We waited in the library. None of us were entirely sure why. I went there, and Adelaide followed me. Although I did not think she held any pity for her dying cousin, I suspected that she could feel the intruding fog of impending death just as well as I could. Perhaps more; after all, she must have felt it for her parents.
The room was the largest in the house besides the ballroom, and almost all its walls were lined with dark oak shelves. Most of them had held only dust and many of them still did, but once Father was in legal possession of the manor he began to fill those shelves with more enthusiasm than most other squires in our gnarled family tree. Thanks to his efforts, our private library now rivalled that of universities. Mycroft had inherited our father's love of tomes, which he in turn passed on to me, and on most any day my brother could be found in one of the huge chairs with his nose in a book about something complicated.
Sherrinford joined us once he had returned from his epic in the forest (which he related to anyone who would listen two weeks later). His soreness was obvious in his stiff movements even after a hot bath, and his face had been scratched by the very Mother Nature he cherished. I noted that his black hair was dripping all over the hardwood.
"I took too long." His words were as close to being a moan as they could be. He sank like a lump of gelatine into one of the deep, plush winged chaired. Had he hunched any more, his ears would have neatly touched his knees. "I lost the path and I took longer than I should have."
"You should disinfect those scrapes," I noted, my voice sounding grey and dull even in my own mind. I was sitting on the window seat, my favoured place in the huge room, my forehead resting against the cool, smooth pane.
"And you should bandage that cut on your shoulder, but neither of us have." Sherrinford was, by nature, a very good-tempered boy, and he had a special fondness reserved for little brothers with me, and yet now he was an edgy as a scalded cat, snapping at my misguided concern.
Truth be told, I had forgotten about my tumble into the pane of the clock, accepting the pain as emotional rather than physical. I longed not to feel so much sickening, aching worry for another, and yet if Mycroft was in my place he would likely comment quite dryly on the amazing the bonds we humans form.
"Stop being idiots," spoke Adelaide, her lacy lavender housecoat that matched her lacy lavender nightdress pooling around her like a frilly, feminine bird's nest. She herself was thumbing through a book of sketches of various passion plays throughout the era.
If I remembered correctly, Mycroft had bought that book in Italy. Merely thinking of him in Venice, healthy and bartering uncharacteristically aggressively with booksellers in their native language, my strained heart gave a sharp pang I could feel in my teeth.
"Either clean the cuts or let them get infected, I don't care, but stop butting heads together like a pair of rams. It's barbaric," she continued in her little girl's voice although her words more that of a bitter, middle-aged woman, one whose husband had flown as fast as he could out the door the first chance he got.
"Your shirt is getting soaked with blood," Sherrinford noted with an admitting, accepting sigh, nodding towards the spreading pool of blood that was staining my nightshirt beyond repair. "It ought to be cleaned."
I gave a relenting nod, rising as if I were some kind of Haitian zombie. My feet did not feel as if they were touching the floor as I followed my older cousin out the door. The whole night felt like one long, ill dream, and no matter how long it lasted I held the expectation that I would wake, panting and damp with sweat.
We headed towards the kitchen, where the medical supplies were kept close in case of a skip of a knife, both of us as silent as marble graveyard angels. Neither of us quite knew what to say, and so the only sounds were the howling of the ever-increasing wind and the soft thumps of our feet on the finely woven rugs.
Finally, I felt the need to speak. I despised long silences. "Mother would rather if he died instead of me. If it happens." I believe I was trembling as I stated this, but I do not begrudge myself this; I was very young and it was a very blunt truth.
"That's not true, Sherlock." Even as he spoke, however, I could tell how terse he was. I had developed a great perception of people even at that age, and Sherrinford was a horrible liar. It was the truth, and he knew it full well.
"It's not fair, Sherrinford! She shouldn't hate him! He never did anything to her!" To my everlasting embarrassment, I felt hot tears beginning to well in my eyes, their very presence threatening to make a blubbering coward out of a usually tough-hearted little boy. This was a topic much thought of but never discussed in the manor, and years of pressure were being released within me. "Why does she hate him so much? Did he do something bad?"
The boy (though he was nearly a man in my eyes, and therefore should have at least some answers for me), was silent as he cleaned my shoulder, ignoring the hiss I gave at the sharp pain of the alcohol making contact with the open skin. As he bandaged it, he finally spoke again. "Yes and no."
"Yes and no what?"
"Yes and no, Mycroft did something most people would consider bad. That's not the reason why your mother treats him like she does, but it certainly wouldn't have helped."
