. Foot-and-mouth
disease, the rising Seine, and doomsayers with apocalyptic
predictions on both sides of the Atlantic, set off by the recent
Grimmer yet was the real reason for our visit to the great city. We
had no end of business there, of course, from a long-delayed
appointment with the bank manager to calling on a noble family in
order to follow up on our most recently concluded investigation,
but in truth, we were there to see Holmes' brother Mycroft, whose
health was giving, as the euphemism goes, cause for concern.
He was home from hospital already, although the doctors had
strongly advised against it, and embarked on his own programme of
therapy. I personally wouldn't have thought a near-starvation diet
of meat and red wine combined with long hours of vigorous
calisthenics would be the best thing for a shaky heart, but not
even Holmes' arguments made much of an inroad on Mycroft's
determination. We had maintained a closer contact with him than
usual over the past week and a half, none of us voicing the thought
that each visit could well be our last. We hurried through the
day's business, I listening with an ear to the urgent recitation of
calamity that trembled over the head of my American possessions,
thinking only that, affection for my father or not, the time had
come to rid myself of his once-cherished properties across the sea.
I kept glancing at my wrist-watch, until finally with a sigh my
solicitor threw up metaphorical hands, gave me the papers that
required my signature, and allowed me to escape.
When we arrived at Mycroft's door, however, I had to admit that his
self-prescribed fitness régime did not seem to be doing him
He was up and around, and if he opened the door in his slippers and
dressing gown, he moved without hesitation and had colour in his
face. There was also nearly a stone less of him than there had been
Christmas Day, which made his jowls flaccid and his eyes more
hooded than usual.
"Many happy returns of the day, Mary," he said, and to Holmes, "I
believe you'll find a corkscrew on the tray, if you'd be so kind."
After toasts came the inevitable discussion of the impending
disaster that the new Labour government was certain to bring in.
Predictions were rife that the institution of marriage was sure to
be done away with, that rubles would replace the pound sterling,
the Boy Scouts and the monarchy would be abolished, the House of
Lords sold for housing flats-everything short of plagues and rains
of frogs. There were strong rumours that the Prime Minister would
refuse to step down to Labour's minority vote, thus igniting a
constitutional crisis if not outright revolution; the newspapers
that morning had mentioned the concern of America, politeness
thinly concealing Washington's growing alarm. When I said something
of the sort, Mycroft nodded.
"Yes, the Americans are becoming increasingly nervous about
Reds. They seem to envision a Socialist state that stretches from
London to Peking, and don't know whether to be more worried about
Bolsheviks succeeding, or about the chaos that will follow if they
When we had exhausted the various topics, we sat down to a meal
only marginally less sumptuous than one of Mycroft's usual,
accompanied by what passed for small talk and polite conversation
Holmes household, in this case an interesting development in
forensic science from America and a nice murder that was baffling
the authorities. Dessert was a small decorated cake, which none of
us ate. The pouring of coffee, offer of brandy, and fingering of
cigars indicated that the meal was finished, business could be
resumed. The talk circled back through the Labour victory and the
huge problems facing a minority government, before Mycroft took a
last, ritual mouthful from his cup, put it onto the table, and
asked, "Have you been following the news from Russia?"
My head snapped up as if he'd hauled back on my reins-which in a
way, he had: I knew him far too well to think his question
"No!" I said sharply, before things could edge one syllable further
down that slippery slope. "I absolutely refuse to go to Moscow in
He made a show of shifting feebly in his chair, letting out a quiet
sigh of infirmity before he looked up. "I said nothing about
"Siberia, then. Some place either deadly or freezing, or
He abandoned the attempt at innocence. "I would go myself," he
tried, but at my disbelieving snort and Holmes' raised eyebrow, he
dropped that as well. All the world knew that Mycroft Holmes went
nowhere outside his tightly worked circle if he could possibly
avoid it: Dr Watson had once referred to Mycroft's unexpected
appearance in their Baker Street flat as akin to finding a tram-car
running down a country lane.
It did, however, answer a question that had been in the back of my
mind ever since the general election, namely, how would the radical
change in government affect Mycroft? Mycroft's rôle in the
outgoing Tory government was as undefined as it was enormous; it
seemed he intended to simply ignore the shuffling of office-holders
all around him.
"What has happened, Mycroft?" Holmes asked, drawing my attention
back to the until-now overlooked fact that, if Mycroft, in his
condition, had been consulted on a matter by whichever government,
it had to have struck someone as serious indeed.
By way of answer, the big man reached inside the folds of his
voluminous silken dressing-gown and pulled out a flat,
oilskin-wrapped packet about three inches square. He put it onto
the linen cloth and pushed it across the table in our direction.
"This came into my hands ten hours ago."
Holmes retrieved the grimy object, turned it over, and began to
pick apart the careful tucks. The oilskin had clearly been folded
in on itself for some time, but parted easily, revealing a smaller
object, a leather packet long permeated by sweat, age, and what
appeared to be blood. This seemed to have been sewn shut at least
two or three times in its life. The most recent black threads had
been cut fairly recently, to judge by their looseness; no doubt
that explained the easy parting of the oilskin cover. Holmes
continued unfolding the leather.
Inside lay three much-folded documents, so old the edges were worn
soft, their outside segments stained dark by long contact with the
leather. I screwed up my face in anticipation of catastrophe as
Holmes began to unfold the first one, but the seams did not
actually part, not completely at any rate. He eased the page open,
placing a clean tea-spoon at its head and an unused knife at its
foot to keep it flat, and slid it over for me to examine as he set
to work on the second.
The stained document before me seemed to be a soldier's clearance
certificate, and although the name, along with most of the words,
was almost completely obscured by time and salt, it looked to
belong to a K-something O'Meara, or O'Mara. The date was
unreadable, and could as easily have been the 1700s as the past
century-assuming they issued clearance certificates in the 1700s. I
turned without much hope to the second document. This was on
parchment, and although it appeared even older than the first and
had been refolded no less than four times into different shapes, it
had been in the center position inside the leather pouch, and was
not as badly stained. It concerned the same soldier, whose last
name now appeared to be O'Hara, and represented his original
enlistment. I could feel Mycroft's eyes on me, but I was no more
enlightened than I had been by the certificate representing this
unknown Irishman's departure from Her Majesty's service.
Holmes had the third document unfolded, using the care he might
have given a first-century papyrus. He made no attempt to weigh
down the edges of this one, merely let the soft, crude paper rest
where it would lest it dissolve into a heap of jigsaw squares along
the scored folds. I craned my head to see the words; Holmes,
however, just glanced at the pages, seeming to lose interest as
soon as he had freed them. He sat aside and let me look to my
This was a birth certificate, for a child born in some place called
Ferozepore in the year 1875. His father's name clarified the
difficulties of the K-something from the other forms:
I looked up, hoping for an explanation, only to find both sets of
grey Holmes eyes locked expectantly onto me. How long, I wondered,
before I stopped feeling like some slow student facing her
disappointed headmistress? "I'm sorry," I began, and then I paused,
my mind catching at last on a faint sense of familiarity: Kimball.
And O'Hara. Add to that a town that could only be in
India…No; oh, no-the book was just a children's adventure
tale. "I'm sorry," I repeated, only where before it had connoted
apology, this time it was tinged with outrage. "This doesn't have
anything to do with Kim, does it? The Kipling book?"
"You've read it?" Mycroft asked.
"Of course I've read it."
"Good, that saves some explaining. I believe this to be his amulet
"He's real, then? Kipling's boy?"
"As real as I am," said Sherlock Holmes. "And yes, this is his
amulet. I recognise it."
"You know him?" I don't know why this revelation startled me as if
he'd claimed to have met a hippogryph; heavens, half the world
considered Holmes fictional. But startle me it did.
"I knew him, long ago. We spent the better part of a year in each
He smiled to himself. "While I was dead."
