The Ground You Shook
five things that never happened to Mary Russell
"I shall have to reconsider my opinion of your headmistress," said Holmes, studying the tall, underfed girl standing before him, "knowing that she permits her pupils to take instruction in Hebrew."
"You should know," the headmistress had informed him while conducting him to the classroom, "that Russell is the most difficult student in her year. She is meant to be clever, but each of the mistresses without exception find her intractable and sullen. I am not certain how much help she is likely to be to you."
The girl—Russell—looked at him with surprise, but not shock. Her eyes narrowed behind thick spectacles, and she glanced surreptitiously at her hands.
"Yes," he said, smiling in spite of himself. "The pattern of the ink smudges on your hand leave no doubt of it."
She looked back up at him, and met his smile with a rather grim one of her own. "I learned Hebrew from my mother," she said, and he was surprised by the low, self-assured quality of her voice.
"Of course." He glanced from the locket round her neck to the scarring on her right hand, just visible beneath the hem of her sleeve, and felt her eyes upon him.
He looked up and smiled warmly. "I have been asked by a friend of Miss Camp's family to make inquiries into the matter of—her unfortunate accident," said Holmes. "I should like to ask—"
"Her death was no accident," she said, interrupting him. Her eyes glittered, strangely fierce in a face otherwise devoid of expression.
Holmes fell instantly silent.
"Accidents happen—without reason." Her nostrils flared, and her voice wavered. "Pen—Penelope had plenty of reason."
"There is no doubt in your mind, then, that Miss Camp—took her own life?"
She dropped her gaze to the surface of the desk. "None."
"Did something trouble her in particular? A young man, perhaps?" He was both amused and gratified by the scorn that twisted her features. "You smile. A young lady?"
"No," said Russell, looking distant, thoughtful. "I don't think it was...anyone."
Holmes waited, restraining his impatience, for her to finish.
"You were at Eton?" she said suddenly, her eyes bearing down on him, searching his expression.
He did not ask her how she knew. It was not such an arcane deduction, or such a rare fact, as to excite his wonder to any great degree. But she had a sharp eye, and ear; he had to give her credit for that. "Indeed, Miss Russell. I was."
"Then perhaps you will know that—places like these," she gestured around them, indicating the classroom, and, by extension, the school itself, "are in themselves a special burden to the gifted mind."
The corner of his mouth twitched involuntarily—such a statement, delivered by such a creature, in tones so solemn, could not fail to provoke some measure of amusement. But he did not laugh; it was plain that she was in deadly earnest.
And in truth, he understood her all too well.
He looked at her again, more closely this time, dropping his gaze to the fist at her side. "You injured your left hand recently."
She flushed, and immediately pulled the cuff of her sleeve down to hide the scars, newer than the ones on her right wrist. " Yes. I—lost my temper. I struck a window."
"Did you?" He studied her expression, and thought carefully about his next words.
"These schools for young ladies," he said, "they are very strict, I believe. And very jealous of their reputations. "
She smirked. "Quite."
"Your mother was Jewish. And your father, I believe, was American."
Her mouth tightened, but she nodded, watching him.
"It is my experience that young persons who manage to get themselves expelled from one such institution have considerable difficulty obtaining a place in any other. Particularly when society's expectations are—however undeservedly—low to begin with."
He saw the calculation in her eyes, the beginning of a smile.
"I shall keep that in mind," she said after a moment, and Holmes tipped his hat to her, because it would have been indiscreet to kiss her hand.
"Your telegram was most provoking, Mr Holmes," said the dark haired woman, balancing a cup of tea in her hand but paying no heed to its contents. "You learned something in San Francisco, I take it."
"Indeed, Mrs Russell." He opened the briefcase he had carried with him for the purpose, and pulled a sheaf of paper some twenty-five pages long from the folder inside. He shut the case again, and glanced down at the opening paragraph, before meeting the eyes of the woman before him.
"Your husband," he said, "was murdered in April of 1906 by his friend and associate Robert Greenfield." He handed the document to Mrs Russell, who extended her arm to receive it. "That is his confession."