I considered asking what he had done. Placid Mycroft surely could not have done anything too terrible, but seeing the look on my cousin's face, I decided that perhaps another question would suit the situation better. "Why does Mother hate him?"
His face was usually adorned by a radiant smile that made all the girls in the village (and even those from surrounding villages) flock to him. Of course I think the only one he wanted was Delilah, and she had firmly attached herself to one, also bearing the Holmes name, who did not want her. Now, however, it reminded me of rain upon a window pane; not the full force of the storm, but enough of a view of it to depress ones spirit.
"Aunt Violet…"He paused, as if searching for the exactly precise vocabulary and grammar ton describe the woman that was my mother. No doubt he had to; she was a rather puzzling person. "Aunt Violet studies physics," he finally spoke, voice as steady as he could make it, likely not wanting to appear weak to his little cousin. He did not so much as flinch as he swapped at his scrapes with alcohol, making the white cotton grow pink with diluted blood. "In physics, there are absolute constants, things that never change. Gravity is always the same, distance over time is always the same… Formulas can define the entire world without variation."
"What does that have to do with Mycroft?"
He tossed the cotton into the bin. He missed, and was forced to go fetch it and drop it in. When he bent, his movements were that of a very old man. "She read books on children as if they were physics textbooks, and she took them as constants. A baby talks at this age, a five-year-old knows these things, an eight-year-old does these things…" He turned to me, an emotion I simply could not place in those green eyes of his. "Mycroft… Well, Mycroft was, is, a grand exception to most of the rules."
That was an understatement if I ever heard one. I was a remarkably intelligent child, or so said all my progress reports written by my teachers, but Mycroft was something most people could not comprehend. Even to his teachers he hid it; he could easily attend university, but Father wanted him in normal education as long as he could stand it (God knows how much longer that would be).
"That's what is it? He's not some neat mathematical norm, and so she simply ignores he exists?"
"An oversimplification, but I suppose that's the brunt of it," shrugged my cousin, screwing the cap back upon the alcohol bottle and stowing the medical supplies away for the next catastrophe. "One would think he would mind… Maybe he does, he never wants to talk about it, even with me."
I was silent, more loathing within my young body than there should be in a child. I had never before doubted the sanctity of my family. Why would I? My elder brother tolerated and even enjoyed me as few could, my father's eyes held nothing but love for me, and my mother was present enough to pat me on the head for things well done. Now my brother was abnormal, my father was an inactive witness and bystander, and my mother was so petty I could barely comprehend it."
"Sherlock, please, don't be mad at Violet," my cousin said softly, drawing me into a tight embrace, his voice layered with fatigue that was not only physical. "Mycroft… Well… It cannot be easy to treat him as a person if you haven't known him all your life."
"Father loves him," I choked out. Any other time I would have shunned physical comfort, but now I clung to my kin as if I were a rat, claws imbedded into a chunk of driftwood.
"Sigerson would love the Devil himself."
"He hated your father." I felt Sherrinford stiffen, knowing I must have struck a sore nerve. And yet, was that entirely it? Though young, my instincts were keen. "Your father… Uncle Trafford has something to do with the bad thing that Mycroft did…What did he do?"
My cheeks were flushed red, I could feel them burning. No doubt they struck as firebrands on my bone white skin. I was pale at the best of times, all of the numerous sunburns I received peeling off without leaving the barest brushing of tan, and now in my distress my complexion was likely akin to transparency. No doubt my eyes were reddened to match my cheeks, being largely unaccustomed to tears and near-tears.
My cousin had known this question was coming and yet he balked all the same, his movements almost a continued flinch as he began replacing the supplies into the medical kit for the next injured soul to tend to himself with. "Sherlock…"
"I want to know, Sherrinford!" My hands clenched into fists that would be useless against him, an empty threat of violence. My knuckles must not have whitened, for I do not believe any cell of skin on my body could be driven any paler. "I need to know what he did!" And yet as I demanded this, I wondered if what he told me would make me hate Mycroft just as much as our mother did.
Sherrinford finally sighed, taking a seat at a chair meant for a servant. He seemed so much older than his young years at that moment. "You can never repeat this, Sherlock, not even to Mycroft himself. I'm not even sure of this myself, but… But I'm likely right. God knows I don't want to be…" He drew a shaking breath, meeting my eyes as levelly as he could manage as if I were his peer instead of one much younger. "I think Mycroft helped Sigerson poison my father."
I had not been expecting this. Truth be known, I was not expecting anything, even my imagination not able to conjure up the horrid deed in question, but this was beyond any parameters I had mentally set.