I knew my husband and partner was not referring to some
spiritualist experience of a previous lifetime. "When I was dead"
was his whimsical term for the period beginning in the spring of
1891, when he disappeared at Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls, and
for three years wandered the globe, returning to London only when a
mysterious murder called him back to the land of the living.
Knowing that Mycroft had preserved his Baker Street rooms for him
during those three years, and knowing what Mycroft was, I had no
doubt that at least a portion of that time, Holmes had been about
the Queen's business.
Still, I had never heard the details. I was not to hear them now,
either. Holmes had already turned to his brother, and was asking,
"How did these come to you?"
"Through the hands of a certain captain who has an interest in both
"The man who currently holds the same position that Creighton did
then, fellow by the name of Nesbit."
"And the story that accompanied them?"
"So tenuous as to be nonexistent. An Afghan trader brings a rumour
that a light-skinned native man is being held by a hill raja. Six
months later, a camel caravan modifies the story, that the man was
being held but took ill and died, asking that these, his last
effects, be returned to his people. We did trace the amulet's
arrival to such a caravan, but no man could say who had carried it
south, or whence it came."
Holmes nodded, but said only, "I find it difficult to imagine that
particular individual being held against his will."
I broke in, with a request I did not think unreasonable,
particularly as we seemed to be on the edge of being dragged into a
case involving Kimball O'Hara. "I'd appreciate a little background
information, just a few details about what you were doing when you
knew the boy."
Holmes glanced sideways at his brother, assessing his condition,
then suggested, "Perhaps it would be best if we saved the tale for
a later time."
I started to protest, then decided that Mycroft's colour was indeed
not peak, and brought my curiosity under control, allowing them to
Mycroft answered, "As you say, it takes some doing to imagine
O'Hara in custody for more than a few days. He was-how did you put
it to me?
'Wily as a mongoose, slippery as a cobra, more deadly than either.'
"If not in custody, then what?"
"The Bear is awakening."
" 'The Bear,' " I said. "You mean Russia? But I thought our
relations with them had settled down-don't we even have a trade
agreement now with the Bolsheviks?"
"Oh, yes, they've played on our attachment to India by accepting
industrial supplies in exchange for little more than a verbal
guarantee that they would cease their intrigue in the
sub-continent. But then last May, Curzon had to threaten to
withdraw trade unless they took their agents out. And, oh the
surprise, they have not."
"And you imagine the Bolsheviks might have laid hands on
O'Hara," Holmes asked, sounding dubious, "or got him in their
sights, where the Tsar's agents could not?"
"Not precisely," Mycroft replied.
Holmes frowned. "A native agent, then, who worked his way
O'Hara's guard?" He seemed only a shade less doubtful about this
possibility, but still Mycroft shook his head.
"Sherlock, I am not convinced the man is dead."
"What, then? Not dead, not held, then-No," Holmes said sharply as
Mycroft's meaning fell into place. "Kimball O'Hara would never side
with the Russians against the Crown. Never."
"Perhaps not side with them, necessarily, but use them? As a tool
for India herself? The move towards self-rule-Gandhi's swaraj-has
adherents on all levels throughout the sub-continent, and between
their systematic obstructionism and the actions of outright
revolutionaries, the country is a powder-keg. One more atrocity
like Dyer's and the entire country will rise up, battering its own
way between the British and the Bolsheviks. Neither of whom has
much affection for Mr Gandhi. But even lacking outright revolt, the
educated classes are pressing strongly for a voice in their own
affairs. And the boy was always more native than white in his
"Sensibilities, yes, but not in his loyalties. He would not turn
coat against His Majesty."
"Then perhaps he is truly imprisoned. Or dead."
Holmes did not answer. Instead, he took up the much-folded papers
from the table, holding them to the light, one by one, for a long
and close study. He found no marks, no pinpricks, nothing to
indicate a secret message to the outside world. He even turned the
leather case outside-in, as if the stitches of closure might have
been embroidered into a code, but there was nothing. And as I knew
that Mycroft would have given the objects the same scrutiny, I did
not bother doing the same: If neither Holmes brother had found a
hidden message, it was unlikely that I should do so.
"Has Kipling been questioned?" Holmes asked.
"The last he heard of O'Hara was in 1916. A letter of condolence
arrived some months after Kipling's son was killed."
"Who was O'Hara's contact within the Survey?"
"O'Hara hasn't worked with the Ethnological Survey for nearly three
years, but at the time it was Nesbit, and before that, Apfield. You
knew him, I think?"
"We met," Holmes said, not apparently enchanted with the
He turned to me to explain. "The Survey of India is responsible for
producing accurate maps of the country, but it is also the home of
the Ethnological department, wherein lies Intelligence. Under cover
of survey and census, the British government assembles the subtler
kinds of information concerning secret conversations and illicit
trade among the border states. When I was there, Colonel Creighton
headed the Survey. A good man." He finished packing the documents
into their leather amulet case and slid the object back across the
table to Mycroft. "You need me to go?"
"I don't want to ask," Mycroft said, which was answer enough.
"We're off to India, then?" I said. Ah well; we'd had a pleasant
holiday for nearly an entire week. And at least it wasn't Russia:
India was the tropics, which meant that my chilblains, begun in
Dartmoor in October and not improved by two months in an
underheated Berkshire country house broken by a cross-Atlantic trip
for a missing ducal relative, might have a chance to heal. Still, I
thought of the newspaper headlines I had read on the train,
"Hindu-Moslem Bitterness-Riot in Calcutta Suburb," and suppressed a
sigh. "Do we have time to pack a bag?"
"I shouldn't think so," Holmes said absently.
"Holmes!" I protested, but to my surprise, Mycroft came down on my
"The Special Express leaves Victoria at one-forty tomorrow
The P. & O. steamer meets it in Marseilles at midnight
Plenty of time."
Not precisely what I would term plenty of time, but better than
taking off for the East in the clothes I stood up in. Which
request, frankly, wouldn't have surprised me. We were even allowed
to finish our coffee before having to race for a cab.
The late train for Eastbourne was standing at the platform when we
reached Victoria, but for some reason it proved unusually popular,
with the result that we did not have a compartment to ourselves.
This meant that the tale of Kimball O'Hara had to wait until after
the car had deposited us at our door, and we had retrieved our
trunks from the attic, and we had begun to pack them. Mrs Hudson,
although we insisted we could manage, wrenched the clothes from our
hands and took out her copious supply of tissue-paper. I admitted
defeat and, leaving her bemoaning the lack of time to repair and
tidy the summer-weight garments retrieved from the back of the
cupboards, I followed Holmes down the hall-way and into the
laboratory, where I cornered him.
"Very well, Holmes, you may proceed."
"About young O'Hara? Yes, an intriguing lad. You know his history,
"Born in India to Irish parents; mother died early; father drank
himself to death, leaving Kim in the charge of a native nurse, who
let him run wild so that he grew up in the bazaar."
"Save that it was opium that killed O'Hara, not alcohol, the rest
"As I remember it, when the boy was twelve or thirteen he finally
came to the attention of the authorities, particularly the man who
was in charge of the spy network operating along the Northwest
Frontier. That was Creighton. He sent the boy to school for a while
to learn his letters and numbers, before reclaiming him for the
Intelligence service. Kim and some other agents foiled a Russian
plot, something about treason among a group of hill rajas, and
that's where the book ends."
"It was immediately after that tale's conclusion that I met him. He
was only seventeen, but already a full operative of the Survey. He
had befriended an old Tibetan lama, and was returning him to his
home when our paths coincided, and I joined them."
"You mean you actually got to Tibet? I assumed that was one of
Conan Doyle's romanticisms. Wasn't Tibet closed to outsiders until
Younghusband's expedition in, what was it, 1904?"