Her hands were steady, though whether her composure was due to simple shock or an iron self-control, Holmes could not tell. "Greenfield?" she whispered
"Yes. Your instincts in the matter were entirely correct. It appears that Greenfield approached your husband in hopes that he would assist him in concealing the profits of his looting. When your husband threatened to reveal him to the authorities, Greenfield turned on him. He concealed Mr Russell's body amongst the rubble of the collapsed building, where, as you know, he was later found."
"I see." She placed the papers on the table before her, and sat for a long moment. Silence filled the parlor, and Holmes began searching for something to say. Then the woman stood, somewhat abruptly. Holmes came to his feet.
"Please excuse me for a moment," she said, and turned, hurrying from the room.
He watched her go, wondering if he ought to excuse himself before she returned; he had no more desire to witness her grief carelessly than he imagined she would wish him to witness it. But a movement from the aperture at the opposite end of the room caught his attention, and he turned in that direction.
He had been living as neighbor to Judith Russell and her young family for nearly a year now, not counting the months spent in San Francisco investigating the death of the woman's husband, but he had heretofore avoided acquaintance with her children. He recognized the daughter from Mrs Hudson's description, however; tall, bespectacled, two wheat colored braids falling over her shoulders, nearly to her waist. She was dressed in an unlikely combination of an outdated gentleman's walking suit, presumably her father's, and a blouse more typical of young ladies her own age, no doubt a concession to her mother's feelings.
Holmes looked at the girl, wondering if he could, in all politeness, resume his seat, when she simplified matters by throwing herself down into her mother's armchair and taking up the sheaf of papers from the place on the table where her mother had abandoned it.
Where Judith Russell had seemed mesmerized by the fact of the file's existence, unable to yet assimilate its contents, Mary Russell read quickly and thoroughly, judging by the rapidity with which her eyes scanned the pages. She dropped each sheet of paper to the floor as she finished with it, her face growing dark.
Ten minutes later she was surrounded on all sides by the disordered document, staring at the last page and blinking furiously. Holmes considered offering her his handkerchief, but was forestalled by the mental image of the child scratching at him like an angry cat.
"I remember him," she said to Holmes suddenly, startling him. Her voice was thick, pitched lower than normal for a teenage girl. "There was something—something wrong with his face. He came into our tent, while we were in the camps, and—he frightened me." She sounded ashamed of herself, as though she thought that, as a child of five or six, she ought to have known what Greenfield was the moment she saw him.
"He had been burnt in an explosion," Holmes said. "When I met him, his face was still disfigured."
She gazed at him for so long that he worried he had said too much, but her mother returned before either of them could say more.
"Thank you for waiting." Judith Russell's eyes somewhat redder than before, her pale skin restored from blotchiness by a cool cloth. She absorbed the fact of her daughter's presence in the room without blinking. "Mary, please arrange those papers in the order you found them. Thank you, dear. I see you've met my daughter, Mr Holmes."
"Indeed," said Holmes, and was amused despite himself to see the girl duck her head, embarrassed.
Judith came to Holmes and extended her hand. "I cannot thank you enough, Mr Holmes. You have done so much for—for my family." She faltered, then smiled, recovering. "I hope we shall see you often. I am sure Mary would not have told you so herself, but she is a great admirer of yours. And we are neighbors, after all."
Holmes glanced over her shoulder at Mary, who had turned away by now, blushing profusely.
"We owe you so much," Judith added.
Holmes gathered his hat in one hand, and shook Judith Russell's with the other. "I am honored to have been of service," he said, warmed by her gaze. "I have no doubt we shall see much of one another. We are, as you say, neighbors."
He was conscious of the eyes that followed him to the door, but he could not have said with any certainty to which woman they belonged.
Holmes heard the voices from the kitchen when he walked through the front door. The house was filled with the scent of the food no one but Will would eat, but which Mrs Hudson insisted on cooking anyway. He discarded his coat and boots, and though he longed for his fire and the privacy of his study, he turned resolutely for the kitchen, his slippered footsteps sending no advance warning of his approach.
"Oh! Mr Holmes." Mrs Hudson turned from the counter where she was rolling dough for scones to stare at him. "Back from your trip, I see. Tea will be ready in just a moment."