"No…" I first insisted. "No, that can't be it. Mycroft hates violence, he won't even go hunting. He'd never kill a person. Or even help. Why…"
"To save me and Adelaide, Sherlock." Sherrinford rested a hand on my shoulder, his own awkward comfort attempting to shine through. "You're young to remember it, but you know how bad he was to us. We might not even have lived too long if he really got into a rage… I think Uncle Sigerson wanted to do it, he threatened to do it, but he didn't know how to do it without getting caught, so he went to Mycroft…"
I knew that my brother kept all sorts of things for various reasons, and he would be well-informed as to what local plants could be turned into suitable poisons. He would do anything to help Father… Mother's rejection of him like a weary bird pushing a hatchling out of her nest too early had bound his loyalty firmly to our sire. Perhaps he had not even asked what the poison had been for, had simply handed it over, trusting his judgement…
"Are you like Adelaide?" I finally rasped out, all too aware that tears were once again forcing their pushy way up through my ducts. "Do you think he's dying because he's a heathen? That God is punishing him for killing a godly man?"
"Sherlock, we are going to get one thing straight. Adelaide and my father are and were not Christians. They are and were half insane." Sherrinford was not often serious, but when he wanted to he could chill entirely to the bone. I think Mycroft showed him how to speak like that.
"What's the difference?" I spat out. My words were as bitter as the taste I could feel tingling on the insides of my cheeks, like shiny green leaves no one in their right mind would eat. Was this the taste of the Forbidden Fruit? Was this how the air tasted when the evils within Pandora's box took to wing?
My cousin sighed and old man's sigh, slumping further into the unyielding wooden chair. "People always ask why God allows bad things to happen. Me, I think there's a lot of truth in that Tao book of Myke's; there has to be balance in the universe, and perhaps God's the one who keeps it. He knows that it might cause people a lot of pain and He knows a lot of people are apt to hate Him for it, but He has to do it all the same."
"Adelaide misses our father, Sherlock, but not in the way she should. She was taken in by our father, she knew no other life but being dominated by the all-powerful father figure. She took on faith to fill the cracks in her life after he died, but…" Here he sighed, and I felt a sharp twang of guilt for driving him like a whip-cracking jockey through so many emotions in one short night. "She didn't fill up the cracks with anything bad, not in theory, but the cracks themselves were bad… Does that make any sense? She doesn't want God's love. She wants God's punishment to keep her in line, and to strike down anyone who disagrees with the principle. Like our father."
I had to ask myself, was my brother just in killing a man who would raise his daughter as such? To clasp at dry, crumbling words for comfort without so much as feeling the spirit behind the words themselves? To long so for abuse that she antagonized the small pocket of family that cared for her well-being?
But did he even kill him? Wasn't that the grand question. Were my brother and my fathers co-conspirators in a murder? Mycroft was aloof, I would give him that, but his façade of stony indifference would crumble whenever I had burnt myself with my chemicals or Delilah came wailing to him about what one of the village boys had said about her (though neither would tell me why it was such an insult to be called Mary Magdalene; she had been in the Bible, hadn't she…?). My father had rarely spoken a harsh word to those he loathed the most.
I glanced at the clock plodding about as regularly as a forge ass, cogs and clockwork unaware of emotion or strife beyond its endless, unchanging routine. I pitied them. It was four thirty, dawn not yet breaking but no doubt rousing and readying itself to do so.
"I'm going to check on Myke." I started at Sherrinford's voice, worry mixed with a desperate attempt at strength. I knew that the conversation was over, that our muddled little family could never again be discussed in such frank terms. The situation had allowed for a window of truth, and now it was being slammed shut for the sake of peace in the household.
"The doctor's likely still in there…" Had he died during our prattling, I hoped someone would have come to inform us.
"I'm just going to peek through the door if no one's about, I just want to see how things are going." He could not stand to wait on the fate of a young man he considered as much of a brother as I.
Before that night, Sherrinford had entertained the thought of becoming a doctor. Our father would have cheerfully sponsored such an education (he had nudged both his blood sons towards the profession, but Mycroft lacked sympathy and I lacked focus). My cousin had the romantic idea of being a medical squire, being called upon to heroically deliver a baby the midwife could no longer manage, to save the lives about him and be a saint to those who rented our land instead of an iron-fisted landlord.
When he stuck his head into Mycroft's bedroom and saw a crude surgery mainly performed on livestock as a last ditch effort, he slammed the door, was sick, abandoned all fantasies of the medical profession and fainted.