"That set off in the final weeks of 1903, and yes, all that time
Tibet was closed tighter than a miser's purse-string," he said with
"Which is why I needed to accompany the lama."
"And you wanted to go to Tibet because . . . ?"
"Mycroft, of course."
"Of course," I muttered.
"This was 1892, when the Russian threat was at its height. The Tsar
wanted India, the Viceroy wanted to know which pass the Cossacks
would come pouring through, and I happened to be on hand. As was
young Kimball O'Hara. I had joined with a group of explorers,
calling myself Sigerson, and made a lot of careful notes and maps.
O'Hara came to our camp one black night, begging food for his lama,
this grubby dark-skinned lad with eyes that saw everything. As he
was leaving, he allowed his shirt to fall open and reveal a certain
charm around his neck which, combined with an exchange of phrases,
told me that he, too, was engaged in the 'Great Game' of border
espionage. He crept back to my tent at midnight and we had a long
talk, and ended up travelling together for a time. Most of what we
did is no doubt still under lock and key in some ministry office,
but after the Bolshevik revolution, I had assumed that the need for
guarding India's passes had faded. However, it would seem that in
Mycroft's eyes, The Game persists, albeit against different
He made to leave the room, but I had to protest, for his tale had
been in no way adequate.
"But what was he like?" I persisted.
By way of answer, Holmes paused with his hand in a trouser pocket,
then drew it out and dashed the contents onto the table nearest the
door. A handful of small, disparate objects danced and rolled and
threatened to fall to the floor, but no sooner had they come to a
rest than he scooped them up again, and turned a questioning
eyebrow on me.
We hadn't done this particular exercise in a long time, but I had
sufficient experience with Holmes' ways to know what his action
"You wish me to play Kim's game?" I asked.
"The boy himself called it the 'Jewel Game,' but yes."
It was a test of one's perception, first of seeing, then of
committing to memory. I was tired, and I couldn't see what this had
to do with my question, but obediently I began to recite.
"Three mismatched collar studs; a nubbin of India rubber; two
paper-clips, one of them Italian; the cigar-band from Mycroft's
cigar; a gold pen nib; the button that came off your shirt two
weeks ago that you couldn't find, so that Mrs Hudson replaced all
the shirt's buttons at a go; the stub end of a boot-lace; a
seed-head from last summer's nigella; a penny, a halfpenny, and a
farthing; two pebbles, one black and the other white; a tooth from
a comb; and one inch of pencil."
He smiled then, and headed back into the bedroom. "You and
O'Hara will find you have much in common, I think." When I
protested that he hadn't answered me, he put up his hand. "We shall
have many days of leisure in which to recount fond tales of
derringdo, Russell. But not tonight-we have much to do before we
catch that train. And, Russ?" I looked up to find him outlined in
the doorway, a pair of patent-leather shoes in his hand, his face
as grim as his voice. "Make certain to pack adequate ammunition for
We rose from our brief rest to a world of white, and the news that
the trains to London were badly delayed. Nonetheless, we had my
farm manager Patrick put the horses into harness and take us to the
Eastbourne station, where we found that indeed, the London trains
were not expected to reach Victoria until late in the
I glanced at my hastily packed bags and tried not to look too
"That does it, Holmes. We shall have to wait until next
"Nonsense. Off you go, Patrick, before you end up in a drift over
I shrugged at my old friend, who touched the brim of his cloth cap
and picked up the reins. Holmes had already turned to the station
master, a lugubrious individual long acquainted with this
particular passenger's idiosyncrasies, and, I thought, secretly
entertained by them. Very secretly.
"Are the telephone lines still up?"
"Not to London, Mr Holmes."
"What about the telegraph?"
"Oh, aye, we're sure to get a message through by some route or
The two went off, heads together. I looked at the trunks, gathering
snowdrifts to themselves, and took myself inside out of the
A couple of hours later something intruded upon my attention: a
pair of shoes gleaming at me over the top of the book I'd snatched
from Holmes' shelves on the way out the door. I blinked and
straightened my bent spine to look up into my husband's face. His
grey eyes were dancing with amusement.
"What is it?" I asked.
"Russell, I am constantly filled with admiration at your ability to
immerse yourself in the task at hand."
I closed The Riches of Mohenjo-Daro and rose, in some
confusion, only noticing when I was upright that the trunks had
been brought in and arranged at my side, long enough ago that the
snow had not only melted but dried as well. What was more, a tea
tray someone had set by my other side bore a half-empty cup and a
half-eaten biscuit. I could taste the biscuit in my mouth, but I
had no recollection whatsoever of having consumed either.
"Glad I amuse you, Holmes. What have you arranged? An aeroplane
journey to Marseilles? A sub-marine boat to run us to Port
"Nothing so exotic. The delay is due less to the quantity of snow
than it is to something on the tracks the other side of Lewes. All
other trains, though slow, are still getting through. Mycroft has
arranged for the Express to wait for us in Kent."
I looked at him with astonishment. "I should have thought a
submarine boat easier to arrange than the delay of a train."
"The Empire is but a plaything to the whims of Mycroft Holmes," he
commented, glancing around for a porter.
"The Empire, yes, but the Calais Express?"
"So it would appear, even with the Labour Party bearing down on the
Not that the catching of it was a simple thing. It meant boarding
an east-bound train, one of those locals that pauses at every
cattle shed and churchyard, and which cowers in a siding every few
miles that an express may thunder past in majesty. Not that
anything much was thundering that day; I began to suspect that even
Mycroft's best laid plans might leave us stranded in the middle of
Kent. Still, I had a book.
Either through mechanical problems or through some deep-seated
class resentment of the driver (he'd probably cast his ballot for
Socialists), our train stopped well short of the assigned
This expression of class solidarity (if that is what it was) became
somewhat derailed itself when Holmes summoned many strong men to
haul our possessions over the slippery ground, to the puzzlement of
the local's passengers and the huge indignation of those on the
Express. Class warfare at its most basic. Holmes did, however, tip
the men handsomely.
The instant we had spilled into the waiting train it shuddered and
loosed its bonds to steam furiously off for Dover. I understand
that mention was even made in the next day's Times of a
puzzling stop in the wilds of Kent for a hasty on-load of essential
governmental equipment. Mycroft's decrees were powerful
The entire trip to Marseilles carried on as it had begun, rushed
and uncomfortable. And dreary—it was on that train that we
read of the death of the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, an old
friend of Holmes' whose problems on Dartmoor had occupied our early
autumn. Then the Channel crossing was rough, so rough that I spent
the entire time braving the sleet-slick deck rather than succumb to
sea-sickness, reaching Calais with nose, hands, and toes not far
Paris was flooded, its higher ground packed with refugees and their
bags, the train crowded and all the first-class sleepers occupied
by fleeing residents. We spent Friday with an aged Italian priest
and his even more aged and garrulous sister, both of whom exuded
clouds of garlic.
The rain and snow persisted, slowing the journey so much that I
began to doubt that we would actually arrive before the steamer had
departed, but in the end, the boat, too, was held (for the train as
a whole, not merely for the two of us), and when we reached the
docks, our possessions were hastily labelled and carried on,
divided between cabin and hold. We scurried up the ice-slick
gangway in the company of a handful of other train passengers,
slipping almost apologetically onboard the sleeping boat, witnessed
only by P. & O. officials and, I thought, one or two other sets
of eyes in the higher decks, their presence felt but unseen in the
Once in our cabin (this, at any rate, had no priest in residence) I
crept into bed, praying that exhaustion would take my body into
sleep before the pitch and toss of the boat asserted itself. To my
relief, such was the case: The steam-roller of the past fifty-four
hours rumbled over my recumbent body, and my last memory was of
Holmes wrestling open the small port-hole, letting in a wash of
frigid air scented with salt, and nary a hint of garlic.