"Thank you Mrs Hudson, but that will not be necessary. I am not hungry." He looked past his housekeeper to her companion, who sat with a bowl of inexpertly shelled peas before her. "Good afternoon, Miss Russell."
"Good afternoon, Mr Holmes." Keen eyes studied him over the top of thick spectacles. "How was your trip?"
"Uneventful, in all the best ways." He stepped aside, pushing the door wide behind him. "I wonder if I might have a moment of your time?"
She looked at Holmes, both alert and cautious. Mrs Hudson glanced between her and Holmes, but the girl did not see it.
He waited politely for her to pass through the door before closing it pointedly on the elderly woman's anxious expression and guiding her to the parlor.
"Miss Russell," he said in a low voice, once they were alone, "you persist in coming to my house."
A magnificent blush suffused her neck and face in a heat he could almost warm his hands by.
"I beg your pardon, I'm sure," she said, lifting her chin. She stood very straight, though he knew that the injuries she had sustained to her knee and hip on the left side made this painful. "Mrs Hudson has been kind enough to invite me."
"I suppose she is teaching you to cook? Tutoring you in the domestic arts? Let us be frank with one another, Miss Russell. You have no more interest in the baking of scones than I have."
Her nostrils flared minutely. There was a strange, pinched look to her mouth.
"That may be true," she said, and her voice seemed to shake a little. "I am interested in her company, however."
"I can hardly think that is the only reason why a young woman preparing for her university entrance examinations would occupy hours better spent studying in the company of my housekeeper." He found it difficult to find and force from his mouth the words he had intended to say when he brought her into the parlor; there was a fierce glitter in her eyes that threatened to steal his nerve. "I told you a month ago that I have neither time nor need of an assistant, however capable you would undoubtedly be."
"There was a time," she said, "when you led me to think otherwise."
Holmes restrained a wince, with effort. "I have since reconsidered the situation. Believe me, Miss Russell, when I say that I am not only considering my own welfare in this."
"I could never learn from anyone as I was able to learn from you," she said, nearly whispering.
"You will be at Oxford, before long." His speech gained conviction. "You will find teachers there, eminently more suited to guide your talents than I."
"I have other interests besides theology," she said, audible desperation in her voice.
Before he spoke again he cleared his throat. "Whereas I have far less to offer than you may imagine, Miss Russell."
He turned his back to her, facing the fire. He heard her leave a moment later, but he did not permit himself to look back.
"Is she awake yet?"
Holmes looked up sharply. Ali stood in the doorway, ill-concealed impatience moving across his features.
Holmes glanced at Russell, asleep on the cot in the corner. She lay on her side, stirring uneasily. Ever so often her breath stopped, and released again in a low wail.
He stood, cutting off Ali's repeated inquiry with a raised hand, and stepped around the stool, past Ali and through the open door. He descended the narrow stair without waiting to see if the other man would follow—though of course he did.
"Mahmoud may have dosed her over-generously." He switched to Arabic with almost no thought. "This country has strengthened her, but there is little flesh on her bones."
Ali's lips compressed in a thin line. "We cannot wait much longer. We have to assume she talked."
Holmes kept his voice even with an effort. "You continue to underestimate her."
"I do not say she is to blame." Ali's voice was gruff, a tacit apology in his subdued tones. "He is more monster than man." He shook his head, disgusted. "This is no work for women."
"Had I been in her position, I could only hope to have lasted so well." He let the implications lie unspoken, but the thought of Mahmoud, of his disfigured face, passed in the room between them like a ghost.
Ali paused in his pacing, warming his hands at the small fireplace heating the narrow room. "I do not understand how she survived."
Holmes lifted an eyebrow. "That is because you do not know her."
Ali ignored this. "Rahel was with her for a long time."
"Did she..." He hesitated. "What does she say?"
Holmes remembered the darkness of the woman's expression, the pointed silence with which she had met his questions. He had not even been permitted inside the room for the first hour after they returned with Russell from the villa. When Rahel had finally opened the door to him he had sat in the corner of the room, listening to Russell cry in her sleep, as the older woman sang lullabies and washed the blood from her hair. Twice, Russell had called for her mother in Hebrew.