I woke a long time later to a more subdued sea, a pallid attempt at
sunshine, and the ting of a spoon against china. When I
reached for the bed-side clock, my hand knocked against the water
carafe; after a moment Holmes came through the doorway with a cup
of tea in each hand. He set one on the table, and sat down on the
other bed with his own. It was, I saw, nearly noon.
The tea had the bitter edge of a pot that has sat for a while, but
it was still hot, which told me that Holmes, too, had slept late,
and was only on his second cup. I slurped in appreciation, grateful
that the bed wasn't tossing beneath me.
When the cup was empty, I threaded my glasses over my ears so I
could see my partner.
"I suppose I shall be spending the next two weeks being force-fed
some language or other?" I asked.
"Hindustani is the common tongue of the north, used by all traders.
You won't find it difficult."
"Before we begin, I want to know more about this O'Hara
"Not a 'person,' a young gentleman, despite his history and
"But he was only a lad when you knew him."
"That was, what, thirty years ago? Why hasn't he made a name
himself in that time?"
"A man does not play The Game successfully for thirty years and
more if he catches the eye of any but his superiors."
"O'Hara has been a spy for the Crown for all that time?"
"O'Hara has been many things, but yes, he has been there when he
"Tell me about—"
"Breakfast first, and a lesson in Hindi. Then I shall tell you old
and happy, far-off things and battles long ago."
He reinforced his edict by standing up and walking into the
I finished my tea, dawdled over my morning rituals, and joined him
moments after our mid-day breakfast came through the door. As I
came in, he looked up from the fragrant plate and said,
"Begumji, hazri khaege?" Lessons had begun.
At first my mind tried to slide the new language sideways into its
niche for Arabic, a tongue I had learnt under similar circumstances
five years earlier, but by the end of the afternoon, it had
grudgingly begun to compile a separate store-house of nouns and
verbs in a niche labelled Hindi. With concentrated (that is,
around-the-clock) effort, the rudimentaries of most languages can
be grasped in a week or two, with childish phrases and a continual
"Pardon me?" giving way to slow, stilted fluency a week later. By
the end of four weeks, under
Holmes' tutelage, I had no doubt that my somewhat bruised brain
would be dreaming in its newest tongue. And it went without saying,
my accent would be identical to his, that is, negligible. By the
time we landed in Bombay, I would be able to pass for a genial
idiot; another fortnight, and I would merely sound stupid.
However, it seemed that Hindustani was not the only subject
Holmes had in mind. When our plates were clean and I had
satisfactorily recited the nouns and articles for all the objects
on the tray, he swept the leavings to one side and laid a pair of
tea-spoons and a linen napkin onto the table between us, and began
a demonstration of sleight-of-hand.
Under the command of those long, thin, infinitely clever fingers,
the silver came alive. It vanished and reappeared in unlikely
places; it multiplied, shrank, changed shape, became near liquid,
and finally sat quietly where it had begun.
I knew his tricks—basic conjuring was a skill I'd begun to
learn early in our relationship—but my young fingers had been
no match for his. Still, I'd spent one summer conjuring with coins
so, although the spoons were more difficult to palm and vanish, my
grip was accustomed to the motions. Now I picked up one of the
spoons and performed a few of his moves back to him, albeit more
slowly and clumsily, and leaving out the multiplication trick since
he had stashed the other spoons somewhere about his person.
He looked on critically, grunted his approval, and produced the
spare silver from an inner pocket. I had been many things as first
the apprentice, then the partner of Sherlock Holmes: gipsy
fortune-teller in Wales, personal secretary to a misogynist
colonel, Bedu Arab wandering the Palestinian desert, working girl,
matron, and Sweet Young Thing. Now, we were going to India, where I
supposed I might be asked to dance in a harem or take up a position
on the street among the lepers. Or perform conjuring tricks.
"We're to be Hindu magicians?" I asked.
"As Dr Johnson said, 'All wonder is the effect of novelty on
ignorance.' And as fire-breathing bears the hazards of flaming
beards or self-poisoning with phosphorus or brimstone, and the more
spectacular conjuring depends on equipment too heft for easy
transport, we shall concentrate on prestidigitation."
He settled back and steepled his fingers for a lecture; I poured
myself another cup of coffee.
"We in the West have developed the unfortunate habit of training
and arming insurgents, then dropping them when they become
inconvenient. As a result, there is a certain lack of long-term
trust on the part of the native inhabitants, even those who declare
themselves our stout friends. And as a part of that lack of trust,
we cannot always be certain that our 'friends' are telling us all
they know. The Northwest Frontier of India has known spies for so
many generations, even the least sophisticated of communities
suspects any outsider of nefarious purposes. One of the perpetual
dilemmas for the man wishing to come and go freely along the border
territories has always been finding an acceptable disguise to
justify his presence, so that he is not thrown into gaol, or
summarily shot. Some players of the Great Game go as hakims,
with patent cures for fever and eye infections to supplement
rudimentary medical skills; others bluster their way as hunters,
collecting heads and skins openly as they surreptitiously map an
area. I've known wandering antiquarians, big-game hunters, and
itinerant durzis—tailors—but each depends on
specific skills. One wouldn't care to be a durzi if one
could not handle a needle, for example. O'Hara was note-perfect as
a holy man, due to his long wandering in the company of a Tibetan
lama. But for the man—or woman—with the necessary
skills, one of the best disguises is that of a travelling
entertainer. Native peoples expect a magician both to be itinerant
and to behave in a mysterious fashion. And as long as there are no
inconvenient coincidences, no village bullocks die or floods come
to wash out the crops, the people are happy to accept most witchery
as benign. I want you to practise your movements until you can do
them backwards in your sleep."
I could see already that we wouldn't be spending much of the voyage
up on deck, open to curious ears and eyes.
Too, this would clearly not be a visit among the exotic comforts
India. From the sounds of it, we'd be lucky to sleep under a
Worst of all, this talk of "frontier" made my heart sink and my
chilblains tingle: It did not sound as if the warm,
frangipani-scented south was to be our destination.
was not until tea-time that Holmes broke off the lessons, when my
tongue and my fingers were both about to stutter to a halt. We went
up to the salon for tea, and the genial drink coupled with the
fresh Mediterranean air soothed me as if I'd been granted an
Afterwards, we bundled up and strolled the decks, where at
Holmes began the story of his meeting with the young Kim
O'Hara—in Hindi alternating with English translations, a
broken narrative rendered yet more difficult to follow by the
necessity of switching to something innocuous whenever another set
of ears came near. It was a method of discourse with which, by that
time, I had some familiarity: I had known the man at my side for
just under nine years, been his partner for five, his wife for
"It was in the spring of 1891 that I encountered Professor Moriarty
at the Reichenbach Falls, an encounter from which only I walked
away. Watson, as you know, thought I had met my death there, and
made haste to inform the rest of the world. I was indeed dead to
the world for three long years. When I finally returned to London,
I told Watson that my absence had been due to the ongoing
investigation of the Moriarty gang, but in truth, my heart had
grown weary of the game. When I set off for my meeting with
Moriarty, I anticipated that our final confrontation might well
cost my life. To find myself still standing on the edge of the
Falls while Moriarty was swallowed by its turbulence—it was
as if the sky had opened up and a shiny Christmas parcel had been
lowered into my waiting hands. All it required was for me to tug at
"The temptation was enormous. I had by that time been working out
of Baker Street for ten very solid years, and although many of the
cases were of interest, a few of them even challenging, I had
reached a point at which the future stretched long and dull ahead
of me. I was, remember, a young man, scarcely thirty, and the
thought of returning to the choking fogs and humdrum crime of
London was suddenly intolerable.
I stood with the Falls at my feet and gazed down the path leading
back to Watson and duty, then up at the steep cliff that was my
other option, and my hands reached for the cliff.
"Once at the top, setting my face to the East, I paused. In fact, I
sat among the bushes and stones for so long, I saw Watson reappear
in a panic on the path below me. I saw the poor fellow find the
note I had left there, saw him . . . He wept, Russell; my loyal
friend broke down and wept, and it was all I could do not to stand
and hail him. But I was silent, not because I wished to cause him
sorrow, not even because I had a thought-out plan of action. No, it
was merely that I had been given the priceless gift of choice, and
could not bring myself to throw it away.
"I made my surreptitious way back to London, and to Mycroft's door.
My brother was surprised to see me, and I venture to say pleased,
but he was not in the least astonished—we are enough alike,
we two, to distrust a death without laying our thumbs on the
corpse's pulse. And as it turned out, my very public demise had
come at an opportune time for his purposes.
"What do you know of the conflict along India's northern frontier?"
he asked me.
I know that war in one form or another has gone on for most of the
last century, until the Bolshevik revolution five years ago. The
Tsar wanted to extend the Russian borders across the mountains into
Afghanistan and ultimately India, while we kept him out by a show
of force and holding close watch on the passes. In the meantime,
both sides have been mistrusted, manipulated, and often murdered by
the countries in the middle; the Afghans particularly have made the
trapping of outsiders a national sport."
"In 1891," Holmes resumed, "Kim O'Hara was seventeen years old and
fresh from school when he was dropped straight into the thick
The Game. A pair of 'hunters' came out of the hills carrying, along
with their rifles, trophies, and a collection of well-hidden survey
equipment, secret messages from the Tsar to some hill rajas
entertaining treasonous thoughts. O'Hara was at the time in the
company of his lama, and used his rôle as the man's
chela, or disciple, to conceal his government work. The job
was hard and nearly killed him, but he succeeded in capturing the
relevant letter, and was rewarded by being turned loose for a time.
His lama was dying and wished to breathe his last in
Tibet—and the boy's superiors knew full well that if they
attempted to keep him from his duties as a disciple, he would
simply slip the reins and vanish."
"Yes. A country all too aware of its vulnerability and its
desirability, and therefore closed with grim determination against
the eyes of all foreigners, a place with the habit of executing
anyone even suspected of secret doings, a place where no Westerner
had ever set foot. Unfortunately, just four months earlier, a
Survey agent had gone missing from a mission into the reaches of
Tibet, and it was feared that he had been taken captive, and was
being questioned, under fairly drastic means—certain pieces
of inside information had come to public knowledge. It was feared
that any agent known to this man was in danger of exposure."
"So Mycroft suggested sending in someone whom the man could not
have known," I supplied. "You."
"Correct again. The timing was coincidental—my own unlooked
for availability and their sudden and urgent need for a competent
stranger. And although by the time I reached India, O'Hara and his
lama had left the plains, I managed to join a Scandinavian
expedition into the mountains whose path would coincide with
"Wheels within wheels."
"Quite an appropriate image, Russell. The Tibetans often pray by
means of a wheel spun on the end of a stick, its body filled with
written prayers. With prayers, or with any other piece of writing a
man might wish to carry with him. A map, say, or the copy of a
"So you persuaded a couple of Tibetan monks to take on a Norwegian
"They were, as I mentioned, begging for their meal by the side of
the road, as is customary for religious individuals in the East. I
was in the habit of concealing a roll in the breast of my coat, for
just such an eventuality, and slid inside it a wadded-up note
suggesting that a 'son of the charm' might find a friend in the
tent with the orange door. The boy came to me after his lama was
asleep that night, bristling with suspicion, fingering in a most
un-monk-like fashion the revolver he wore inside his shirt lest I
prove an enemy—or worse, a colleague set on dragging him back
to his responsibilities.
"I gave him food—the boy ate meat as if he was starving,
which he may well have been—and tobacco, and we sat on our
heels in the dark and talked. He was the most remarkable blend of
hard and soft, cunning and naïve, schoolboy one moment, petty
criminal the next. He was a prodigy, who'd played a similar Game in
the streets before he'd even heard of Crown or Tsar—if
Creighton had sat at a drawing-board to design the very tool for
bearing the Survey's eyes and ears, he couldn't have come up with
anything better than Kimball O'Hara. His only weakness was a
distaste for lying to his friends, and even then, he would practice
deceit joyously when it was part of The Game.
"In the end I managed to convince the lad that, far from wishing to
pull him out of the mountains, I would urge him to go as far and as
wide as he could with his lama—my sole request being that he
take me with him. Two purposes had I: The more immediate was to
find word of Creighton's missing agent, but beyond that, I had been
asked, if it came into my purview, to whisper into the Dalai Lama's
ear that, despite the alarming actions of certain importunate
missionaries, England was in fact more interested in treaty than
takeover. That we had no wish to rule Tibet, merely wished Tibet's
assurance that they would not side with Russia and allow The Bear
to use their land to stockpile troops and matériel for an
invasion of India.
"At that time, I had no real thought that I would be allowed within
shooting distance of the Dalai Lama, much less close enough to
converse. That possibility came much later.
"The boy didn't want me. He was afraid I'd give them away, and
bring some impossible-to-predict form of wrath down on his
However, he was greatly tempted, seeing that supporting my
assignment might go some way towards obviating his rebellion
against his Survey masters.O'Hara would freely have given his life
for the lama,but it troubled him greatly to give up his future. In
the end, the benefitsoutweighed the risk, and he agreed to take me
"Because the old lama was growing feeble, he and the boy moved more
slowly than our well-equipped expedition. So I remained a Norwegian
for some weeks, and acquitted myself well enough to receive mention
in the world press before the Scandinavians pulled back to the
foothills in front of the snows. I went with them, then slipped
away and doubled back to join O'Hara.
"Somehow or other he'd managed to assemble another set of monk's
clothing for me, complete with prayer-beads and the sort of
tam-o'-shanter cap they wore."
I paused in our peregrination of the foredeck to study Holmes,
trying to picture him in the colourful fittings of a Tibetan monk.
I could not.
"We wintered just below a pass, taking shelter in a monastery of
like-minded individuals until the snows retreated in the
"That must have felt like a long winter," I commented. If he'd
England because he hungered for action, months in a snow-bound
monastery must have been hugely frustrating.
But to my surprise, he leant forward to rest his elbows against the
ship's rail, a half-smile coming onto his narrow mouth as memories
took his gaze to the horizon. "In some ways, yes. Certainly it
didn't take long to run out of objects to play the Jewel Game with.
But those two, the young white boy raised as a street urchin and
the ancient Buddhist scholar, made for the most extraordinary
company I've ever encountered, Russell. The one bursting with youth
and beauty, the other a sea of wrinkles, the one a guttersnipe and
petty thief, the other a revered head of a monastery—but when
they met, the old man laid a potter's hands on the boy, and
re-formed him in his image. The bond between them was so powerful,
and so completely unlikely, it made one begin to believe in the
doctrine of reincarnation. It was the only way to explain it, that
they'd known each other many times over the ages."
I stared; the strange thing was, I couldn't tell if he was
He felt my gaze, and although he did not meet it, he straightened
and went on more briskly. "In any event, the winter did grant me
sufficient leisure to become word-perfect as a red-hat monk. I
spent many hours teaching the boy certain skills he might need, if
he chose to return to the road of the Intelligence agent, and in
exchange he coached me until I could recite the lama's prayers
better than he could, could expound on texts and write simple
charms. And long hours out-of-doors in that high altitude rendered
my skin as dark as those around me. When the pass cleared, I could
probably have strolled into Lhasa without them.
"But Lhasa was where the lama was bound, and Lhasa was where his
chela, and now their companion, would take him.
"We crossed over into Tibet in late March, reciting our rosaries
all the way. The snows were so high, I would have chosen to wait
another fortnight, but the lama was impatient—for a man who
had attained enlightenment, he could be remarkably susceptible to
his desires—and O'Hara thought himself strong enough for
both. In the end, I had the old man on my back for a number of very
rough miles—and at fifteen thousand feet, that can be rough
indeed. But we half-staggered, half-rolled down the other side,
tipped our hats to the startled border guards and said a blessing
on their unborn sons, and went our way.