Ali grunted when Holmes did not answer. He turned sharply and walked from the room.
Holmes lowered himself to the bench before the fire and concentrated for a moment on the pounding of his head, the nausea that threatened whenever he moved too quickly. He had been unconscious for three hours after the motorcar crashed; twelve hours had now passed since they left Allenby's offices at noon. Russell had stirred from unconsciousness twice since they had found her. Both times, Rahel said, she had asked for him.
He reached into the inner folds of his robes and removed the Koran Mahmoud had given to Russell weeks before. The pages were thin and well thumbed; it fell open to a page marked by half a soot-black thumb print. The Lord hath not forsaken thee, he read, neither hath he been displeased. And surely the future shall be better for thee than the past . . .
He read for a few minutes before the sound of voices and movement upstairs caught his attention. He closed the book and placed it on the bench beside him, and mounted the stairs two at a time.
The door to Russell's room was open; through the doorway he could see the shape of a familiar back, seated on the stool where he himself had spent much of the night. Mahmoud's voice, low and steady, was just audible, though Holmes could make out none of what he was saying.
He remained on the stair for a moment, leaning against a wall, soothed by the peaceful undercurrents of the conversation taking place over his head. Eventually he heard laughter: weak, but unmistakably Russell's, and every muscle in his body that was stiff with exhaustion, or injury, seemed to relax.
Mahmoud rose a moment later and turned from Russell's bed to the stairs. He could not have avoided seeing Holmes there, but did not speak to him or acknowledge him until they were standing shoulder to shoulder.
"How long ago did she wake?" Holmes asked.
"A few minutes ago. She cried out. She didn't know where she was. I was nearby."
Guilt, irrational and reflexive, pierced him. "She is—lucid, then?"
Holmes glanced past him, up the stairs. Russell's form, seeming impossibly slight, was just visible beneath the covers.
He started to move past Mahmoud, but the other man stopped him. "Holmes." He spoke in English; more significantly, he spoke with almost no trace of an accent. "Do not try to protect her."
He permitted himself a smile. "I know Russell well enough to recognize the fruitlessness of any such endeavor."
"Then it has not crossed your mind," said Mahmoud, "that the two of you might serve your brother's interests as well from Rome, or Morocco?"
Holmes raised an eyebrow. Mahmoud smiled, as though he understood.
"You must not let her believe that there are any easy alternatives," he said. "Neither of you must believe that."
Holmes studied the face before him: the dark eyes, the livid rope of a scar bisecting the left side of his face. He nodded, and Mahmoud moved aside, continuing on his way down the stairs.
Holmes ascended the stairs to the landing, and paused in the doorway of Russell's room. Her eyes were closed; one was swollen nearly shut. There was a long, jagged cut over her left brow that ended near her hairline, and her right hand was splinted, lying beside her on the bed.
The worst injuries, he knew, were concealed by her clothing.
He seated himself by the bed. Hesitating, he reached for her left hand, curled and resting on her hip. She was sleeping now, but when she woke, he would be near.
The evening before he went up for his first term at Oxford, Levi Russell came to dine with Sherlock Holmes.
They ate roast chicken and late summer vegetables, and afterwards adjourned to the terrace, drinking glasses of honey wine and sitting in companionable silence as they watched the sun begin to set.
Holmes observed from the corner of his eye as the boy leaned forward upon his knees, running his fingers over the scars that marred the left side of his face. From scalp to collar, from the corner of his eye to his ear, they stood in memorial to the motor accident which had robbed Russell of his family—mother, father, and older sister—when he was nine years old.
Even as a child of eleven, when Holmes had first met him, Russell had traced the shape of his scars whenever he was troubled. Then, Holmes had thought it a curiously adult gesture. Now he knew that it often signified feelings of particular vulnerability, a need for reassurance from the man he had come to regard as an adopted father.
The paternal role was not one which Holmes had either opportunity or desire to play very often during the course of his career, but over the five years he had known Russell it was one he had grown surprisingly comfortable in. Only now as Russell stood on the brink of his academic career, a path that would inevitably lead him far from Sussex, did Holmes begin to consider that there was a reason why such responsibilities were not to be undertaken casually.