"And there we were, inside Tibet, two British sahibs in a
place where, had they known, the countryside would have swarmed up
like an anthill and exterminated us, or at the very least thrown us
out on our ears. But because the lama was known and loved, and
because he vouched for his chela and the companion who had
joined them some months before, no man questioned us, no official
barred our way.
"I spent the rest of that summer and autumn there, during which
time I succeeded in locating our captured agent—who was not
actually within Tibet, but gaoled in a neighbouring
kingdom—as well as planting amiable suggestions in certain
important ears. I even managed two audiences with the Dalai Lama
himself, who was much of an age with Kim, and although he hadn't
young O'Hara's advantages in the wide world, he was nonetheless
remarkably sensitive to nuance and willing to question his
advisors' assumptions about the British threat.
"In the end, young O'Hara left his lama long enough to help me
break the agent free from his prison and to secret him into hiding
near the border. I tried to convince the lad to come with me back
to India, but he stood firm. He was utterly devoted to his lama,
and he had given his word: He would not leave until the old man was
finished with his chela's services. Neither of us thought
that would be past midwinter, but I had no choice but to leave, and
return the prisoner to his home. We parted there, on the road fifty
miles from Lhasa, and never saw each other again."
The wistfulness in Holmes' voice, his faraway gaze over the water,
the fact that he had neglected to interject the running Hindi
translation for the past five minutes, all gave me the odd, sure
sensation that a part of him regretted that he had not remained
behind, deep in Tibet with the boy and his lama. It was a peculiar
feeling, finding this entirely unsuspected stream flowing within a
man I believed I knew so well.
And, as I could not then admit, not even to myself, the knowledge
brought with it a faint trickle of jealousy of the apprentice
Holmes had taught so assiduously, and come to admire so warmly,
nearly a decade before I was born.
Before the Port Said light grew on the horizon, our new shipboard
community was well on its way to becoming an ephemeral
In many ways, it was a duplicate of the society we had left behind:
the aristocracy of First Class on the upper decks, the peasantry of
enlisted men, clerks, and their families under our feet, with the
true labouring classes either tidily concealed beneath P. & O.
uniforms or else thoroughly hidden away in the bowels of the ship.
Rigid social custom swayed not a millimetre in the dining rooms:
One never spoke to a neighbour at table if one had not been
introduced, and since there were few mutual acquaintances to
proffer the necessary introductions, conversation was largely
nonexistent. Holmes and I attended few of the dining room
Other areas of the boat were less severely bound by the strictures
of human intercourse. In the exercise room, for example, it proved
difficult to maintain a dignified formality with the woman at the
next stationary bicycle when both of you were sweating and panting
and furiously going nowhere. And because of the limited population
in our floating village, group events such as card games,
mah-jongg, or table tennis tended to require a certain loosening of
rules in order to maintain a pool of players, which broke the ice
sufficiently to permit one to nod to one's fellow player when one
came upon him or her perambulating the deck the following
However, as I used the ship's gym rarely and played neither
mahjongg nor table tennis, I was permitted, in the brief periods of
free time permitted me by my taskmaster, to remain firmly sheltered
with my books. I had finished with the archaeology of Mohenjo-Daro
and was sitting bundled on a sheltered deck chair with a
translation of the massive and hugely complicated Hindu epic called
The Mahabharata, when an unexpected voice intruded.
"So, what are you going as?"
I blinked up at the voice, which had come from a slim girl of
perhaps seventeen who was dressed in an ever-so-slightly garish fur
coat, a pleated skirt, a cloche hat over her bobbed hair, and a
long beaded necklace. She was standing near the railing, trying to
set alight the long cigarette she'd fitted into an even longer
ivory holder; the wind was not giving her much joy with it.
"I beg your pardon?" I asked. I couldn't think what she was talking
about, nor did I think we had met.
She seemed unaware of the repressive overtones in my question,
unduly taken up with the problem of getting the match to meet the
tobacco before the wind blew it out. I thought she had not been
smoking long. Come to think of it, her presence on such an
inhospitable and deserted bit of deck might not be unrelated to her
inexperience: hiding from a disapproving parent, no doubt.
"The fancy-dress ball," she explained, and then bent over the match
to shelter it, nearly setting her fur coat on fire in the process.
At last—success. With an air of accomplishment she let the
wind snatch away the spent match, placed the ivory mouthpiece to
her lips with two elegant fingers, sucked in a lungful of smoke,
and promptly collapsed in a gagging, retching fit of coughs that
left her teary-eyed and weak-kneed. I sat with my finger between
the pages, watching to see that she didn't stagger over the
railings, but the fit subsided without my assistance. She
hiccoughed once, swabbed her eyes, and tottered over to collapse
onto the empty deck chair next to me, glaring accusingly at the
cigarette that burnt serenely in its holder.
"Next time just hold the smoke in your mouth," I suggested,
"instead of pulling it all the way into your lungs."
"Whew!" she exclaimed. "I mean to say, I've smoked before, of
course, but I guess the wind . . ."
"Quite," I said, and opened my book again.
"So, what are you going as?"
"Sorry? Oh, the fancy-dress ball. I didn't realise they had one." I
might have done, had I stopped to consider the matter. Shipping
lines invented all sorts of ways to keep their passengers from
succumbing to the throes of boredom, and encouraging wealthy men
and women to make utter fools of themselves was a popular ploy, not
the least because it ate up hours and hours in the preparations. "I
shouldn't think I'll be going."
"Oh, but you have to!" she said, sounding so disappointed I had to
wonder again if we didn't know each other. But before I could ask,
I noticed her burning tobacco sinking forgotten, dangerously close
to her coat.
"Er, watch the end," I urged her.
"Oh! Gosh," she exclaimed, patting furiously at the smoldering fur
and plucking the still-burning cigarette out of the holder, tossing
it into the wind, which I hoped might be strong enough to carry the
ember clear of the unsuspecting passengers below. "Maybe I'm not
cut out for smoking."
It was on the end of my tongue to reassure her to never mind, she'd
pick it up with practice, but I kept the thought to myself. Why
I encourage the maintenance of a filthy habit?
"Mama wants me to dress as a Kewpie doll, but I was thinking of
being an Indian dancing girl—you know, scarfs and
A certain degree of negotiation was clearly in store for the girl
and her mother. Who was she, anyway?
As if I had voiced the question aloud, she thrust the ivory holder
into her pocket and stuck out her hand. "Sorry, I'm being rude. I'm
Sybil Goodheart. Everyone calls me Sunny."
"Mary Russell," I offered in return.
"And of course, you're just joking about not going to the ball. I'm
so bad, I never can tell when someone's pulling my leg. What are
you going as?"
I gave up; the child was too persistent for me. "Perhaps I'll just
wear my pyjamas and go as the downstairs neighbour, come to
She clapped her hand across her mouth and giggled, blushing
slightly, perhaps at the idea of a proper lady coming in her
For a Flapper, she was easily shocked.
"You're an American," I said. If the accent hadn't told me, the
brashness would have.
"From Chicago. You ever been there?"
"I passed through once, when I was young."
"It's got to be the world's stinkiest city," she declared.
"What're you going to India for?"
"Er, my husband and I have business there." Impossible to give the
deflating retort a proper Englishwoman would have wielded at the
importunity of the question; poor Sunny would have gone behind the
"Is that nifty old—er, older man your husband?" she asked in
"I mean to say, Mama and I noticed him earlier when you were on the
"That is my husband, yes," I told her. And if she delivered a third
rudeness, I would smack her. Verbally, of course. "And you, why are
you going out?"
"I'm a little late for the 'fishing fleet,' aren't I?" she said
with a most disarming grin. "Actually, we had meant to come out in
Mama had a message from the spirits saying it was inauspicious, so
we waited, which in the end was fantabulous, because I got to meet
Ivor Novello at a party in London."
" 'The spirits,' " I repeated carefully.
Sunny inclined her head towards me and confided, "Hokum, isn't it?
But Mama has had some powerful experiences in her time, and who's
to argue? That is to say, I did argue at the time, because who
wants to come all the way here and have to skedaddle away after a
few weeks as soon as the weather gets hot? But Mama chose her time,
and we will at least have a month to sight-see before we go to see
There was no mistaking the capital letter on the noun. Knowing I
was going to regret it, I asked her which teacher that was.
"His name's Kumaraswami Shivananda, have you heard of him? No, most
people haven't. Mama met him when he was on a lecture tour through
the States, and came to Chicago. He's absatively keen for an old
man—has to be at least forty, but has those dark eyes that
seem to look right through you. Anyhoo, he channels the spirits,
especially one he calls The Vizier, who was something big in
ancient Egypt. The Vizier sent Kumaraswami on his world tour, to
gather pupils and then teach them all about enlightenment through
the body. Ever so much nicer than all those skinny,
unhealthy-looking characters who tell you to renounce all
sensation, don't you think?"
"Is, er, Kumaraswami Indian, then, or Egyptian?"
"Oh, no, he's from Pittsburgh. But The Vizier spoke to him one day
in a séance and told him to change his name and go to India,
so that was that."
Keeping my face straight was a struggle, but I agreed solemnly that
enlightenment through the body did sound far nicer than some of the
ascetic disciplines I had heard of. Sunny smiled, not knowing what
I was talking about, but happy to have found what she took to be a
"Have you ever been to a séance?" she asked.
"I, er, I know people who have."
"They're bunk, really, but tons of laughs. Everyone sitting so
serious and then the channeller begins making all these squeals and
groans, and you have to sit there fighting not to giggle."
At least I shouldn't have to warn the child not to be too gullible,
I reflected, somewhat relieved.
"Come meet Mama and Tom?" she urged, jumping to her feet as if
there could be no doubt that I would instantly agree.
"I should be getting back to w—" I started, but she
"Oh, just for a jiffy! They're right below us waiting for tea, it
would be ever so nice to show Mama I've made a friend so that when
I want to go off and flirt with those tasty young officers she
Who was I to shackle a free spirit such as Sunny Goodheart? And if
she had originally intended to join the "fishing fleet" of eligible
young women travelling to India to hook a husband, she would need
all the help she could get to make up for three months of lost
time. "I'd love to meet your mother," I said, causing her to give a
little jump of pleasure before she seized my hand and led me down
the deck towards the stairs. It was impossible not to smile at the
creature; despite her dress and her cultivated worldly airs, she
struck one as little more than a child.
Mama, on the other hand, was formidable, and I vowed not to venture
into the heavy waters of theology with a woman possessed of that
determined jaw. I offered her my hand, did not bother to correct
Sunny's introduction of me as "Mrs Russell," and then shook the
hand of the tall young man who had been seated at Mrs Goodheart's
side. He had placed a bookmark in his collection of the works of
Marx (an English translation) before unfolding himself from the
deck chair, a process rather like that of a standing camel or an
He was at least three inches over six feet, taller even than
Holmes, and thin to the point of emaciation. One might think he'd
been ill, except his colour was good and his movements, although
languid, showed no discomfort.
"And this is Tom," Sunny told me. "My brother. He finished at
Harvard last June and has been taking the Tour in Europe. He
decided to include India, since Mama wanted to go. Tommy's a
Communist," she appended proudly.
Personally, I couldn't see much to be proud of, either in the
political stance or in the young man himself. Tom Goodheart's
features were pleasing enough, and he appeared to have some wiry
muscle under his European-tailored jacket, but even seated, he
looked down his nose at one—not openly, but behind an
expression so bland, one immediately suspected it of being a mask.
I decided that he was a member of the supercilious
generation—no doubt he fancied himself an artist or a
philosopher, or both—and the attitude as much as the clothes
the three wore told me that Communist or no, money did not go
wanting in the Goodheart family. The swami from Pittsburgh, I
decided, was on to a good thing.
"How do you do?" I said, and before Sunny could drag up a chair
(and it would be she who dragged it, not her brother) I glanced at
my wrist and began to apologise. "I'm terribly sorry, I just
remembered that I promised my husband I'd meet him a few minutes
ago, it went right out of my head. Lovely to meet you, I look
forward to seeing more of you all on the voyage."
And made my escape.
in the end, there would be no escaping Mrs Goodheart. The following
afternoon, the rapidly filling pouches of my brain threatening to
burst and spill out all the verb forms and adjectives I had
ruthlessly crammed inside, Holmes and I took a turn around the
deck. It was, I found, very pleasant indeed, with a degree more
warmth in the winter sun. As we strolled arm in arm, dodging
nannies pushing perambulators and the marching khaki-shorts
brigade, I was doubly grateful that our haste had forced us to
bypass the inevitably heaving Bay of Biscay and pick up the boat in
the relative calm of the Mediterranean.
Had we boarded in Southampton, I should only now be recovering from
Then I heard a voice from a shaded corner, and the biliousness
threatened to return.
"Mrs Russell, how good to see you. Won't you introduce us to your
Two-thirds of the Goodheart family, mother and son. I opened my
mouth to correct the American matriarch, but despite her opening
volley, she did not wait for introductions, merely thrust her
manyringed hand at Holmes and said, "Mr Russell, glad you could
join us. We were just talking about you, wondering if you were
going to hide out in your cabin the entire trip."
"Actually," I began, but this time Holmes broke in, taking a brisk
step forward to grasp the woman's hand.
"Mrs Goodheart, is it?" he said. "And this must be your son.
Afternoon, young man, I hope you're enjoying your voyage?"
Amused, I let my correction die unborn: It seemed that Holmes was
to be "Mr Russell" for a time.
Mrs Goodheart ordered her son to find another chair; to my
Holmes did not object. Instead, he settled into the deck chair at
her side as if a leisurely contemplation of the sea in the company
of a bossy American spiritualist was just the thing for a Sunday
Bemused, I subsided into the vacant chair on Mrs Goodheart's other
side and waited to see what Holmes was up to.
"Where is Sunny?" I asked the mother.
"She said she was going to try her hand at shovel-board. I would
have stayed to watch, but I found the sun rather warm for my
delicate complexion. She'll be here in a while, I'm sure. And you,
Mrs Russell—have you found some shipboard
Stuffing my head with Hindi verb forms and hurling tea-spoons back
and forth at my husband, I thought, but said merely, "I'm not much
of one for games, Mrs Goodheart."
"Sunny will change that," she said, with a somewhat alarming
confidence. "Thomas my dear, tell the Russells what you've been
The languid young Marxist settled into the chair he had caused to
be brought, and launched into a recitation of the Paris literary
salons visited, the avant-garde artists met, the underworldly
haunts flirted with, the firebrand politicians-in-exile drunk with.
He had even met Lenin—well, not met, precisely, but they had
been at a function in Moscow at the same time early the previous
autumn, and had friends in common.
"And tell them about your maharaja," Mrs Goodheart said, oozing
"Oh, you mean Jimmy?" he said, magnificently casual. "Fellow I met
last year—at the same party Lenin stopped by, in
fact—turns out he's a maharaja. Never know it by looking at
the man, he's as common as you or me" (Sherlock Holmes did not even
blink at being dubbed "common") "and interested in everything. We
got to talking about the States, he wanted to know if I'd ever seen
a herd of buffalo—he called them bison, turns out they
already have a kind of buffalo there in India, very different
animal, could get confusing. I had to tell him I'd personally only
seen them in a zoo, but that I had a pal who lived out in the
Plains and he had one he kept as a pet. Well, Jimmy—his
name's Jumalpandra, but that's a bit of a mouthful—he got so
excited, nothing would do but for me to cable my friend immediately
and ask where Jimmy could get a few bison for himself.