"What is on your mind, Russell?" he said, to distract himself from the maudlin turn of his own thoughts.
"Just the predictable," said the boy, looking off into the garden. "Oxford. The college. Whether there is any purpose in going to university to read a subject in which I am more accomplished than much of the faculty."
The most remarkable aspect of that statement, Holmes reflected, was that it had been uttered with less conceit than the boy had a right to. "Most gifted students find it necessary to seek their own challenges in academic life. Even those without your particular powers."
"Still." Russell drank from his glass and set it aside again. "Does it not strike you that there is something—self-indulgent about mathematics? At least in comparison to some more practical pursuit. Medicine, for example. Engineering." He turned his head for a brief glance at Holmes. "Detection."
"Russell, I know how you dislike the insinuation that you are bounded by any of the limitations which constrict ordinary mortals, but you are sixteen years old. No one is suited to begin a career in criminology at the age of sixteen."
"As I recall, you undertook your first investigation while you were at university. The Hudson case, I believe?"
"That was a trifle, Russell. A mere exercise. I am not suggesting that you bury your head in the sand for three years. By all means, look into whatever little problems may come your way. I simply suggest there will be plenty of time to actively seek them out when you are older."
Russell smiled, and Holmes found himself considering the possibility that he had just been manipulated into granting permission for any number of foolish stunts the boy might choose to think of as "little."
"It's strange," Russell offered, before Holmes could add any quelling provisos to his statement. "From the time I returned to England, I never considered any possibility other than Oxford. That was always the goal—though I had to be convinced that no university was going to admit me when I was thirteen, whatever my chances of passing the entrance examinations. Now here I am, the goal in sight, and I find myself entirely ambivalent."
Holmes puffed upon his pipe and watched the boy, as he struggled visibly to put thoughts into words.
"Oxford was my sister's idea, really," he continued, swirling the remainder of the wine in his glass. "The year she died would have been her last year at boarding school. She had already been admitted to an exclusive preparatory institute for female students." He smiled, still looking out into the distance. "Our grandmother in Boston threatened to disown our whole family. I believe that was what ultimately caused my father to support her."
"What was her name?"
Russell shook his head, as though Holmes had caught him in a mistake. "Mary. I called her Miriam when we were children, because we were in the habit of speaking Hebrew to each other when we wanted to say rude things about people without being overheard. Which was often. It only worked if our mother wasn't in the room, of course." He glanced up at Holmes. "Mary meant to read theology."
Holmes' snort of laughter frightened the cat, stalking crickets in the flower bed a few feet away. Russell grinned. "Yes. Our grandfather was a rabbi, and I believe my mother always regretted that those doors were closed to her. Academic theology was a poor second, but Mary seemed to want to make it up to her, in some way. They fought a great deal. Mary was more like my father, in almost every respect."
Russell trailed off. Holmes let the silence build for a few moments. Then, his distaste for stating the obvious notwithstanding, he said, "She is much on your mind this evening."
Russell did not reply immediately. He finished the wine, and set the glass aside, and began worrying at a loose button on the sleeve of his jacket.
"You know that I blamed her," he said, and it seemed that he kept his voice light with an effort. "For the accident."
"I gained that impression over time, though your reasons for feeling so were never clear."
"She started shouting at me. For putting my elbow on her side of the car, I believe. It distracted my father at the critical moment—he turned round to tell her to be quiet, just as the other car drifted into our path." Russell gave a small smile. "It sounds so painfully mundane, put that way."
And all the more terrible for that, Holmes added silently. "Do you blame your sister still?" he said aloud.
"I have been wondering that myself." Russell straightened, leaning uneasily against the back of his chair. "I have been wondering whether I go to Oxford because she would have wanted it for me, or because she couldn't have it for herself."
Holmes looked at Russell, and a faint smile touched his lips. "I think you needn't fear that Oxford will be a waste of your time," he said. "So long as you can ask such questions of yourself, and face the answers."
Russell lifted his chin and returned his smile. Holmes poured the rest of the wine into their glasses, and together they watched the sun slip beneath the edge of the downs.