"Turns out the fellow's got a reputation as a sporting maharaja,
travelled the world taking all sorts of big game, but he's getting
tired of the local varieties, the buffalos and tigers and such. So
he's started his own zoo, been buying up breeding stock of game
animals from around the globe—lions from Africa, emus from
Australia, panthers from South America. That's why he was in
Russia, to arrange for some wild boar to juice up the local
variety. Any rate, he'd heard somewhere that bison were great
sport. And as luck would have it, a friend of my pal could get his
hands on three cows and a bull."
Mrs Goodheart broke in. "And since Thomas here arranged it, the
maharaja's invited us to come and spend some time with him. In his
kingdom," she added, lest we think they were to be shelved in some
Bombay hotel. "Khanpur is its name."
A mild expression that might have been annoyance flitted
Tom Goodheart's face, irritation at having the climax of his story
snatched away, but before he could respond, a hugely contrasting
swirl of pink and white merriment came dashing up the deck to
"Oh! Mrs Russell, how super! Have you ever played shovel-board? On
a boat? You shove the little puck down the deck and it's going
perfectly and then the boat tilts a little and—oops! There
goes your nice straight shot, so then you try to compensate on the
next turn and the deck tilts the other way and there goes your shot
to the other side. Oh, it's ever so funny!"
"Sunny, this is Mr Russell," her mother told her.
"Oh!" the girl squeaked. "So pleased to meet you. Your wife is such
a darling, and such a sense of humour!"
"Oh yes," Holmes agreed gravely. "Quite the joker is my
The girl turned to me again. "They're going to have an egg race
next. Wouldn't you like to come and join?"
There was very little I would enjoy less than a shipboard egg race,
but since one of those lesser pleasures was the idea of remaining
within reach of Sunny's mother and brother, I made haste to stand
before we could be assigned some other task. "I won't participate,
but I shall come and cheer you on."
Holmes would have to manufacture his own escape.
The old-fashioned egg race was every bit as fatuous as I had
expected, the girls shrieking and giggling and bouncing on their
toes for the benefit of the onlooking officers. One side of the
deck had been roped off for the games, but the participants were
somewhat thinner on the ground—or rather, on the
boards—than they would have been during the autumn migration.
Still, the girls made up for it in selfconscious enthusiasm during
the first two heats of the P. & O.'s quaint idea of fun. After
those, however, the paucity of numbers brought about a defiant
change of house rules, and the relays became co-educational. The
baritone voices were accompanied by a shift in the merriment to
something resembling true competition, and if the men looked even
more ridiculous than the women had in racing down the deck with
spoon and teetering egg, everyone had a splendid time, and there
was plenty of opportunity for jovial banter and a certain degree of
innocent physical contact.
The change in noise, however, attracted the parental authorities of
those girls young enough to view the game merely as pleasurable
exercise linked with mild flirtation instead of early negotiations
in the serious economic business of matrimony. Repressive
suggestions were made, Mrs Goodheart decreeing that Sunny looked
quite flushed and a rest might be in order before it came time to
dress for dinner, and the egg-race orgy died a natural death. The
young men straightened their collars and went back to their
corners; the young women recalled their sophistication and lounged
off for a cigarette, illicit or open, depending on the smoker's
age. Holmes and I seized the opportunity for retreat.
We made for the less occupied reaches of the deck, up where smuts
drifted from the steamer stacks and the vibration from the engines
far below bounced one's feet on the boards. I had a coin in my
hand, to practice flipping it across my knuckles. My fingers were
remembering the drill and becoming more supple, the motions more
"Why on earth did you wish to speak with those people,
"That is 'Mr Russell' to you."
"I merely wished to examine the phenomenon of a wealthy and
educated young American who embraces the cant of the Bolsheviks. I
have some familiarity with his British counterpart, but I was
interested to see if there were regional differences."
"And were there?"
"None of import. The aristocracy amuses itself in many ways, among
which is the pretence of being a commoner. You will note, however,
that rarely is the claim accompanied by a renunciation of status or
"I suppose it's a harmless enough flirtation. Better than yanking a
variety of exotic animals from their homes and shipping them
halfway around the globe in order to shoot them."
"Having granted them a long and prolific life before their demise,"
he pointed out mildly. "And by comparison with the extreme
behaviour of some of the native princes, the attitude of young
Goodheart's maharaja seems fairly tame. The boredom of the
aristocracy reaches new highs amongst India's hereditary rulers,
and the lengths to which some of them go to escape it—well,
let us say merely that ancient Rome might learn a few things about
I might have explored that interesting topic, but a sudden thought
made me glance apprehensively at the dancing boards under my
"You don't suppose those beasts of his are in the hold of this
ship, do you?"
"This is a P. & O. liner, Russell. They don't even permit lap
That was a relief. I had seen bison, and did not like to imagine
what an irritated one could do to a ship's hold.
took our evening meal in our rooms, as well as breakfast on Monday,
and by making immediately for the more insalubrious portions of the
decks during the middle of the day, we avoided the Goodhearts until
Sunny caught us strolling down the stairs at tea-time, her brother
ambling along behind her.
Oh! Mrs Russell, I've missed you so. I hope you haven't been ill, I
was looking for you at lunch. Hello, Mr Russell."
"We've just been elsewhere," I told her; Holmes murmured something
vaguely apologetic and pulled a vanishing act. "Did you need
"Oh, yes, I just wanted to ask if you were thinking of going ashore
at Port Said tomorrow. Tommy and I are skipping off to see Cairo
and the pyramids by moonlight, although Mama says it's too
strenuous a jaunt for her. The purser says we'll rejoin the ship in
Suez, he absolutely promises. Please, won't you come?"
Moonlight? I thought. The moon would be but a tiny sliver, handsome
enough in the desert sky but short-lived and less illuminating than
a candle. Little point in saying anything to this young lady,
however—the shipping line might not permit lap dogs, but
Sunny was doing her best to make up for their absence, endearing
herself to all and polishing off whatever odd scraps were put on
her plate. I stifled an impulse to snap the order to
"No, thank you, Sunny. I may go ashore in Aden, but not here." I
had not yet seen the pyramids, but I did not wish to do so for the
first time on a rushed day-trip in the company of a shipload of
tourists. Call me a snob, but I prefer to take in the world's grand
sights when I can at least hear myself think. Not that I was
killjoy enough to say so aloud.
Her round little face fell in disappointment. "I'm so sorry. Tommy
was looking forward to it."
Tommy, I thought, cared not a whit if I came, although at the
memory of the fellow's bland and disinterested mask, I experienced
a vague stir of disquiet. Before I could pursue the thought, Sunny
perked up again. "Well, maybe you'll join Mama? There's a group
going ashore to buy pith helmets and such, sounds ever so
I rather doubted that, and could only imagine the sort of solar
topees on offer at a shop catering to lady tourists fresh from
England. Holmes would go ashore in Port Said to send a telegram to
Mycroft; I'd ask him to buy me a sun-hat while he was there.
"No, I'll wait, thanks. You have a good time. And, Sunny? Please
call me Mary."
Her face blossomed again, simple soul, and she chattered for a
while about maharajas and camels before bouncing off to consider
the proper wardrobe for pyramid-visiting. I smiled at her
retreating back: It would not be long before the one-woman fishing
fleet was reeling in a whole school of handsome young officers on
Excerpted from THE GAME © Copyright 2004 by Laurie R.
King. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random
House, Inc. All rights reserved.
- Mass Market Paperback: 480 pages
- Publisher: Bantam
- ISBN-10: 0553583387
- ISBN-13: 9780553583380